Creative Chefs and the Proletarians


Genuine culinary artistry faces a fundamental hurdle–the preparation of food is also a business and the customer must be satisfied. Art and music production also have commercial elements, but artists and musicians can more easily keep their customers at arm’s length during the creative process. You can see a painting before you buy it—you can’t sample a dish before you order it.

Here is an interesting take on this problem from Richie Nakano, a chef who clearly senses the tension between food as art and food as a commodity.

It’s late after a particularly busy pop-up, I’m about three whiskeys past my comfort zone, and I have to start all over again eight hours from now. I switch into auto mode and wash my station down, the still-hot French-top range hissing at me every time I scrub anywhere near it. I just want to wrap it up and go cry in the shower a little, but my cook has been hounding me about an idea for a dish, and now I’ve got no choice but to hear him out. He hands me a piece of paper scrawled with columns and arrows and drawings and ingredients and for fuck’s sake what am I looking at? …

The conversation goes on for another 20 minutes, during which I drink two more whiskeys and a glass of very sugary Riesling. Eventually I’ll ask him to make the dish so we can taste it, but in the days that follow I end up shooting it down completely. He’ll quit, after saying I’m not open to new cooking techniques and that he just wanted to make my food “better.”

And I will realize that—shit—I’ve been here before. Only last time, I was the one who felt betrayed.

Most experiments don’t work and no one wants to taste, let alone pay for, someone’s failed idea. Restaurant cooking is about pushing as much well-prepared, familiar food out the door as you can. The economic realities of the culinary profession work against the romantic notion, fostered by the phenomenon of the celebrity chef, that cooking is a means of self-expression.

For every executive chef imagining techno-emotional magic on a plate, there is an army of proletarians doing the scrubbing, scraping, and pounding, waiting for their shot.

Yet some manage to achieve that magic despite the odds.

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