This sums it up perfectly, and I thought it merited a re-post for our work here.
COPIED AS WRITTEN BY EDWARD LEE, for Esquire Magazine
"People are growing weary of the word “chef.” Lately, it’s been used to sell everything from canned soup to fast food pizza. Some argue it’s no different than using the word to raise cooking show ratings. There are others who think the word is a by-product of an exclusionary boy’s club and then those who just think it is self-ingratiating. I’m no purist who bemoans the days when being a “chef” really meant something, but I cringe at articles like the one written by the usually brilliant Robert Sietsema who protests against having to address cooks with the honorific “chef.”
I apprenticed in kitchens during a time when the word was reserved for the utmost reverence and authority. It was a word I coveted and feared. Without having gone to cooking school, I never got handed a degree with my name on it. So for me, working my knuckles to the bone was my way of earning the right to be called a chef. And I still believe that the title of “Chef” represents the highest form of professional craftsmanship and artistic expression.
The irony now is I don’t care what people call me—as long as it’s not asshole. I don’t insist—and honestly, I don’t know any chef who does—that people refer to me as “Chef.” It happens, and that’s fine. To my cooks, it is a form of respect. And for the general public, they get a kick out of it. Who am I to be contrarian? But what is left of the word now that we’ve exhausted it?
The National Restaurant Association counts 980,000 restaurants in the United States. That’s a lot of cooks out there. I started to think about my own dumb, idealized definition of the word “chef” and realized how little it involves the vast majority of hard working people in the food service industry. But they aren’t chefs—you say. I guess not. I guess to someone like Sietsema, a caterer is not a chef—just an insignificant part of the uninspired food industrial complex. Like the deli counter girl and the Applebee’s cooks. But holy crap, that’s really elitist. I am lucky. I get to have my little restaurant in the middle of nowhere and cook the expressionist cuisine that I want to cook and don’t give a damn if it meets anyone’s expectations or not. But not everyone gets to do that. In fact, a rarefied few will ever make that leap. So all the other people who prepare food for a living—are they not chefs? Or are they just cooks? Who gets to determine which ones are ordained?
Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life have been at the hands of wonderful home cooks. But I wouldn’t call them chefs. Not unless you’ve ever spent the afternoon pumping out a clogged grease trap or woken up in the middle of the night questioning if you left the fish order on the meat phone line and vice-versa, or ever looked into the eyes of a young hapless cook and crushed his dreams. That’s what a chef does. Amongst many other hats. There are those that are brilliant at it, others just mediocre. But to me, they are all chefs. They fill a need: they feed the vast, bottomless appetite of the American public.
Recently, I was stuck in the Chicago airport after a series of flight delays. I sat at a bar and ordered chili, a quesadilla, and a beer. The place was getting crushed. Everyone who couldn’t leave the airport decided they would take their pissed off attitude to this restaurant and get mad about the overpriced food. From where I sat, I could see a chef in the kitchen getting his ass handed to him, getting deeper and deeper into some wilderness of weeds with each passing minute. My food took a while and there was nothing “gourmet” about it, but my quesadilla was crispy, the cheese was melty, and the chili had just the right amount of sour cream on top. It made me feel good when all I wanted to do was be pissed off.
After the push, the chef came out looking pretty beat up. His cheeks were ruddy from an unhealthy rise in blood pressure. His breathing was forced and he had that familiar hunched over stance as he sucked down a quart container of ice water while looking off into the distance. As I left the bar, I turned to him and gave him a quick but earnest, “Thanks, Chef.” He didn’t speak English, but he perked up for a moment with a professional nod and a smile before heading back into that warzone of a kitchen."
---- ONCE AGAIN, PERFECTLY STATED. Thanks Chef.