orchestra conductorIn a recent interview for Open Table, food writer and food studies instructor Ann McBride traces the evolution of the role of the chef over the past few decades:

I’ve really been able to see three different stages. The Bocuse area in the ‘70s, ‘80s, nouvelle cuisine — the biggest shift is the chef as entrepreneur: the chef who becomes an owner of his own restaurant, versus before, just being in the kitchen. Suddenly the chef also starts to come to the dining room and present his or her food.

In the ‘80s in American cuisine, Larry Forgione and Jeremiah Tower — all of these people got a lot of press and attention. They were huge celebrities with endorsements. This isn’t something that just happened.

And then with Food Network, starting in 1993, what we see is the chef as entertainer. Also, who is a chef becomes less clear for the public, because a lot of people who are TV chefs are not restaurant or professional chefs. Or they end up having restaurants after, like Giada.

Then, more recently, the chef as expert. A lot of the chefs who have the biggest renown are not necessarily on TV, or if they are it’s on documentaries like “Mind of a Chef” or “Chef’s Table” — the more brainy type of things. It’s not a performance of cooking, it’s who they are. Or they have to be really opinionated on questions of sustainability or politics; they have to be very informed about a variety of things beyond cooking. And they are trusted because we think of them as experts.

That all seems right but underpinning this evolution is the chef as composer and conductor.

The popular image of a chef is someone in a toque hat and apron with knife and spatula in hand expertly flaying a carcass or putting the finishing touches on a sauce. But the main job of a chef is to design the menu and manage the kitchen so that her vision is implemented from moment to moment. The chef is in charge of a team that must flawlessly execute dishes several times per evening, night after night after night. It’s all about educating the staff and coordinating operations. Management skills not knife skills.

Fine food is an art but creativity is central only in the design phase. The rest is the tedious business of setting people and objects in motion according to a strict and crushing schedule. Only the executive chef and those on her staff who have input in the design phase feel the thrill of discovery and the sparkle of imaginative insight. The rest stir, chop, heat and plate again, and again, and again.

For most,  the chef as drudge describes everyday life.

The road to the top is anything but glamorous.