Kitchen Culture Comes from the French

Part 2 of Cooks, Chefs, and Psychopaths

So, where did the concept of a restaurant chef as bully, tyrant, and borderline psychopath originate? Who decided that fear and intimidation were great ways to run a restaurant kitchen?

It appears to have come to us from the French. Chef is, after all, the French word for chief.

Absolute Power Corrupts

Draftees didn’t get to pick and choose who they would share a barracks with, what platoon to serve in, what drill sergeant to train under, or what base they would live on. They didn’t always have a bathroom and no one argued about who would get to use it when they did. The military’s job was to turn groups of reluctant, unprepared, out-of-shape and incompetent boys that included head cases, personality kids, screw ups, air heads and outright juvenile delinquents into soldiers, sailors and Marines.I want to qualify that by saying that I think bullying and intimidation go hand in hand with any organization run by men. Think of a Marine drill sergeant. Hazing in college fraternities. Interns and residents working 48-hour shifts. The high-tech CEO checking the parking lot to see who is at work by 7:30 a.m.

We all know Lord Acton’s comment that, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Give men absolute power and they will take it as far as they possibly can. The executive chef has absolute power over his kitchen staff. That gives him the ability to exercise any oppressive tendencies he might have without fear of protest or reprisal.

Learning by Stah-zh

But don’t take my word for it. Read “Dirt” by Bill Buford. It relates an American’s attempt to learn the art of French cooking the hard way. And I do mean the hard way. Having lived in Italy to learn the basics of Italian cooking, Mr. Buford moved to Lyon, France, to acquire the art of French cuisine from the ground up.

Dirt, Bill Buford, cooking, Lyon, French living French children, LyonTo do this, he secured a stage (pronounced stah-zh) in a Lyonnais restaurant. Now, a stage is an internship. That means he worked 15-hour days without pay in a kitchen manned by French chefs. It was (and probably still is) a brutal environment.

I will not attempt to relate what Mr. Buford endured in pursuit of his art, but reading “Dirt” will tell you all you need to know.  As a stagiaire (stah-zhi-air), an American and a foreigner with an imperfect command of the French language, he was lower than the lowest rung on the ladder. When bullied not by the executive chef but by another sous-chef, the advice he received was, “Just hit him.”

Where does this start? Probably in the schools, which have good news and bad news.

The Good News

On Rue Tatin, Susan Herrmann Loomis, French living, conventFrench children start school much younger than American kids do – at age 3. The good news is that they are fed much better than our schoolchildren. Each day they are fed a three-course lunch: a salad, an entrée with vegetable, and a dessert, plus a dairy item such as cheese or yogurt. They are graded on how well they eat as well as how they behave in the cantine.

Why French Children Eat Better Than Americans

This was reinforced in “On Rue Tatin,” an American woman’s account of living in Normandy as she and her husband turn an old, abandoned convent into a modern cooking school. Author Susan Herrmann Loomis describes the school lunches in mouth-watering detail. There are no peanut butter sandwiches or food fights in French schools.

The Bad News

French parents raise their children much the same way American kids used to be raised. As Ms. Loomis notes:

“We had already noticed that French parents yell a great deal at their kids in general, so we weren’t entirely surprised when this carried over into school.”

But it doesn’t stop there. French teachers are allowed to hit their students. Corporal punishment is accepted as a way to civilize children and make them good citizens. We consider this barbaric today but anyone who attended parochial school with nuns or brothers in the fifties, as I did, took this for granted. We did not complain because then our parents would have smacked us again for whatever we did to make Sister angry.

Not the Best French Import

The yelling and the hitting that French children receive in school appears to carry over into the workplace. Any American trained in a French restaurant kitchen would have learned this behavior and brought it back to America along with the five mother sauces. It is not France’s finest import.

The idea of an unpaid internship began in the Middle Ages when a boy learned a trade as an unpaid apprentice to a master craftsman. Once he had gained sufficient skill, the apprentice produced a “master piece” that allowed him to set up on his own. The concept has carried over into the 21st century. Only now organization use  the excuse of allowing young people to gain experience in the real world. From restaurant kitchens to the United States Congress, interns work hard for nothing.

That has allowed the executive chef, that auteur of the kitchen, to move from producing excellent meals to finicky food as performance art. “Fine dining” is meant to impress, to dazzle, and to separate the customer from large amounts of money. Unfortunately, the customers often leave the restaurant still hungry.

Restaurant Overkill

Julienned vegetables, French cooking, It also allows the executive chef to have his staff do what I consider nonsense work. When you have to actually pay your workers, you don’t waste their time. As New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells says, “Most of the overkill restaurants could not last a week without free labor.”

There is no reason to peel peas, as Mr. Buford had to do in France, or to peel walnuts, either, as at Noma. I find it ridiculous and wasteful to turn potatoes, which grow in all sizes and shapes, into specific uniform shapes. Ditto for julienning vegetables. Sure, they look pretty but the process is time-consuming and unnecessary. It enhances the food’s flavor not one bit.

Opening the Door

A lot of this came to fore recently with the closing of Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant deemed to be the finest in the world. Behind that ranking, however, lurked kitchen slaveys – many of them stagiaires – working 16-hour days, an out-of-control executive chef yelling at and pushing his kitchen staff, and producing “meals” that wouldn’t fill up our cat. And at Noma that would have set you back $500 a person.

Noma, Restaurant, Copenhagen, dining room

Again, read the words of people have done and are still doing it:

New York Times:

Washington Post:

The Wall Street Journal:

I hope that more restaurants say “non merci” to the French model of an oppressive restaurant kitchen run by a domineering executive chef. Also, I wonder if things work differently in restaurants owned and run by women. Just a thought.