Posted by Chef Todd Aarons
The Days of Yore
It was once written by a well respected restaurant critic concerning an early restaurant that I grew up in “you get the feeling that the people who run it like food, like themselves and like what they are doing” These words obviously never left my thoughts. The core essence of what I and those that have joined me as a chef do is succinctly summarized by this statement. We live in strange times though where I’m sure not everybody is in this game or wants to be a part of the game nowadays for honest self evident reasons. There was a time when my colleagues and I after a hard nights work in the kitchen would stagger over to Cornelia Street in lower Manhattan and have a miraculous restorative meal at Po, at the hands of a young Mario Batali. Locked in my memory forever was exquisitely braised tripe in tomato sauce, the kind of dish that Italian farmers from Lombardy would rejoice with at the end of a hard days labor. We would end up sitting with Mario and his sous chef Andrew who were in the kitchen at the time and the only other table was the staff family meal going on in the background. I was in that moment of idealistic enjoyment where I was soaking up like a crusty piece of pain au levain the gravy of my existence as a chef in New York. It was a happy moment for me, the culinary world and all its traditions and history that the ranks of chefs before me had given birth to made me feel I was a part of a special fraternity, of course it could just have been the grappa that was making my head do cartwheels. This was a familiar scene and I was happy and honored to consider myself as one of its members. To my dismay I didn’t see the change that was coming to cloud my reality. The secretive usually misunderstood life of the chef would soon be revealed and the mystique would be over. After all that is the price of fame. Your anonymity and privacy are slaughtered first. Any honest enjoyment from your career choice will be diluted like a watered down drink with the attention you get until for some that attention becomes the fix.
First you could begin to smell it in the air and I’m not talking about Thursday nights in lower Manhattan when the garbage trucks took over the roads. . More and more cooks out of school would show up in our kitchens looking for something else other than the self gratifying love of producing great cuisine or just finding a home in this band of brothers. They were restless and not in a good way but the way a child wants it all right now without any effort. They had ulterior motives. I couldn’t understand nor fully embrace the need by most of them to be famous or be willing to scrub a kitchen floor with several other comis for a renowned TV chef. The gasoline that turned this smoldering ember into a bonfire was the television. Not to long after those great meals I shared with my co-chefs TV gave birth to the food network. I can remember watching with complete innocence the first episodes of Molto Mario where Mario was a little shy and nervous as he related his brilliance of regional Italian cuisine to an audience who got a firsthand glimpse into the myriads of information Mario had tucked away in his Chef brain. Television revealed to the masses like the bite from the apple in the Garden of Eden what chefs do in their unknown society and it was as if they became instant rock stars. People everywhere wanted a piece of that life, Just look at the choices of Halloween costumes for kids today. My choices never included a toque and apron. That moment in time we as chefs lost a little of our innocence and anonymity, our idealism had been tainted.
After all isn’t it about the brilliant food millions of great chefs produce in this world who don’t have TV shows, the infamous chefs that form the backbone of the culinary world who sometimes cook out of a hole in the wall, out of the way neighborhood or even a food truck. I grew up in the punk rock generation and the underground movement of food shares those ideals of breaking rules and shunning fame. TV has sensationalized yet again another gem of our society and made it feel like a whore. I know it was only a matter of time. Like when your favorite unknown restaurant spot hits the good morning show and you can’t get a seat there anymore. Some of you are ready to tell me even the Sex Pistols signed a record contract. I’m not saying that making a living is evil just don’t let it be the definitive part of your inspiration even Sid did it his way. Don’t let the sensationalism or the capitalism of TV be your guiding force. Remember your true intentions in this new world hopefully they were evolved from your love of cooking. Today restauranteurs hire those who have been on cooking shows even the ones that did not win in hopes that patrons will flock to their restaurant or you may see a list of famous people, not you, on their website that have eaten at their restaurant in hopes that you will want to meet Paris Hilton. The food scene has its struggle. Everyday new creative unknowns are honoring the traditions of chefdom and they do it because they like food, like themselves and like what they are doing, period, end of story. The struggle is to keep that focus and intention even when the Food network susses you out or the home shopping network pimps you to sell pans with your name on it. Escoffier would be a billionaire today with his own brand of cookware and do you think Van Gogh would be happy to know that I can get his life works on a coffee mug set on the home shopping network? No.
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