It has sometimes bothered me that I have often been grouped and categorized as a cook. There are, of course, many reasons why I fit all too well into that term. I cook professionally. I like food with a professional and occasionally artistic affection. I use more than my share of profanity. I’m strangely comfortable with and bizarrely interested in cuts, burns, bruises and other kitchen-related battle scars. I’m rarely picky about what I eat, but usually particular about the ingredients I use to make my own food.
On the other hand I don’t like being filed as “cook” when people refer to the ambitionless burnouts that polka dot late-night streets, alleys, bars and venues coasting aimlessly from one job, drinking binge, acid trip or whore house to another. I’ve said many times that cooks can be some pretty dingy characters. Sometimes you can smell them coming before you see them. Seriously, use a condom. Wash immediately.
These bottom-feeders give decent guys like my upstanding self a bad name. When people I meet find out how much I sleep, how much sun exposure I receive and how little I imbibe they always say the same thing: A sincerely baffled,“But… you said you’re a cook.“ I’ve even had people introduce me with something along the lines of, “Oh he works at INSERT CURRENT JOB HERE but he doesn’t, ya know, do like, the cook thing.“
It was actually a breaking point of one would-be relationship when a girl I was dating told me, “I told my mom about you. I told her you were a cook, but, ya know, you wanna do other things, too.“ Thanks, sweetheart. By the way, we need to talk.
It is a consolation, though, that there are simply different types of cooks. As with any job, wayfaring journeyman find themselves cooking for different reasons. Some for the lessons; others for the loot. I’ve managed to bring them to four main types that suit my purposes. Here for you are different types of cooks.
The Bum is at the absolute bottom of the chain. He best represents the shameless bottom-feeder to which I’ve referred. The best way to sum up the Bums are that they’re only there for the paycheck. The don’t take themselves seriously or take ownership or pride in what they do. They don’t cook on their day off or care to learn about the tasks on which they find their hands landing. Seeing the state (or lack) of cleanliness of their work areas would not compel one to want to see their personal dwellings.
An old boss once told me about his kitchen being particularly brutalized one New Year’s Eve partly due to one cook working as if he were half asleep. Nicely enough, the boss asked the guy to get it in gear to make a difference. The slob’s lackadaisical reply was, “I keep it in first gear ‘till I get paid.” This is totally backwards to me. You gear up so you can be paid more. Sulking and skulking haphazardly around a fast-paced battle arena doesn’t exactly mark you as a hero or upper management material. A snail trail of lethargy, grease stains and smeared tomato sauce mark you as first cut when business slows down. This type of sob story is usually centered around one entitled enough to demand raises just because they feel they deserve one. No evidence could support said claim.
Deadbeats, Street Rats, Hood Rats, Army Cooks, Slop House Cooks, Lunch Ladies (male or female) are all insults commonly used to describe the Bums. The decent cooks usually end up having to save these pieces of work from busy nights and real cooking, and it only pisses them off. You may not know you’re a Bum if the lazy entitlement has rendered you believing otherwise, but everyone else in your kitchen will know it. The kitchen is the military and the weak only hinder the strong.
Let me first mention that I am taking this phrase directly from Anthony Bourdain’s texts and it is not my own. It his, however, perfectly accurate so my intention is to pay homage, not to steal of course. That being said the Mercenaries are the next step up on the ladder, but are still a far cry from the Bums. Their main (and hopefully only) similarity to the Bums is that they also have their eyes set on the paycheck. The key difference being that the Mercenaries are smart enough to know that doing a job well yields greater rewards, and that a reputation can be the single most powerful weapon in your arsenal, or the worst roadblock in your way.
Mercenary cooks are methodical badasses. They have perfected their ways and have a furiously stubborn rigidity for patterns and repetition. They enjoy a peculiar dharma in doing the same tasks hundreds of times so they can figure out their perfect way to do it. Thorough and meticulous, their modus operandi is efficiency. They think with longevity and prioritize tasks not by today, but by what will be going on for the next several days. If a sauce for their station will last for five days, they’re making exactly five days worth of it so they have more time to do other things the whole week. Mercenaries are there to get the job done, minimizing wasted product, wasted steps, wasted time and wasted ego. They take less pride in their over-the-top presentations and more pride in the cleanliness of their stations, the volume they can produce and their methods of execution.
Many chefs love employing Mercenary cooks because they’re consistent and dependable. They deeply value what it means to be on time, to never call in sick, to offer to stay late and to be generally reliable. They often have a better idea of who has accumulated how many hours than the chef does. Also important is that they tend to get along with one another quite well; a key factor where temperatures and tempers flare and every hothead around is within arm’s reach of blades, heavy metal and fire. Mercenaries usually could care less if their co-pirates are male/female, gay/straight, foreign/domestic, old/young, pretty/ugly, experienced/inexperienced and so on. They care about work ethic. As long as their comrades can hold down their end of things with sincere effort and humility, all is well.
However, therein lies a problem. Mercs are hard to keep happy. They notice, with surgical priority, who is slacking off and when and how. They want the weak weeded out, and tend to steer clear of compromise. They also have no qualms about abandoning ship and the earliest signs of a better offer. Their main priority is their own livelihood. One minute a chef has a perfectly balanced and self-sufficient schedule – no easy task- and the next, his key player is offered a couple more dollars an hour and will be gone before the month is out. The holiday season is fast approaching and now he’s losing profit paying all is other guys overtime to fill in the gaps! Never trust a Merc.
Similar to the Mercenary but not quite as practical is the Artist. The Artists make up the culinary think tank that keep innovative and trend-setting dishes flying out of double-doors and onto magazine covers worldwide. They are tinkerers, innovators, experimenters and occasionally stark raving mad scientists; much like the pastry chefs for whom I have such conflicted adoration.
Artists have a similar pride to the Mercenaries’ but with a less time-sensitive agenda. My old roommate was a prime example. He told me one evening he was cooking nachos and asked if I’d like some. I was as any God-fearing white American would be: Thrilled! But I didn’t realized that when he said “nachos“ he meant authentic, delicious, real deal, gimme-at-least-an-hour nachos. He cooked and mashed black beans, cut and toasted tortillas for chips, diced tomatoes and onions for his own salsa etc. I was surprised he didn’t culture the cheese himself. Don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic, but sometimes such a thing isn’t worth the wait. Such a time would be when you’re already four tables behind and your chef is screaming at you.
Artists aren’t too terrible about this, but their main dilemma is being hindered in their creativity. The mechanical repetition of a line cook position can be disheartening to an Artist, especially a bright-eyed culinary school graduate who thinks every creature spawned from his or her intellect will end up on the menu. I’ve said it before: the Food Network lies.
The way to keep an Artist happy is by letting him come up with an occasional special. Maintain some creative outlet. It is always rewarding to have your input valued, and your advice put into action. The truth is, however, the best place for an Artist is to be the Chef. It’s really not a cook’s job to be a mastermind or a prodigy. Chef comes up with the items. Chef tastefully recycles old product into specials. Chef is sought out when no one else can expertly navigate around food allergies and dietary restrictions. I love a good, artistic Chef. It is a position that epitomizes Napoleon’s meritocracy. Sorry, young culinary graduate. You may have a good idea or two, but you either have no real clue what you’re talking about, or simply haven’t earned the gravity of real decision-making. Get back to us in ten or fifteen years.
I’ve worked with my share of Bums. They’re frustrating and disheartening, but they’re nothing – NOTHING- compared to this new breed of cook. Pictured here.
The Snobs are my mortal enemies; my polar opposites. Their views of cooking lie on the exact opposite end of the spectrum as mine. Mercenaries and Artists make up the brains and brawn of the skillet-slinging operation. Bums are made useful from time to time. I can’t conceptualize a place where a Snob really fits.
Snobs are Artists on the most cocaine-fueled ego trip imaginable. The world revolves around them, and no matter your experience or rank, they know more than you. Each dish is an entire history lesson with a Snob. One Snob with whom I worked was making a Chinese-inspired rice dish I hadn’t tried. All I asked was what he put in it. Almost thirty-five minutes later I had been given the entire history of the region from which the dish originated, the war that sparked its use, the cultural impact in other regions and the name, birth date and age of the inventor’s great grand niece. I do appreciate a historical anecdote, but after thirty-five minutes of wasted time on the clock he still hadn’t answered my question. Every dish is a food show and not only do I not have time, I really don’t care.
Snobs are bad for business. They waste time. They’re the ones who spend an unnecessary amount of time making sure that the six-inch tall, paper thin garnishes on their food are absolutely photo-worthy every time which, again, is nice, but not in the middle of the dinner rush when everyone else’s food is getting cold. They waste product. I have seen Snobs tear through expensive and rare ingredients because they feel so compelled to run an obscure and “rustic“ special on a slow Monday night. It doesn’t sell, and money goes down the drain. They have no regard for the business and the big picture.
My top issue with Snobs, other than their haughty egos, stylized facial hair and lack of hygiene, is that they’re not trustworthy. Their egocentric view makes them think that somehow they, above all others, have stumbled upon the one, true and perfect way to make hollandaise, to render stock or handle herbs. This means that they will do what they think is right behind the chef’s back. Treason, I tell you! In some cases, Snobs are responsible for you having to explain to your friend or date why the meal you’re eating at a given restaurant was totally different last time you went there.
Phrases to be expected of a Snob include but are not limited to:
“You want me to show you the right way to do that?”
“Who’s your favorite chef?”
“See, what I’ve done here is…”
“You call that a knife?”
“It’s not authentic, but whatever.”
The pace and outcome of the evening is entirely dependent on the moods of these culinary divas, and they are moody.
There are likely more facets to a cook’s drive and personality than what I’ve listed here. And it is very common for an individual to fall into more than one category depending on their position in life along their own personal journey. Each type of cook, and person for that matter, has a place regardless of whether or not I can imagine it. It’s sometimes easy for me to be bothered when people view me as a perma-fried, going-nowhere cook, but I remember that they have probably only met one or two types of cooks, and sometimes “Cook“ can be quite a compliment.