Sunday, July 18, 2010

Who Is a Cook?

It is often said that those who work in professional kitchens are a breed apart and I concur. Some reasons for this are quite obvious. The work conditions alone are rather taxing. You are working for 8-10 hours (sometimes longer) standing up 100% of the time in a very hot kitchen directly in front of very hot stoves . The pay is quite low, unless you are an executive chef for a rather wealthy owner/corporation. There is no acceptable pace other than “faster” and inability to live up to these standards typically is cause for dismissal, or at least demotion. In addition to these obvious differences to jobs in the real world, there are other factors that make kitchen work unique. Due in part to the harsh work conditions, the tone of conversation in kitchens is very coarse and sexually charged (obviously in a heterosexual direction). Almost everyone works on weekends and quite often on holidays as well, since these are the times when restaurants are the busiest. Many chefs are very harsh and run their kitchens somewhere between a military camp and a despotic dictatorship. So why would anyone enter this line of work? Two reasons. One reason is not quite as true as it used to be but does still apply: people enter the business because they have no other productive options or do not feel at ease in a normal work environment. It used to be the only qualification needed to work in a kitchen is to show up and follow the chef’s instructions. Also, many forms of deviant and semi-criminal behaviour were tolerated as long as those aforementioned conditions were met. These circumstances meant that people who had few marketable skills or had unsavoury personal habits would still be valued members of a kitchen staff. It was certainly not glamorous back then but preferable to welfare or jail. The other reason is the more obvious one - a genuine passion for food and cooking. The desire to feed people and have them enjoy what you give them, combined with the rush you get from coping with very difficult conditions and producing great food that will wow the diner, yet producing it by the dozens or hundreds of portions in a matter of minutes.

So why am I doing this? Definitely more the second reason that the first - I have a University education and could have gone into other fields, although I did decide to enter the culinary field after my original plans to go to graduate school were not successful. I can state without hesitation that I cook because I love food and I love working with food. In fact when tasting something exceptionally good, I feel something close to a sexual turn-on. Lest this sound like a bizarre perversion on my part, I have since found out from some of my colleagues that this is definitely not unknown among cooks and chefs who are known to get “culinary boners” (figuratively, I assume!) On further consideration, I don’t believe this is restricted to culinary professionals. Cooking magazines and TV shows present food in ways that is remarkably similar to how pornography is presented, complete with airbrushing, touch-ups, moaning and oohs and aahs. And diners (for some reason more women than men) may describe particularly flavourful food as “orgasmic”. And of course, who can forget the famous fake orgasm scene in “When Harry met Sally” when Meg Ryan’s amazing demonstration of a fake orgasm in a diner prompts the old lady at the next table to tell the waitress “I’ll have what she’s having”! So obviously, there is a fairly deep connection between food and sex, which also may help in part to explain the usually crude and raunchy atmosphere in professional kitchens.

This deep association between food and sex serves as another explanation for the sexually charged tone of kitchen conversation described earlier. This can make for a difficult environment for a homosexual in a kitchen. Since most of the cooks are straight, the banter is heterosexual in tone and frequently tends toward the homophobic. And I do feel a little uncomfortable with this, since I am still in the process of coming to terms with my sexual identity and since I keep quiet about sexual matters. However, I do seem to be noticing there is more tolerance beneath the surface of intolerance. When I have actually talked seriously with other cooks about these matters, they are in fact quite tolerant. Part of this is because many cooks are sensation-seekers and, even though they are straight, some have experimented in the past and, when they are deal with someone who is gay, they are more tolerant than you would expect from the idle banter. Also, in many restaurants I have worked in, a large number of male waitstaff happen to be gay (I’m sure many have theories that rely on stereotypes but I’m truly not sure why this is).

So what was this post about anyway? Oh, right, it was about who is a professional cook. Or is it about food and sex? Maybe about gays in the kitchen? Well, it may not be the most cohesive of posts, I think it does show the importance of food and cooking in my life. Expect to see more ramblings about kitchen life.


While I’m on the topic of homosexuality(sort of), I would like to take a brief diversion to draw attention to some recent events relating to gay rights, some good some bad. First the negative. The State of Hawaii in the United States had finally passed a bill through both state houses to legalize civil unions but it was vetoed by the governor, who stalled the maximum time allowed by law until congress was on summer recess and could not return to override the veto, which might have been possible as the vote was close to the needed supermajority. The governor instead favours civil unions be decided by popular vote, which will likely create a situation similar to Proposition 8 in California which used hate to overturn law. Rights for minorities should never be decided by popular vote, which only takes majority rule into account and not legal principles that ensures all are served. Hawaii has an election for a new governor in November and hopefully the voters will go back to the Democrats who are more in tune with Hawaiian attitudes and values. Contrast this with Argentina, which has just legalized gay marriage, the first Latin American country to do so. Finally in some more trivial gay news, the Stanley Cup, the championship trophy for ice hockey, won by the Chicago Blackhawks, was carried in Chicago’s gay pride parade in late June. It was carried by Blackhawks player Brent Sopel during his appointed day to spend with the trophy as he wishes. He chose the pride parade in honour of Brendan Burke, the son of Brian Burke, the manager of one of Sopel’s former teams. Brendan, a college hockey player, died in a car accident last year, not long after coming out, something very difficult for athletes in team sports. This was the first pride parade for the 117-year-old trophy, the most revered trophy in professional sports, but it is not all that unusual, as the Cup has a history of being brought to many different places.

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