Friday, June 26, 2009

"Why don't you cook for a living???"

Invariably, I get asked this question by a lot of my friends and family. It's a completely understandable question to ask. In our modern age when being a cook is less about being the humble abode for rejects and society's dregs and more about some weird pseudo-art pseudo-celebrity thing that I don't quite understand, people generally see becoming a cook for a living as being a good pursuit to have. Fair to say, I'm sure it's great for people who choose it, but I never will.

This is the part where you're probably asking "why?" so here's the why:

Cooking is art. I'm standing behind that completely. Not in some snobby, exclusive haute cuisine way necessarily, but in a way where somebody makes an expression of themselves, whether it's their own history and roots, their own beliefs and ideals, and the broad canvas of imagination, and then sacrifice it on an altar that is somebody else's plate, vulnerable to praise and critique, or even indifference. It's the only art form that stimulates all five of your senses, and it's artwork that is fleeting, sometimes only able to exist in it's perfect state for minutes, maybe even seconds. Because it draws so heavily on creativity, it taps the muse, and it takes a lot of inspiration to continue to make something that you take enough pride in to present to another person.

With that said, cooking is also a service job. In a comical paradox you're taking something that is such an intimate medium of expression and also asking it to be a means of grinding out sustenance to whoever comes through your door and puts down folding cash. While I think there's some degree of give and take that must exist in any place that makes a living out of cooking, I don't think either side can adequately be satisfied. You truly can't serve two masters.

If somebody comes to a museum to see a painting, they're all viewing the same painting. If somebody comes into a restaurant and points to the same thing on the menu, they each get technically the same meal, just made dozens of times over, one of which just happens to get served to them. That's when people get all Catherine de Medici and start treating their cooks like a harried artisan.

Look, I've got no problem with respecting your weird food preferences if I like you. I've got lots of friends and family who all have some silly quirks about how they eat their food. Food is an expression of love, so why not pan fry plain pork tenderloin, or make those pancakes with peanut butter if I enjoy your company? I may not eat that crap, but maybe my wife does, or my dad, or my best friend. Come to my house and I'll feed you. I would hope that you'd take my roasted spanish pimiento hommous before eating a crustless PB&J, but if you're good people, you're good people.

It's when we're talking about a professional environment that I bristle. I don't know these people, I don't have any experience with them. I'm making items on a menu not to individual expressions of affection, but purely as an aesthetic representation of my own creativity. In that regard, it is caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. If you're not not noshing at McDonalds or Applebees, or as Anthony Bourdain lovingly calls the collective mass of soulless slop-slingers "TGIMcFunster's", you know that you're going to eat something that isn't just portions of salt, fat, and sugar with other ingredients*.

So when I hear of people going to a decent restaurant, ordering something, then sending it back because "the vegetables are touching" or "I don't want any sauce on my mass of carbohydrates" or "I'm not a celiac but I'd better not have one molecule of wheat gluten in anything because Oprah told me that avoiding gluten would align my chakra points and I'd become a Super Saiyan" it makes me want to slap them in the face. It doesn't even have to be food that I made. If I hear somebody I'm with, or adjacent to doing this, it makes me furious. I may not say anything in public due to decorum, but you'd better believe that my inner monologue is calling you a jackass as hard as it possibly can.

You've got a menu in your hand. It says what the dish is. It says what's in the dish. If you read-ey no english-ey, maybe you speak-ey it, and your very knowledgable waiter can answer questions. "What is sous vide?" "Is Steak Tartare really raw hamburger meat??" "I'm allergic to rabbit turds, will this kill me?" Unless you're a cheap bastard you are tipping your wait staff, so here's a great way to let them earn their money. ASK QUESTIONS if you're such a picky ninny. If you don't like the answers? Eat somewhere else. You're not going to be happy if you do, and the cook won't be able to make something to at his or her best.

How could I expect to cook food that I can pridefully stand behind as a professional and yet suffer these indignations? Quite frankly, I can't, and I won't. That's precisely why I will never subject myself to playing that game. The only way I'd ever open a proprietorship to cook in is if I won the lottery and could afford to run a business that lost money hand over fist, just because it gave me an outlet to cook for fun. In that case, I'd hang a large banner inside in plain sight of the clientele:

"If our food does not meet with your discerning tastes, your own damn kitchen is thataway!"


Angela Dossey Garner said...

Okay, so, I love to write. I mean, LOVE it. And I feel like I'm pretty decent at it (so I've been told, I'm just saying!). People ask me a lot why I don't do that for a living. You know, something in journalism or public relations-ish. I always tell them that if I did it for a living, I wouldn't love it anymore. Not doing it for someone else means I get to do it how I want. No editors, no "crazy customers" telling me my writing needs more salt (if you will).

All that to say, I completely understand what you mean. Nice post. =)

Chuck said...

Exactly :) It's sort of like to get money for doing it, you have to sell off some of your creative freedom. Different passions, but exact same stuff!

Glad we both came to the consensus :)

deedles said...

AKA...."prostitution"?? Most everyone has a hobby. Cooking is yours, but you should get back to your writing. 2-3 novels are still in the works, right? :)