Chefs as Writers: What Does It Mean To Be Both?

| December 27, 2007 | 10 Comments
  • 10 Comments

As we inch towards the ledge that is 2008 I am taking a lot of time for reflection. I’m thinking about transition and change and how we never know exactly where we’ll land and how we’ll feel about arriving there, even though we think, with all our planning and list-making and contriving, we can control everything.

This last year brought me back into the fold of an industry I wasn’t sure I’d ever fully join again. Almost five years ago someone very close to me was given less than three years to live and I exited Restaurant Kitchens to take care of her, help her die, and then grieve fully. In this grieving period it’s been impossible to tell whether I was done with my industry out of default, choice or exhaustion. And I had no idea if I’d ever go back, or if I wanted to.

Restaurant work is not part time work. It takes all of you and then some. It’s intimate and physical the way sex and relationships are. It engulfs, and tars and feathers you. It’s like your family of origin, cults, gangs and religion. We say you’re either on the train or not and after working the line for a period of time it’s easy to see why the military and kitchen work are so often compared.

For years I worked morning, noon and night and missed anything and everything important in anyone’s life I knew or the world at large. To walk away from My Industry when my friend became terminally ill was no small feat. But I knew. I knew that I could only do this immense piece of life’s work once. And then, without any warning, it changed me forever. It changed the cook I was to return to being, if I was to return.

In March my blog Eggbeater will be three years old, and I will be 40. I name the numbers because, in the time-line of this story it means that I began writing in a public forum while my friend was dying. I began writing about myself, being a pastry chef, fruit, teaching and local agriculture when I was not in A Kitchen per se. I was away for a long time, and yet I stayed close by keeping up with professional friendships and writing about the branches of my work. I worked hard to reconcile calling myself a chef and not having anyone’s name on my jacket but my own.

In professional cook-speak, if you are not {actively} in a kitchen you are not a cook, or a chef. If there are stoves without your name and sweat on them, you have no business wearing whites or calling yourself a cook. And in turn you have no right writing like you’re on the inside if you aren’t. We’re like punk rockers or OG’s— if you’re not in the game, you’re posing, full stop. It makes feelings more black & white than grey, and opinions about who deserves what title when are not hidden from audible view.

Those who write about my industry, and are not in it, are barely taken seriously. Sure there’s hand shaking and schmoozing and photo shoots in cushy houses, but those people are considered Outsiders and are treated thusly. (We need them to “Become Known,” they know it, and so the snake swallows its tail.)

But what does it mean to both hold the title of chef and writer? What does it mean to be both critic and critiqued? What does it mean to be the underdog cook and the despised? Who is allowed to write about the inside? And who can do it justice?

My industry has enjoyed it’s day in the sun concerning major media outlets in recent years. We have dozens of cooking slots, reality chef shows, superstar chef darlings, and certain restaurants getting press week after week, month after month, in every magazine– because they are so well known on TV.

But that’s not my reality. And TV, no matter how “real,” is edited beyond recognition: airbrushed, liposucked, botoxed, and teeth-whitened to a point of Hollywood psychosis, cannibalistically feeding on itself to survive.

The truth is that the truth still isn’t out there. And my industry, like the insider’s trade that they are, doesn’t mind keeping it that way.

Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

We will happily feed you lies if it sells dinners, or we have no say in the matter because TV has historically been entertainment and we suppose you’ll be smart enough to figure that out. Or we will happily let Them feed you lies because the dirty truth of the matter is that the restaurant industry is plagued by contradictions so entrenched, class and gender and racial disparities so vast, environmental crimes so grossly overlooked and gaping holes so wide, we look like a corrupt government with erased histories and disappearing leaders.

Am I allowed to report on the good, the bad and the ugly or should I keep our dirty laundry close? Should I stand back and smile cynically when person after person signs their life away to culinary schools and shiny happy media “chefs” tell them to follow the bouncing red ball as they join in one big sing-along to the tune of the Big Lie about how wonderful and easy being a chef is? Or maybe I should just stand by, keep my head down and shut up when a female cook gets passed by for a promotion or salary raise because of her sex?

Can I make a difference as a chef-writer? When my voice is so small compared to the big stars? What does it mean to straddle a fence separating two historically enemied roles? Can I stay true to both crafts?

I don’t have answers to my questions. I can blame the new media-ness of it all. For we are all a part of the Internet’s Great Experiment. “Every one’s” on the w.w.w. looking, eating, slurping, voraciously consuming, arguing, posing, learning, dishing, mud-slinging, opining, mis-informing and dawdling. The concept is that everyone can have a voice in a forum, and now those historically critiqued can talk back.

I might be naive to think that hearing from real chefs in real kitchens matters but I do. It’s a very different experience now working in a restaurant, and then writing about it. Blogging buoys me– writing down my life is my way of telling you, the you who read and listen and converse, what one real life in a kitchen among kitchens, a cook among cooks, is like. Writing from my heart, and being part of a small community of other chef and cook bloggers, is important because we can be a small movement educating those who want to know the true life of professional cooking, not the made-for-TV version.

You? Do you care where you get your truth from? Does it matter to you if said source has fact-checked, painted a pretty and easy-to-digest picture or done their time on the front lines? Do you think chef-writers are a good or dreadful thing? Do you appreciate a transparent restaurant industry or do you wish it would all stay behind closed doors like it always has?

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Category: chefs, restaurants, bars, cafes

About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • Diane

    I am fascinated by the boundries you define. Not being in the industry at all, I find it all a bit clubby – us vs. them – black/white. In general I distrust such definitions and groupings. I find that strong divisions rarely if ever help foster progress, enlightenment or good feeling. But as I said, your world is not mine so maybe it offers some benefits I am unaware of.

    In any case, I see no issues at all with combining “chef-writer”. I like reading your perspective – it helps me understand more about what really goes on in a restaurant. But even if it didn’t, I would still like and support it. I fail to see why there would be a conflict at all actually – from my admittedly naive perspective. Are you supposed to provide only omerta or inarticulate grunts when referring to your profession? Is it acceptable only to ramble to friends about your concerns? Are you supposed to limit your (wonderful) writing only to nature-writing and poetry? That’s a fine thing, but limiting yourself to that alone would probably be like chopping off an arm.

    Life is short. Do what you want. Write about what you like. Call your profession to task, and show its glories as well as warts to those of us who don’t know it as well as your compadres that do.

  • FaustianBargain

    interesting…can the guy who works at McDonalds flipping burgers and blogs on his days off call himself a chef-writer? will you include him into ‘the club’?

  • Charles Shere

    Both Chef and Writer think a lot, silently and often alone, even if they’re surrounded by people. The same kind of meditation is involved in each metier, and each will certainly inform the other.

    I think Pastry Chef is a unique position, involving the team-leader responsibilities common to all chefs, but also requiring great focus on self; and I’ve been impressed at the egolessness that often evolves in pastry chefs, a quality that helps writers too.

    I’ve been impressed at the writing skills developed on many food blogs, yours included, yours and David Lebovitz’s: chef-writing is an important new field.

  • elarael

    I find your voice valuable in that you are able to express, (or attempt to – which is just as valuable if not more, IMO), specific bugs in the machine that we as priviledged 1rst worlders are in complete denial of or total ignorance about. Of course your voice is valid – it’s Golden, in fact. And you are perfectly positioned to speak exactly as you do, thank god, because some people can only hear truth if it comes from someone with official validation regardless of the fact that anyone with sense can see any truth and it is TRUTH that should be listened to, regardless of who is ‘qualified’ to speak it.

    Regardless, I can only hope it is a labor of love for you to share these truths with the world at large because, are they ever necessary!

    Your essay begins to address, for me, how disfunction and those who protect it (out of fear of postive change) serve to deepen the illusion of well-being that our country needs to address before we sink ourselves into a duality of haves and have nots that crushes what’s left of our happy little reality here. Yes, we deserve abundance, and yes, there is a way to enjoy that abundance in a way that benefits all of those making it possible. We all take our turns giving and receiving in the way we generate our living, and in that way we are all supported.

    There are always outrageously good solutions to every problem. But they only present themselves to those brave enough to look at the heart of that problem. You are wonderfully brave and for that reason, and doubtless many more, immensely valuable. Thank you.

  • Charles Shere

    “Impressed at,” sheesh, I meant impressed by of course, what carelessness, oh well, I’m not a chef…

  • (de)Classified

    cooking and writing are ruthless in that they will both take everything you have. and you will never be good enough to do everything you want. sometimes the best things happen by accident, sometimes it is after painstaking alone time, they are both professions bound by cliches about which the uninitiated know nothing. to the uninitiated, a new story or a new dish just magically appear. or we creative types were just born that way. do we let them think it’s easy, that things just happen, or do we keep trying to teach them how brutal and hard the reality is?

    in graduate school i was blessed with writer-friends and now i am blessed with cook-friends and both languages are lingo, clubby, and world weary for reasons those who don’t cook or write cannot get. people who do not understand the divisions of being a chef-writer do not understand the grueling hours, dedication, and unsufferably high standards either one of those professions take (let alone the both).

    as for exposing the underbelly of the myths of cheffing, i think this is our now and our moment but how to be heard among the chorus of voices, some ill informed and some well meaning if wrong and some comrades in whites, how, i don’t know?

  • wendygee

    I think there are illusions about every industry and unless you are actively in that world you don’t get to see those realities. That is why experiential learning is so important. That is also why it is important to have people share those truths before you pay tuition and get yourself in debt. The beauty of the internet is that anyone can share their opinions and thoughts without having a book deal and a publisher supporting their endeavor. The task of the user is to wade through lots of opinions to find some truth…knowing the source and their credentials is a key factor.
    Everyone has an opinion about food…we all eat…and the internet has provided an outlet for expressing these opinions. But are professional chefs the only people qualified to accurately judge the quality of a prepared meal? When you say “Those who write about my industry, and are not in it, are barely taken seriously.” What do you mean exactly? Are you referring to self proclaimed foodies reviewing restaurants and writing blogs? What about the numerous positions that are part of the food industry like farming, food inspection, publishing, teaching, food journalism, food styling, and Cooking Programs, TV and Radio? Many people have not worked in professional kitchens (or have briefly) but have invested their professional careers in a branch of the food industry. Are these individuals qualified to critique the food industry?

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    “Those who write about my industry, and are not in it, are barely taken seriously.”

    Hm, I’m as confused as Wendy. Do you mean then that people like Michael Bauer aren’t taken seriously when they write reviews of restaurants?

    Because I thought you once took his reviews to heart.

  • tom

    I too am a chef embarking on a blog site to further expose the goings on of our industry, as well as the
    deteriorating food system that we are reliant upon. I find your writing both informative and compelling. Should you be both writer and chef? Is it important to hear the naked truth about an industry that is painted up to be one thing and yet disguises another? Yes, unequivocally yes. Write on! In the vein of Don Quixote, tip at those windmills, and I will follow.

  • Aaron

    Shuna,
    How about writer and photographer? What does it mean to you to show an immigrant linecook pulling something out of a hot oven with tongs when the traditionally romanticized image is of a waspy dandy with a white toque stirring with a wooden spoon in a copper pot? Talk about the man behind the curtain.
    Though we are in the era of the open kitchen, the image presented by that arrangement is far from the truth, the full reality. How do you feel when you reveal in visual terms what has typically been hidden by fancifully decorated walls? What boundaries do you draw for yourself? For others?