Chef corralled us into the dinning room this morning. He handed out contracts that said we’d show up on Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. rather than 9 a.m. so we could take our written exam before our practical final exam. Then he asked if anyone had any last-minute questions about the final, and when no one raised a hand, he took out Anthony Bourdain’s The Nasty Bits, and read aloud Bourdain’s chapter, “A Commencement Address Nobody Asked For.”
And, in a word, what Chef did today was memorable. He read aloud the gruff, blatantly honest words of the famous Bourdain, a man who, like Chef, doesn’t give a damn about what people think of him. Both men strive to transform “the raw, the ugly, the tough, and the unlovely into the cooked, the beautiful, the tender, and the tasty.” And when Chef finished reading this chapter, the entire room was silent. The inspiration was palpable. And spontaneously, everyone started to clap for him. As we were ushered back into the kitchen, I heard Vaughn say he felt “pumped up.” This must be what it feels like to listen to an NFL coach give a halftime speech.
On the last day of class, Bourdain’s commencement speech was, in a way, our commencement into reality. He speaks of this league of laborers, of artists, of cooks, who live to serve beautiful food. Who sleep when their customers are awake, and who go out when the rest of the world is sleeping. And while I listened to Chef read this passage, I just thought to myself: I’m not part of this club, but at least I have a better understanding of it. I appreciate and respect every person who works in the restaurant industry and would never have been able to write about this industry without going to culinary school and trailing in restaurants.
An excerpt from Anthony Bourdain’s “A Commencement Address Nobody Asked For”:
If you can catch a chef in a quiet, reflective moment over over a drink, and ask what the worst aspects of the job are, you will probably get the following answer: “The heat, the pressure, the fast pace, the isolation from normal society, the long hours, the pain, the relentless, never-ending demands of the profession.”
If you wait awhile, maybe two more drinks, and ask again–this time inquiring about the best parts of being a chef–more often than not, the chef will pause, take another sip of beer, smile…and give you exactly the same answer.
This is something you might keep in mind at the very beginning of your cooking career, chained to a sink in a crowded sub-cellar, doing nothing more glamorous, hour after hour after hour, than scraping vegetables or washing shellfish: It doesn’t really get any better. In fact, I know a number of accomplished chefs and sauciers who suffer from what we call “dishwasher syndrome,” meaning that at every available moment between delicately spooning foamy sauces over pan-seared scallops and foie gras, or bullying waiters, they sneak over to the dish station and spend a few happy, carefree moments washing dishes. This is not as bizarre as one might think. Many of us yearn for those relatively carefree days when it was a simple matter of putting dirty plates into one end of a machine and then watching them emerge clean and perfect form the other side. Similarly, I have seen owners of multiunit restaurant empires blissfully sweeping the kitchen floor, temporarily enjoying a Zen-like state of calm, of focused, quantifiable toil far from the multitasking and responsibility of management hell.
Cooking is, and always has been, a cult of pain. Those of us who’ve spent any time in the business actually like it that way[...]We are int eh service industry, meaning that when rich people come into our restaurants we cook for them. When our customers play, we work. When our customers sleep, we play. We know (or should know) that we are not like our customers, never will be like our customers, and don’t want to be, even if we put down a nice score now an again. We are the other thing–and we like it like that. We may be glorified servants, catering to the whims of those usually wealthier than us ( I mean, who among us could afford to eat in our own restaurants regularly), but we are tougher, meaner, stronger, more reliable, and well aware of the fact that we can do something with our hands, our senses, the accumulated wisdom of thousands of meals served, that they can’t. When you’re tired after a hard day in the kitchen, and some manicured stockbroker is taking up too much room on the subway, you have no problem telling the stupid prick to shove over. You deserve it! He doesn’t.
[...] I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about this with chefs and cooks around the world. Whether it’s Singapore, Sydney, Saint Louis, Paris, Barcelona, or Duluth, you are not alone. When you finally arrive, when you take your place behind a professional range, start slinging serious food, know what the hell you’re doing, you are joining an international subculture in “this thing of ours.” You will recognize and be recognized by others of your kind. You will be proud and happy to be part of something old and honorable and difficult to do. You will be different, a thing apart–and you will cherish your apartness.