A question people sometimes ask each other that has always bothered me is, “So what do you do?” Like most conversations I’ve had with now ex-girlfriends, I know what they mean, but I’d rather them say it specifically. They mean to ask, “What do you do for work?” I hate this question because it’s a great way to let someone know you have no initial common ground with them and are trying to force an interaction. It’s a cop-out question and it just seems shallow. When someone asks me what I do, I feel that they’re grouping my entire identity into a chosen or circumstantial job.
“What do I do? Well, I hike, I walk my dog, I sleep, I do a lot of things, man.” But for those who do bridge the gap of difficultly navigated communication, clumsily formulated language, and my general smart-ass nature, the answer to the question is that I cook for a living.
One of the many things I find interesting about my line of work is the array of different responses I’m met with when I tell people I cook for a living. Naturally, you can tell a lot about a person by their initial reactions to given stimuli. Sometimes I receive a pretty monotone, “Oh, ok.” This reaction leads me to believe that this person either knows absolutely nothing about the industry, or simply doesn’t care. There’s nothing wrong with this; It just means we probably won’t spend our evening talking about work. Thank goodness. Other times I’m met with a reaction laced with pity. Something to the effect of, “Man, that sucks.” It often comes in the form of a monosyllabic grunt or expression of empathy; the kind of noise people give you when you tell them you’re hung over or your car didn’t start that morning. I can tell immediately this is someone who cooks, has cooked or dated a cook.
Another response is what I call The Fan-girl Reaction. Imagine, if you will, a first date. The conversation usually goes as follows:
“So, what do you do?”
(We’re already off to a great start…) “Oh, I cook.”
“::GASP:: You’re a Chef!?”
“Yeah, here, check out my paring knife, now will you please stab me with it?”
I can’t tell you what a turn-off this is. The rest of the evening involves her asking me an array of questions that leave me feeling kind of dirty like a celebrity that’s been passed around the industry like a joint at a Willie Nelson concert. I know this is no way to start a relationship. I want a girl to be attracted to the person I am before the novel perks of my job. Call me sappy, but… well, nevermind, you have me there.
If anything, I didn’t come out on a date wanting to talk about work all night, and I don’t like having the same conversation the I’ve had countless times before. I can tell you the questions she’ll ask me before she can. This archetype is the girl who has watched a lot of The Food Network, Food TV, etc. I’m usually not mean enough to explain to her that cooking as a job is not Hollywood. If I did, I’d end up yelling at the poor girl. I saw an episode of Kitchen Nightmares about a restaurant in the French Quarter not far from my house. Shortly after, I happened to meet the lady who put the whole thing together and we had a very revealing conversation about what that restaurant was really like as opposed to the Hollywood vomit you see on TV. Suffice to say, I can confidently tell you that anything Gordon Ramsay touches nowadays is grotesquely fake. As an old-school chef I worked for in Austin once ranted, “I hate the fucking Food Network. Any time some dipshit tells me they wanna cook for a living, I blame the Food Network. Any time someone with a box of Betty Crocker calls themselves a baker, I blame the Food Network. Any time a cook comes into my kitchen with fucking product in his hair, I blame the fucking Food Network!.” Needless to say, I loved that guy. And he was right. Hollywood, usually, is not what being a cook is really like at all. If you’re the average culinary artist/whore/both it’s not glamorous, it’s work. Hard work.
So what is it really like? There are many different types of cooks, cooking jobs and cooking positions, so the following is a very broad generalization. I’ll save specifics for another entry. I think it’s best to break what many industry folks refer to as, “The Life” down into a few categories:
THE LIFE AT WORK
It’s no big secret that the hours of this line of work can be pretty brutal. Shifts can run from a measly five hours to a grueling fourteen. I have heard numerous instances of chefs of varying ranks working ten to fourteen-hour days consecutively for ten days or longer. We rarely have of weekends or holidays free and are often the last to show up to many of our friend’s and family’s important events; If we even show up at all. This offers a “chicken or the egg” question: Is this environment responsible for the fact that we hate not working, standing still or being bored, or were we just always that sort of person; naturally attracted to that sort of work?
It’s hard to say, but the lifestyle certainly has its effects. Part of spending most of our waking hours around kitchen equipment is that we become culinary MacGyvers. There’s not much a regular cook can’t fix or rig up on the spot. So many cooks chose the Life as their second, or even third career (or just sort of ended up doing it somehow) and are experts in other fields. Broken oven? We don’t automatically call the contracted repair man. We call Arturo from the butcher shop whose dad was an electrician, or Alex, the grill guy, who used to be a mechanic. Some guys have just been around this stuff so long they learn how to maintain it, but if someone’s missing half of their ring and pinky fingers, it’s safe to assume they learned via trial and error.
THE LIFE AT HOME
Well after all the work absorption at least life at home isn’t too affected. Yeah right. Cooks can tell other cooks’ houses, apartments, couches or whatever dwelling of choice right off the bat. For one thing there’s almost never any sort of first-aid to be found. As Anthony Bourdain put it, “A good cook can work through pain and injury.” Cooks are used to bandaging up cuts and burns without ever really stopping their tasks. I’ve even heard of people cardorizing their open wounds on a flat-top griddle. My personal favorite remedy for the oh-too-common sliced open fingertip is to simply cover the immediate area with a bit of folded paper towel, and wrap excessively in masking tape. It’s tight, clean and resistant to bumps. I used to live with another cook, CJ, who burned himself while we had some friends over. He let out a nice, loud “Fuck A Duck! Motherfucker!”, shook it off and continued with the other hand. One of our friends tried to leap to the rescue. “Do you have some burn cream? Where are you band-aids? Are you ok???” He and I both stared at her cynically as if she just asked us who the current President was. It annoys us when the people who didn’t just injure themselves are going more psycho than the ones quietly writhing in pain.
Another dead giveaway that we’ve wandered into the house of another industry pirate is the utter, shameful emptiness of the refrigerator, if not the entire abode. It always seems to shock our friends that the fridge so often resembles a robbed tomb, but it only makes sense. Someone like my friend, Lil Chris (yes, that’s his name) works two jobs and is never home enough to bother with groceries or their preparation. His fridge usually contains only a case of Bud Lite, a half-eaten pack of hot dogs and a bottle of Siracha. He usually just eats at work. Someone like CJ, on the other hand, cooks at home all the time, but he only buys ingredients for what he’s making that night, so his fridge is just as desolate as Lil Chris’s.
What always surprises me is how shocked the rest of the world’s work force seems when they see a cook eat fast food. They’re appalled. “You EAT that!? I thought you knew better!” Or the utter disappointment they express when they see a cook making herself a microwavable burrito. “I expected you to go all-out. After all, you’re a chef!” Exactly, dumbass. I’m a chef. I’ve been cooking all goddamn day and I’m hungry. I don’t want to wait another hour and a half for potatoes au gratin, I want food in my face hole right now. Cooks like food. That’s why we do this for a living (some of us, anyway). We are not picky. Sure, I love anything with the description “confit” and I appreciate a good wine pairing, but my heart is closest to the simple comforts of a never-too-complicated peanut butter & jelly, or a bag of Oreos. Allow me to sum it up: We are simple creatures with knowledge of complicated things. And we love anything cooked by someone else.
Sometimes cooks have a bad reputation for having dingy dwellings. There’s no wall art, the living room feels like a frat house and the yard looks like the backdrop of I Am Legend. It’s a cave, really. This doesn’t necessarily mean this person is unclean, a poor decorator or broke. In all actuality they might not have nice decorations, fancy plate-ware or the internet, simply because they’re not home enough to enjoy them. I’ve personally seen paintings that my friends “just never got around to hanging” or software they “just never got around to installing.” Then again this is also the explanation for an immaculately clean house.
THE LIFE ABROAD
Another phrase I’ve heard repeated in response to telling people I cook is, “Hmm… I don’t know many chefs.” Well, we don’t know you either. While you’re out and about enjoying sunny afternoons, Saturday festivals and Sunday brunches, we’re asleep or at work. Or cooking your brunch. I recently manage to track down and tame the elusive 8:00AM to 4:00PM schedule and have been operating under more typical hours. The first thing I noticed was that the city’s population seemed to triple. I was no longer a cook in hiding. New Orleans and Austin are both food cities with a very prominent industry presence. In both cities I notice this sort-of cockroach phenomenon at 2:00pm and 2:00am every day, where suddenly all of the downtown area would be flooded with chef clogs, checkered pants, greasy t-shirts and knife rolls only to disperse just as quickly. Those are the times when shifts begin and end. Look for us. We’re sneaky but we’re there, walking among you.
If and when we do manage to spend our free time around town participating in the economy, catching up with friends, spending time with significant others and being blinded by sunlight, the life tends to be pretty good. Cooks are pretty handy people to have around. There are perks galore and we share those perks when we can. We usually have a discount where we work that often applies to small groups and not just us, and a lot of cooks are allowed a shift drink. Plus, the culinary world is a small one. Names and faces find their way around pretty quickly. While this can be dangerous if you’re not careful of how you run your mouth, it can come in quite handy when you need a favor. I collect compost from my current restaurant for my friend’s neighborhood garden. The owner of a market where I worked in Shreveport butcher’s his friends’ deer during hunting season. Lil Chris managed to have his roommate’s chef spend hours smoking our turkey for Thanksgiving a few years ago. We picked it up in the restaurant’s downtown alley like we were disposing of a dead body for the guy; black trash bag, car trunk, the works.
The hours I described can be brutal, but they also have their perks. We do manage to sneak in errands and leisure activity occasionally and it’s when everyone else is at work or asleep. Hence, we never have to wait in line at the check-out counter, never have a hard time finding parking and never deal with traffic. We can always find the perfect seat in the theater, can always get a reservation and can always make easy doctor/dentist appointments. We can also point out every late-night or 24-hour business in town. We’re also human calculators and calendars. Changing recipes all the time and writing production labels every day makes us whizzes with fractions and keeps a constant monthly mental image in our heads.
My personal favorite perk of The Life is its finer side. Working around high-end food gives one good tastes and the luxury and environment to hone them. It’s a fascinatingly particular set of circumstances that creates a life where overworked, underpaid people who can’t afford cable tv can enjoy some of life’s luxuries. Some nicer than the wealthy have the chance or inclination to sample. In Baton Rouge I was given a $700.00 tin of caviar that my manager had lying around after a banquet. The same night we sampled a tripple-digit bottle of champagne. We refine our tastes as a side effect of clocking in. We work hard and play hard. Many cooks are delighted at the chance to share the knowledge of finer tastes and flavors and spend much of their paycheck treating friends out to dinner. Their hangover meals can consist of food other people save for anniversaries. It’s the perfect example of how true culinary artists don’t look at money the way suit & tie types do. For them money is a means through which to live the life they deem ideal; be it by setting up a trust fund for their children, taking that trip to India or recording their band’s music. They don’t accumulate money for money’s sake.
Cooks are pirates; grungy, foul-mouthed degenerates. But pirates also travel the world, sample its delights one way or another and have many a story to tell. Cooking is a form of artistic expression and the life of a chef is the life of an artist.