With the crisis shutting down most restaurants, I suspect that many chefs are using this downtime to figure out what cooking is all aboutby Jonathan Nunn / June 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
Being a chef used to be so easy, didn’t it? All you needed to do was put on an oversized white hat, do some cooking, say “oui” a lot, and that was it. You were a chef. And then suddenly it wasn’t so simple. A tyre company started handing out stars to prize restaurants. There were awards, cookery shows and international conferences. People started calling you a rock star and you started behaving like one. The media began to call you “gods of food;” cooking, as the new MasterChef asserted, didn’t get “any tougher than this.” Supermarkets asked you to put your name to ready meals. You started to suspect that it was all getting A. Bit. Too. Much.
Perhaps you can trace the rot back to Georges Auguste Escoffier, the legendary chef known as the father of 20th-century cookery. Escoffier codified the rules of the kitchen and whipped it into shape, setting in an unquestioned chain of command from the chef de cuisine to the plongeur. He called this hierarchy brigade de cuisine. The military association was very much intentional—it ensured discipline. As Major Colvin said in HBO’s The Wire, “You call something a war and pretty soon everyone’s gonna be running around acting like warriors.” Cooking has always been difficult work, but somewhere along the way the hardship got fetishised.
With the crisis shutting down most restaurants, I suspect that many chefs are using this downtime to figure out what cooking is all about, and what really got them interested in it in the first place. What does it mean to cook for someone? I’ve heard many answers, but the best was given a few years ago by Olivier Roellinger, the Breton chef who in his pomp held three Michelin stars. Roellinger came to cooking after being brutally attacked by a gang at 21 and spending two years recuperating at home, enjoying meals from his mother. When asked about the essence of cooking, Roellinger described a mother scooping plain rice into a child’s mouth. For him, a chef, no matter how lofty, must always bear this image in mind. It is…