Saturday, April 12, 2008

Thousands of chefs can't be wrong, right?

My sister has ideas that often have merit. Case in point, the brown butter panna cotta was her suggestion, and while I still think it will make a killer flan and I need to tweak the actual process for this just slightly, the original idea was worth investigating. Many of her ideas of late have been focused around manager roles in a creative workplace in a digital/modern/changing world. I've been thinking about her ideas and if they would work in a kitchen. They are very mentor-driven ideas, full of facilitation and communication. How credit and praise get assigned. Less regimentation, more fluidity.

I'm not sure how many of them could work, and I'm not sure how much of that is me having bought into "the way things are done" in most professional kitchens.

Here it is, in plain English. I don't like the way my boss does things. I think some of his work is good, more of his work is outdated and the rest is at best half-assed. His style of mentoring doesn't teach us much of anything because most of the time his answers are the "because that's how its done" type. More than once I've asked about why something works the way it does and gotten an "I don't know". And then there are those other issues so common in an industry like this one. I'm not delving into those. But as I'm being screamed at for some trivial detail about how to plastic wrap a sheet pan that was perfectly legitimate yesterday there is a little part of me that says, "Ah, yes, this must be a real kitchen, he must be a good chef, because that's what they do." I sat in a meeting once in which we were told to suck up the abuse because one day we would be in charge and would abuse people because that is how things get done. Lots of kitchens follow this axiom.

I'm not sure it really has to be that way. Does it? What parts of the system do we keep, what parts to get rid of?

Escoffier is credited with the brigade system in most kitchens, specialized roles that define who does what where and when. And now there are kitchens where every cook learns every place, where they rotate out to the front of house and act as servers, even. But, as a specialized cook who would have a really hard time boning out a chicken, I kinda like that brigade. There is a tradition of cooking less and less as you move further up the scale, and I really don't like that one. I'd rather stay low, for now, and get my fingernails dirty. As for the screaming, the psychological damage, well, this industry is a pressure cooker and something has to weed out the bad veg. So what replaces that so that when you really need it, when it is your 23rd day in a row and tomorrow you feed a four course plated dinner to 600, you turn around and you have a staff there ready to go?

How do you get the passionate ones? And if you get them, is this how you keep them? Where is the line between practical, inspirational necessity and just stupid egotistical habit? I'm not sure what the answer is to that. I am scared of what such an answer would say about me and where I am right now. See, I've stayed with someone who may be on the wrong side of that line. Probably when I shouldn't have. Has that ruined me for the good kitchens? Will I even be able to recognize them or am I going to look for the wrong signs?

Rather than spend my weekend thinking about it, I'll just cook.

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