I am the guy who stands in a room wearing a tall, funny hat... but it ain't always easy, nor glamorous. After all, I am just a chef!
Not to demean who I am or what I do, nor who anyone else is or what they do, but I am just like everyone else. The difference between a chef and a cook is passion! Years ago, I used to tell people the difference between a chef and a cook is, "one creates, while the other cooks." Though this is true, it is passion more so that separates a cook from a chef: the passion and desire to do better than yesterday; hell, to do better than five minutes ago.
In the kitchen, you do the same thing and work with the same people all the time... But it is still a different experience: things change from day to day, even from minute to minute. Remember, life is messy and so are the people who make up this life.
Being in the kitchen ain't no Food Network either. Since the advent of the Food Network, Cooking Channel, etc., "the chef" has hit celebrity status. The kitchen has become glamorized and loads of people feel they are "The Chef." Watching a little cooking on TV does not make one a chef, even if the Food Network has great programming.
Kids have also been misled and now think, "I can do it, it's easy... I am going to make millions!" Let me say first hand -- NO! Not everyone can do it. Yes, everyone can cook, but it takes much more to be a chef. Again, it takes passion and desire. Most days I will be on my feet all shift. Days when it is a nice, breezy, and just all-around gorgeous California day outside, I'm inside sweating and dealing with the pressures of the kitchen. In fact, there are days when I will go to work in the darkness of morning and get home in the darkness of night. A good 10-12 hour day is the average, but work does not always stop when I get home. I'll sit on the couch reading, thinking, planning and writing. Sometimes I am doing work at home during the only time I have with my family. Those "same people" I see all the time at work? Well, they have just become my second family. And sorry to say but family does not always stay together.
It is not easy and the job comes with a great deal of stress and pressure. Just as students are issued an ego on the day they graduate culinary school, stress comes with the white coat too. Once a student has graduated school they don't know everything, but don't automatically get respect from their peers -- contrary to popular belief. Respect is something you have to earn every day: by working for it and proving yourself -- every day. School is just a foundation for you to build the rest of your career on. I have spent all of my adult life studying, learning, asking, reading, practicing, trying -- and I still don't know it all. Even today I still study, read, learn, ask, practice and try!
The most important of these is to try; you can never learn unless you try. Not trying is the true failure. There is no such thing as a mistake as long as you learn from it. Learning is a never-ending process, and we learn from everyone around us. The best way to learn is not to focus on what is right in front of you, nor what is on the right or left, but on the thing the guy on the other side of the room is doing. Be open minded and realize we can learn even from the person who sweeps the floor. Also understand two things:
1) The most important person in the kitchen is the one who sweeps the floor
2) The greatest chefs started off as the person who swept the floor
Ironically, when you break it down, the person who sweeps the floor makes more money than the chef (hourly), because the chef's work is never done and does not stop when he leaves the restaurant. There is this rumor that chefs earn six figures -- I wish! Some chefs earn that much, but they work for big-name places in big-name cities. And that job was not given to them, nor did it come easy. Gordon Ramsay, Robert Irvine, Michael Symon, Jamie Oliver and Thomas Keller will all be the first ones to tell you that what they have was not handed to them and did not happen overnight. Gallons of blood, sweat and tears went into them being able to achieve that pay and status. Honestly, the starting pay for a chef will be less than the cost of a culinary degree (the average degree from a culinary school is about 40-50K+).
But chefs don't do it all for the money. Well, the good ones don't. Being a chef is a way of life: you work morning, nights, weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, special days, graduations, "firsts," and you do all this for the love the craft!
"Honey -- my stomach hurts and don't feel right. I think I have to go to the ER."
"Baby, I have 250 on the books, and I am down two... IT'S NOT A GOOD NIGHT!"
"No SHIT it's not a good night -- I'm 25 weeks pregnant!"
Sometimes, many times, all the time, sacrifices are made for the craft.
Over the years I have dedicated myself to it because, well, that is who I am. And those years have not always been easy. Besides the family you will miss or may hurt (unintentionally), don't forget there are people in life who want to keep you down. You will come across people who are arrogant and others who are jealous and will try to hold you down.
"You're not good enough!"
"You can't do it!"
"You're a Mexi-Can't, not a Mexi-Can!"
These are things I have heard all my career. First, I am good enough. I have God and I have a successful career to prove it. Second, "Can't" is an action that does not exist. Anyone can do anything they want to, when they set their mind to it; I did and continue to do it every day. Can't is an excuse for those who don't want to try or put forth proper effort. When you want something bad enough, nothing will stop you -- nothing can stop you. You don't have to be from a big city or some place special to have big talent. Never underestimate the power of true passion.
Finally, being a Hispanic (Latino) is not a curse or a burden. Being a Latino is a beautiful thing. It is who I am! I don't have to eat chiles raw, speak spanish, look a certain way, or come from another country to be Latino. While the world holds on to these stereotypes, I refuse to let them hold me down or to not be who I am!
I have used all the negative junk as motivation to push myself and to show others they are wrong. It all goes back to the passion I have for "the craft:" the passion for being great and doing all that I can.
As a chef, the number one question people ask me is: "So, what is your forte?" Honestly, I don't have one. A good chef does not have to have a forte. I have a couple of specialty dishes and a whole lot of skill. I can do seafood, steaks, ethnic food, and I have secret love affair with baking. Being a good chef simply means knowing a great deal about food, ingredients, dishes, techniques, tradition, history, and being an overall BAD ASS! Having a forte is knowing a lot about one thing; ethnic cuisine, dish or technique. I never wanted to limit myself to one thing. I have always strived to be a bad ass. And you can't get that status get without passion. Technique, skill, and know-how all can be taught and learned, but no one can teach or be taught passion! The reason my food tastes better, or even why "mom's" food tastes the best, is because of the love that is put into it. Just as in life, LOVE=PASSION.
Most of the time being a chef is a thankless job, and most of the time it is hard work. So why do it?
Simple: It is gratifying to know you followed your heart and fulfilled your passion, to know you put together a great-tasting dish -- that you created something that put a smile on someone's face makes it all worthwhile. When you go out and visit a table and the guest, or a fellow manager, or fellow employees say, "Wow! That was great!" all the pain seems to fade away. In truth, hearing words of gratitude doesn't happen every day, but these compliments carry weight and it only takes one. As a chef, there is a huge sense of internal gratification. There are other endless reasons why you do it: the rush, the adrenaline, the pride, the joy, in the name of passion. Eating a meal should be an experience in food that evokes emotion.
But the main reason? You want too.
I liken being a chef to having kids. No one in their right damn mind would want kids based on all that it entails. But having kids brings immense pride and an overwhelming sense of joy that simply cannot be explained. There is passion, desire, joy, and pain that goes along with being a parent. You have to want it. Getting up every day to face old and new challenges with little or no thanks for doing your job: the job you desired and brought upon yourself. But at the end of the day, when it is all done, when you can sit back smile knowing you did good, had fun, made a difference -- it is all worth it and you can't wait do it all again the next day.
At times, it is good to be the dad! In the same way, it is good to be "The Chef"! A good chef has earned the respect of peers, employees and those never even met. In some ways, a chef is revered because of talents and abilities. Remember though, it takes a great deal more than a fantastic dish to be a good chef. People skills, teaching skills, leadership skills, paper skills, organizational skills are just a few other abilities required of. Specialty drinks, meals and gifts (sometimes tips) are some of the perks of being the chef. So yes! It's good to be the chef!
I am not a writer, a poet, a teacher, a mediator, a referee or a judge. I am the guy who stands in a room all day wearing a white coat: not 'cuz I'm crazy, 'cuz I'm just a chef.
This post originally appeared in "The Chef!" at LatinoTimes.com