But She Plays One On TV
Food celebrity Rachael Ray has reiterated her longstanding objection to being called a “chef.” In a recent Huff Post interview she states that she prefers to be called “a cook.” Why? “I have pause when people refer to me as a 'chef' because I'm simply not.” She says she didn't go to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and she thinks that calling her a “chef” would be “disrespectful of people who did.” But let's think about that one, Rach. There are certain distinctions to be made.
In the 21st century food and entertainment world, anybody who cooks on TV is called a “celebrity chef.” And sometimes the inaccuracy really grinds my gears. Wolfgang Puck is a chef. Mario Batali is a chef. Cat Cora is a chef. Emeril Legasse is a chef. Bobby Flay is a chef. Like her or hate her, Giada De Laurentiis is a chef. On the other hand, Sandra Lee is not a chef and former “Bag Lady” Paula Deen is definitely not a chef. (That's not a pejorative: when she started out in the food business making bag lunches for office workers in Savannah, Deen called herself “The Bag Lady.”) Her sons aren't chefs either. “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond is not a chef. Neither is the ubiquitous and vastly annoying Guy Fieri, although he at least has a degree in hotel management. Nigella Lawson may be a “Domestic Goddess,” but she's not a chef. And yet the undiscriminating public lumps them all together as “celebrity chefs.” Emphasis, I think, on the “celebrity” part.
Let's look at the word “chef.” Literally translated from French, it means “chief.” It refers to someone who is the head or the leader of a group of people. Old French-Canadian records indicate that all my male ancestors were chefs because that was how they were designated on the census forms. In that instance, the word related to their status as heads of their households. In the food world, the “chef” is the head of the restaurant staff. At it's most basic form, the position of “chef” is merely an indicator of the person who oversees the kitchen. The “chief cook.” And that certainly does not require an extensive and expensive culinary education. In simple terms, a “chef” needs to be able to cook to a degree that enables him or her to lead other cooks.
But, alas, we no longer live in simple times. The reality of life today lends itself to specialization. Everybody has to have a very specific job that includes a very specific title. And so it is with chefs. Most people define a “chef” as the person who creates the menu and oversees all back of the house functions like ordering and scheduling. They have to be up on food costs and they need to know their way around health codes and regulations. According to some purists, a chef has to meet the stringent criteria of the American Culinary Foundation. They have to be certified in nutrition and sanitation. There are exams and practical skills tests involved. They have to take management courses and have at minimum a two-year degree from an accredited culinary school. And, oh yeah, it helps if they can cook.
On the flip side, there are just a hell of a lot of chefs out there who never saw the outside of a culinary school, much less the inside. Their exams and practical skills started with washing dishes and working their way up. Let me be there when you tell Tom Colicchio, Jamie Oliver, or Thomas Keller that they aren't really “chefs” because they didn't go to culinary school. Certainly the world renowned Ferran Adrià is a classically trained chef, right? Surely he met all those stringent educational criteria before basically inventing molecular gastronomy, right? Nah. He dropped out of school and worked as a dishwasher in a hotel restaurant. Then he learned his trade from a bunch of other people who probably didn't meet the criteria for being “chefs” either.
Want to know who else doesn't qualify academically as a chef? How about the aforementioned Wolfgang Puck? His education came through apprenticeship. Does anybody debate the inclusion of Alice Waters among the pantheon of American chefs? She has a degree in French Cultural Studies, but no culinary school. Internationally recognized chef Jacques Pépin started out in his family's restaurant and later apprenticed in Paris. But no “Le Cordon Bleu” or other “formal training.” Similarly, French legend Paul Bocuse studied under Eugénie Brazier, the first chef to attain six Michelin stars. She also had no “formal training.” Daniel Boulud was a finalist in France's competition for Best Culinary Apprentice at age fifteen. No culinary school for him; he apprenticed his way to culinary stardom. Hunky Aussie chef Curtis Stone worked his way up ladder. Lidia Bastianich may head a restaurant empire now, but in her first eatery in Queens, she copied recipes from successful Italian restaurants and hired an Italian-American chef to execute them. No culinary school for her. And the late Cajun and Creole king, Paul Prudhomme, was entirely self-taught.
And, by the way, do you know what one of the highest culinary prizes in America is? I'm referring, of course, to the James Beard award. And did you also know that James Beard, the Dean of American Cuisine, never spent a day in culinary school? He was an unsuccessful actor who started up a catering business that ultimately led to cookbooks, speaking engagements, and to the establishment of his own cooking school. Not bad for someone who was never certified in nutrition and sanitation and all the other fal de rol that some people associate with chefdom. James Beard was nothing but a cook, and yet all the hoity toity chefs want his name associated with their restaurants. Strange, huh?
There are four generations of food professionals in my family. My grandfather and a couple of uncles were restaurateurs. I do what I do as a cook and a writer, and my son has worked his way up from fast food to management of a couple of pretty nice upscale places. My grandfather and my uncles cooked. My son and I cook. Despite the fact that we've all had a hand in creating menus, ordering supplies, supervising operations, and, oh yeah, preparing food, do any of us qualify as “chefs?” Meh.
The people for whom I cook often call me a chef. And for lack of a more comprehensive term, I sometimes bill myself as a “personal chef.” All that means is that I cook for people who pay me to do so. Perhaps “personal cook” would be more accurate, but such a term does not exist in the industry, so I go with what works. I do not, however, delude myself or others into thinking that I am a classically trained chef. Sure, I'm a better than average cook. If I weren't, people wouldn't be paying me to cook for them. Yeah, I know a lot about food and technique because I've taken a gazillion classes and read a gazillion books. And I've been cooking for a gazillion years. But am I a “chef?” Like Rachael, the word makes me squeamish, largely because I know my limitations.
Here's why I'm not a chef: Give me some basic, everyday ingredients and a decent kitchen and I'll whip up some unforgettably good food for you. A gas stove, some good pots and pans, a handful of tools and utensils, a few tomatoes, some onions, garlic, herbs and spices and I'll have you drooling over a delicious tomato sauce mixed with some of my handmade pasta. And you can sop up any leftover sauce with some of my fresh-baked bread. It'll be good, I promise. As long as I'm working with ingredients and techniques that fall within my comfort zone.
Now...drop off somebody like Mario Batali in the middle of the woods with nothing but a knife and a box of matches, and in ten minutes he'll make you a feast. THAT'S a chef! Oh, and did I mention that Mario dropped out of culinary school? He never got that minimal two-year degree that qualifies him as a real “chef.”
I mean, I watch “Chopped” and “Iron Chef” and “Top Chef” and similar shows and I sit there, mouth agape and eyes glazed over, as people throw together real, honest-to-goodness, edible dishes made from weird things, some of which I didn't even know existed. C'mon! Cactus flower buds, rose water, quince paste? Goat brains? Sea cucumbers? My wife and I are are like, “what the hell is that?” And then Ted Allen explains it and we're still like, “what the hell would you do with it?” And then the competitors do something wonderful with it in twenty minutes. Things that I couldn't conceive of in twenty hours. No, I'm not a chef. I'm a really good cook, but those people, the ones who can make something out of anything or nothing, are chefs. And some of them never went to culinary school either.
So what it really comes down to in the final analysis is the ability to walk the walk and talk the talk. Like James Beard, I came to the kitchen by way of the theater. There's another place where ability often trumps education. There are a lot of bad actors out there with good educations. A diploma does not make someone with no talent into an actor. You either are one or you're not. Same thing applies to being a chef. Give me somebody with raw talent and gut instinct any day. The old joke goes, “you know what you call a med student who finished last in his class? Doctor.” Just because you got a piece of expensive paper that says you went to school for two years doesn't mean you're any good in the kitchen. I've probably logged a thousand hours in online and hands-on cooking classes. In more than fifty years of standing at a stove, I've thoroughly tested my practical skills. I've even studied the ServSafe exam for food professionals. So I'm a chef, right? Nah. Not once you take me out of my comfort zone. I know a lot about food because I've studied it inside and out. I can make a phenomenal American breakfast and I can handle myself well in an Italian kitchen because those are the things I know and understand. The things with which I have great experience and familiarity. Take me out in the woods with a knife and a box of matches and I'll cut myself and burn down the forest just before I starve to death. So, no, I'm not a chef. And a whole lot of people who call themselves “chefs” aren't either. They're nothing more than over-hyped and/or over-educated cooks. Or celebrities.
Kudos to Rachael Ray for recognizing her limitations. That's the real difference between a cook and a chef.