Skinny Chefs: Let’s talk about ’em

Over decades (if not the past century), a particular archetypal image has been built in the minds of the general public regarding what a chef is meant to look like: White coat, tall white hat (aka: a toque), usually a man, and always a portly stature have become signs that a person should be trusted with preparing your food. To go along with this image harkened to by famous chefs from Emeril Lagasse to Mario Batali, to Chef Boyardee, this adorable saying was born that suggests “don’t trust a skinny chef!”. The implied logic therein is that a chef should always be tasting/eating something, and if their food isn’t good enough for they themselves to engorge themselves upon, then why should the public? After all, the creator of something is supposed to be that thing’s biggest fan, right?

This is where I’m supposed to shit all over this idea and talk about how ignorant the cliche is (which rest assured, I’m getting to), but it’s a bit more nuanced than saying that it’s just wrong.

It’s true that a chef should be constantly tasting: tasting their own food to make sure it’s correct, tasting other chefs’ food to see what it tastes like, and tasting anything and everything new because well, that’s sorta what we’re all about! But it must be hard to be around delicious food all the time without eating it, right? And if a person is constantly eating, that must result in putting on weight. Seems logical.

One could also be of the perspective that anyone who is in charge of a smoothly running team should be doing mostly delegating and doing other sedentary tasks, which usually results in chronic weight-gain. There is some truth to this as well when it comes to chefs, as some of the most successful chefs throughout history have opened several locations, each of which functions smoothly on its own, as does the sedentary lifestyle that leads to packing on pounds.

Speaking of things that lead to packing on pounds: aging. While younger head chefs are becoming more common than they once were, the simple fact is that it takes time in a career to achieve a position of being the boss — and usually the older you get, the harder it is to lose extra pounds. More succinctly put, if a person is old enough to be a chef, they’re probably old enough to be a little dad-bod-y.

While a chef should always be tasting, that’s all it should be: tasting — as in only enough of something to taste if it’s right. And being around food doesn’t mean you have to eat it, no matter how delicious it might be; to a professional chef, a great smell doesn’t get you hungry, so much as it makes you excited, and happy that you’ve produced something so soul-nurturing. When I smell or see something delicious in my kitchen, I get more excited for the guests that get to eat it, than I do for eating it myself. But the main criticism I have with the rational is that you don’t get to eat the food you’re working with any more than a banker gets to spend the money they manage. The food we work with isn’t ours, which is why (going back to the tasting issue) we only taste such a small amount of it. If you’re eating enough to make you fat, you’re doing the kitchen equivalent of getting high on your own supply. More succinctly put, you’re stealing from your own operation.

Many chefs are indeed in a position where they delegate most things, and don’t need to do much bending, lifting, reaching, twisting or repetitive motions that result in an impromptu calisthenic workout every day — but many do. I’ve worked in one or two kitchens (very large kitchen operations, at that, involving dozens of kitchen staff) where the chef stands idly by, observing the operation , delegating tasks, and solving problems as they arise. But in most kitchens, the chef has working duties, and is just as physically active as a given cook in the same kitchen.

This all says nothing of the fact that chefs tend to be obsessive work-a-holics, who frequently smoke cigarettes and drink loads of coffee (both stimulants, which are appetite suppressants). These are not what one would consider typical traits of an overweight person. Quite the contrary. But I digress: I could just as easily argue in favor of the old axiom of “don’t trust a skinny chef”. But I’d rather preach the inverse truth of that:

Never trust a fat cook!

If you consider what I’ve laid out above as the reasons why people might assume a chef to be fat, then you need to accept that the opposites apply to their underlings. A cook’s job is highly physically active — basically a cross-fit workout, stretched out over a 10-hour shift, conducted wearing sturdy-fabric pants and full-sleeved, cotton coats, behind a line with temperatures frequently in the triple-digits. A typical cook gets almost no time off their feet, is always moving, and generally feeds off of staff meal — generally consisting of simple carbohydrates, cheap vegetables and protein scraps. These are all admirable, nye expected traits of a cook, speaking nothing of the frequent alcohol consumption and/or stimulant usage (legal or otherwise) among the line-cooking community. And in certain kitchens, not only do you not get to “eat” the food you’re making, but consuming even an unsanctioned french fry or lettuce leaf can be a reprimand-worthy offense. Put all of those ingredients together, and you have the recipe for a lean — sometimes gaunt — line cook, which again is expected.

If I see an overweight line cook (especially one under the age of 30), I automatically assume they aren’t working as hard as they should, are probably eating more food then they’re cooking, and not working as hard as they could, which equates to not pulling his/her (figurative) weight. None of these things are attractive line-cook traits. I also see someone who might be fresh and spry when the first tickets of a dinner rush roll in at 5:00, but will likely be dragging, physically exhausted and more susceptible to mental mistakes when the third wave of diners start trickling in after 8:30.

So I submit that we need to considerably dial back our general usage of everyone’s favorite chef-related cliche, or at least that it’s time to give it a follow-up: Don’t trust a skinny chef; but never trust a fat cook!

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