In the early 80’s, you could count the number of celebrity chefs on one hand, and yes, that includes Jack Tripper. With the public access to the internet still years away and the media relying only on analog methods of communication, chefs were limited to local celebrity status with the occasional national plug in magazines like Gourmet. These were chefs who had risen through the rank, singled out for their culinary prowess and tasked with managing the culinary operations and staff of the restaurant or hotel. They weren’t given the title Chef, they had earned it with long hours and hard work. These were chefs, born from their environment.
Today, it seems the title Chef is handed out like merit badges to anyone who can put together a tasty recipe. Entities like the Food Network have made it their business of selling chefs to the general public, whether you have heard of them or not. That’s not to say the Food Network isn’t a great vehicle for promoting chefs, but is it possible that sometimes they go too far? Culinary schools are guilty of the same thing, leading students to believe that upon graduation they are qualified to hold this position. I know this because this is what I was lead to believe when I was in culinary school almost 20 years ago and I’ve had these students, fresh out of culinary school apply for Sous Chef positions, students who couldn’t flip an egg or dice an onion with any kind of confidence. There is a distinct and noticeable difference between someone who ‘knows’ how to do it and someone who just does it.
Someone once asked me if I thought Paula Deen was a chef. My reply? No. Not if she hasn’t managed and run her own kitchen. Not if she hasn’t been responsible for putting food on a table in front of someone who is then going to take out his/her own hard earned money to pay for that meal, if you think about it, that’s a bit of pressure. Just being a good cook does not make you a chef. I’ve always said I’m a cook first and a chef second, because they are two separate and unique talents that don’t always have anything to do with the other. I’ve known chefs that couldn’t cook and cooks that had no interest or chance of becoming chefs. The difference lies in the responsibility and accountability of the Chef. If some TV chef makes a recipe on TV I don’t like, what am I going to do, call the Cable company? If there is a recipe in a cookbook that is just plain horrible, am I going to complain to Amazon? Yet, I can see Table 10 from the window next to the pass and I’ve already re-cooked his steak once. I recognize the tight lips and flared nostrils of an unhappy guest, and I can bet he will be stopping at my window to let me know about it, because I am there and it is my fault.
Authoring a best-selling cookbook does not make you a chef. Having your very own cooking show on television does not make you a chef. So then who is responsible for Chef ‘whatever’ whom no one has ever heard of, guiding me through his version of Shrimp Scampi with Spicy Vodka-Tomato sauce on TV? My guess is the PR people. Let’s face it; adding to the title Chef to ‘Joe Schmo’ automatically gives him credibility to the general public. Ask any laymen on the street how the title Chef is administered and I’ll bet they’ll look at you somewhat cross-eyed. I can’t think of another single profession where adding the title of a job does so much for your reputation.
To be fair, I did some research on Paula Deen. She does have her own restaurant that she built from the ground up, The Lady & Sons, two in fact as she also owns Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. And even though nowhere on her website does she ever call herself chef, I will from now on.
‘The smell of fish clings to me like cheap perfume.’