Food

Undercover Chef – May 2019

I think boxed food kits delivered to the bored and capricious home cook are ridiculous.

Let me back up introducing myself.

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The Undercover Chef

My career as a Fine Dining Chef career spans decades in five-star hotels and restaurants. I have an M.A.Ed. with a focus on Nutritional Health and Fast Food Marketing; all of this means nothing in the field of work I do as a Chef Educator for “at risk youth.” I run a fine dining restaurant open to the public.

My Brazilian colleague chef instructor once famously remarked after a particularly trying student attempted to argue with him over how to cook rice: “they think we’re dropped from helicopters out here!“ Translation: our students simply refuse to believe we are who we say we are. To add insult to injury, our students pay nothing – zip, zilch, zero – to be flown in to San Francisco from all over the country to be housed (also free) for up to two years while learning the culinary arts in the most expensive city in the country.

Our students are generally surly and amazingly fabulous kids. For the most part they will never see the light of day at the Ritz, or the wonders of the Westin hotel.  If one in 50 students actually makes it into the Westin as a full time cook, my work is done. I also truly support and hope the other 49 students will find their path in life. At the end of the day, most students do.

I teach in a concrete bunker, a space left over from the Second World War. The already failing freezer finally gave out yesterday and we have no working three-compartment kitchen sink (how are we regulated by the City?). I am told to share with the ramshackle baking area or the forlorn and lonely space grandly referred to as “front of the house” (a phrase harkening back to the glory days of Escoffier’s Culinary when fine dining was still truly an event and pastime for those who could afford first class tickets on the Titanic and lived the life of the Gatsbys). Well, we all know the outcome of those lifestyles – and such has gone the way of the interest of the majority of my students “passion” about their trade. Most students seem to regret having chosen culinary over carpentry. The culinary arts is the easiest trade to be accepted into. Electrical has actual industry standard tests.

In reality, most of the students who have chosen the culinary arts would rather be working at Chipotle or Cheesecake Factory and most are duly employed, in their leisure time, at these and a host of other national treasure chains, which have permeated our fair City by the Bay.

On this last fine morning, I have endeavored once again to psyche both myself and my students up for the kitchen learning experience by playfully writing in bright erasable marker script, “Bonjour! Wilkommen to le Patisserie!” This was followed by our week’s menu and job duties for each trainee, a sort of daily mise en place prep list aimed at inspiring the inevitable lackadaisical attitude I am bound to encounter on a Monday morning. My students begin to straggle into the classroom, right before the 8 a.m. start time. I will be forced to mark the latecomers “tardy “and “absent” on our regulated attendance sheets which will, at the end of our standardized 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. day, disappear in Orwellian fashion into the vortex of our records office.

I have long ago realized that whatever I write on the attendance sheet actually means nothing. No one will ever comment on it and I will never hear about it again. Students are now arriving, spilling out from their dorm rooms into the culinary building. Many look rumpled from having slept in their chef whites, wrinkled uniforms I will have the unmistakable pleasure of addressing when I bring up the departmental guidelines of sporting clean uniforms. I must also address no jewelry, piercings and to beclean-shaven with hair neatly tied up before entering the classroom. We all know that, if one cannot adapt to their workplace one won’t keep their job. Most students arrive looking like a band of pirates with their hair tufted out, five o’clock shadows and sunken eyes darkened from staying up all night playing video games with their quad mates or listening to pounding earphones until 3 a.m. The school contains no library or study break room.

The messages the media sends regarding food and learning in this country spans everything from a “get fit” quick path of keto diets, paleo living or raw food foraging which “balances” out those extremes with the equally alarming “obesity as beauty“ theory in the fat acceptance movement to the precocious new trend of eating exotic (or mundane) insects, to the pretentious indulgence of a 20-course Michelin meal, complete, (amongst other alluring items), with your server lighting a cheese-stuffed candle to release oozing warm dairy.

Fine dining, and other, consumers have the options of indulging in delicacies as spectator sport, a voyeur of food porn waxing poetically over unpronounceable micro fungi which most of us could never discern from locally bought button mushrooms.

Unfortunately, many of my students who do show an interest in learning the culinary arts are susceptible to these trends.

Rather than yearning to know the fundamentals of their trade, most are seduced by the latest YouTube video – how to make a “Cotton Candy Burrito” – with its lurid blue sugar wrap stuffed with factory made crunch loop cereal. This atrocity beguiles them more than actually understanding how to melt and caramelize the sugar itself, bringing it to a beautifully light-golden caramelized stage before spinning the syrup into golden strands or making a delicate sugar cage on the back of an oiled ladle.

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When I first started, I got frustrated about students lack of care or interest in their chosen trade. Now, after years, I just accept it as part of my job in educating America’s youth. This is not a jaded approach – it’s realistic. I even describe myself to my students as a “practical artist.” Every true chef is. We adhere to timelines, organization, restaurant numbers and facts and figures while creating art with no boundaries. We must remember our time constraints and balance the extremes of our days. This concept of balance is foreign and disturbing to most of my students. The majority of them have never worked. These 18- to 25-year-olds are in actuality young adults. The term “youth” belies their chronological age span.  Many in this generation have never been taught the responsibility, the exhaustion and the joy and ownership in working a job and in truly being self-sufficient.

It is Day 3,498 of me running my class. We practice excellence in service, something I never tire of reminding my students. They inevitably roll their tired eyes at me, (a person twice their age) and yawn, “But why does it matter chef? We’re only serving old people, they don’t know the difference.” a statement which is sure to make me double down on demanding my students get out a beautiful dessert service using “old school” methods. This means that I expect them to whip their own Crème Chantilly, and not rely on the shtick of frozen nitrogen to do the job for them. I am alarmed by how many balk at the idea of peeling, coring and slicing a case of apples for strudel. In a way, I can’t blame them; most places they have worked at, including five star hotels, now buy fruits and veggies already prepared – peeled, cored, chopped and ready to go. All one needs is a box cutter as tool.

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When I tell them how I, as a pastry cook student, had to top greens and shuck not just one case of strawberries, but eighteen flats, alone, in banqueting, they blink at me in disbelief.

A student will ask, “Chef, why didn’t the hotel just buy frozen?” It is all I can do to refrain from screaming unmentionables at him in German, because it was the way I was trained – through stark fear and pressure.

This job is a good reminder of the patience I have cultivated in myself as a chef educator. I absolutely reject the idea of kitchen degradations. I must teach my students the disciplines I learned without the public humiliations I endured. I am always gratified by how many, at the end of the day, can transcend their own modern culture to do the job the way I ask. They can overcome the almost mystical pull of their forbidden electronic devices – cellphones and headphones – and finally comply with class policies. Put them away and get down to business.

Finally, reaching students brings gratitude and understanding to both the teacher and the student. I remember why I abhor boxed meal kits. Most of my students have been raised on institutional boxed food products. I am satisfied to be reminded that after completing our program they will never again have to rely on eating them.

This is why I prefer teaching at risk youth, who on first glance couldn’t care less about the vocational trade they are in. My students necessitate unstopping energy. It is an experience more pleasing than teaching students within the polished elitism of a private culinary academy. My students are real products of their generation. I reach them successfully with down-to-earth methods of the food and love of family I grew up with. They are also my family. I am proud to be one of them.

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Categories: Food

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