By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
Although the foodservice industry faces many challenges, there is little question that becoming a chef is truly something unique and special. I can easily reflect on the time I first started what would become my lifetime career. A few decades ago, working in a kitchen was far from a career that was envied by some, respected by many and filled with the promise of success as measured in numerous ways. In those days, the kitchen was a hidden part of the restaurant relegated to a windowless dungeon far from the eyes of the guest and certainly not an environment that could easily inspire.
During my apprenticeship I worked in a large kitchen in the sub-basement of a hotel. Once you entered, it was impossible to determine if it was day or night and once the menu item was plated and placed in the pass, the cook never saw its final destination. Still, there was something about that space and the people who occupied it in double-breasted white jackets and houndstooth pants that seemed just right, at least for me.
Cooks and chefs went about their day, just as they do today, working through countless pages of prep sheets, portioning proteins, trimming and cutting vegetables, reducing stocks, making soups and finishing classic sauces with monte au beurre. There was, and remains, a rhythm and a cadence of work that is comforting and intoxicating. There is a level of confidence in skill and a relentless commitment to getting the job done no matter how long it takes.
Things are different today, and in some ways that’s better. Chefs and cooks no longer need to hide in the crevices of the sub-basement. In fact, the kitchen is the visual centerpiece of many restaurants. Cooks can now hold their heads high when they proclaim that this is a career choice, with great promise along with an extraordinary amount of hard work. This is a career for artistic, competent, intelligent problem-solvers who have calculated a path that can lead from cook to chef, and maybe even entrepreneur. This is a career that others who chose a different path look to as a dream that is interesting and exciting.
While this image and new level of respect is fantastic, there are many foundational reasons to relish becoming a chef that has been around for decades. These reasons were there in the 1960’s when I started out and are there today as well. Here is a partial list of nine legitimate reasons to pursue this career:
1. THE TANGIBLE JOY OF CREATING
That perfect plate: a well-conceived dish that marries complementary flavors and takes full advantage of the unique textures of individual ingredients as they blend to create something that satisfies and memorializes the cook’s craft is a thing of beauty. Each plate that leaves the kitchen carries the invisible signature of the person who built it. This is incredibly rewarding.
2. RELISHING IN AN ACQUIRED SKILL
Human beings have an innate desire to be accomplished at something. To be a great storyteller, a methodical technician, a knowledgeable caretaker of the how and why, and a problem solver who can adjust to curve balls. This is what a cook is able to be when skills are finely tuned.
3. THE ABILITY TO MAKE ANOTHER PERSON’S DAY
In the end, the cook’s primary job is to present food in a manner that makes the recipient happy with the results. A chef’s job is to take this to the next level and make the experience of dining memorable enough to set the tone for the guest’s day. This is the chef’s reward.
4. THE GRATIFICATION THAT COMES FROM HARD WORK
Human hands were designed to work hard, the brain was designed to push a person’s intellect and recall, and the legs and feet were meant to feel sore, that good sore from knowing that much was accomplished today. Hard work is incredibly gratifying.
5. PRIDE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIFORM
We all want to be part of something that is bigger than we are. Wearing the chef’s uniform makes a cook part of the history of the profession, a history that is honorable, noble, and now well respected. Wearing the uniform allows us to be part of a club of professionals who made the work of the kitchen a part of who they are as a person.
6. BEING PART OF A TEAM
Satisfaction is the knowledge that your work and your success in the kitchen are dependent on how well others around you perform. Being part of a group of people who share a common goal, who have dedicated the time to build an incredible set of skills, who are proud of what they do and who will do whatever it takes to make the whole team successful is an honor.
7. DIVERSITY PERSONIFIED
Although it may not have always been the case, over the years the kitchen has grown to become an environment that cares little about age, gender, size, ethnicity, race or lifestyle preferences. The kitchen team has become a true melting pot of backgrounds and beliefs that are focused solely on accomplishing the established goals before them.
8. THE SMELLS, SIGHTS, SOUNDS, TEXTURES AND TASTES OF THE KITCHEN
What greeting could be better than the smells of a stock simmering, onions being caramelized, bread being pulled from the oven on a peel or meat charring on an open grill? What could be more exciting that the sound of knives vigorously chopping parsley or slicing mushrooms, pots and pans ringing in tune as they are pulled from racks and connected to a stove top, or the cadence of orders being called out by the expediter with a resounding “Yes chef” response from line cooks?
What could be more majestic than watching a line cook during busy service take the time to paint a work of art on a plate before it hits the pass, or a pastry chef decorating a cake with the skill of a sculptor or impressionist painter? What could be more rewarding than savoring the flavors of a perfectly married dish or the chew of a deeply marbled and perfectly cooked steak? This is what cooks and chefs are privileged to work with every day.
9. THE TIMELESS NATURE OF FOOD AS THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
Finally, when a chef stops to contemplate his or her role in society, it is important to note that a wonderful plate of food is the great equalizer. Regardless of the differences that people might have politically, economically, intellectually or culturally, a great tasting dish can bring a smile and a nod to the face of anyone, even adversaries. This is our gift to the world; the ability to find common ground and relish in the opportunity to share the wonders of food.
Be something special — be a chef! Those who find their way into the uniform, the environment and the world of food will always be at home. With all of its challenges there are few places and few careers that can provide as much gratification as cooking. As a friend of mine once proclaimed: “There has never been a better time to be a chef than right now.”
Be part of the history and the proud profession of cooking. Join and get involved in shaping the future of this profession. Always strive to build on what was established before you, push for excellence, never accept mediocrity and become an ambassador who promotes to others the benefits of being a cook, being a chef.
Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.