Monday, November 25, 2013

The Noveling Chef

The ego driven, perfectionist character perfect for your novel.

That Cheffing Novel
Brad Ray - Contributor

Chefs are becoming popular characters in all forms of media - from celebrity chefs teaching you new recipes on the TV, to culinary competitions. There are entire channels dedicated to nothing but food programming, Food Network being the first one that comes to most people’s minds. People are eating out more, becoming more food conscious. Chefs are at the forefront of a revolution.

Naturally, this would make a chef an appealing character in a novel. However, the depiction of chefs that you see on TV is typically a persona. By basing a character off of that, it’s not quite right. Obviously, aspects of it are correct, but there are a few differences. So then what’s a chef actually like?

As a chef myself, I have been formally schooled in the Culinary Arts, and have experience working in multiple kitchens under many different chefs. We are as diverse a lot as can be, but all of us share certain traits. There are qualifications that a successful chef must have.

All chefs have big egos. It comes with the territory. We take pride in the food that we produce, and will defend it. Our food is good food, our food is the best food. You get a group of chefs cooking in a kitchen, and the egos will come out to play. It can lead to anything from friendly competition, to heated arguments. Taking pride in your work is a good thing, but it can also lead to conflict, which is great for a novel.

The best chefs, however, have that ego, but they also know when they are wrong. One key factor is knowing that even if you are considered the best in your cuisine, area, city, etc., there will always be someone who is better or who knows more. A successful chef will listen to constructive criticism and will be able to put their ego aside in the never ending quest for perfection in their craft.

I worked in one kitchen where the chef was quite the egomaniac. I was a lowly cook, a nobody. My opinion on things meant nothing to him. Yet, it took him three tries to make a simple bechamel sauce, while I could do it on the first try. He had issues doing the math to figure out how much product to order, despite me trying to correct him. The last thing anyone in that kitchen wanted to do was to stop working the day of a big catering event and drive to the restaurant supply store in order to purchase food that we should already have had.

This chef, to put it simply, refused to listen. His ego told him that I, as a cook, knew nothing. He, as the chef, knew it all, despite the fact that he kept messing up. He wouldn't even listen to his sous chefs, as he was the big boss and knew best. Eventually you just have to shrug and let him be. His ego will cost him his business, sooner rather than later.

Busy Kitchens are LOUD!

Another aspect of a chef is that we are all loud. A production kitchen is a very noisy place. At any given time you've got multiple stoves going with all kinds of dishes. Pots and pans are clanking, the industrial dishwasher is running. It’s loud, and you have to be louder to be heard over everything. When giving out instructions, you have to shout. All kitchens have a rule: when the chef says something, you respond with a shouted, “Yes, chef!” so the chef knows you heard them.

The effect this loudness has on a chef outside the kitchen varies. Some chefs continue to be loud, even when there really is no reason to do so. Other chefs become very quiet. That has more to do with the chef’s actual personality. However, no matter how quiet they are outside a kitchen, get a chef into a kitchen and they’ll be the loudest person in there.

Chefs are creatures of perfection. They are detail-oriented and have an eye for the small things. Being a chef is akin to being an artist. Where a painter uses paint as his medium, a chef uses food. We create works of art on each plate that goes out the kitchen door. Unlike a painter, our works don’t last very long. However, that doesn't stop us from being so darn fussy about each dish.

Most chefs have a certain way they do things, and that is how their kitchen works. Plating a dish is done up to their standards. A chef must take into consideration things like colors, flavors, smells. There’s a saying that “You eat with your eyes first.” A plate has to look good. To this end, chefs have to be good at the small details. This usually comes out as them being a perfectionist, which is true. While they may not seek perfection in all aspects of their lives, chefs certainly strive to achieve perfection in their work.

For me, each new place I work at comes with learning how the chef wants things to be done. Usually that involves watching someone else plate a dish once. From then on, I’m expected to be able to recreate it perfectly. Oftentimes, I get only one day of training, which doesn’t involve learning the recipes but is instead a quick tour of the kitchen showing where everything is, then I just get tossed into the fire and start cooking.

Every dish is supposed to match the Chef's standard are look the exact same.

The final most common aspect of a successful chef is their dedication. Being a chef isn’t all the glamour that you see on TV. Kitchens are hot and noisy. Knives and fire are going everywhere. Cuts and burns are a daily aspect of the job. Often a chef is at work for ten hours a day, six to seven days a week. If a chef is also the owner of the business, that number goes up. Chefs spend most of their time in a small, hot, windowless kitchen.

Despite all that, there’s a passion for the job that any good chef will exude. On a whole, we love what we do and wouldn’t trade it for anything. We strive and work for that one customer who will send back word with the server that they loved the meal. Making just one person happy is all we want.

This is just a short list of common aspects you’ll find amongst successful chefs. If the chef in your novel is unsuccessful through their own fault and not simply the economy, then simply take one or more of these aspects and reverse them. There’s a lot more to being a chef than what I’ve mentioned here. I’ll be exploring those other components in more posts as this series continues. Until then, remember to thank your chef the next time you eat out.

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