When I was in culinary school, my instructors lined us up each morning to ensure that our aprons were clean, our shoes polished, our cravats properly knotted just below the collars of our neatly ironed chef coats, our thermometers and sharpies in place, our nails short and clean, and our hair pulled back and neatly tucked beneath pressed, white caps. Needless to say, I learned to cook in an environment in which tradition was upheld, celebrated, and stringently enforced.
Each day when I left school and headed to my real-world job as a line cook, things loosened up quite a bit. Sleeves were pushed up, hair tied in a do-rag. If we were bleaching the floors, pant legs would be rolled up to the knee. It was the visual equivalent of traveling from a royal navy ship to a ragtag pirate crew. Somehow though, despite our various stages of dishevelment, there was a remarkable amount of pride deep in the heart of that pirate crew.
Kids enter the culinary field today for any number of reasons. Some have read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and long for the gritty, drug-addled exploits he describes. Others watch a few episodes of Top Chef and immediately enroll in the nearest culinary school in order to win (newsflash: there’s no actual winning in most kitchens). The great chefs, though, enter the field because they are passionate about food. They are inventive and expressive and instinctively know how to combine ingredients in order to create exquisite plates.
Over the last several years, kitchen culture has undergone quite a dramatic shift. Chefs used to be little more than domestic servants, but thanks to widespread media glamorization, chefs have risen to virtual rock star status. Actually, let me be clear: a handful of chefs have risen to rock star status. These folks have inspired an entirely new group of kids to enter the culinary industry: those who expect to be rich and famous. This particular subset enters the kitchen with a distinctive sense of entitlement and generally exits swiftly: angry, disappointed, and shamelessly confused.
Those of us who remain on the line have also felt the influence of these rock star chefs. Look up and down your hot line and try to count the number of tattoos. Tattoos have become as ubiquitous in the kitchen as sharp knives and balloon whisks. Escoffier would be appalled, and yet it seems to be a reflection of the cultural evolution of the profession. Chefs are regarded and consider themselves to be artists; tattoos are simply an alternate form of artistic expression. (Pirates employ similar forms of expression). Kitchen vocabulary has also evolved over the years, from formal French to that of the mostly four-lettered variety. Chances are, your kitchens are teeming with pirates: artistic, tattooed, foul-mouthed, hipster pirates.
I won’t lie and say that my traditionalist heart doesn’t long for the days of buttoned-up and pressed white coat professionalism, but I also won’t deny that this is an incredibly exciting time to be a part of the culinary industry. Some of these pirates make inspiringly bold choices that turn out to be mind-bogglingly delicious. I would even go so far as to say that loosening the structure of the traditional kitchen has allowed for the epic leaps and bounds to which the food world has born witness in the last decade.
All of this is to say that passion comes in many forms. If you venture into your pantry and happen to find a pirate lurking amongst the parsnips, fear not! You might just have a culinary pioneer on your hands. Whether your chef speaks French or Pirate slang matters very little. As long as your chef is fueled by passion, I don’t care if he’s sporting a toque or forty-nine tattoos.
Have you hired any pirates lately? Did they turn out to be foul or fabulous? Feel free to leave a comment below: I’d love to hear your thoughts!