It's impossible to find good cooks nowadays. I'm not kidding. In fact, even some of the best restaurants in the world—who have a waiting lists of cooks trying to get in—are feeling it: They have a seemingly endless supply of cooks, but finding good ones is another matter. There are a lot of young cooks out there who are not willing to put in the effort or the hours. You'll see a young man who's been cooking for a year at a somewhat known restaurant for a year, and now he's a sous chef at a new, hip restaurant opening in the trendy district in your city. And they want to be a chef because it's the new, "cool" occupation for punks, metal heads, and tattoo-covered hipsters: there's little or no schooling involved if you choose otherwise, kitchens are always hiring, and there's a new culture being bred with the mentality of "Hey, who cares? It's just food." You can also, apparently, become a chef now within a few months. All you need is a little passion, Internet access, the noma cookbook, the EMP cookbook, maybe the Faviken book, and a couple of months to practice and study. The result? They're entitled, elitist, and can't cook for shit.
I got my first restaurant job on my 15th birthday at a place called Trattoria Rivazza in Savannah, Georgia. It's a place that nobody has heard of. I worked there for a year, and then I left to follow the chef who I consider to be my first mentor and who had just moved to work at a fine dining restaurant down the street. At the time, it was considered one of the best restaurants in Savannah—which doesn't mean much—but it was still a great introduction to that world. At that restaurant, I got beat up a lot in the kitchen sense. They picked on me and whipped me with towels that they first dipped in the deep fryer so it would burn me, as well as leave a welt. Even though I don't agree with that type of training—I certainly don't employ it at my restaurant with any of my cooks—there is a purpose there. Call it militaristic, but it is the exercise of building a thick skin. It's important to put yourself through these really physical and emotional ordeals and traumas so that later in your life as a chef, you are prepared for anything. Nothing scares you.
I don't know any young cooks who have been on magazine covers, but I suppose it makes for interesting press articles. It's like they're trying to dabble in calculus or trigonometry when they haven't learned basic multiplication tables or division yet. If every new cook follows this path, what's going to happen to the food industry in the future? That being said, I think it's really great to see young kids taking an interest in food and cooking. The fact that they're on TV is kind of silly—they should be in kitchens, not in front of cameras if they're curious about cooking. Unless, of course, their goal is to become a TV chef, in which case more power to them. Though that's not really being a chef. The word "chef," by the way, is French for "chief," meaning a leader or person in charge. It's a misused term these days. We are all cooks, every one of us. At some point we become a 'chef' when we are in control. And if you really want to be a chef, I believe you need to spend a long time working in kitchens before you can even begin to think about getting your own place, at least ten or twelve years—or more. Consider how long it takes to become a true sushi master. Some apprentice for 20 years or more! You likely won't even touch a piece of fish for the first five years. But this is becoming less and less common: Cooks are immediately trying to skip all of the proper training and move straight to the top. And you know what? It's working.
The fact that everything is accessible all the time with social media nowadays, you can quit your day job and become a chef in a month or two if you really wanted to. But what does that mean for the rest of us, who actually spent a lot of time and hard work, and actually honed our skills in kitchens? Did we waste our time? Most people don't give a shit. If you put together a dish that—to them—looks or sounds really intriguing (even if you directly ripped it off some book) and it's not a very good interpretation, it doesn't really matter because those people don't know what the original version is anyway. It becomes very tricky, and I think it's important that these young cooks understand that. Look at Wolfgang Puck, the original and most recognizable celebrity chef in history. He's been cooking and working his entire life as a chef—it was only until he was older that he became the name he is today. And you know what? I can assure you that at the drop of a hat, he can throw down and out-cook most of us.
Being a chef is not an easy life…You have to really want it.
When I was a pre-teen and getting into food back in the 90s, we didn't really have Internet. AOL dial-up was just coming out. I didn't have access to any of the things that young chefs have access to today: I didn't know what restaurants existed in the world, I didn't know how to look up ingredients, and there were no resources other than encyclopedias and a very limited supply of cookbooks. I read my first cookbook, The French Laundry Cookbook, 1,000 times. I memorized all of the recipes. In fact, I would get into trouble in school because I wasn't paying attention to the lesson; I was learning about how to make bearnaise. I didn't even know what most of the ingredients were. I had never seen or heard of savoy cabbage, foie gras, or sweetbreads before, but I could tell you how to process them.
There's this term—creativity—that gets used a lot to describe young chefs these days. My mentor, Thomas Keller, will tell you that there is little to no creativity in cooking. It's a very dangerous word that is abused often and gives people a false sense of legitimacy. When I was a kid reading the TFL cookbook, I started writing up mock menus for fun because I was interested. Sometimes I would look at the photograph of a dish and I didn't really know what I was looking at or what it was made out of, so I started thinking about what made sense to me: I want to replicate that visually, so how do I do it? Copying something in the way that it exists or with a slight adjustment is not creativity: It''s copying. And while we all have copied other great chefs at some point, we knew that's what it was and we knew we weren't being creative. Looking back, I was coming up with very weird dishes; you might look at them now and consider them modern, but this was 15 years ago and I didn't know shit about anything. It was just all made up. I think I had a dish of pigeon liver mousse, apricot sorbet, and lavender caramel, which sounded cool to me, but really I had no idea what I was doing.
Your taste changes dramatically. Not just in likes and dislikes, but in perception. The best way to really explain it is kind of like becoming a sommelier. The first time somebody tastes wine, they have no idea what they're tasting: They either know if they like it or they don't, or maybe not even that. You have to focus if you want to be a sommelier, so you have to start focusing on your palate: You have to create a mental library of taste, how they pertain to you, how you can describe them to yourself, and how you can remember them. Being a chef is the same; your senses grow with you and you become more in tune with them, to the point where if I taste something now, I can absolutely analyze it really, really well. I can explain what's in it, what's missing, and what's too much, whereas before, you're kind of clueless as to where to start.
Being a chef is not an easy life. You lose friends, ruin relationships, and become difficult to deal with in certain settings; some people break down because of the stress. You have to really want it. Because if you want to be a chef—only mentally because it's cool and it's something interesting or whatever, but not because you really feel it in your bones yet—it's a really, really tough life decision and a physically and mentally grueling job. To spend all this time and effort, and then decide a few years later that it's not for you is a giant waste of time. Plus, you don't make very much money. Unless you're going to completely immerse yourself, I would say steer clear. You can just keep watching Top Chef.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in May, 2014. As told to Kirsten Stamn.