Grant Achatz writes a regular column for the Atlantic Food Channel, in which the Alinea chef ruminates over a variety of subjects in a straight-forward, no-nonsense style. His latest piece argues that celebrity chefs, such as, well, Grant Achatz, can do more good for their restaurants, their employees, their brand, and even their customers by not spending all their time in the kitchen, cooking your outrageously priced meal.
All these activities pull the chef away from the kitchen and therefore the food, but ideally make the restaurant, the brand, and hopefully the overall guest experience better. The diners gain access, the business is financially rewarded, and the employees benefit from freedom and resources not typical in an average restaurant.
The fact is, the very thing that positions chefs in the class of fame—the grinding out of the daily work in the kitchen while striving for perfection, the monotonous and sometimes menial tasks, and the relentless dedication to the expression of creativity and originality in food—ultimately lands them on magazine covers, in newspaper features, and on TV. Which in turn can catapult the chef into a life far different from the typical hundred hours a week in a hot kitchen.
This creates a direct conflict. Does the success of the chef and restaurant lead to the demise in the quality of the product? Is it a double-edged sword? Most people think that for a great chef—the “passionate visionary artist” the media proclaims—to compete at the highest level, the work has to come directly from the chef’s hands, or at least close to them. When people pay to eat the food equivalent of Nude Woman with a Necklace, they want the real deal. A Picasso is a Picasso because he painted it. But cooking is not like music, television, or painting, where art can be immortalized: you cook the masterpiece, it’s consumed, and the next day you do it all over again.
Does it have to come from the hands of the master? Or is coming from the mind of the master through the hands of his disciples enough?
What most people don’t realize is that this conflict handcuffs the chef. Not having the freedom to venture away from the stove and pursue other interests, personal or professional, is a creative ceiling: the obligation of the kitchen is always present. Naturally, as you grow as a chef and ideally gain more popularity, different opportunities are presented to you.
Cooking at a high level is a young man’s game: the time commitment, as well as the mental and physical sacrifices, make working at that extreme unsustainable. But more importantly to the chef as a person is personal growth. Naturally curious and creative, we are always looking for different ways to apply ourselves in other creative media.
I have been fortunate to fulfill a few outside interests recently like writing—this blog, cookbooks, a memoir, traveling, and even collaborating on various TV and film-related projects. These avenues of creativity not only make my life richer and more rewarding personally but also inform and inspire my cooking.
So in the end does it matter if the chef is not in the house? Purely from the standpoint of food execution…likely not. Assuming, that is, that he or she has a well-trained and passionate staff being led by a tight chef de cuisine, the occasional absence is not detrimental to the experience.
I have to say, I couldn’t agree more with Achatz. American diners seem to have a naive, and somewhat hypocritical, perspective on celebrity chefs. Americans want to read celebrity chef memoirs, cook from celebrity chef cookbooks, and even shake celebrity chefs’ hands at every bookstore from here to San Francisco, but they don’t want to give the chefs the space to do all this stuff. They want their celebrity chefs in the kitchen.
Let me say this clearly: A celebrity chef is like a general. He/she controls every aspect of the kitchen. No one in that kitchen does anything on his own unless authorized by the celebrity chef. The food coming out of a celebrity chef kitchen is the embodiment of the toque’s thoughts and passions and feelings about food. The celebrity chef may not have cooked it, but she or he was behind every flavor and technique that went into it.
Photo by xmatt from Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License.