Saturday, March 28, 2009

Meeting Chefs

(For those who may not know, NSFW is a common internet acronym meaning "Not Safe For Work." In other words, if your child or mother-in-law is in the room, you might not want to follow the one link below labeled as such.)

Aaargh! The alarm went off at "six-something" this morning. On a Saturday. A cold, wet, dark Saturday. I had been sleeping so peacefully, snuggled up under the down comforter, probably dreaming of goofing off at work or something.

But it's market day. The Matthews local market only happens every other week in winter, and it's Miss Chef's best chance to meet the farmers she's started to develop relationships with. And she needed to talk to some farmers.

So, why didn't I just say, "Have fun, honey," roll over and start snoring again? Well, to be honest, I've been kind of holding out on you. Miss Chef and I are in the planning stages of starting up a market-related business of our own. I'm not going to tell you what it is until/unless we get a little further in our planning, and I also get Miss Chef's permission. Who knows, it may end up being a pipe dream, but for the moment it's kind of exciting!

Suffice it to say, I really needed to go and start to know the farmers, too. Not that I haven't met them a number of times, but most of them don't recognize me without Miss Chef. So I let her pester me out of bed and out the door--slowly, but we did leave only 10 minutes after she'd hoped. And, in spite of our fifth straight day of gloom and rain, the market was busy! We did our networking, bought a few things--spinach, goat cheese, breakfast (mmm...pound cake!)--and chatted with lots of people.

While we were talking to Michele, of Bosky Acres and goat-cheese caramel fame, she introduced us to a customer, explaining that Miss Chef works in the restaurant across the street. She seemed politely interested until she heard the word "sous-chef," then suddenly her hand was pointed at Miss Chef's chest, as she said, "Hi, I'm Lauren." Um, ok. Nice to meet you? It was kind of weird, but whatever; for the same kind of reason, Miss Chef no longer wears her jacket into a grocery store. She'd really rather just get her cheese and get out.

Of course, she's not the only kitchen professional who frequents the market incognito. Today, as usual, we saw Miss Chef's Chef, who looked more awake than I felt, unlike the last market. Keep in mind, however, that he showed up more than an hour after we did, and he only lives 10 minutes away. I also spotted another guy striding across the market with a huge plastic bag of greens--between the way he was walking and the outsize portions of food, I had to ask Miss Chef, "Do you know who that is?" She did.

Later, we spotted one of Miss Chef's former instructors from the Art Institute where she got her culinary degree. Chef Bonaparte (that's his real name, but no, he's not French) was actually the Director of the culinary program, but has since moved up into a more national administrative position. He's a great teacher, very passionate about food, and a fun, interesting guy. On the other hand, he is surprisingly shy. When doing a demo at the market, he's quite happy to be in front of an audience--but there, he's in his chef whites behind a table, cutting, sautéing or mixing. Put him in jeans and a t-shirt, out in the open, and he's got a kind of "aw shucks" way of fidgeting about, as if trying to avoid your gaze.

On the way home, I started to think about how lucky I am to have been able to get to know several chefs through my own Miss Chef. And, beyond their "chefiness," how much I genuinely like them. Granted, Miss Chef's not going to hang around with asshole chefs long enough for me to get to know them, but I've met all her instructors at the school, as well as most of her past and present bosses.

I like the guys--and gals--I've gotten to know because they're dynamic, passionate and fun, with just a dash of "what the fuck" thrown in. We're a long way from Anthony Bourdain (NSFW), but they all seem to be rule-breakers; slight social misfits who don't want to deal with office politics, dressing in creased slacks, or answering to a boss. True chefs, the ones worthy of the title, are also educated--not necessarily formally, but they are interested in learning almost anything. They are curious, fascinated by what they don't know, and often have interesting backgrounds. In short, I really enjoy getting to know them, and love to spend time with them in a social setting.

For the most part, chefs are normal folks--married, loving parents, sometimes shy, sometimes not; short, tall, fat or thin; some wear chef jackets well, some would rather be in jeans and a t-shirt. Some have naturally dynamic personalities; others save that energy for the kitchen, or their close friends and family.

But start talking food, and you can see a transformation come over many of them. Miss Chef's a perfect example. She's normally shy and very quiet, not wanting to get in anyone's way in a crowd or draw attention to herself. But get her started talking about the incredible she-crab soup she made, or the prank she pulled on the pantry cook, and her eyes literally light up, as she becomes suddenly confident and animated. Put an apron on her, hand her a knife, and she can be loud, aggressive and even vulgar, should the occasion warrant it. Her own mother wouldn't recognize her.

However, as a person, she is far from being a "rock star," as she teases her Chef when he's acting particularly cocky. As I thought today about how much I like the chefs I know, I hearkened back to my "outsider" views of them in my single, Food Network watching days. I still thought they were cool, but my perception was very, very different. Chefs were magical, dynamic; like shooting stars that would sprinkle you with glittering stardust if you stood in their presence. They were superhuman, with knowledge of every kind of food and how to use it. Give them the scraps out of the bottom of your vegetable crisper, and they could come up with a four-course gourmet meal to feed eight people. They could make your kids like spinach, and make you like raw whale intestines rolled in organic gravel.

They were gods; rock stars; immortal.

But I've watched Miss Chef get her superhuman knowledge, the hard, slow way. I've heard experienced chefs say "I have no idea how to..." I've listened to stories of learning on the fly with unfamiliar ingredients, failed dishes covered with sauce or frosting, poorly-done entrées sent out with fingers crossed. I've seen them exhausted and bedraggled, with dark circles under their eyes, practically staggering around, after two or three days of long, demanding shifts; easing back into a chair after service and shutting their eyes, wishing the kitchen would clean itself.

These chefs are just humans, trying to keep abreast of the competition, juggle family and work, and figure out a secure end to a physically demanding career. They don't necessarily want to hear how amazing they are--not that they mind!--they want to hear what you loved about their food. They want to hear that you're coming back to eat there again. That you appreciate the new dish they're trying out. And that you'd like to offer them a consulting position when their knees give out at 40.

I mentioned to Miss Chef how my perceptions have changed since I've actually gotten to know some professional chefs, and she knew what I meant. Like Lauren, who introduced herself at the farmers' market. As Miss Chef said, "I was like, 'Ok, I have no idea who you are,' but she was probably thinking 'Wow, I met a chef!'" Yeah, sure; a chef who burned all the salmon for a big wedding last week, and gets all whiny when it's cold in the house. Believe me; she puts those black baggy pants on one leg at a time.

So if you ever get to meet Miss Chef, or one of her colleagues, don't worry about letting them know how much you admire them, or couldn't cook your way out of a box. Chefs aren't about themselves; they're about the food. Try telling them about a cool or unusual restaurant you've eaten in, or a strange dish you've had. They may well start asking you questions. Chefs are really just food-lovers at heart, like you and me. They just happen to be much more obsessive about their food. And have the scars to prove it.


  1. What a lovely homage to chefs, but mostly Miss Chef. I attended culinary school when I briefly went insane and thought I want a Pastry Arts degree. What I discovered is I don't want to work that hard.

  2. Anyone brave and ambitious enough to start their own business has my undying respect! I'm so proud of you. And if it turns out to be just a pipe dream, so? You can make it happen! And there will be no better or more rewarding accomplishment than collaborating with the person you love most to advance your lives, interests, and careers. Can't wait to hear more about your project, but now I have to go back and re-read your post because I went through it too fast.

    Love to you and MC!

  3. I am keeping my fingers crossed that whatever this dream is, that it works out. I know you both have the determination and motivation to make it work! Can't wait to hear about it.

    What a nice and well written post about chefs and Miss Chef. I loved it and am I the only one that thought the Anthony Bourdain picture was hilarious? :)

  4. I was wondering if you were referring to the Greensboro market downtown? I've not been there but heard it is wonderful. I fella that I know, sells his birdhouses there. I sooo wish you would start a market like that up here in Boone.

    I want to be able to try different foods on the streets and yet nothing like that is allowed here, too many State regulations maybe?

    I think I've read all of Bourdain's books, so fascinating.


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