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White Jacket, Blue Collar


Jacques Pepin, the master chef who helped popularize French cooking in the U.S., was apprenticed to a chef at age 14. Apprenticed. Cooking has always been a blue-collar job – at its best, a craft. It’s a craft that was well-regarded in France, where people have long taken their food seriously, but nevertheless it held a position in the social framework not different in kind from such jobs as seamstress or automobile mechanic. A few chefs managed to achieve some notoriety for their efforts, largely because of the Michelin Guide, but these folks were few and far between. There was even less attention to the profession on this side of the Atlantic.

Then World War II happened.

Click to view larger versionReturning American soldiers had been exposed to foods they’d never before imagined — pizza, for example — foods they wanted to eat again. A wave of immigration brought still more foods to this country. The U.S. was prosperous and women, returning to their homes from the factories, were looking for new challenges they could take on as “homemakers.” Preparing dishes like beef Stroganoff and fettuccini Alfredo would have to do. Especially after the wife of a diplomatic officer, a woman named Julia Child, appeared on public television in Boston promoting her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Who knew fancy cooking could be so much fun? And no one ever doubted Child was having fun.

The automobile (mobility) and television (information) gave what might have been blips on the cultural scene prominence in a way such blips had never had before. Perhaps that made the Food Network inevitable. And the success of the Food Network certainly made celebrity chefs inevitable. (There’s a tale of a teacher who asked her students to list words that relate to food and one young boy wrote, “Bam!” This story about Emeril’s signature phrase is promoted by the chef himself, so add salt before ingesting.)

Celebrity leads to competition and consequently we find shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef vying on the television. These competitions have little if anything to do with preparing food you or I would want to eat — at least more than once. Instead they bear the same relationship to real cooking that driving in a NASCAR race does to commuting to work. The shows are briefly amusing and then quickly become repetitive: chef’s driving in circles.

Please note, I make these assertions as someone who teaches cooking classes. I’ve learned that planning classes with a focus on teaching is a guarantee the class will be canceled for lack of interest, so I plan classes for their entertainment value.

That’s not a complaint – not a strong one anyway. Like the Food Network, I’m selling something and I, at least, am pleased when I manage to insert some real information about cooking good food into a class — perhaps a technique that can be applied to chicken as well as veal, or an idea for organizing a spice drawer. These are the small successes that I hope will end up back in my students’ kitchens.

But the Food Network and the celebrity-chef culture create a false sense of what the profession is about. Cooking, whether as sous chef at Boulud’s, a homemaker, a grill cook at Waffle Hut, or a teacher at Williams-Sonoma is still a blue-collar job. And restaurant cooking is 12-hour days and six-day weeks with little room for creativity or expression. It’s repetitive. It’s often boring. The competition for the top slots is fierce and the money still stinks for the effort.

Fifty years ago there were only half a dozen cooking schools in the U.S.; today there are nearly 800 — not counting schools with multiple locations. These schools are turning out thousands of chefs, many of them deeply in debt (tuition at some schools is as high as $50,000), with little idea of the realities of their profession and facing stiff job competition.

I have a friend in Portland, Ore., nicknamed Chopper — a tremendously talented young chef who graduated from the Western Culinary Institute. After working for several years “behind the line” he has decided to get out of the restaurant business and become a personal chef instead. He told me, “Every restaurant I’ve worked in has limits, whether it’s the actual facility or the equipment, or it’s the chef who places limits on his employees. … Also, living in a city with a culinary school muddies the water when it comes to working in a pro kitchen.” In fairness, Chopper also adds that he’d like to go back and take the patisserie program as well. Chopper cooks because he loves it.

Cooking is still largely a blue-collar job and as I suggested in “Teach Your Children Well,” it’s a job that should be about feeding people — not about fame or fortune, just as making dresses is ultimately about clothing people. When we lose sight of this essential fact we are, in a sense, trivializing food, not celebrating it.

Update, 06/04/07: Michael Ruhlman, author of The Making of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef, posted an article touching on this topic on his blog, Ruhlman.

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