Jacques Pépin, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a celebrated chef, cooking teacher, cookbook author and television personality, dean of special programs at the International Culinary Center, and winner of a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. His most recent book is New Complete Techniques.
I’ve been a chef for nearly 60 years. I love and respect my trade, and I still love to cook, mostly with other chef friends and my family. It is hard work to be behind the stove 16 hours a day in a restaurant kitchen, and the pressures at mealtime can be unbearable. Sometimes in those stressful conditions, hot tempers flare up and voices are raised. Conventionally, the situation abates as soon as mealtime is over, and more often than not ends in a friendly discussion over a glass of wine or a beer. As an apprentice, I was kicked in the rear end a few times, but it was tough love more than nastiness. These are the conditions of the trade, and anyone who works in a restaurant is well aware of them.
In the last few years, there have been a flurry of new TV cooking shows, so-called “reality” shows, that portray the restaurant kitchen in a chaotic and negative light, and I believe it is a disservice to our trade and to young people who want to go into this business. The worst offenders insult and humiliate their crew, cursing and swearing, with every other word a bleeped expletive. The crew, often unkempt and untidy, look at the chef defiantly and seem to be terrorized and belligerent at the same time. The process of cooking, the process of combining ingredients together to create a dish, is never seen on these shows.
The process of cooking, the process of combining ingredients together to create a dish, is never seen on these shows. Nor is the process of tasting, adding an ingredient, then tasting again and commenting ever shown. Dishes appear from somewhere, and the tasting is only done by the dictator chef at the end of the show, and only in the context of disagreeing, conflicting, or contesting the taste, with the goal of mortifying his cooks, not helping them. This approach is certainly not conducive to creating good-tasting dishes.
I have asked friends many times, “What are the best fundamental dishes of your life?” Invariably, their response goes back to food prepared by a mother, a grandmother, a father, an aunt, or some other relative or friend. A main ingredient of those preparations is the love with which they are prepared. Those early tastes remain with you for the rest of your life. The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang said that patriotism is nothing more than the love of dishes you had as a child. Certainly, in times of stress you go back to the essential dishes of your youth. As those young soldiers in Afghanistan would certainly agree, Mom’s apple pie, Boston baked beans, or a lobster roll are among the dishes they crave or dream about. In Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, the book’s main protagonist, Dr. Urbino, doesn’t know anything about cooking, but when he eats and entertains in his home, he equates the goodness of the food with how much love was put into the dish. He would reject a dish, saying, “this food was cooked without love.” It is a criticism that is closer to the truth than most people realize.
Julia Child used to say that you have to be happy when you cook for the food to be good, and you also have to be happy in the eating and sharing of the food with family and friends. Otherwise the gastric juices will not do their job and you won’t digest the food properly. I agree with her assessment. It is impossible to enjoy food when you're angry and tense.
In these reality shows, the confrontation and the bitter drama are not conducive to producing good food. There is disarray and pandemonium in these kitchens, as well as in the dining rooms. No one seems to agree on anything, and there are ongoing clashes between the employees, without much evidence of what makes a kitchen work. For the good of his or her restaurant, the chef should be a role model, an educator who probes and advises his cooks, rather than embarrasses them publicly. A good kitchen is quiet most of the time. It is disciplined, well structured, and clean. People who cook there are dedicated and work together. Teamwork is extremely important, as all parts of the kitchen have to work on many of the same dishes. This requires them to work as one unit, like in a symphony when all the parts come together at the end. It is not exciting or dramatic enough for TV.
The so-called “reality” cooking shows are, if anything, totally unreal. A real, well-run professional kitchen has dignity and order. If cameras went into Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, or Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, they would see a kitchen that is well organized, with a contented, dedicated, hard-working staff. The cruel rivalry and conflict depicted in Hell’s Kitchen may be good for ratings, but it is unjust to dedicated cooks and unfair to the trade. In my opinion, nothing good enough to eat can be concocted under such conditions. I’m going back to my mother’s leek and potato soup and apple galette.