What follows is an edited chatline from October 19th’s Kitchen Table on the reality behind choosing a career in the professional kitchen. If cheffing needs to be more than cooking, how can chefs have an impact by becoming more responsible to people and the planet? Host Harold McGee was joined at the table by chef and author Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis (London), restaurateur Billy Wagner of Nobelhart & Schmutzig (Berlin) and OFS’ Young Chefs Nia Minard, Cordula Peters, Caitriona Nic Philibin and Gaurish Shyam. We don’t record these informal discussions so that participants can speak freely, although anyone present can record the chatline.
…for Caitriona “I still love the physical side of professional cooking, but when I had a daughter, cooking in restaurants is not conducive to family life. Now I teach and I can still drop my child off at school.”
…for Nia: “For me cooking is about culture and identity. A ‘Pay What You Will’ restaurant was my most rewarding experience, with the same principle applied to paying the staff. It was great at first, then it turned into a soup kitchen and the point was lost.”
…for Gaurish: “The kitchen has been a safe and sacred place since I was a toddler. I attended culinary school, trained and worked all over but didn’t feel anywhere, the joy of cooking together with my mother.”
…for Cordula: “I grew up in Austria and every other Thursday there was a cooking show and I loved. The expectation was for me to go to university as my mother did. I went to art school and enjoyed it but, I really wanted to go to culinary school. I got stuck as academic, then I took a sabatical and cooked in a pub in London for a year. Then I went to Westminster college, left academia became a full time cook. For the moment, I love what I do but may still go back into academic work.”
…for Jeremy: “I did luck out as I got a chef’s hat as a result of somebody leaving when I was just out of school. Education is key to cooking: you always need to learn to progress. To sit down at a desk is almost anathema to somebody who wants to use their hands. I lucked out because I fell in with people like Alastair Little and we all devoured books. You have a duty of care to your chefs – you don’t know who you have in your kitchen, they just might be the next ground-breaker. Advice? Use names rather than the title “chef”. And say “please”. You are only as good as your suppliers and your team.”
…for Billy: “Nobelhart opened up in 2015. While we worked on our identity we needed to find good products and wondered what our staff thought. Our staff loved interacting with farmers, guests and getting an understanding of the region. In 2019 we implemented a 4-day working shift while staying open 5 days. After Covid, we decided we needed much more private life, which meant employing more labour. So we had to raise our prices in order to keep our standard and creativity without our staff being burnt out. Creating a better work environment means higher costs.”
THE AUDIENCE REPLIES:
Maybe there is a generational difference. Our Young Chefs bring up quality of life issues and having to give up opportunities to continue their education. Many of the brilliant cooks I worked with who went to Europe and worked with the best are all working in non-food related fields now. In the 1990/2000’s it wasn’t just about fair pay, it was about pay above the poverty line.
Surely we also need to pay farmers better – they should not be subsidizing us, and nor should restaurant workers. We have to change our expectation of what food should cost. [Which means] transparency about what the customer is paying for and explaining why it’s expensive. Customer-responsibility needs exploration.
Inexpensive chains using unskilled labour make expensive restaurant more rarefied, and fewer. If the restaurant is too expensive and closes – dilemma solved. Paying farmers the right price for food means chefs need to have the skills to use everything. Waste equals loss of profits.
Graduate school is much like stage-ing in a restaurant. You do all the grunt-work for practically no pay, but [theoretically] it’s gate-keeping, street-cred etc. Then you get to be a part-time worker at a ridiculous wage. And like restaurants, the prices [for training] keep rising because the business model of both is fundamentally flawed except for a few elite institutions.
Like all entertainments there are always both popular and elite forms, and there will always be indie artists challenging the elite. Often these have different business models, and some do succeed: for instance, Opera still exists, but only for a tiny segment of cognoscenti. Imagine if film became so expensive to make that it cost 100 dollars a ticket, the art form would shrink. High end restaurants are already heading in that direction.
We are a world that has forgotten how to enjoy the company of friends when we cook together. [It may be] that people not cooking at home anymore (despite fad-cooking) affects consumer attitudes toward restaurants and restaurant prices – not knowing food and food prices must figure a lot in not understanding restaurant food and labor costs.
Luxury is expensive. The question is what happens to artistic, rather than sustenance-based, endeavours that propose food as art. Maybe it’s a matter of rethinking how often we eat out.
The pandemic has caused many to leave professional kitchens, particularly women and people of colour. Nia points out the need for greater inclusivity and diversity in kitchens, and what is seen as good food, from regions that had heretofore not been seen as culinarily or gastronomically rich.
The restaurant customer needs to be informed and involved in the ethics of going to a resto which treats its staff badly. Exploring/studying something that we do every day means questioning our choices and values. It will be challenging for some to accept the concept that dining becomes an ethical choice. It has to be an active engagement of mind, body and gullet.
CONCLUSION: Plain and simple: we are destroying the planet with our eating habits. A lot of chefs took on the role of educating during the pandemic by teaching cooking on social media. Elementary and secondary culinary and sustainability education in public schools is essential.