Last July when we enjoyed some R&R in the gorgeous Hawaiian sunshine on the Big Island, we both devoured Grant Achatz’s Life On The Line. I read it in about 3 days, I think Gary read it in 5. Thoughtful, funny, emotional and truly inspirational. If ever you get down on your life, read what this incredible chef went through to not only survive, but survive to continue his life’s work as a chef, clearly rising to be one of the very best in the country. A fantastic read for anyone who loves the behind the scenes world of a chef, or who can appreciate passion and drive, and how those two things can lead you to do amazing things.
Though not as tragic, but certainly as thoughtful, this trip I am reading Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Towards Perfection. Published over 10 years ago, this isn’t a new book by any means, but one I have been looking at on my shelf for a while and just hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. I am partially pleased I hadn’t read it until now as segments of the book that may have seemed exaggerated in the past, I now understand and appreciate, seeing that his observations are completely spot on, especially when discussing The French Laundry.
The book takes you on this journey towards perfection, and what perfection for a chef really means. Is it being able to demonstrate French technique flawlessly? Is it running a successful restaurant? Is it winning awards? Is it a little bit of all of the above? Or, is it, in the very simplest form, making food that tastes good, looks good and brings people together to enjoy? The debate is still out on this, especially as we have moved from the world of humble, highly trained chefs who never dreamed of entering a dining room during service, to celebrity chef/restauranteurs who rarely cook on their line because they are schmoozing the crowd and to a time where anyone with a perky smile and a funny personality being able to get their own show on Food Network to demonstrate how someone might cook a leg of lamb or make a poached pear.
I cook….I cook a lot….I cook a lot for other people….I cook a lot for chefs….but I would never dream of calling myself a chef….I don’t even like to call myself a cook, rather would prefer an entertainer or as I have graciously been referred to, an accommodating host with the gift of hospitality. I cook to make other people happy, it is a way I show how much I care, and one of the key reasons Gary and I have worked for so long. We love to entertain, cooking for our friends and family shows our love for them. And, I have too much respect for chefs, many who are friends, who have made their life’s work the art and craft of cooking. Follow the jump for more…..
I do, however, call myself a Sommelier. Not a Master, not with a full diploma; but I have taken my basic certifications and passed strongly, and I have dedicated myself and my work to studying, tasting and writing about wine. On the same note, I have just as much respect and admiration for the Sommeliers in the profession that have spent the time and money to pass the tests and receive their accreditation as I do for the great chefs we admire, sometimes slightly more because I know first hand how difficult it is. I have also had people say I am not a Sommelier because I have not received a formal diploma. I don’t agree as I did go through a certain level of training and tested well; but, similar to being a chef, do you have to graduate with a full diploma to call yourself a Sommelier, or a chef, or is this subjective? I know wine buyers at restaurants who call themselves Sommeliers. Is this accurate if they educate and train themselves, similar to how a self trained chef would? I also know winemakers who produce incredible wine but have never had any formal training. They are winemakers just the same, learning through hands on experience. But would the head of UC Davis agree?
So what makes a chef? If you work the line of a fast food or chain restaurant are you a chef? What about a 3 star restaurant? Do you have to go to school for proper training to be a chef?
Thomas Keller, noted by The James Beard Foundation as the best chef in the country winning the award in 1997, never had formal training; however every ounce of him has been dedicated to growing and learning his craft, and teaching those around him, to ensure that The French Laundry is and remains one of the best in the world. And, though he might not have had formal training in a classroom, he took the time to learn and absorb classic techniques from some of the best chefs throughout the US and in France, making him into the chef he is today, taking the time to create flavors using proper techniques, while incorporating his modern and elegant twists. With this, he has made The French Laundry a place where seasoned, highly trained chefs go to work, often for free, for an opportunity to learn from this master.
I also recently finished a book on the last year of cooking and service at el Bulli, five time winner of the best restaurant in the world award. The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, was also an amazing read about cooking in the kitchen of Ferran Adria, regarded by many as one of the best chefs in the world and the founder of the modern cuisine movement, making food that appears to be one thing taste like another. It was the kitchen that chefs throughout the world fought to enter, agreeing to uproot their lives and move to a small Spanish town to cut carrots into perfect squares or blanch artichokes, day in and day out for months, and without pay. The tone of the book at the end revealed frustration from many of the chefs in Adria’s kitchen, mainly because it seemed this incredible master didn’t interact with his stages who were devoting upwards of a year to him to create meals that they never really had a chance to taste. Keller seems to take an opposite stance, helping and teaching; collaborating and mentoring; but he was also the one who suggested a young Grant Achatz go to Spain to work under Adria for a season to experience cooking at that level.
We had the chance to dine at The French Laundry last summer, making the time of this read that much more appropriate. We had devoured “Life on the Line” where Achatz details his friendship with Keller and the type of chef he was; heightening the desire to visit the iconic establishment. We had always talked about going while we were out visiting Napa Valley, for the sheer pleasure of enjoying Keller’s cuisine; the addition of what would seem to be a sincere personality as noted by Achatz only increased our desire to visit. Luckily we have a friend with a friend who is an investor so we were able to dine on a Monday in August with a 5:45 reservation….perfect for us, who had enjoyed a perfect day of wine tasting (without lunch), followed by a lenghty, leisurely stroll through the blooming French Laundry garden before dinner. And it was perfect…each and every bite thought through, delicately placed to ensure the best presentation occurred and best aromas leapt from the plate, followed by intense, delicate, elegant and exciting flavors, as noted here.
So, Keller clearly is a chef, even without the formal classroom training. But if there wasn’t value in formal training, and every “chef” could simply learn through hands on training, why do chefs still go to school? Why do applications continue to roll into schools like the Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America? Why does our friend, restaurateur and trained chef, Janice Provost, take a class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris every time she visits?
Because there is value to learning proper technique, which you can then play with and change to create your own flavors from. Ruhlman talks at length in this book about Chef Michael Symon, probably best known know as a Food Network chef, having won a spot as the Next Iron Chef several years ago and thriving on the network since. Symon is a CIA grad, but also cooks unconventionally, cooking what he likes, schmoozing his crowd. He has fun, but also knows the importance of buckling down and doing the work, and as much fun as he has in his kitchen, he is a smart, dedicated business man that knows personality alone won’t fill a restaurant. You have to be able to cook great food, serve it in an inviting atmosphere with excellent service. If the food doesn’t live up to a chef’s reputation you can’t survive, and classic technique is a part of making that happen. He also notes that Symon’s first meal at The French Laundry was one of the best meal he ever had in his life, similar to the experience Rhulman had his first time to The French Laundry.
The debate is still out, as we see new restaurants open every day in cities around the world; matched only by great and beloved restaurants closing in cities throughout the world. When I was young my grandmother had a restaurant in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A college town, home of the Arkansas Razorbacks in the height of SWC football days, The Farmer’s Daughter was the “it” place to go, especially on football weekends. And man, could my grandma schmooze a crowd….
The food was good….not extraordinary, but good southern, comfort food, and the service always brought a smile to a customers face, with my grandma only hiring men (she liked to be the only woman in the front of the house), often Razorback rugby players. It was a fun place to be, but eventually, as she got older, and new establishments started opening, it became harder and harder to keep it going. Perhaps if she had brought in a flashy chef, or veered away from her comfort classic like Turkey Tetrazzini, Fried Chicken, Beef Stroganoff, Baked Lemon Sole, rich Tomato Soup and some of the best cornbread around, to something hipper and trendier it may have lasted longer. Instead she closed and the old farm house was refurbished to become our house about the time I was in the 6th grade.
But, the memories I have of being in The Farmer’s Daughter kitchen, watching and learning have stayed with me my whole life. Though I followed the more economical path out of college into the corporate world, I have always had a love for kitchens, a passion for pairing flavors and truly find joy in cooking, eventually leading me to the path I am on now. Who knows….maybe someday this path will lead me through the doors of the CIA or Le Cordon Bleu to finally, in my mind, earn the proper credentials which will allow me to slip into a chef’s coat. Or, maybe I will simply continue doing what I love, cloaked in a t-shirt and apron, creating unique dishes over an entertaining dinner for our friends.