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Amuse Bouche: Occupational hazard

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Being a chef is hard, plain and simple.

I think I’ve painted a pretty clear picture over the years of what it takes for a chef to survive in a kitchen, let alone be successful. How to balance staff, guest experience and fiscal responsibility while maintaining their sanity is a challenge in the best of times.

Food TV did a lot to shine a light on what were always talented, hard working men and women. It took us from obscure, mysterious misfits to forward-facing artists—and in several instances, nothing short of celebrity status. It made the world sit up and take notice to entire cultures around the globe.

But it is looking more and more like that was short lived.

And it’s so easy to blame COVID, a faceless entity that has disrupted or even ruined many lives, depending on your personal situation. And while the pandemic did take a thriving economy and grind it to a halt overnight, the camel has had his nose in the culinary tent for a while now.

These are unprecedented times, and even the hardest working, most devoted chef can have only so much on their plate. And for many, it’s all they can do to keep the daily grind, well, grinding.

I know of many chefs who now rarely experiment on new ideas or concepts like they used to. They tell me they just don’t have the time, money or energy to make pilgrimages to other restaurants or dining mecas. To “r & d” at their leisure like before. They are too busy and exhausted to do anything more than keep their establishments open and guests happy.

Fine dining as we knew it in America is now a shadow of its former self. Sure, the French Laundry is still with us, and others like it, but so many other talented chefs and fine dining restaurants have shuddered. There has been a slow exodus from our industry for years now, and it has taken its toll on the American chef.

And the added challenge of finding young cooks who want to carve out a successful career in a kitchen or in hospitality is a weight on our shoulders we won’t be able to carry forever. It is my belief that this will be a challenge for us for quite some time. Aside from the obvious COVID challenges in our industry, I know of more than one cook or chef that looked inward in their off time and decided a change of direction was necessary.

Now there are of course exceptions, but generally speaking, I have seen a slow decline in creativity in our industry. I’m not talking about creativity in maintaining a restaurant or keeping commerce coming through the doors. Chefs and restauranteurs have been extremely creative and tenacious on that front.

But is the very concept of the restaurant as we know it burning out with the coals? Survival is the name of the game right now, and ironically, many can’t afford to stay open, but they also can’t afford to close.

So, is the executive chef as I know it on the path to irrelevance? My father had a unique trade and owned a business that went the way of automation and machines, thankfully after he sold and retired. Is the executive chef on a similar path?

One of my favorite Jimmy Buffett songs says it the simplest way:

“My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around. I feel like I’ve drowned. Gonna head uptown.”

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is an executive chef,  former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group.

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