In my time as a cook, and then a chef, I learned first the respect for ingredients. This is an overplayed phrase, yes, but it is fundamental that a young cook understands this, and if taken seriously this principle should be cemented in a cook's professional aspirations to rise to world of chefdom.
The second thing I learned was that a cook had to have respect for those above him. That means answering to your obvious bosses, i.e. sous chefs, CDCs, etc., but also to the goals of those who own a particular business. Sometimes one's boss isn't a person so much as an idea, a concept.
In the last twelve years that I have spent learning these points, I was also developing myself as a chef. My career plan, as that of many young cooks, was to work as hard as humanly possible, and then a bit more, and not to stop until one reached the top. The "Top" could be Michelin stars, or local stars, or a successful business, or a position with a local farmer. I wanted Michelin.
When I had these goals, Michelin had yet to come to the U.S., but rumors were rampant that it would be happening soon, most vocally supported by a current Michelin-starred chef in New York for whom I worked in two restaurants.
To skip a few details, I moved to Chicago and began working as a line cook for a chef who would receive a Michelin as soon as they came to this fine city. It was at this restaurant that I switched to pastry. There, while I ran the pastry kitchen by myself while my mentors were off getting married, I realized I had a knack for the science of pastry.
This new-found confidence led me to move on to yet another highly-acclaimed Chicago restaurant, where I was able to learn even more traditional pastry and also have the opportunity to dabble in more modern techniques while constantly following the rule that flavor comes first. I left that job because a point came when flavor and ingredients ceased to come first, and technique reigned supreme.
I spent the next year and a half teaching myself new techniques. Obsessed with fancy white powders, I applied them as often and ridiculously as I could, and to some success. However, the desserts I created began to clash with the food the savory side was pumping out on a daily basis. I realized that I would never have the *s if I stayed, and I returned to my previous employer.
My entire time there was fantastic. I had nearly complete creative freedom, influenced only by the most helpful of constructive criticism from a chef I have admired and called a friend for years. I even received a fancy award, something I was very proud of. This opportunity was cut short for reasons that I understand and for which I accept some responsibility. I have no hard feelings.
My next move brought me to yet another Michelin restaurant, and this is where it gets weird. I was (and still am) a friend with the chef. I liked the new concept. I produced two full menus in three months. All good there, yes, if not for some fundamental problems. I have my own problems, others have theirs. I am not here to point fingers. I enjoyed my employment there, but it was there that I realized for the last three years or so, I had been trying to make crazy food out of ingredients that were food to begin with.
Why would I want to fossilize a carrot to make it look like a log in a fall forest? I got the recipe out of a book. I didn't invent it. Why do I make all this fancy food when all I think about is the chicken I was going to roast when I got home? The ribs I was curing to smoke over the weekend? My last few dining experiences at very high-end places were delicious, but sometimes too many courses are just that: too many. For the recent past, all I have wanted to do (subconsciously?) was make food, not make entertainment out of food, but I also felt that I was pretty good at what I did, so why not keep doing it.
Then tensions got a bit higher. I decided to throw my hat in the ring for the chef position. I spoke with the management team about the associated challenges and realized that this was my opportunity to get back to savory, to stop being stuck in the world of the cream puff, to start cooking real food.
A few hours after that meeting, I found my self answering the questions, "What is real food? What do I want to cook?". I finally understood that taking on the role as executive chef of a fine dining restaurant, adding more stress to an already stressed life, was not what I needed. I understood that making fifteen courses of tweezered food is no better than creating the five I already oversaw. I knew that my previous dreams of making simple food were not unjustified. I snapped.
I am not trying to justify my hasty departure. It was unprofessional, and I apologize for that, but it was the right move for me to ensure my own happiness. In this business, chefs are expected to be superheroes, to work more, harder, faster, stronger, smarter than in any other business. I have done this for years. I will continue to do this. But we, as a community of chefs, focus so much on the happiness of the guests and the success of our brands that we forget to think about our own lives.
For all the anonymous contributors, it's true.. I've never denied being a hearty imbiber. I also never claimed to be able to grow a beard. And if the dining public is truly concerned about those pesky details, I won't take offense. But I don't plan on leaving this business. This industry is all I have known, and I cannot wait to come back.
If you read this all of this, you deserve some Spiritualized.