Marcella Hazan, the respected and brilliant author of many books on Italian cooking, recently published a piece in the New York Times about the overuse and misuse of the term, “chef.”
For the past 20 years or so, being a (legitimate) chef has become quite chic. The success of the Food Network brought about the term, “celebrity chef,” and elevated men and women such as Emeril Legasse, Bobby Flay, Sarah Moulton, and others to widespread fame and acclaim.
Not that they don’t deserve it. Some have leveraged that exposure and opened multiple restaurants in conspicuous (and expensive) places, including hotels, vacation resorts and, of course, Las Vegas.
Vegas used to be the capital of the all-you-can-eat buffet for $5.95. Step into one of those chefs’ eponymous restaurants, and you’ll sometimes wonder if your money would have gone farther on the casino floor.
But back to the subject at hand: Who’s a chef? Who deserves to be called, “chef?”
I remember one exploratory trip to a well-known and prestigious culinary school and I asked my tour guide if, upon completion of the four-year course, if the title “chef” would be conferred along with the diploma.
Here’s the real story: Only another chef can confer the title on you. And usually it comes after years of slugging it out in a kitchen doing every conceivable job from dishwashing to shucking oysters to peeling potatoes, to making stock, to … well, everything. To earn the title of chef you must prove your mettle. It’s not a title that should be bandied about. It’s a title that must be earned.
One of the largest national professional associations of chefs surprisingly hasn’t taken a stand on this issue. In fact, they’ve shown themselves to be more interested in cash than caché. They’ve taken to endorsing brand-name food products in television commercials. I recently saw photographs of four of the most preeminent chefs in this country lending their names to a specific food product and it made me wince.
There also are several national membership organizations for “personal chefs,” one of which I used to belong to. But when I saw that anyone could join without any need to show qualifications, I had to drop out. Just because you can cook does not mean you’re a chef.
I’ve also seen television commercials for a regional pizza chain call their kitchen employees “pizza chefs,” as if to convey to you that slapping formula ingredients on pre-packaged dough made them a notch better than the man or woman in the mom-and-pop independent pizza shop who actually take pride in making his own dough, her own sauce, cutting their own vegetables, and such.
When I’m introduced to people who’ve never seen me on television or elsewhere and they ask what I do, I usually respond that I’m a cook. Most of the time, they’ll ask what restaurant I cook in.
And when I tell them I do not cook in a restaurant, they’re often confused. Isn’t that where cooks work?
Many of us do and quite a number of us don’t. Some of us are caterers. Some of us are personal chefs. Some of us are teachers.
I have the greatest respect for great home cooks. I’ve had extraordinary meals from people who have no abiding interest in cooking for a living, but who can make some fantastic food in their home kitchens.
But they would never even dream of calling themselves, “chef.”
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