I make my living purchasing ingredients, preparing and cooking them and selling the finished product to my customers. It's a simple procedure in concept. Hell, it's pretty simple in reality if you know what you're doing. Simple, however, can mean long hours in a hot, noisy and chaotic environment where professional cooking is concerned.
I have a tendency to pull a bubble up around myself at work in the kitchen in order to shut out the chaos around me. It allows me to zone in and concentrate at the job at hand. Food is my joy and I treat it with respect because I know that what is placed in front of the customer is an extension of myself.
I work clean and efficiently. My hands can seem like a blur of shimmering steel at times or slow and meticulous at other times. It's all the same to me; years of practice and repetition have given me a set of skills and a degree of confidence in the practice of my craft that allows me to go out to a table knowing that there is a high probability that the table has really enjoyed their meal.
I follow the rules as best as I can, which can be rather difficult as the rules constantly change and the enforcement of those rules is arbitrary at best and vindictive at worse. There is a nerve jangling tension between my craft and the bureaucracy that hangs over my head. Sometimes the health codes are an ass, but in the end I approach it from the point of view that common sense rules over everything. The health department gets pushed out into the background noise and I move on to the next task. I must be doing ok; I've managed not to kill anyone in 22 years of professional cooking.
Simple. Purchase quality ingredients and take good care of them. Prepare and cook those ingredients in a clean environment and in an efficient manner. Do that in such a way and with such skill that the customer won't bat an eye at shelling out 32 bucks for a pair of crab cakes.
But simple has been morphing to complicated with each passing year in this business. When I come out from inside my bubble, I'm assaulted by a cacophonous world that insists that it just can't be so simple.
Cooking is no longer cooking. It is a storm of competing philosophies roaring up against my craft, staggering me with it's force. Politics, environment, morality and just plain silliness scream in my face like a gale.
Buy local. Use organics. Fear the latest outbreak of salmonella or e.coli. Don't use corn based products, but - oh noes! - there's not enough corn now to feed the masses because we're turning it into ethanol. We're running out of food. How can you serve that to rich people when poor people are starving. Or getting fat. Which is it? Do you know what the carbon footprint is on that Australian wagyu beef raised by Greg Norman? Greg Norman raises beef? I thought he made wine. Hell, I thought he was a golfer.
That food is making you fat. Clogging your arteries. Raising your blood pressure. It's got salt. It's got refined sugar. It's making you hyper. Jeebus, don't give junior that candy bar! He'll be bouncing off the walls! Your meal is making you feel depressed. Guilty. Infantile. You're being a pig.
Alcohol is killing you. Alcohol can extend your life. Chef, I can't have brandy in my sauce because I'm in AA and even though the alcohol is cooked out it's the principle of it and all.
Animals are people too! But it's ok if they're not factory raised, injected with hormones, fed corn, fill the rivers with shit and are just generally miserable. You've got to let them be happy before you kill them. Y'know? Like pets you can eat. Nevermind. Meat is death.
Agribusiness is killing us by feeding the world. We're using too much fuel to transport the food, to manufacture it. It's evil because it's corporate. Better to return to our roots. Back to a time that was more simple; when we lived on the edge of starvation but everything was bucolic and unicorns roamed the earth under the benevolent eye of Gaia.
And into all this noise wades the chef. Sometimes - often, actually - chefs become the noise, embracing the culture and notoriety of their craft, taking it to absurd limits, becoming the gatekeepers of culinary reality. They are everywhere and nowhere. They impart wisdom and common sense on the one hand, and with the other, hack each other to bloody chunks in rude arenas of foolish faux-gladiatorial spectacle. The practitioners of a craft should not lose themselves in arrogance and rudeness. After all, it's not rocket science. By the same token, it's not mortal combat, either, though sometimes it feels that way.
It should be enough to just cook food and to pass on what should be a simple thing not fraught with fear and angst. It should be enough to enjoy the meal of your choosing without the background noise invading your senses. It should be enough to be content after that meal, smiling at the memory of taste. It should be enough for the experience of eating to be both private and social; a matter of taste in more ways than one. It should be enough, but it isn't, with increasing frequency. Arrogance eminates from the kitchen and rudeness from the floor set off by boorishness from the customer. Or the other way around. Take your pick.
Frankly, it gets harder to be simple with each passing year in this business. As I often say, "Goddammit! Why can't everyone just leave me the f^*k alone and let me cook!"
So, as I head out the door today towards another service, I'll leave you with this thought.
The Smiths - of course that's not their real name - are coming to dinner tonight. They are a wonderful, sweet elderly couple, and they come to the Inn every Saturday evening, usually without fail, at 7:30 on the dot. They always sit at table 5 near the window. She has sweet tea and he has unsweetened; he's diabetic. They are always gracious and appreciative of what I do for them. I always visit they're table and talk about just about everything under the sun. They tip well. Mrs. Smith always gives me a hug as they're leaving, and she always says, "Sweetie, you take care, hear? Have a good week."
It's the Smiths of the world that keep me doing what I do. Or the gay couple from DC last night, looking for a quick getaway from the city and buying the cheapest room and being utterly blown away by their dinner. Standing at their table sharing my craft and trading stories of our favorite DC haunts. The world is suspended at times like this, and the background noise becomes blessed silence as I commune with my diners and they with me.
You take care, hear? Have a good week.
(Cross posted at Daily Pundit as a Weekend Cooking Thread)