The Desperate and the Insane: 3 Reasons Why Chefs are a Dying Breed

Part 2

2. Clash of the Generations


Marco Pierre White, the first British chef (and youngest chef anywhere) to win three Michelin stars, is considered by many to be the first modern-day culinary idol. Labelled by the press in the late-1980s as the “enfant terrible of haute cuisine” and the “anarchic Byron of the backburner,” he trained in the finest restaurants in England under such culinary luminaries as Albert Roux, Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffmann and Nico Ladenis.

Subsequently, his first cookbook, White Heat, published in 1990, blew the minds of the culinary world. Part memoir, part recipe book, it details Marco’s time at Harveys, where he practiced techniques inspired by the Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse era of nouvelle cuisine. (Put simply, nouvelle cuisine is the refinement of classical dishes. Or, more accurately, classical cuisine with the concept lightened.) While the tweaking of classic dishes impressed diners and Michelin inspectors alike, White Heat became best known for its black and white photography. Shot by fashion photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, the now-iconic images depict the chaos and intensity of a high-end kitchen in full swing.

Before White Heat, most chef-inspired cookbooks were static in both content and formula. Insert some sober, explanatory text regarding the recipes; add a gloomy, still life Caravaggio shot of the grub; and, perhaps, include on the dustjacket a portrait of the chef, usually some podgy Frenchman in starched toque blanche and jacket, arms folded, looking poised, confident and strikingly regal in front of their glistening copper and polished pass.

Even today, few, if any cookbooks, match the truth and legitimacy of White Heat.

Here, in the introduction, you’ll find a terse opening paragraph from Marco that would most likely confound the readers of today’s sanitised, consumer-friendly publications, “You’re buying White Heat because you want to cook well? Because you want to cook Michelin stars? Forget it. Save your money. Go and buy a saucepan,” followed, no less, by a sermon generously seasoned with ego, humility, candour, nostalgia, chauvinism, ambition, and a healthy splash of wistful romance.

While many of the recipes and plating techniques have dated considerably in the last 27 years, it’s the whacked portraits of the chef and his crew that have remained timeless in their dishevelled, rock and roll aura.

How many cookbooks today can boast a ragged portrait of a wild-haired, hollow-cheeked chef post-service with a cigarette dangling from his mouth?

The chef, wearing a pair of runners, crouched atop the stove as he scrubs the range hood amid clouds of suds and steam?

The chef emerging from a doorway, his white t-shirt, butcher’s apron and kitchen cloth stained as he wields a cleaver like some deranged, horror movie villain?

And, in the 25th Anniversary Edition, a snap of a young cook with the back of his jacket and trousers slashed with a carving knife because he had complained about the heat in the kitchen?

Sure, almost a century before Marco – or “Boss” as he was known by his team – there was the great Escoffier, who not only simplified classic French cuisine, but popularised, among other things, (including the encouragement of women to dine in his restaurants) the a la carte menu and the kitchen brigade system we consider standard practice today.

Later came Fernand Point, and a few other notable French revolutionists, but their mastery of the trade was largely unknown to the uncultured masses. Apart from dining royalty and the social elite, (and, of course, those brigades of nameless cooks who suffered firsthand the gruelling pursuit of perfection and culinary theatre demanded by late nineteenth century aristocracy) the Great Unwashed were too busy attempting to survive the last throes of the Industrial Revolution and the Great War to give two shits about Peach Melba served on a swan sculpted from ice.

Marco, however, arriving on the scene as a restaurateur at Harveys in the late 1980s, garnered a sophisticated yet workman-like reputation as a perfectionist, a young man with exceptional skills and a volatile temper; and, thanks to the publication of White Heat, his status soon catapulted to that of a culinary rock star.

He routinely ejected diners who were rude or offensive to his staff. He banged adoring female customers in his upstairs office between courses. He treated camera crews and TV hosts with derision and hostility when they dared to encroach on the sacred rites and rituals of his inner sanctum.

And yes, he famously made Gordon Ramsey cry. Or, as Marco later corrected, Gordon, then a young sous in training, chose to cry after two years of torment and abuse.

No surprises then, that he likened his kitchen team to the SAS. In The Devil in the Kitchen, his 2006 memoir, Marco states:

“In order to achieve my dream I reckoned I needed a brigade with army-standard discipline and, as I had learned at Gavroche, discipline is borne out of fear. When you fear, you question. If you don’t fear something, you don’t question it in the same way. And if you have fear in the kitchen, you’ll never take a shortcut. If you don’t fear the boss, you’ll take shortcuts, you’ll turn up late. My brigade had to feel pain, push themselves to the limits, and only then would they know what they were capable of achieving. I was forcing them to make decisions. The ones who left, well, fine, at least they had decided a Michelin-starred kitchen was not for them.”

This militant attitude was still very much in vogue when I first entered the world of commercial cookery in Australia in the late 90s; a time when Marco, on the other side of the globe, was at the height of his creative powers, winning 3 Michelin stars and roasting 30 chickens a day just for their juices. Early experience suggested that the head chef (and the equally formidable drill sergeant of a sous chef) was every bit the volatile image Fay Maschler, the Evening Standard’s restaurant critic, once described when she wrote that Marco’s intensity could “glaze a crème brulee from ten yards.”

As I look back on a twenty-year international career spent in cafes, country pubs, steakhouses, luxury hotels, fine dining restaurants and multi-million dollar clubs, it’s the uncompromising older chefs who pushed me to what I thought was the verge of breaking point that I now recognise as true mentors.

Sure, at the time, I hated their guts. I was young. I thought anyone over the age of 30 was old and senile. Nevertheless, I copped the tantrums, the abuse and the violence. I worked sick, injured, stitched and bloodied. I turned up on time, every day, tired and/or hungover. I affirmed every order with, “Yes, Chef!” Why? Because of fear. I feared a bollocking. I feared substandard work. I feared letting the team down, the Chef down. I feared being out of work, broke and starving. I feared I wasn’t good enough.

These days, however, many ageing chefs will gripe that few young cooks and apprentices are willing to endure that “army-standard discipline” Marco and his hard-ass predecessors felt it necessary to enforce and celebrate.

The truth is, the former generation will always chastise the latter. As far back as the time of Socrates and Plato, the young have pissed off the old, when, apparently, “the children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Far more recently, my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s generations fought World Wars. As very young men, they dug trenches, stormed beachheads, waded through jungles and charged machinegun fire en masse out of a deep-rooted duty to protect a way of life. For them, the individual was less important than the cause. Young men and women willingly contributed to something much larger than themselves. If that meant making the ultimate sacrifice, well, so be it.

But let’s face it, kids. Times have changed.

Naivety and innocence have long been lost. Old-world beliefs and attitudes took a serious beating in the 1960s and, bloodied and battered, staggered through the decades to drop in heap in the new millennium in some vacant lot on the edge of town amongst the rotting carcasses of VHS tapes and Nintendo 64s.

Each generation, I’m certain, vows to provide their children with a safer, easier, and more nurturing environment than the one in which they were raised. So much so, that we know live in a Western society that lauds each individual as a precious gift to an overcrowded and damaged planet. Consumed with technological advances, social media, and a chronic syndrome of cybernetic outrage that skewers even the most earnest offerings with vitriol, contempt and outright slander, the age of Me is at hand. With the rapid acceleration of digital technology comes the era of impatience, of instant gratification, of perceived privilege and ill-informed opinion.

Compassion, also, is customary – sign an online petition, filter your Facebook profile or pray for the victims of the latest international tragedy – but largely superficial. Beyond appeasing the tastes and sympathies of your closest 875 “friends”, does it actually achieve anything? Are you out there in the real world making a true difference? Even physical acts of goodwill and empathy are recorded with dubious, self-serving intentions. Sadly, in a brave new world, you haven’t truly made it unless you’ve gone viral.

All this, of course, is a roundabout way of saying that it’s little surprise that a generation of sensitive, precious and fragile Millennials are increasingly unwilling to subject themselves to the physical and mental tortures of an outdated regime of old-school commercial cookery.

Quite literally, cooks and chefs now have the world at their fingertips. It has never been easier to research a recipe, to gain ideas, to learn. Centuries of knowledge and practice are only a Google search away. (As opposed to the dark ages, when chefs either had to learn on the job through painstaking trial and error, and/or refer to a now-cumbersome, antiquated means of education called a book.)

And yet, and yet, many young cooks are slated by old-dog chefs for their blasé attitude toward the dedications and intricacies of their trade. 19 year old Zachary, they claim, with his hipster beard and ironic tattoos, is far more likely to spend his downtime on his iPhone assessing the validity of memes and choreographing his snapchat than he will researching the origins of, say, ossobuco, or perfecting a nouvelle bouillabaisse recipe that will rock the Tuesday Night Special crowd. Impatience is the problem, they cry. While today’s apprentices and young cooks often profess an eagerness to learn, many are unwilling or too impatient to nail the basics before moving on to more complex tasks.

I’m sorry, Zach, enlightens the old-dog chef, but if you can’t handle 38 hours a week in a café, club or a pub, slapping together toasted sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, and a homely array of casual restaurant staples, you sure as shit ain’t ready for the 80+ hour precision, dedication and discipline of fine dining. Piss off on your break, son. I’ll do it myself.

The old-dog chef may be an antiquated fool or a virtuosic master in exile. Zach may be a lazy wannabe or an eager novice seeking genuine guidance and inspiration.

The truth, as always, is a matter of perspective.

Twenty years in, I remain squarely on the fence. I’m old enough to be scarred by the tail-end of the militant-style kitchen era, and still young enough to help foster a change in chef culture. In many instances, I can’t help but recite the tough-as-nails mantra of old-dog chefs. And I don’t mean tough in the macho, swinging-dick kind of way.

Many of the toughest chefs I’ve worked with have been women, who, despite rampart misogyny, sexual harassment, and life choices beyond the comprehension of many of their male counterparts, are willing to turn up every day to get their arses kicked. Believe me, to see a badass, 7 month pregnant kitchen warrior working the grill, slinging pans, barking orders as she gets the job done in the 50+ degree heat of a summer kitchen, is a beautiful sight to behold.

Tough, I believe, is starting at the bottom. Tough is remaining patient. Tough is turning up early. Tough is working through your breaks. Tough is staying back late to help the kitchenhands after a brutal night on the line. Tough is fine dicing onions and peeling potatoes until you lose the will to live. Tough is making mistakes. Tough is turning up the next day with renewed energy and a pledge to improve. Tough is thinking that, no matter how many years of experience you have under your belt, no task is beneath you. Tough is contributing to the team, knowing that each and every role is essential in the running of a successful kitchen. Thinking that you are special, thinking that you are a unique and beautiful snowflake, that you are, indeed, the centre of the universe, will not cut it in most professional kitchens. Flair, artistry and creativity are valuable attributes, but if you can’t execute the basics – grill a steak, roast a chicken, poach an egg, prepare a stock or fillet a fish – with precision and consistency at any age or claim of experience, it’s time to stop pretending. Tough is expected. Tough is seldom rewarded.

Conversely, I feel that blaming younger generations for their alleged weaknesses is a crucial mistake. Logic implores that each generation is shaped by those who came before them. Surely, it is not the fault of Millennials (and the rapidly emerging iGen) that they have little or no memory of a world pre-Internet, pre-Facebook, pre-Snapchat, pre-Twitter, or any other form of social interaction that defines the idleness and superficiality of modern existence. Surely, it is the old that have thrust digital devices into the hands of the young and, essentially, made them unhappy.

How, as Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, could you possibly expect resilience and determination from a generation that has never been truly tested? A generation that, crippled by isolation and depression, nurtured to the point of sterilisation and often clueless to the stark realities beyond their virtual world, are increasingly privy to the fact that there must be a smarter and easier way to make a living than sweating your guts out 60-80 hours a week in a an aggressive, hostile environment for minimum wage, or less?

The old rules, for good or ill, do not apply.

At present, I’m fortunate to work alongside several young cooks and apprentices that are genuinely interested in acquiring basic skills, knowledge and experience to further their careers. Although their formative years as chefs is a far cry from the classical tortures and brutality of former generations, their patience and willingness to learn is commendable. These eager young souls, I believe, are increasingly rare and must be encouraged. Stick with it, I implore them. I know it’s tough and the rewards are virtually non-existent, but your dedication to the trade will set you apart from many of your contemporaries.

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