As a chef, the most common phrase I hear is, “Oh you must eat so good, I’d love to live in your home.” And the most common question I receive is, “What’s your favorite thing to eat/cook for yourself?”
There is a romanticized idea that exists that since I work in a kitchen my home must be filled with a great number of phenomenal ingredients from far off places as distant as the Orient, the South of France, the Ivory Coast, the Foothills of the Himalayas, and the churning volcanoes of the Hawaiian Islands.
When people envision me in my home kitchen they assume that there is always a steaming kettle on the boil of a beautiful gas range, most likely custom made. Strands of clove garlic hang from the ceilings alongside dried pepper shells, broken necked ducks, whole hind quarters of wild boar, and smoking racks filled with salmon and pork ribs.
In their mind’s eye, I am always dressed in cleanly pressed chef whites and the hounds tooth pants common of my profession; sweat beads on my forehead as I laboriously and cautiously drip a single drop of a reduction into a pan and then maniacally toss the pan to coat the ingredients.
Some see the finished results differently. Most see me slaving away for 8 to 10 hours and coming away at the finish with a single plate, each leaf and grain upon it strategically placed to hold the dish in total cohesion. The meat is beautifully caramelized; the potatoes are dripping butter and steaming softly as the plate goes to the table. A rich dark sauce covers the base of the plate and a light vinaigrette tops it. The whole thing is finished with a gentle dusting of herbs and foreign salts and is eaten slowly and reverently over a time spent thoughtfully reflecting the day.
In some cases, they imagine I go from start to finish in under two minutes producing seven courses, each with a dozen ingredients, and then I sit and delicately sample each bite; savoring the robust and unctuous flavor as my eyes roll back in my head and I swallow each spoonful.
The truth is, I hate the word unctuous. I don’t have time to put this labor into my own home kitchen. I rarely caramelize anything after shift. I don’t have tinctures and vials of sauces and flavors stashed anywhere. And I usually know my dinner is ready when an oven timer buzzes.
As for ingredients; my refrigerator currently houses a bottle of ketchup and mustard, the date of origin I have no idea about. There are several bottles of water, none of which are mine. A half an onion, probably as old as the mustard. Two dozen eggs. One pound of butter. A jar of pickled vegetables, though I cannot attest to the fact they were pickled when they went in there. And a bottle of hot sauce, which I just added in to fill out the shelf since hot sauce rarely, if ever, needs to be refrigerated.
I commonly eat a cold cut sandwich when I finish my day accompanied by a double dose of the recommended daily serving of chips, potato or tortilla, depending on how service went. I have frozen pizzas in my freezer, there are corn dogs there as well, and trout that was given to me by someone who went on a fishing trip and had more than they could consume.
Many of you reading this are shaking your head in disbelief. Surely this isn’t possible. You are a chef! You must cook amazing food all the time. You must constantly be at your craft. You should not, nay WOULD not, do this to yourself knowing the importance of where food comes from, how it is prepared, and the proper way to serve it. You are almost entirely correct. I know the importance of where food comes from intimately. I know the proper way it is to be prepared from years of study under a great variety of teachers. I know how it should be served from the standpoint of how to make food presentable, beautiful, and deliciously edible. But all of this, I do for you, dear friends. I spend at least twelve hours a day in the kitchen at work. I fastidiously prepare and create dishes for the night’s service. I make sure the flavors are right, the visual aspect is there, and the technique is executed as it should be. My job is to feed you, the public. My job is to make sure you eat joyously and that you love the word unctuous. It is my chosen path in life to give you the best meal, the best dining experience that you can have when you leave your door and choose to come to my restaurant.
In doing this, my day is consumed with making sure the cooking is done as it should be done within the confines of the restaurant. This allows me precious little time to do the same for myself. And I like it that way. I’m here to serve. And when I return home after a long day below stairs, I am content to eat what is readily available and do so reverently. Mentally, I’m going over every dish that left the kitchen and thinking to myself what details can be improved upon or what dishes can be replaced. I’m considering new menu ideas, new dessert additions, planning out tomorrow’s prep. I’m thinking about orders to be placed, schedules to be juggled, and the next gardening season. My head is rarely on my own plate, because it never left yours.
When you ask most chefs what their private indulgence is, or their dirty little kitchen secret may be, most will tell you…frozen pizza. You’ll hear a smattering of TV Dinners, the occasional chicken strip, and commonly the name of a beloved fast food establishment. “Why?”, you may be asking yourself. “Fast food! Isn’t that the antithesis of everything you create?” Well, yes it is, and it’s also the only thing open at midnight.
The bottom line is, when the chips are down, when the day requires we rise with the sun and go to bed shortly before it rises again, when the fires burn hot and the grease sizzles and pops, we’re going to be there. And we’re going to be there for you. We make the best food we can, the best food we know how, every day. We do this because we are happy to serve you our labor of love. We want you to enjoy each bite and savor the flavor. That image you have of us in our home kitchen, that’s what we look like in the restaurant kitchen. We do that for you, because we respect you, we honor you, and we care about the dinner you consume. Yes it requires a great deal of us, and yes, it leaves us filled with adrenaline at the end of a long busy night, the desire to eat non-existent as we slowly come down from a day of working away on the line. When we’re hungry, you’ve probably been asleep for a good four hours or more. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. So when you leave the restaurant and you call out, “Chef, enjoy your dinner.” Know that we will. Whether it was removed from cardboard, or resembles the texture therein, we will. Because our meal was serving you your meal. And nothing is more filling than your savoring each bite, eyes rolling back in your head, and hearing you groan in delight at the thought of the next spoonful to come.