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A couple weeks ago, I was teaching a cooking class and had the opportunity to have a guest chef join and assist me. This of course was a frightful proposition as even though I’ve been to culinary school, managed a restaurant, catered 100+ people events, done personal cheffing and I even own my own cooking school… I still don’t call myself a chef. I still don’t think of myself as a chef. And I definitely have cooking stage fright if the audience is chefs. Wikipedia, which is the final word on all things, defines a chef as “a person who cooks professionally for other people. Although over time the term has come to describe any person who cooks for a living, traditionally it refers to a highly skilled professional who is proficient in all aspects of food preparation.” See, that doesn’t feel like me. I still burn things. I still make food that doesn’t taste quite right. I still cut myself. I still make mistakes in the kitchen ALL of the time.
The class this guest chef would be joining me in was a new class on the schedule. I’ve taught many raw foods classes and I’ve taught many holiday foods classes, but never a raw foods winter holiday foods class. So, rationally speaking, this would probably not be the best class to have a guest chef at, but I’ve never been much for rational thinking when it comes to cooking.
Actually, lack of rational thinking is probably what sets me apart as a chef—yep, I said it—chef (did you feel the discomfort in my throat, the way my pitch raised at the end of the word, making my statement vaguely feel like a question?). I loathe measuring. I disdain following directions. I have contempt for duplication and replication. I feel what ingredients to add, as opposed to planning my ingredients on the battlefield of the kitchen. Rarely does what I plan on making at the beginning of cooking end up being what I actually make. And never have I duplicated the same meal twice, because my life condition and emotional state is never in the same place twice. Since my cooking is a reflection of my feeling, how could I ever plan ahead on how a dish would turn out or follow the recipe of someone else’s emotional journey in the kitchen? I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be authentic. It wouldn’t be me.
I get that kitchens inspire fear in many. Maybe that fear is ingrained in us since almost all of us grew up eating food that was lovingly prepared by our mom, dad, grandma or auntie that we have never been able to replicate. No matter how hard we try, our stuffing never tastes like grandma’s. My ginger, molasses cookies would never taste like my grandpa’s (even if I could use gluten containing flours). And my homemade pizza crust never smells like my mom’s. Yet we try. We toil in the kitchen. We become a slave to old cookbooks and recipes on yellowing paper and sometimes we almost succeed. But that’s the thing… What we are really trying for isn’t to duplicate a recipe, but to duplicate a feeling that a recipe evoked in us.
This is a problem with cooking classes for me. The mood of the kitchen, the emotive state of the attendees and my own head space are never what I can plan for in preparing a recipe. So, I write a recipe with my best intentions of starting places for amounts of ingredients and in the class I often just let my intuitive, emotional state kick in and the recipes go to the wayside. And sometimes the flavor does too and maybe that’s because the energy is so high in the kitchen that no flavor combination can compare. And maybe the texture is mushier because the state of integrity in the kitchen could almost be sliced with a knife. Food is meant to compliment, to support, to bring out the best in the mood of the diners. It is not meant to overpower, oversimplify or overwhelm the collective atmosphere of togetherness that follows people in the kitchen. Tough order, eh? That’s why following a recipe and making things exact and replicable seems unfair to the moment. To me, cooking is a journey informed by the environment and the environment is all things emotional, mental, physical, past, present and future. The ingredients we use include happiness, anger, bitterness, jubilance, fear, fatigue and so much more.
The guest chef showed up in his pearly white chef’s jacket and I hunkered a little, in my street clothes, feeling too undeserving of the chef title to wear my chef jacket (well, that and there is a picture of a wheat plant on my chef jacket which pretty much goes against everything I teach in my cooking classes). So, in my street clothes, I began to lead the class and in his chef’s jacket, he began to assist me. Let me tell you… In a situation like this, it is not possible to have ego (my ego was locked in a closet, stuffed into the pocket of my very dingy, refused to be bleached, once white chef’s jacket with a wheat logo).
As this class continued and I threw more of this and less of that in dish after dish—eschewing my recipes, changing ingredients, amounts and even techniques, I could imagine the concern, confusion and disrespect of my guest chef. Although he was kind and didn’t openly chastise me, he did explain that he believes strongly in measuring and being specific and exact so that his recipes are replicable and duplicable. So that when people enact his recipes they are guaranteed to get exactly what they tasted from him in a class or at the restaurant. Who wouldn’t want that? There is so much fear in the kitchen that taking away uncertainty by the guarantee of a specific good thing, seems the compassionate thing chefs can do for all the home cooks. Maybe I just lack compassion? Maybe I just want people to experiment. To throw abandon to the wind and add that thyme to the sauce, that wasabi to the chocolate, that lamb to the slaughter.
Well, needless to say, the “meatloaf” didn’t turn out. It was too liquidy and wouldn’t hold together. It became a dip instead. A tasty dip, but not “meatloaf.” Not sliceable. Not the potential for a main course, but an appetizer. A creamy, flavorful, raw foods, vegan dip. “ Coincidentally,” there was no dip on the menu “planned.” Although my cooking has some unexpected results, I’m going to keep doing it my way. It’s being authentic to myself. My form of cooking is who I am and the meals I create are a glimpse into my soul, into my life and into my psyche.
And so today… I ordered a Chef’s jacket, complete with my name and business; after all I’m a chef–just not the traditional type. I decided to get a black coat, instead of the traditional white one that exemplifies perfection and kitchen purity, because, well, I’ve decided to embrace being the “black sheep” of the culinary world (that and I can’t keep anything white). Once again, I turn to our learned friends from Wikipedia who inform us that “black sheep is an idiom used to describe an odd or disreputable member of a group, especially within a family. The term has typically been given negative implications, implying waywardness. It derived from the atypical and unwanted presence of other black individuals in flocks of white sheep.” Ignoring the potentially racist connotations, that definition finally points to a label I can identify with and be comforted by and it means I get to be in the same family as those white coat wearing chefs but I get to stand out as something unique and a little different. My cooking and clothing shouldn’t be the only thing authentic, but my marketing too (no I’m not changing my business name to Black Sheep Chef). I’ll be changing my marketing to reflect that my cooking classes are different and that students shouldn’t expect to come into my class and learn how to measure ingredients, but instead should come in expecting to taste different recipes and interpret together how to make changes to improve it for our needs–at that time–in that moment.
So, what are you the “black sheep” in? And how can you best embrace that part of you?