Pop Culture Culinary: A Professional’s Perspective

Over the years that I’ve been cooking, I’ve had countless conversations with people about certain examples of professional cooking, displayed in popular media — movies, TV shows, and most recently, Netflix series.  I’ll try to touch on the most popularly discussed ones, and suggest some that I think should have more exposure and popularity.

Ratatouille: Yes.  Just, all around yes.  Not only is it a cute and endearing animated Disney movie that everyone loves, but professional chefs unanimously love it too.  The lessons that Linguini learns from Colette are not only spot-on, but delivered perfectly.  “Let me make this easy for you: keep your station clean, or I will kill you!” is exactly something a chef would say to a new cook.  The ideas are spot-on as well.  The scene in which Remi gives his brother Emile a strawberry and a piece of cheese, and the movie uses a wonderful combination of sounds and colors to represent what flavor does to your emotions, is just pure genius.  And Colette’s explanation of how even in the three-star restaurants, the cooks/chefs are like pirates, and probably have some pretty scandalous stuff in their past is likewise, spot-on.  I love how the technical consultant for the movie was Thomas Keller (most notably of The French Laundry and Per Se), and that the ratatouille dish at the end of the movie is an exact copy of the one Keller makes in the French Laundry kitchen, for the special features of the DVD.

Top Chef: I can’t speak for all chefs on this one, but I think most agree that it’s terrible.  Having heard first-hand testimonies from those who’ve been on the show, the editing pushes everything out of context, not coming close to representing what actually was happening.  Not to mention, few of those chefs will ever be the top chef of anything — they’re mostly terrible.  But I’ve found that’s what people tend to not recognize while watching it: the people chosen to be contestants on the show are chosen, not because they’re great cooks, but because they’ll make for good television.  Top Chef: Masters, on the other hand, is a different story, because those are chefs who have already built legacies on the restaurants they’ve opened and operated.  Those guys are the truth.

Hell’s Kitchen: Meh.  Like Top Chef, it’s overproduced to make Gordon Ramsay look like a tyrannical asshole, and the contestants are constantly fighting an uphill battle to make him happy.  This says nothing of the fact that most of the people on the show are weak line cooks.  And yes, that volatile combination makes for exciting TV.  However, while I was line-cooking, if someone asked me if I watched Hell’s Kitchen, my response was something along the lines of, “no, I live it at work every day”.  Here’s what I mean with all that being said: Ramsay isn’t an asshole — he’s a fine dining chef.  Anyone running a kitchen with standards that high (and no HR department or union leader for cooks to complain to) is going to demand perfection.  When it doesn’t happen, there will be profane tirades, threats of physical violence, and what might border on verbal sexual assault.  That’s just restaurant kitchen culture.  But unless the chef is actually an asshole, that’s not a regular occurrence, and the chef doesn’t enjoy behaving like that.  Line cooks at high-end restaurants tend to be really good at their job, and if nothing gets screwed up, nobody is yelling at anyone.  In the few episodes of the show I’ve seen, every time Ramsay blows up at someone, it’s warranted, and every chef I know would react the same way, if confronted with the same situation.

Iron Chef:  Actually a really great show, whether you’re watching the original Chinese version, or the American version — and this sentiment is pretty much echoed across the landscape of professional cooks.  Three people being able to cook five dishes of that precision and quality in an hour is incredibly impressive, regardless of who wins.  And no, the secret ingredient isn’t entirely secret: days ahead of taping, each contestant is given a list of three possible ingredients it might be, giving them time to design a menu, plan it out, and plan and assign prep lists for each of the sous chefs. It gives me particular reason to respect Mario Batali, and Michael Symon.

Anthony Bourdain:  Greatly revered in professional cooking culture.  He wasn’t a culinarily groundbreaking chef, but his first book, Kitchen Confidential was the first widely popular autobiographical account of the reality of what life in a restaurant kitchen is really like.  It’s gotten a little better since he was behind a line: I’ve never seen anyone stabbed (although I’ve witnessed intentional burning a couple times), never walked in on people having sex in a walk-in cooler or bathroom (but I’m sure it’s happened around me), and haven’t seen anyone doing cocaine behind a hot-line since 2010.  But Bourdain gave professional cooks a voice and a sense of community.  He also gave chefs a humanity that had rarely been seen prior, as historically, chefs were perceived as just the smiling fat guy with the clean white coat and tall hat (called a toque).  Not to mention, his show, No Reservations is every chef’s dream job.  That being said, comedian Shane Torres has a hysterical and not inaccurate bit about how confusing it is that everyone loves Bourdain, but somehow hates…

Guy Fierri: We really do.  And it’s totally unwarranted, I understand, because he does so much philanthropy.  But it’s just hard to not rip him for how much of a tool he comes off as.  There isn’t a kitchen on this planet that would hire and maintain that type of personality.  We also don’t respect people who think everything they eat is amazing.  It’s not.  Most food is pretty mediocre, and proclaiming mediocre food to be incredible is demeaning to actually incredible food.

Alton Brown: Basically the polar opposite from Guy Fierri, as far as how he’s received by the professional community. He’s known primarily for being the roving floor reporter on Iron Chef: America (what sets it above its Chinese flagship program, in my opinion), and for his own show, Good Eats. Yes, he’s a little corny, and sometimes borders on dweeby, but Alton Brown is an ocean of food-related knowledge, particularly when it comes to food science. A friend of mine said when he was in culinary school, one of his classes had a standing extra credit offer for anyone who could find an inaccuracy in something he said on Good Eats. Everything he says on camera is worth listening to.

What you might be missing out on…

Burnt: Amazing film starring Bradley Cooper, that is an accurate portrayal of what the life of a fine-dining chef (and what life in their kitchens) can be like.  Not everyone standing at the pass of a Michelin star restaurant is as obsessive as Cooper’s character is, but a lot of them are.  Also, it shows the pressure chefs can put on themselves to be perfect.

Chef: A great movie, starring Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo.  It has a much happier feel to it than Burnt (I’ve even heard it described by other cooks as “corny”), but Favreau does a phenomenal job of displaying the attitude a professional chef has towards the little things that chefs think about all the time.  The dialogue is perfectly written, and straight out of an actual kitchen, and there are fantastic celebrity cameos throughout the movie.  I also love the part where Leguizamo puts cornstarch down his pants to combat the moist effects of the hot/humid deep south, as that’s a classic cook’s trick to avoid chafing when working a shift behind a particularly hot and sweaty line.

The Chef Show: Netflix documentary series, based on the movie I just described (Chef).  Favreau is joined by Roy Choi, his technical advisor for his role in the movie — basically, the professional food truck chef, who advised Jon Favreau on how to convincingly portray an actual food truck chef.  In the show, they revisit, and recreate the foods that were displayed in the movie and, like in the movie, there are some great celebrity cameos along the way.

Ugly Delicious: Chef David Chang (Momofuku) basically does his version of Parts Unknown (see below), but each episode has a particular theme.  The documentary-style show is also more personally exposing of Chang, as he opens up his home (as do the friends he meets with) and his personal life as to how they relate to whatever the theme of that episode is.  Either way, it is a very endearing and genuine perspective on a number of simple, food-related topics.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown:  Very similar to No Reservations, but each episode is an hour long, and it feels much less-scripted and more sincere than his original show.  He takes more time to explore the culture and geopolitical landscape of the cities and countries he visits, and not just the food.  I especially love the episode in Tokyo, as it crystalizes what I’d heard from many people over the years who have visited.

The Soul of a Chef:  An excellent, three-part book by Michael Ruhlman, in which he tries to understand what makes a professional chef tick.  In the first section, he sits in on the week-long marathon that is the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam.  In the second, he does a six-month stage (the kitchen word for an apprenticeship) at Lola in Cleveland, OH, the flagship restaurant of American Iron Chef, Michael Symon.  And in the third, he visits Chef Thomas Keller, and his kitchen at The French Laundry, in Yountville, CA.

Devil in the Kitchen:  The jarring memoir of Marco Pierre White.  The book chronicles Chef White’s maniacal obsession with earning three Michelin stars, during which time he rightfully earned the reputation of being something of a demonic powder-keg, becoming arguably the first celebrity chef to flaunt and be known for that personality.  He speaks of his time mentoring now-celebrity chefs, Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay, on his way to becoming the youngest chef to ever earn three Michelin stars, and the first British chef to achieve the feat as well.  I believe he’s signed off on (and will co-produce) the movie version, where he will be portrayed by Russell Crowe.

Later add-ons…

The Bear: New-ish show from/on FX (streaming on Hulu) about a cook who returns from running one of the best restaurants in the world to his home city of Chicago to take on the beef joint his brother left behind after his drug-induced suicide. To say this show is a little too realistic isn’t quite on-the-nose. I mean… it is realistic. In fact, I can only watch an episode at a time, because after one, I can feel my nerves tightening (I legit didn’t realize I had restaurant PTSD until this show came out). And to be fair, I’m sure the fact that it takes place in the city I spent the first eight years of my career in has something to do with my personal take on it.

The praiseworthy aspect of this show is that it displays a restaurant kitchen (and the people who work in it) the way 95% of them actually are, as opposed to the way they’re usually depicted in TV and in movies (sorta like why I like the movie Chef, discussed earlier). In real life most kitchens in a major city are held together with duct tape, grease and desperation, as are the people who work in them. Drug addiction, poverty and shady dealings are as accepted as they are common, as is the profanity, stress and ego-fueled attitude found in every corner of a restaurant kitchen.

Kitchen Confidential: Hold on. I’m talking about the show, not the book. Yes, back in 2005, Fox made only one season (tragically) of a show based loosely on Anthony Bourdain’s best-selling memoir of the same name, starring none other than now-iconic actor Bradley Cooper (it also stars John Cho and John Francis Daley, among other actors who you might recognize). The sit-com was about a chef, returning to the scene after years of drug and alcohol had kicked him off the grid, to run what is dubbed in the pilot episode as a “suicide mission” restaurant. Similar to the exact same premise he displayed with his character in Burnt (also discussed above), but in a much more light-hearted fashion, Cooper’s character, Jack Bourdain goes through some of the same anecdotes from Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical book, as well as from published personal accounts of other famous chefs. I particularly loved the episode that harkens to Thomas Keller’s account of being a young chef who ordered rabbit, not realizing they were going to be alive upon delivery (read Soul of a Chef to see how that one ended). Unfortunately, this show is impossible to find anywhere. While it’s not the most accurate depiction of a real kitchen, if you can track it down it’s well worth the watch.

Chopped: I really hate that I have to do this one, but it’s somehow still on-air, so here we are. This show is about as ridiculous as cooking can possibly get. Now, full disclosure: I’ve only ever seen one episode, but based on previews and ad’s I’ve seen of subsequent episodes, it’s all pretty much the same. Mediocre cooks get put in totally unrealistic scenarios to cook dishes that nobody would ever put on a menu, with ingredients that no chef would ever ask their cook(s) to combine. I understand the appeal of watching a train-wreck transpire in slow motion, so long as viewers of the show understand that that’s exactly what it is. It’s as much about cooking as Project Runway is about fashion.

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