A Call to Arms: Celebrate the Prep Cook!

Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School Students

Step into a restaurant kitchen in the early morning hours and you will find a machine of dull silver and aluminum-can grey. Its moving parts are meat slicers, oven doors, dish washing machines, and flesh and blood. Men and women, fresh from their beds, stand shoulder to shoulder in the uniform of pressed whites. Hidden are the rock tee shirts, tattoos, and scars from sharp knives. Bandannas and skullcaps conceal the full glory of a multi-color Mohawk, spaghetti curls, and the zig-zagging of a buzz cut.

The light is bright and the polished steel hurts tired eyes. In the kitchen, there are few words exchanged. Covered paper coffee cups and Mexican sweet breads sit untouched. The slicing of onions, the trimming of vegetables, the deboning of fish, and the stirring of stockpots require mindfulness and patience. Every motion is a working meditation. Everything in its place is the unspoken mantra of the kitchen.

Before customers arrive, the world inside the kitchen is deep-forest quiet. Then comes the axe to that serenity, with the rat-a-tat-tat sound of the ticket printer spitting out an arms length of orders.  Despite exhaustion from early morning prep time, a busy service gives the kitchen staff a boost of energy that allows them to push through.

Maybe this is a culinary preamble you’re used to hearing. But what if I told you the kitchen I describe is in the corner diner you go to when you don’t want to dress up, or at a culinary school you’ve never read about, or a restaurant that’s never been photographed by a very-famous-photographer?

Is a chef not a chef, even if you don’t recognize them? Why can’t we celebrate the prep-cook? Food bloggers may be champions of ingredients, farmers, cooking techniques, specialty food makers and celebrity chefs—but what about remembering the underdogs for their humility and hard work and commitment to making our daily food?

Cordon Bleu Culinary School Kitchen

Maybe it’s because I work in restaurants that this idea holds so much weight with me. But I can’t help but think we in the food blogging community are missing an opportunity to start another kind of trend.  We are great at celebrating the little guy food artisans (to the point that food artisan has been outlawed at the newspaper I write for) and big time food celebrities, but we seem to have missed a great big chunk of cooking humanity in between.

Isn’t it time we took on a new cause?

Junior, a Student at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School

This need to say something percolated to the surface after attending the Blogher Food final night fete put on by the a handful of super talented and generous food blogging ladies at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary school. It was a lovely party, an incredibly fun event, but I couldn’t help but notice something odd going on. Despite the fact that the room was filled with men and women preoccupied with food, I saw no collective interest being paid to the culinary students behind the food at the event.  Where were the throngs of dorky food lovers surrounding a wide-eyed student and peppering them with food preparation questions? Where were the sous-chef groupies?

Nobody Cares If You’re Not Famous

In a room full of food-infatuated writers and photographers, I noted few cared to focus their attentions on the men and women in chef whites. Granted, this was an event for networking and connecting one last time to the conference attendees, but I was surprised just how little attention the students got (except for a round of applause at the end of the event).

I stepped behind a serving table with a culinary student and started asking questions. What I discovered was a young man with twin interests: he was passionate about his craft, dedicated to creating beautiful food, and consumed with the idea of getting to work with great food makers. I watched his excited expression as guests ate the food he had worked on since the early morning hours, listened as he told me without a hint of disappointment that he was working for free, and shared a laugh over the ferocity of one guest’s attempt to get every last drop of soup from his shot glass. Where I felt community on both sides of the table, I saw a great divide between the glittering crowd and the hard working staff in pressed whites.

I know I have a much different perspective on things because I work in restaurants—but I can’t help but think that the food lovers of this world (and I include myself in this category) have gotten a little too infatuated with celebrity. I say we food bloggers go rogue and celebrate the true underdogs of the food industry. Here’s to finding more stories about the prep cooks, the dishwashers, the pastry interns, the small town culinary students, the flavor scientists, the delivery guy who shows up on time, and all the other helpers behind the scenes in the food world.

Because let’s face it. Everyone has a role to play in getting food to our plate. Even if they aren’t famous.

26 comments

  1. Kristen

    I love everything about this post…. such a fantastic point you make. Just like blogging, we need to remember that the people in the middle are just as important as the people “on top”. You are so eloquent. Well done….an instant fave for sure!

  2. Nelson

    Having really worked all of the jobs in a restaurant both front and back of the house, I was deeply impressed by what you wrote.

    It’s important to remember that every “celebrity” chef was once one of those guys/gals behind the scenes. In fact, it was those years behind the scenes that helped every one of us become the professional cook that we are today. As a chef, you are only as good as your team and how well you train them.

    As you stated it is important that we (and they) remember that…daily.

  3. Amber

    Beautiful writing. Wonderful photographs. Thank you for this reminder! I would love to take you up on this challenge. How about dedicating a week or a month to this kind of writing and rallying other bloggers to do the same? It could be an inspiring set of stories.

  4. Deliciously Organic

    Wonderful post. I too felt the divide. Because I’ve been in their shoes, I sympathized with the bar tender who was totally overwhelmed (I sort of wanted to get behind the bar and help him!), the students walking around offering horderves (that’s always a bit awkward) and the chefs in the back cooking and cleaning. I think that unless you’ve been in their shoes than it’s hard to understand the work that is involved.

    Thank you for a beautiful post (as always) and for looking beyond the glitz and glamour.

  5. jenjenk

    thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this!!! The 3rd photo down is Junior. I can not begin to tell you how much he helped me and my team. He was the last student to leave, staying behind to help us clean up and throw the remaining cardboard boxes away. He didn’t have to do it, he didn’t get anything from doing it. He just wanted to help.

    You’ve managed to ONCE AGAIN bring back the tears to my eyes by bringing a spotlight to all their hard work. Thank you for recognizing them and thank you for pointing it out for everyone to remember, too!!!

  6. Amanda

    I sorta went about it a differnt way, but ended up at the same place as you. I was just feeling a bit overwhelmed and not very successful at socializing, so I decided to talk to the folks that would actually want to talk back! I asked people what they had cooked that night and if that was their passion (pastry, culinary…) and what they were attending for and if they had personal blogs and what was their favorite things about the school and where they would be after they graduated???? I distinctly remembered talking to one sweet girl upstairs (bacon room, first station) who was not planning a culinary career after graduation, and had just lost her husband. SHe just wanted to try this and finally did it. She was an inspiration!!!

    I believe your motives were far less selfish then mine (I was just looking for friendly face to talk to!!) and I believe your mission is an important one! Kudos to you and seeing the real point here!

    ANd now I am REALLY going to reveal to you what a horrible hick I am.. one of my fav. shows, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, seems to do such a fantastic job of getting to know the people behind the food. I love meeting those folks and hearing their stories and seeing the brilliance behind what they do! (Yes, I think a good burger is brilliant… I am a bad, bad cook!)

    UgH! Sorry for the book!
    Blessings-
    Amanda

  7. Gaby @ What's Gaby Cooking

    omg. I am in love with Junior. Obsessed. He was amazing – so passionate – nice – omg – I don’t even know how to express what a fabulous person he was.

    I really appreciate everything you said in this post – especially because that student in the chef’s coat has been me – and it wasn’t that long ago! I love that you and I are so interested in the behind the scenes because we work in the restaurant/service industry. And I pretty much just love you.

    The end.

    Love,
    Gaby :)

  8. Kathy - Panini Happy

    Thanks so much for opening my eyes! In hindsight I can’t believe I missed the opportunity to interact with the people who had prepared our food – so many of them were out there on the floor and we were at their school and everything. I’m so glad to have finally met you this weekend!

  9. marla {family fresh cooking}

    And this is exactly why I love you. You are a passionate & creative woman with sensitive eyes that make all of us SEE more. Thank you Brooke for celebrating the amazing team of people that feed & nourish our souls daily. I know how it feels to be the underdog. My kids remind me daily ;) xxoo

  10. Allen Calhoun

    Thank you for all your kind words. Junior is one of my students and a member of a club called the “Iron Toques”. This group of students volunteers on regular bases to raise money for local charities and to hone their culinary skills. I am very proud of all of them. Junior is a perfect example of these amazing students. It was a pleasure to have you at the CCA and to show off my “Iron Toques”.

  11. Junior Figueroa

    Hello everyone. I’m Junior, the person in the third picture. First I would like to thank Brooke for posting this blog. All of the students here at CCA really appreciate it. I also wanted to thank everybody for the posts about all of us. It makes us feel great knowing that all of our hard work payed off. The fact that you loved the food, made it worth every drop of sweat. We were honored to entertain and cook for you all. Hopefully we can do it again sometime. Thank you all again.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>