Think of a question for a chef, and it’s likely that it’s already been asked. What’s your favorite junk food? What food do you crave? What do you make at home? What’s your favorite restaurant? What’s your favorite dish? What’s your go-to dish?
Turning Chefs Into Chef-Reporters
There’s no harm in these questions. You can learn interesting things from some chefs’ answers, like that New York chefs love Lupa, and that they may love fish almost as much as pork. But how much do these questions really add to a discussion about food? As Food & Wine Magazine’s Dana Cowin noted in a recent interview, “Chefs get asked the same questions over and over. So I try to avoid any question you know they've been asked a million times before, like what's your guilty pleasure.”
So, while attending food events over the past two years, there was one question posed to chefs that bucked the hit-each-event-tasting-station routine: “If there is any one question you could ask your peers anonymously, what would it be?"
Who Were the Chefs?
We asked this question of almost 50 well-known chefs, and they answered, some with more candor than others. Given the promise of anonymity, we won’t reveal who said what, but considering these questions were asked of anyone who has attended the New York City and South Beach Wine & Food festivals during the last two years, there were some big names and celebrities.
Who exactly? It's safe to name a few, considering you won't know who asked what. Michael White, Marco Canora, Andrew Carmellini, Johnny Iuzzini, Dave Pasternack, Amanda Freitag, John Delucie, Brooks Headley, Deborah Racicot, Floyd Cardoz, John Stage — if we name any more you'll start trying to match up who said what, so let's stop here. You get the idea.
When asked what they would ask their peers, some chefs were stumped. “No idea,” quipped one, “that's why you do what you do, and I do what I do.” But most didn’t have to think too long before coming up with their own questions, often posed with a sly grin. “Would you ever send something back in a friend's restaurant?” one chef suggested. “How much do you mark up your wine by the glass?” offered another.
There were some more forceful questions for peers, like this one: “Why the f@%k are you doing this?” Some questions were directed at specific celebrity chefs, like "I'd ask Gordon Ramsay where he gets those jackets he wears — they seem to fit him so well." But there were honest thoughtful ones like, "That depends on the chef. It’s not so much about the question as the chef you’re asking a question of." And funny ones too, like “Who are you sleeping with?” and “Where do you get your foot massages from?”
At about 50 chefs, the sampling may be a bit small to serve as a formal survey of what chefs are most curious about hearing peers discuss. But there were predominant themes. Questions fell into four main categories: motivation for being a chef (“Why do they do what they do?”); kitchens, staff and operations ("How do you keep your employees happy?"); how chefs tackle events (“How do you function and get up the next day?”); and coping with workload (“Do you work as much as I do?”). You can view the categories and a full list of the chefs' anonymous questions in the accompanying Stat-Feast.
Of course, this exercise begs two next-level moves. One, to canvas chefs for answers to their peers' questions. We'd love chefs to share answers at firstname.lastname@example.org. The other move is meta. What better questions to ask chefs than their own queries for their peers? Mischievous? Yes. But believe it, when questions were turned around on chefs you caught a spark in their eyes, a glimmer of respect. It's like the hot foot, but in question form. About half the chefs gamely answered their own questions... others, well, they stumped themselves.