KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Chefs as Writers: What Does It Mean To Be Both?
Bay Area Bites: culinary rants & raves from bay area foodies and professionals
Previous Posts
Celebrating Deliciousness
Top 10 Tastes of 2007: It was a very meaty year.
Shrimp to Die For
The Worm Turns: Absinthe Verte
Gravlax
Menu for Hope: Just 2 Days Left...
Dessert by the Book
2008 Dine About Town
Garden Grazing: Escargots
Jewish Delis: Eating at Schwartz's and Saul's
 
 
BAB Guidelines

'Bay Area Bites' is part of KQED's Blog Authors Collaborative. Blog contributors and commentators are solely responsible for their content. If you're interested in writing or contributing to a blog on kqed.org, email us with your idea.
 
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Chefs as Writers: What Does It Mean To Be Both?


As we inch towards the ledge that is 2008 I am taking a lot of time for reflection. I'm thinking about transition and change and how we never know exactly where we'll land and how we'll feel about arriving there, even though we think, with all our planning and list-making and contriving, we can control everything.

This last year brought me back into the fold of an industry I wasn't sure I'd ever fully join again. Almost five years ago someone very close to me was given less than three years to live and I exited Restaurant Kitchens to take care of her, help her die, and then grieve fully. In this grieving period it's been impossible to tell whether I was done with my industry out of default, choice or exhaustion. And I had no idea if I'd ever go back, or if I wanted to.



Restaurant work is not part time work. It takes all of you and then some. It's intimate and physical the way sex and relationships are. It engulfs, and tars and feathers you. It's like your family of origin, cults, gangs and religion. We say you're either on the train or not and after working the line for a period of time it's easy to see why the military and kitchen work are so often compared.

For years I worked morning, noon and night and missed anything and everything important in anyone's life I knew or the world at large. To walk away from My Industry when my friend became terminally ill was no small feat. But I knew. I knew that I could only do this immense piece of life's work once. And then, without any warning, it changed me forever. It changed the cook I was to return to being, if I was to return.

In March my blog Eggbeater will be three years old, and I will be 40. I name the numbers because, in the time-line of this story it means that I began writing in a public forum while my friend was dying. I began writing about myself, being a pastry chef, fruit, teaching and local agriculture when I was not in A Kitchen per se. I was away for a long time, and yet I stayed close by keeping up with professional friendships and writing about the branches of my work. I worked hard to reconcile calling myself a chef and not having anyone's name on my jacket but my own.



In professional cook-speak, if you are not {actively} in a kitchen you are not a cook, or a chef. If there are stoves without your name and sweat on them, you have no business wearing whites or calling yourself a cook. And in turn you have no right writing like you're on the inside if you aren't. We're like punk rockers or OG's--- if you're not in the game, you're posing, full stop. It makes feelings more black & white than grey, and opinions about who deserves what title when are not hidden from audible view.

Those who write about my industry, and are not in it, are barely taken seriously. Sure there's hand shaking and schmoozing and photo shoots in cushy houses, but those people are considered Outsiders and are treated thusly. (We need them to "Become Known," they know it, and so the snake swallows its tail.)



But what does it mean to both hold the title of chef and writer? What does it mean to be both critic and critiqued? What does it mean to be the underdog cook and the despised? Who is allowed to write about the inside? And who can do it justice?

My industry has enjoyed it's day in the sun concerning major media outlets in recent years. We have dozens of cooking slots, reality chef shows, superstar chef darlings, and certain restaurants getting press week after week, month after month, in every magazine-- because they are so well known on TV.

But that's not my reality. And TV, no matter how "real," is edited beyond recognition: airbrushed, liposucked, botoxed, and teeth-whitened to a point of Hollywood psychosis, cannibalistically feeding on itself to survive.

The truth is that the truth still isn't out there. And my industry, like the insider's trade that they are, doesn't mind keeping it that way.

Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

We will happily feed you lies if it sells dinners, or we have no say in the matter because TV has historically been entertainment and we suppose you'll be smart enough to figure that out. Or we will happily let Them feed you lies because the dirty truth of the matter is that the restaurant industry is plagued by contradictions so entrenched, class and gender and racial disparities so vast, environmental crimes so grossly overlooked and gaping holes so wide, we look like a corrupt government with erased histories and disappearing leaders.



Am I allowed to report on the good, the bad and the ugly or should I keep our dirty laundry close? Should I stand back and smile cynically when person after person signs their life away to culinary schools and shiny happy media "chefs" tell them to follow the bouncing red ball as they join in one big sing-along to the tune of the Big Lie about how wonderful and easy being a chef is? Or maybe I should just stand by, keep my head down and shut up when a female cook gets passed by for a promotion or salary raise because of her sex?

Can I make a difference as a chef-writer? When my voice is so small compared to the big stars? What does it mean to straddle a fence separating two historically enemied roles? Can I stay true to both crafts?

I don't have answers to my questions. I can blame the new media-ness of it all. For we are all a part of the Internet's Great Experiment. "Every one's" on the w.w.w. looking, eating, slurping, voraciously consuming, arguing, posing, learning, dishing, mud-slinging, opining, mis-informing and dawdling. The concept is that everyone can have a voice in a forum, and now those historically critiqued can talk back.

I might be naive to think that hearing from real chefs in real kitchens matters but I do. It's a very different experience now working in a restaurant, and then writing about it. Blogging buoys me-- writing down my life is my way of telling you, the you who read and listen and converse, what one real life in a kitchen among kitchens, a cook among cooks, is like. Writing from my heart, and being part of a small community of other chef and cook bloggers, is important because we can be a small movement educating those who want to know the true life of professional cooking, not the made-for-TV version.

You? Do you care where you get your truth from? Does it matter to you if said source has fact-checked, painted a pretty and easy-to-digest picture or done their time on the front lines? Do you think chef-writers are a good or dreadful thing? Do you appreciate a transparent restaurant industry or do you wish it would all stay behind closed doors like it always has?

Labels: , , , , ,

 
 

10 Comments:

Anonymous Diane said...

I am fascinated by the boundries you define. Not being in the industry at all, I find it all a bit clubby - us vs. them - black/white. In general I distrust such definitions and groupings. I find that strong divisions rarely if ever help foster progress, enlightenment or good feeling. But as I said, your world is not mine so maybe it offers some benefits I am unaware of.

In any case, I see no issues at all with combining "chef-writer". I like reading your perspective - it helps me understand more about what really goes on in a restaurant. But even if it didn't, I would still like and support it. I fail to see why there would be a conflict at all actually - from my admittedly naive perspective. Are you supposed to provide only omerta or inarticulate grunts when referring to your profession? Is it acceptable only to ramble to friends about your concerns? Are you supposed to limit your (wonderful) writing only to nature-writing and poetry? That's a fine thing, but limiting yourself to that alone would probably be like chopping off an arm.

Life is short. Do what you want. Write about what you like. Call your profession to task, and show its glories as well as warts to those of us who don't know it as well as your compadres that do.

12/27/2007 10:17 AM

 
Blogger FaustianBargain said...

interesting...can the guy who works at McDonalds flipping burgers and blogs on his days off call himself a chef-writer? will you include him into 'the club'?

12/27/2007 11:36 AM

 
Blogger Charles Shere said...

Both Chef and Writer think a lot, silently and often alone, even if they're surrounded by people. The same kind of meditation is involved in each metier, and each will certainly inform the other.

I think Pastry Chef is a unique position, involving the team-leader responsibilities common to all chefs, but also requiring great focus on self; and I've been impressed at the egolessness that often evolves in pastry chefs, a quality that helps writers too.

I've been impressed at the writing skills developed on many food blogs, yours included, yours and David Lebovitz's: chef-writing is an important new field.

12/27/2007 11:48 AM

 
Anonymous elarael said...

I find your voice valuable in that you are able to express, (or attempt to - which is just as valuable if not more, IMO), specific bugs in the machine that we as priviledged 1rst worlders are in complete denial of or total ignorance about. Of course your voice is valid - it's Golden, in fact. And you are perfectly positioned to speak exactly as you do, thank god, because some people can only hear truth if it comes from someone with official validation regardless of the fact that anyone with sense can see any truth and it is TRUTH that should be listened to, regardless of who is 'qualified' to speak it.

Regardless, I can only hope it is a labor of love for you to share these truths with the world at large because, are they ever necessary!

Your essay begins to address, for me, how disfunction and those who protect it (out of fear of postive change) serve to deepen the illusion of well-being that our country needs to address before we sink ourselves into a duality of haves and have nots that crushes what's left of our happy little reality here. Yes, we deserve abundance, and yes, there is a way to enjoy that abundance in a way that benefits all of those making it possible. We all take our turns giving and receiving in the way we generate our living, and in that way we are all supported.

There are always outrageously good solutions to every problem. But they only present themselves to those brave enough to look at the heart of that problem. You are wonderfully brave and for that reason, and doubtless many more, immensely valuable. Thank you.

12/27/2007 12:17 PM

 
Blogger Charles Shere said...

"Impressed at," sheesh, I meant impressed by of course, what carelessness, oh well, I'm not a chef...

12/27/2007 12:38 PM

 
Blogger (de)Classified said...

cooking and writing are ruthless in that they will both take everything you have. and you will never be good enough to do everything you want. sometimes the best things happen by accident, sometimes it is after painstaking alone time, they are both professions bound by cliches about which the uninitiated know nothing. to the uninitiated, a new story or a new dish just magically appear. or we creative types were just born that way. do we let them think it's easy, that things just happen, or do we keep trying to teach them how brutal and hard the reality is?

in graduate school i was blessed with writer-friends and now i am blessed with cook-friends and both languages are lingo, clubby, and world weary for reasons those who don't cook or write cannot get. people who do not understand the divisions of being a chef-writer do not understand the grueling hours, dedication, and unsufferably high standards either one of those professions take (let alone the both).

as for exposing the underbelly of the myths of cheffing, i think this is our now and our moment but how to be heard among the chorus of voices, some ill informed and some well meaning if wrong and some comrades in whites, how, i don't know?

12/27/2007 12:56 PM

 
Blogger wendygee said...

I think there are illusions about every industry and unless you are actively in that world you don't get to see those realities. That is why experiential learning is so important. That is also why it is important to have people share those truths before you pay tuition and get yourself in debt. The beauty of the internet is that anyone can share their opinions and thoughts without having a book deal and a publisher supporting their endeavor. The task of the user is to wade through lots of opinions to find some truth...knowing the source and their credentials is a key factor.
Everyone has an opinion about food...we all eat...and the internet has provided an outlet for expressing these opinions. But are professional chefs the only people qualified to accurately judge the quality of a prepared meal? When you say "Those who write about my industry, and are not in it, are barely taken seriously." What do you mean exactly? Are you referring to self proclaimed foodies reviewing restaurants and writing blogs? What about the numerous positions that are part of the food industry like farming, food inspection, publishing, teaching, food journalism, food styling, and Cooking Programs, TV and Radio? Many people have not worked in professional kitchens (or have briefly) but have invested their professional careers in a branch of the food industry. Are these individuals qualified to critique the food industry?

12/27/2007 7:10 PM

 
Blogger Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic said...

"Those who write about my industry, and are not in it, are barely taken seriously."

Hm, I'm as confused as Wendy. Do you mean then that people like Michael Bauer aren't taken seriously when they write reviews of restaurants?

Because I thought you once took his reviews to heart.

12/27/2007 7:26 PM

 
Blogger tom said...

I too am a chef embarking on a blog site to further expose the goings on of our industry, as well as the
deteriorating food system that we are reliant upon. I find your writing both informative and compelling. Should you be both writer and chef? Is it important to hear the naked truth about an industry that is painted up to be one thing and yet disguises another? Yes, unequivocally yes. Write on! In the vein of Don Quixote, tip at those windmills, and I will follow.

12/28/2007 12:59 PM

 
Anonymous Aaron said...

Shuna,
How about writer and photographer? What does it mean to you to show an immigrant linecook pulling something out of a hot oven with tongs when the traditionally romanticized image is of a waspy dandy with a white toque stirring with a wooden spoon in a copper pot? Talk about the man behind the curtain.
Though we are in the era of the open kitchen, the image presented by that arrangement is far from the truth, the full reality. How do you feel when you reveal in visual terms what has typically been hidden by fancifully decorated walls? What boundaries do you draw for yourself? For others?

12/28/2007 2:35 PM

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Locate CP Restaurants:
Check, Please! Google Map
 
KQED Food Sites
Check, Please! Bay Area
Jacques Pépin Celebrates!
Jacques Pépin:
Fast Food My Way
Jacques Pépin:
The Apprentice
Jacques Pépin:
The Complete Pépin
KQED Wine Club
KQED.org Cooking
Weir Cooking in the City
 
Tasty Food Sites
CHOW
Chowhound SF
Crushpad
CUESA
CulinaryCorps
Eat Local Challenge
Edible San Francisco
Epicurious
eGullet.org
Food Network
Food Talk
Group Recipes
Hungry Magazine
KTEH Food
Leite's Culinaria
Locavores
Mighty Foods
NPR: Food
Om Organics
Serious Eats
SFGate: Food
SFGate: Wine
SF Station: Restaurants
Slow Food SF
Top Chef
Wikimedia Commons: Food & Drink
Yahoo! Food
Yelp: Reviews
 
Tangy Food Blogs
101 Cookbooks
A Full Belly
Accidental Hedonist
agoodfoodblog
An Obsession with Food
Anna's Cool Finds
Becks & Posh
Between Meals
Blogsoop
Bunny Foot
Butter Pig
Cellar Rat
Chez Pim
Chocolate & Zucchini
Confessions of a
Restaurant Whore
Cooking For Engineers
Cooking with Amy
Cucina Testa Rossa
Culinary Muse
Denise's Kitchen
Digesty-SF
Eater SF
Eggbeater
Extramsg.com
Feed & Supply
Food Blog S'cool
Food Musings
Food Porn Watch
Gastronomie
Hedonia
I'm Mad and I Eat
In Praise of Sardines
Jatbar
Knife's Edge
Life Begins at 30
Love and Cooking
MeatHenge
Mental Masala
Moveable Feast
Nosheteria
Organic Day
Passionate Eater
San Francisco Gourmet
SF City Eats
Simply Recipes
Spicetart
The Amateur Gourmet
Tablehopper
The Ethicurean
The Food Section
The Grub Report
The Petite Pig
The Wine Makers Wife
Vin Divine
Vinography
VirgoBlue
Wandering Spoon
Well Fed Network
Word Eater
World on a Plate
Yummy Chow
 
 
   
Search BAB

Eye Candy: Food Photos
BAB on flickr.com
Join Flickr for free and share your photos with the Bay Area Bites and Beyond group pool.
 
Food Books
 
The Moosewood Cookbook
by Mollie Katzen
 
Baking: From My Home to Yours
by Dorie Greenspan
 
Grand Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse's Desserts and Pastries
by Alain Ducasse, Frederic Robertmison
 
The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining
by Cheryl Alters Jamison, Bill Jamison
 
Tasty: Get Great Food on the Table Every Day
by Roy Finamore
 
Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way
by Lorna Sass
 
The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa
by Marcus Samuelsson
 
Michael Mina: The Cookbook
by Michael Mina, Photographer: Karl Petzktle
 
What to Eat
by Marion Nestle
 
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan
 
Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate
by John Scharffenberger, Robert Steinberg
 
Romancing the Vine: Life, Love, and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo
by Alan Tardi
 
What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea -- Even Water -- Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers
by Andrew Dornenburg, Karen Page, Michael Sofronski
 
The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners
by Matt Lee, Ted Lee
 
Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own
by Andrew Whitley
 
Coloring the Seasons: A Cook's Guide
by Allegra McEvedy
 
All-new Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
by Anne C. Cain
 
Modern Garde Manger
by Robert B. Garlough
 
The Spice and Herb Bible
by Ian Hemphill, Kate Hemphill
 
The Improvisational Cook
by Sally Schneider
 
Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children
by Ann Cooper, Lisa M. Holmes
 
Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia
by James Oseland
 
My Life in France
by Julia Child, Alex Prud'Homme
 
A Passion for Ice Cream: 95 Recipes for Fabulous Desserts
by Emily Luchett, Sheri Giblin (photographer)
 
Au Pied De Cochon -- The Album
by Martin Picard
 
Memories of Philippine Kitchens
by Amy Besa, Romy Dorotan
 
Simple Chinese Cooking
by Kylie Kwong
 
 
An Invitation to Indian Cooking
by Madhur Jaffrey
 
Hungry Planet
by Peter Menzel, Faith D'Aluisio
 
Sunday Suppers at Lucques : Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table
by Suzanne Goin, Teri Gelber
 
Simple Soirees: Seasonal Menus for Sensational Dinner Parties
by Peggy Knickerbocker, Christopher Hirsheimer (Photographer)
 
The Cook's Book
by Jill Norman
 
Molto Italiano : 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home
by Mario Batali
 
Nobu Now
by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa
 
Cheese : A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best
by Max Mccalman, David Gibbons
 
Bones : Recipes, History, and Lore
by Jennifer McLagan
 
Whiskey : The Definitive World Guide
by Michael Jackson
 
The New American Cooking
by Joan Nathan
 
ChocolateChocolate
by Lisa Yockelson
 
Easy Entertaining: Everything You Need to Know About Having Parties at Home
by Darina Allen
 
Cooking at De Gustibus: Celebrating 25 Years of Culinary Innovation
by Arlene Feltman Sailhac
 
Dough: Simple Contemporary Breads
by Richard Bertinet
 
Chocolate Obsession: Confections and Treats to Create and Savor
by Michael Recchiuti, Fran Gage, Maren Caruso
 
The Food Substitutions Bible: More Than 5,000 Substitutions for Ingredients, Equipment And Techniques
by David Joachim
 
Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook
by Susan Spungen
 
Spices of Life: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Great Health
by Nina Simonds
 
Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent
by Jeffrey Alford, Naomi Duguid
 
Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light
by Mort Rosenblum
 
Vegetable Love: A Book for Cooks
by Barbara Kafka, Christopher Styler
 
A History of Wine in America: From Prohibition to the Present
by Thomas Pinney
 
Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years Of Food And Art
by Tom Gilliland, Miguel Ravago, Virginia B. Wood
 
Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South
by Marcie Cohen Ferris
 
Washoku: Recipes From The Japanese Home Kitchen
by Elizabeth Andoh, Leigh Beisch
 
 
Weir Cooking in the City: More than 125 Recipes and Inspiring Ideas for Relaxed Entertaining
by Joanne Weir
 
Rick Stein's Complete Seafood
by Rick Stein
 
The Great Scandinavian Baking Book
by Beatrice A. Ojakangas
 
Serena, Food & Stories: Feeding Friends Every Hour of the Day
by Serena Bass
 
John Ash: Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food from a Master Teacher
by John Ash
 
The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook: Eating Well for Better Health
by Donald Hensrud, M.D., Jennifer Nelson, R.D. & Mayo Clinic Staff
 
Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions
by Fernando and Marlene Divina
 
The Provence Cookbook
by Patricia Wells
 
Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World
by Gil Marks
 
Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World
by Gina Mallet
 
Bouchon
by Thomas Keller
 
A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World
by Maggie Glezer
 
All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking
by Molly Stevens
 
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
by Harold McGee
 
Entertaining: Inspired Menus For Cooking with Family and Friends
by George Dolese
 
The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore
by Grace Young, Alan Richardson
 
Cooking New American: How to Cook the Food You Love to Eat
by Fine Cooking Magazine
 
The Japanese Kitchen: A Book of Essential Ingredients with 200 Authentic Recipes
by Kimiko Barber
 
Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food: An Opinionated History and More Than 100 Legendary Recipes
by Arthur Schwartz
 
Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher
by Joan Reardon
 
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes
by Jeffrey Hamelman
 
Everyday Dining with Wine
by Andrea Immer
 
 
Copyright © 2005-2008 KQED. All rights reserved.