My Responsibilities as a Chef Part One: Honoring Culinary Tradition

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The Chef’s Code

“Chef” literally means “Chief”.  The title carries a weight with it much more than a humble cook.  With chefs, there is a lineage of respect.  Generation after generation, technique and tradition have been passed along.  Whether the lessons came from a four-star Michelin chef or a self-taught Indian Daadee, along with those instructions on how to perfectly steam rice comes much more.  There comes responsibility.

Chicago Personal Chef Katie Simmons

If you wish to become more than just a cook – if you wish to call yourself “Chef” – you must take on the responsibility of that role.  Your love of food is much deeper than creating one great meal.  You are part of an entire system that creates.  From Mother Earth who grows to the farmer that harvests to you who cooks to the man who takes your leftovers home to his overworked wife, your pivotal role lies right in the middle.

I feel the responsibility of my role as Chef every time I button up my coat.  I cook not just to feed.  I cook to honor the past, the present, and the future of food.  I cook to honor the traditions of mealtime, of breaking bread together, of communing to nourish the spirit.  The past few years, my mission has become clearer.  I want to do my part to save the planet, prevent disease, and help you live the most delicious life possible.

I want to share my Mission as a Chef with you.  I hope this builds a deeper appreciation not just for cooking, but for the full-circle roll that food plays in our lives.

 

 

My Responsibilities as a Chef Part One:
Honoring Culinary Tradition

 

First Responsibility:  Make it Delicious

Every time you use the word ‘healthy,’ you lose. The key is to make yummy, delicious food that happens to be healthy. —Marcus Samuelsson

“Is it delicious?”

If there’s any question most-often repeated in culinary school, it’s this.  Whenever we, as students, had a question about an ingredient or a cooking method, our teachers would often come back with this.

“Chef, do I have to peel the carrots?”  “Look at those carrot peels.  Do you want to eat them?  Are they delicious?”

“Chef, how long does the braise go in the oven?”  “Check it.  Taste it.  Take it out when it’s delicious.”

“Chef, is this enough salt?”  “Is it delicious?  Taste, taste taste.”

Make food Delicious.

This is the core responsibility of a chef.

Chef’s Mission: Make it Delicious

While this might seem logical, it can sometimes be lost in our modern food culture.  So often we eat mindlessly, ignoring flavor simply to feed an addiction.  We can go through bags of potato chips while watching tv, not even tasting them until we’re left licking the salt off our fingers, craving more.

On the flip side, the health food world is constantly trying to convince us of what we should be consuming more.  Rarely, when a new granola bar hits the shelf does the label say “Delicious!”  It usually says something more like “More protein!  Gluten-Free!  All Natural!”  As if we should be eating granola bars only because they have more protein.  What happened to flavor?  New “superfood” ingredients like Macca powder, goji berries, and acai promise to revolutionize our energy levels.  Yet, if they don’t taste delicious, are they really “super”?

Beautiful Sweet Strawberries at Green City Market

As an eater, you have choices when deciding what is delicious.  If you don’t like kale, please stop forcing yourself to eat it.  There are so many other delicious greens out there.  If you think chickpeas have a weird texture, go for cannellini beans.  If you think Yukon Gold potatoes always beat Russets in a flavor test, go for the golds.   Be leery of the food porn on social media.  Some of the most beautiful food photos would taste rough upon actual consumption.  Raw beets give off a gorgeous red hue, but they can taste like dirt to someone new on a plant-based diet.  Dandelion greens have lovely green and violet hues, but they are one of the most bitter plants in the market.

My Mission: Always Delicious.

As a personal chef, I am constantly catering to a variety of dietary preferences.  I have clients that request everything from sugar-free vegan to gluten-free seafood to red meat and dairy.  While I follow a plant-based vegan diet for myself, I am constantly creating a wide variety of dishes.  I’ll broil lamb chops, roast whole Branzino, grill bison burgers, and bake the Ultimate Flourless Chocolate Cake.  Regardless of the ingredients, my goal is always to make the food taste amazing.  So what if I didn’t follow the recipe verbatim?  Not a problem if I have to swap out sweet potatoes for Japanese Yams.  I taste everything.  It must taste delicious.  I owe this to you as my diner, my meal companion.  If I come back to this core value, I will have respected my duty as a chef.

 

Second Responsibility: Waste Nothing

I don’t like to waste anything. Any food left over from the night before is always eaten the next day. —Martin Yan

The first day of Garde Mange class, I lined up with my fellow culinary students in a row of white jackets and checkered pants.  Our arms bore the burn scars from the past year of kitchen life, but we were still naïve cooks.  Sure, we could whip up a quick omelet, but we had much to learn regarding classic French technique.

Our chef instructor, Chef Altieri, wheeled in a giant metal cart, the kind you might see a UPS driver use around Christmas time to unload massive packages of holiday gifts. It wasn’t Christmas, and we weren’t expecting any packages. On Chef Altieri’s cart lay half of a pig. A full-sized 300-pound hog had been sliced right down the middle. Other than the head and the tail (both fully intact), exactly half of the beast lay before us. Snout, feet, and her female teats poked out at us, reminding us of the life she once had.  Her eyes were mercifully closed, but her tongue sadly laid bare, as if she had suffered instant cardiac arrest while in the middle of licking the furry head of her suckling pigs.

Trotters Pig Feet at Peru Market

Chef was straightforward about the matter, “So, this is a pig.  We’re going to butcher the pig and you’re going to work together to use all the parts for the recipes in your packets”.  Over the next 2 hours, he worked his way down the beast.  Starting at the head, his steady butcher’s knife dissected head and tongue.  “This is for headcheese, like in those Vietnamese Ban-mi sandwiches.  The tongue is for tasso”.  His deft hand chiseled out pork shoulder, baby back ribs, tenderloin.  Pork belly carried the hallmark marbling of bacon.  Pounds of fat were tossed in a massive stock pot, to be rendered and used in rillettes, sausages, and wherever else we could squeeze.  The trotters were saved for their thick collagen.  Shanks were set aside for broth.  Even the ears were reserved for fried chicharrones.  Nothing went to waste.

Sausages and Hams at German Market

Over the next 6 weeks, our class transformed every humble cut of that swine into fine cuisine.  We smoked Canadian bacon and cured whole ham legs.  We mixed countless varieties of sausage: Traditional American breakfast sausage, Apple rosemary patties, and deep Spanish blood sausage.  We tasted everything.  Chef’s rule “You don’t have to swallow it, but you do have to taste it”.  We created elegant platters with fancy aspics, elevating the cuisine.  A humble pig was to earn the recognition of fellow chefs and savvy diners.  From being served on a giant metal cart, she would now be served on fine white china.

My Mission: Let Nothing Go to Waste

The image of that pigs stays with me today: helplessly lying there on day one, slaughtered for our use.  As chefs, we have a duty to honor the pig and the life it gave.  To throw away even the bones would dishonor all of the life and energy that went into creation. In the plant-based world, we focus with the same care. We have a gentle touch so as not to spill the rice or splatter the tomatoes.  We must be expedient our use of ingredients. Nothing goes to waste.


Third Responsibility: Honor Location and Season

My grandmother taught me the seasonality of food. She lived with the rhythms of nature. That’s the way we should live. Why do we need raspberries in January flown from Chile? —Lidia Bastianich

“Chef!  Chef!  I have peaches!  You’ve got to try these!”

The farmer from Seedling quickly sliced off small bites for us to taste.  From his small knife to our hungry mouths went the taste of pure summer.  “Oh my GOODNESSSSS!” Chef Ryan bellied.  Her eyes rolled back in a moment of bliss.  Our smiling mouths dripped with the sweet juices as our wide eyes echoed her sentiment.  Donut peaches were finally in season in the Midwest.  Time to celebrate.

Kendall College Fine Dining Grilled Peaches and Prosciutto

Back in school’s Fine Dining kitchen, we set about creating a dish to highlight the delicate fruit.  A simple dish of grilled peaches over a bed of arugula, thinly sliced Proscuitto, and a smear of Saba became the starring appetizer.  Other courses on the menu rolled with the celebration of summer flavors:  Sweet Corn Succotash with Pasture-Raised Chicken, Roasted Tropea Onions and Chiaggia Beets for beef tenderloin, sweet glazed blueberries with lemon panna cotta.  Colors, flavors, and textures glorified Mother Earth.  Months of barreling through harsh Chicago winters of kale and potatoes had now exploded with Sungold tomatoes and verdant sugar snap peas.

My Mission: Respect Location and Season

As chefs, our responsibility first lies in understanding the local produce of the season.  We must continue to be curious about where our food comes from.  Our second responsibility lies in sharing that knowledge with our diners.  We must cook with ingredients like rainbow carrots and fingerling potatoes.  I will continue to create recipes that showcase local produce.  Even if you aren’t shopping at my same farmers market – let’s say you’re in Peru, where you use quinoa instead of wild rice – the lesson is the same:  Honor the land.  Honor your location.  Honor the season.

The food will taste better.

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