I recently watched the movie Chef. It was in theaters in 2014, but I’m just getting to it now, thanks to Netflix. It’s the story of a high-end Los Angeles chef who gets a bad review (not his fault), loses his job, rekindles his passion for cooking in a food truck, bonds with his son, finds success and re-marries his ex. Upbeat and entertaining, it’s fast paced with an all-star cast, lots of cooking, a coast-to-coast road trip and, as an added bonus, a great soundtrack.
It’s also a window into the world of restaurant cooking. Not a documentary, the script takes some liberties with real-life restaurant operations, but it does show the high stress world of tattooed, profane, intense, hard-working chefs and cooks striving for perfection in the pressure cooker environment of a busy restaurant kitchen.
Jon Faverau wrote and directed the movie. He also stars as Carl Casper – a school-of-hard-knocks chef who is always late to visit with his son, has an apartment that looks like a crash pad with a commercial stove, and thinks about little else but creative cooking. The thing he hates the most (which leads to his downfall) is being made to cook an unoriginal menu. His cooks are loyal and supportive but sometimes hungover. His employer doesn’t share his passion for creative food and is happy to continue doing “what works.”
A commercial kitchen is a Darwinian world where hard work, competence, and ability are rewarded – if you can take the pressure. Many of today’s famous chefs and food network superstars started at the bottom washing dishes, busing tables, even working under-age. Bobby Flay dropped out of high school to work in a pizza parlor and then on the salad station of a full-service restaurant. Emeril Lagasse started as a teenager in a Fall River, Massachusetts bakery. Roy Choi, who helped Faverau learn kitchen skills for the movie, worked in his family’s Korean restaurant as a youngster. They all found a fascination and love for cooking in the fast pace of the kitchen. There is a scene in the movie where Faverau falls into Chef mode and treats his ten year old son like a Dickens-era apprentice. He catches himself and apologizes to his son, but it’s a look at “the old days.” Just ask any French chef over 50.
But it is the survival of the fittest that rules the day: be productive; work hard; cook consistently; endure the heat, long hours and a schedule that is out of sync with the rest of the working world; and you’ll fit in. Understand the complex chemistry of cooking and how to please the public, and you’ll have a career. Be innovative enough to cook on the cutting edge and create trends instead of following them, and you can be a star. Know something about business and how to make a profit, and financial success can come – perhaps even a multi-location empire.
Some kitchens are quiet temples of high art. At the multi-starred French Laundry in Yountville, California, there is no unnecessary conversation – just the call and response from the expediter placing the orders and the cooks acknowledging them. No loud exclamations of frustration or verbal acknowledgement of the pressure. Don’t think it’s an easy-going atmosphere, though. Under every wall clock, baked into the glaze of the white tile, is the admonition, “Sense of Urgency”. Everyone is quietly focused on their tasks with deep concentration.
Other kitchens are more relaxed with a raucous banter among the cooks (sports, social life, and the like) sometimes accompanied (during prep time) with loud rock and roll. Each chef sets his own style. Display kitchens open to the dining room have done a lot to moderate the language and behavior to a more genteel level.
Women have made strong inroads into the male domain of the commercial kitchen. It hasn’t been easy. I know of at least one woman who was driven out by the macho culture of a high-end kitchen. Not surprisingly, women are great cooks and chefs. It’s the rough and tumble kitchen culture that can be a barrier, not their cooking skills. Many kitchens are successfully co-ed. A few are women only.
Faverau delved deep into restaurant kitchen culture to prepare for the movie, trying to make it as true to life as possible. The opening sequence shows him with some impressive knife skills. In the credits there is an out take of chef Roy Choi teaching him in four-star detail how to make a great grilled cheese sandwich – a job most of us take for granted.
Restaurant cooking is tough, exacting, hard work, but it’s very rewarding to see smiling faces and happy sounds as patrons enjoy the results. Cooks and chefs these days can be celebrities or stars, but mostly they are important, contributing, respected members of their community. It’s a profession that has moved into the mainstream.