By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
I have been working in restaurants for over 30 years, and held a title or position of leadership for almost 20 of them. While I’ve had my share of ups and downs, challenges and successes, I am proud of the title and profession of chef, but something distressing, possibly even permanent is happening—the title of chef is being kidnapped.
It bothers many professional chefs when television personalities or judges refer to a flashy, button-shirted, knife- and fork-tattooed, pierced and trendy eye-glassed contestant as “chef” simply because he is cooking on TV. Many believe it is contributing to the watering down and homogenization of our profession, and I would agree.
Recently, a chef I follow on social media expressed some frustration that the profession and title of chef is getting diluted. He shared his concerns with the silent majority of the chef world, near and far, for some feedback and perspective. The response was overwhelming and all arrived at the same conclusion: Chefs and culinarians are losing their professional validity.
It got me delving deeper with fellow chefs, and we decided that there should be some minimum criteria all chefs should have.
You must have a complete tool-belt. I know many chefs who are far from a pastry chef, but in a jam, they can bake and ice a cake if needed. Not every chef is an expert at everything in the kitchen, yet they should be able to do anything on any team member’s prep list on any given day.
You must have been fired at least once. In the words of the Hall of Fame football coach Mike Ditka, “if you haven’t been fired at some point in your life, you’re not trying hard enough.” Some chefs are forced to move on simply because of budgetary shortcomings, but many are let go because they make fellow coworkers uncomfortable. Chefs are creative and, at times, push those around them too hard. But as it’s been said, life begins at the end of our comfort zone.
You must respect the iconic chef coat. I’ve participated in events across the country, and I always find myself gravitating toward the chefs in coats first. It’s a kinship; a camaraderie that sent a powerful message to me even before I really knew what a chef did. As a boy, I viewed it much like the uniforms of firemen, police officers or astronauts. It immediately tells you exactly what the profession is.
You must have spent some serious time in a kitchen. There is no showing up to a kitchen to be chef without a respectable resumé. No matter how talented you are, your staff will quietly require you to have previously done their job before they will regard you as a leader in challenging times.
You must “earn” the title of chef. A friend and former superior once told me, in reference to another chef, that he didn’t call him “chef.” He explained that he didn’t believe every person who held the title of chef necessarily deserved the title of chef. From then on, I felt a tiny bit of pride every time he referred to me as chef.
We need to protect our trade and craft, and there are still thousands of chefs who have never passed any sort of education or certification, but I will respectfully call them chef any day.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.