Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Tao Of Being A Chef

The Tao Of Being A Chef

I have received several emails since I have started publishing my articles and newsletters about my Eastern train of thought and how I apply these philosophies into my kitchens as a chef, manager, cook, manager and person. I think to best describe my train of thought; I would have to refer to an excerpt of a translation of "Harmony, the Eleventh Hexagram of the I Ching” by Christopher Walkert. Here is the translation in part:

" cultivating a happy balance within yourself you also create harmonious conditions around you. People of all types find it easier to co-operate with you. If you are in a leading position, your decisions will be more constructive and easily followed. And if you are in a learning position, your mind will be more receptive and eager to absorb information.

While in this state of inner harmony, you develop a new awareness, an ability to sense future developments, to see the consequences of certain ideas and events, and to act accordingly. You relate to others in a more subtle and sincere way. You also rely on your inner resources and are not easily upset by outer events. By the same token you also do not base your self-esteem on your title, social position, possessions or inherited privileges... because you are firmly centered in yourself and harmonize with the cosmic order, you do not live in fear of times of turmoil that are bound to occur now and then..."

If you are a chef or culinarian you can totally understand why this is one of my favorite philosophies that I apply to who I am and what I do as a chef and culinarian.

Some of you that know me or have been reading my writings for some time have often heard me refer to some of the Ancient Chinese texts because most of what I have learned from these texts have aided in my becoming not only a better, happier person but also aided in the formation of the chef and manager I have become. The Art of War by Sun Tzu being an excellent reference to support my claim.

Several years ago I had taken a management course and was pleased that our reference for this course was "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. The general gist of the text, although originally intended to be a guide on warfare, was to analyze each and every situation and apply it to your life as you would a battlefield. The most important impression on me through the study of this book, as pointed out by my friend Chef Scott in one of the past issues of The Chef's Office Newsletter was to know your enemy. (I enjoyed sharing the texts that I owned with Chef)

In our case as culinarians it could be the ovens, our labor force, our purveyors or the examination of all the products that we are permitting to leave our kitchen. Chef Scott had said something a couple weeks ago that I really liked that I refer to as a "Bento-ism" (his nickname is Chef Bento). Chef had said that “when everything is black and white there does not seem to be much problem, it is only when the gray appears...” Cheffy liked that one...

One thing I can truly say about being a culinarian is that as chefs, managers, teachers, and mentors, one of our greatest losses is when we forget that once upon a time we were students and due to the confusion of our ego, we often lose sight of this.

There have been Chefs in my professional career that has taken me to different levels of being the best culinarian and man that I can be. It was my honor this time last year to visit with the one Chef that always has been a true mentor to me, Chef Roy England.

I have not seen Chef Roy in about 12 years and have not worked under him directly (although questions were only a phone call away), for about 15 or 16 years. Once upon a life, I was Chef Roy's chief cook, bar-boy and bottle washer. It was awesome that we could hang out, and hopefully I made him proud of the Chef that I grew up to be, the chef/culinarian that he helped mold. It was a humbling experience.

Chef and Cheffy had some really great conversations, and although not drifting too far off base on the original conversation, I would like to touch base on one of them today...

Chef and I were discussing how the brigade systems in professional kitchens have fallen by the wayside with the on flux of multi-faceted, franchise and chain restaurants on the constant up rise. This primarily led us into talking about kitchen role-play, more specifically the Executive Chef versus Sous Chef. Chef Scott and I have had this conversation many times and I think this is a point worth discussing.

Although I have held a variety of positions throughout my career from dishwasher to Executive Chef, I think my most awarding and challenging position has been as a Sous Chef, whether I was under Chef Roy, or if I was Chef Scott's Executive Sous Chef or Chef David's Chef de Cuisine.

These have been some of my most rewarding and most humbling experiences.

I had once been asked why I felt like this and the only reason I can think of is that it keeps your ego in check. Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed the prestige of the positions I have held in my career but I don't believe prestige fits into the equation of who I am or what I do in the kitchen anymore. I used to get high on it, now I get off on the challenges I pose on myself or by the standards set by some of the great culinarians that I have worked under.

Some people really don't realize what a Sous Chef really is, but I thought I would briefly explain my point of view on this subject as well...

What is a Sous Chef?

Theoretically, a Sous Chef is the lead saucier and the administrative assistant to the Executive Chef. In reality, it is a whole different world. So let me re-phrase my own question...

What am I as a Sous Chef?

I am a visionary executioner. I take a thought, idea, vision, expression and focus on materializing the imagination of my Chef, mixed with my own style of insanity.

My hands, knowledge, imagination and expertise are tools that I use to express the intention of the Chef that I work under. He imagines and at times develops; I add my own world of method, taste, flavor, color, texture to his idea. I constantly push the envelope; think outside the box ( or should I say pot? Being I am a chef…) and make the world a happier place by expressing the art of two passionate human beings who genuinely care about who they are and what they do.

My friend and sponsor for the first leg of Cheffy's trip to South Carolina in 2005, Debi Beelow, owner of NV Salon in Greenville, SC said in one of our philosophical discussions that " is the expression of my craft..." Man, it doesn't get any better than that...

Just in this past year alone, I have taken my craft from the shores of Charlevoix, Michigan to the International Gourmet Festival in Puerto Vallarta, have shared the dinner table with some of the best chefs in the world and yet here I am in South Carolina, humbling myself, learning and sharing daily and becoming one with the food that I produce...

Pleasing the World One Palate at a time...
Peace, Hugs and Cookies,

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