Anthony Bourdain is a hero of mine, he is the epitome of the balls to the wall, adrenaline (and other substances) fueled, hardcore school of cheffing that has intrigued me for years,  but I’m afraid I am going to have to disagree with him for once. Lennie Nash, a kindred spirit or possible cell mate in the bouncy hospital, made me aware of a piece that came from Bourdain’s second book Medium Raw in which he states quite plainly that anyone thinking of starting a career in the kitchen in their 30’s is already too old. Specifically he says “If you’re thirty-two years old and considering a career in professional kitchens? If you’re wondering if, perhaps, you are too old? Let me answer that question for you: Yes. You are too old.

Well I turned 35 today and I am one month into my career as a pro chef.

By Bourdain’s reckoning I not only missed the boat, I missed the pier, the port and the entire fucking coast line. I don’t have some idealised view of the life of a chef, whiling away long mornings with artisan food producers discussing ways to showcase their wares in brilliant dishes, before sending out a few plates of food to grateful diners and then hopping into your Porsche for the spin home. If I thought that I would already be sitting in a padded cell waiting for Lennie Nash to be wheeled in strapped to a gurney.

Being a chef is fucking tough, its long hours, cramped kitchens, huge pressure, demanding work and you make roughly the same wage as guys who break rocks with other rocks. People who go into cheffing straight from school do so for one of two reasons, the first one is they have a genuine love of food and want to learn the skills needed to take good ingredients and turn them into great food. The second is because they had no fucking idea what they really wanted to do and all the other courses at the job center were full up. The irony is that there are as many of those who fall into the first category who burn out and simply can’t hack the pace as there are those who fall into the second category who discover a love for food and go on to greatness.

Chef’s are a little off, they have a sense of humour that most people don’t share. If you work in an office you can probably be told a somewhat edgy joke and imediately think who in the office will find that funny and who will consider it in poor taste or offensive. If you work in a kitchen and get told the same joke you know everyone you work with will love it. The piss taking is merciless, do something stupid and you’re going to hear about it, a lot. I have been spared a lot of the practical jokes and wind ups as every afternoon my duties mean I have to go out into the yard to take delivery of a long stand, I don’t know who they fuck they ordered that stand from but it hasn’t turned up and I’ve spent hours out there freezing my arse off!

Chefs swear, a lot. To watch a group of chefs standing outside after service having a cigarette and engaged in what can only be described as Olympic standard swearing it’s hard to associate them with the stunning, visually appealing plates of food you have just been marvelling over in the restaurant. All chefs, all real chefs look at an ingredient and see endless possibilities, not just in what to cook but in how to present it. It’s that world of possibilities that appeals to chefs, knowing that at the start of every day you can redefine what you do. Most jobs follow a pretty structured routine, they need it, you can’t have a maths teacher deciding “fuck it, today plus is minus and minus means plus because I fancy a change”.

Can anyone in their 30s or 40s make a successful career in this industry? No. It’s an unforgiving place, no matter how much talent you have you’re going to have to fight your way to the point where you get to express that talent. You may be able to tell you’re salsify from you’re Jerusalem artichokes, you may well have wonderful anecdotes about your last cheese buying trip to France but truthfully your head chef couldn’t give a fuck. He wants to know 1 thing and 1 thing only; if you have what he wants, ready when he wants it. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if that’s a dish at the pass, prep work in the back or bread in the oven. During the short-lived, but utterly brilliant, sitcom inspired by Bourdain’s break out book, Kitchen Confidential, the lead character Jack Bourdain (played by Bradley Cooper) turns to a commis chef and gives him what is considered the single biggest complement of the young chefs career when he tells him “Jim, I’ve hardly even noticed you the last few days”. A gushing Jim is overcome, and babbles “I thought you weren’t noticing me yesterday but I didn’t want to say anything”. The thing is when you do something right you don’t want recognition, you don’t want to singled out and praised, just the opposite. Praise means that the chef is surprised you managed to do what he asked well, nothing means he thinks you are capable of this and it’s that level of trust and confidence you want to aspire to.

Would I recommend this? Think very long and very hard about it because it’s a massive decision. Not just in terms of shit money, long hours, fucking hard work and the concerned looks on your friend’s faces when you tell them what you’re going to do. You need to ask yourself where you want to work in the industry? Do you want to work for free at a variety of Michelin starred restaurants doing grunt work in a kitchen with little impact on the end results? Do you want to find a nice 20 or 30 seater bistro and turn out wholesome and tasty food? For that matter do you want to go into producing artisan food stuffs? Or do you want to walk into a furiously busy kitchen that expects very high standards of food to be produced to order in sometimes fucking ludicrous quantities.

I went for the last option, but that’s just me. As my father once said “Son you’ll learn all your lessons the hard way”.

It’s not going to be easy but who the fuck wants easy? Nothing easy is worth having, or at the least not having twice! I am prepared to have my arse kicked, my nerves strained, my confidence dented and my every muscle and sinew exhausted in my quest to become a very good (I would say great but modesty prevents me) chef.  There are some of us out there who will, I believe, prove Bourdain wrong, I certainly intend to as do the likes of Lennie Nash (@lennienash on twitter) and Shar (@okbaybach), we may only be 3 old dogs but we are going to follow this hard road.

Tony, don’t worry! You’re still my hero!

Twitter.Com/CorkGourmetGuy

Advertisements