Chefs as Writers: What Does It Mean To Be Both?

As we inch towards the ledge that is 2008 I am taking a lot of time for reflection. I'm thinking about transition and change and how we never know exactly where we'll land and how we'll feel about arriving there, even though we think, with all our planning and list-making and contriving, we can control everything.

This last year brought me back into the fold of an industry I wasn't sure I'd ever fully join again. Almost five years ago someone very close to me was given less than three years to live and I exited Restaurant Kitchens to take care of her, help her die, and then grieve fully. In this grieving period it's been impossible to tell whether I was done with my industry out of default, choice or exhaustion. And I had no idea if I'd ever go back, or if I wanted to.

Restaurant work is not part time work. It takes all of you and then some. It's intimate and physical the way sex and relationships are. It engulfs, and tars and feathers you. It's like your family of origin, cults, gangs and religion. We say you're either on the train or not and after working the line for a period of time it's easy to see why the military and kitchen work are so often compared.

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For years I worked morning, noon and night and missed anything and everything important in anyone's life I knew or the world at large. To walk away from My Industry when my friend became terminally ill was no small feat. But I knew. I knew that I could only do this immense piece of life's work once. And then, without any warning, it changed me forever. It changed the cook I was to return to being, if I was to return.

In March my blog Eggbeater will be three years old, and I will be 40. I name the numbers because, in the time-line of this story it means that I began writing in a public forum while my friend was dying. I began writing about myself, being a pastry chef, fruit, teaching and local agriculture when I was not in A Kitchen per se. I was away for a long time, and yet I stayed close by keeping up with professional friendships and writing about the branches of my work. I worked hard to reconcile calling myself a chef and not having anyone's name on my jacket but my own.

In professional cook-speak, if you are not {actively} in a kitchen you are not a cook, or a chef. If there are stoves without your name and sweat on them, you have no business wearing whites or calling yourself a cook. And in turn you have no right writing like you're on the inside if you aren't. We're like punk rockers or OG's--- if you're not in the game, you're posing, full stop. It makes feelings more black & white than grey, and opinions about who deserves what title when are not hidden from audible view.

Those who write about my industry, and are not in it, are barely taken seriously. Sure there's hand shaking and schmoozing and photo shoots in cushy houses, but those people are considered Outsiders and are treated thusly. (We need them to "Become Known," they know it, and so the snake swallows its tail.)

But what does it mean to both hold the title of chef and writer? What does it mean to be both critic and critiqued? What does it mean to be the underdog cook and the despised? Who is allowed to write about the inside? And who can do it justice?

My industry has enjoyed it's day in the sun concerning major media outlets in recent years. We have dozens of cooking slots, reality chef shows, superstar chef darlings, and certain restaurants getting press week after week, month after month, in every magazine-- because they are so well known on TV.

But that's not my reality. And TV, no matter how "real," is edited beyond recognition: airbrushed, liposucked, botoxed, and teeth-whitened to a point of Hollywood psychosis, cannibalistically feeding on itself to survive.

The truth is that the truth still isn't out there. And my industry, like the insider's trade that they are, doesn't mind keeping it that way.

Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

We will happily feed you lies if it sells dinners, or we have no say in the matter because TV has historically been entertainment and we suppose you'll be smart enough to figure that out. Or we will happily let Them feed you lies because the dirty truth of the matter is that the restaurant industry is plagued by contradictions so entrenched, class and gender and racial disparities so vast, environmental crimes so grossly overlooked and gaping holes so wide, we look like a corrupt government with erased histories and disappearing leaders.

Am I allowed to report on the good, the bad and the ugly or should I keep our dirty laundry close? Should I stand back and smile cynically when person after person signs their life away to culinary schools and shiny happy media "chefs" tell them to follow the bouncing red ball as they join in one big sing-along to the tune of the Big Lie about how wonderful and easy being a chef is? Or maybe I should just stand by, keep my head down and shut up when a female cook gets passed by for a promotion or salary raise because of her sex?

Can I make a difference as a chef-writer? When my voice is so small compared to the big stars? What does it mean to straddle a fence separating two historically enemied roles? Can I stay true to both crafts?

I don't have answers to my questions. I can blame the new media-ness of it all. For we are all a part of the Internet's Great Experiment. "Every one's" on the w.w.w. looking, eating, slurping, voraciously consuming, arguing, posing, learning, dishing, mud-slinging, opining, mis-informing and dawdling. The concept is that everyone can have a voice in a forum, and now those historically critiqued can talk back.

I might be naive to think that hearing from real chefs in real kitchens matters but I do. It's a very different experience now working in a restaurant, and then writing about it. Blogging buoys me-- writing down my life is my way of telling you, the you who read and listen and converse, what one real life in a kitchen among kitchens, a cook among cooks, is like. Writing from my heart, and being part of a small community of other chef and cook bloggers, is important because we can be a small movement educating those who want to know the true life of professional cooking, not the made-for-TV version.

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You? Do you care where you get your truth from? Does it matter to you if said source has fact-checked, painted a pretty and easy-to-digest picture or done their time on the front lines? Do you think chef-writers are a good or dreadful thing? Do you appreciate a transparent restaurant industry or do you wish it would all stay behind closed doors like it always has?

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