Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy! It's no secret I've been around the block and back again in The Biz. In fact, I've been back around a third time for one more swift kick in the nuts on a regular basis. (Thank you, sir, may I have another!) My first real job slinging burgers and McNuggets during the early 80's McDonald's glory days got me hooked, and the siren song of the restaurant industry has called me back over and over to dash my hull upon its rocky shores and scuttle my common sense, self-preservation and basic human decency. This doesn't make me Yoda or Obi-Wan-Kenobi but it does mean I can carry a light saber in my knife roll.
Awhile back I was hanging out with some younger Chefs that still had the glow of young enthusiasm and dew of innocence. Both were beginning to tarnish with the harsh realities of what they had gotten themselves into. After a few beers and a couple stray shots of Jameson, they started to pick my brain about what I had seen in my 30-odd years in and out of The Biz. At the time I didn't have a coherent set of answers for them but it did give me food for thought on what advice I would give someone who was just starting out on their culinary journey. The first would obviously be "Don't! You're sentencing yourself to a lifetime of admittedly delicious pain and agony, but pain and agony nonetheless." But if you are both passionate and dumb enough to jump into the deep end, head first, here's my two bits worth.
This stuff is more about mindset than anything else, which is the most valuable implement a top notch Chef has at his disposal. The noise and fluff of what kind of knife or pan to use has its place, but there are other factors that are more important to long-term success. The things that influence an up and coming Chef's weltanschauungcan make or break a career.
1. The "Why" of Cooking is as Important (Maybe More) than the "How"
Why are you doing what you are doing? Having a good time and enabling people to connect with not just food but each other is where the magic is. The culture you create and surround yourself with is the real gift in what we do and all that good karma sure can't hurt.
2. Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously
Don't let your ego block the process. You'll be much more effective if you realize you are the instrument of culinary excellence, not the source of it. What makes a great Chef isn't what they know—it's what they are still learning. That's the basis of growth and creativity. Point in case-I don't like to admit to being wrong. It's a horrible character flaw and it's ego talking. Every time I have poo-poohed something because I let my ego get in the way it's been a mistake and I've learned a few truly painful and embarrassing lessons each and every time it has happened. Ego is okay as long as you have a leash on it – but it had better be short. And, despite what you (and I) might think, in the grand scheme of things, nobody is that important.
3. Remember: Good Company is the Best Ingredient
I'd rather eat a ball park chili dog with the right company than endure the best meal of my life surrounded by a bunch of arrogant douchebags. It's even bigger than that, in fact. Are you building something greater than a meal? If part of your recipe doesn't include heart and soul you are on the wrong track.
4. Don't Follow trends. Set Them or Ignore Them, Even if it Runs Counterintuitive to the Norm
Be transcendent. What does this mean? For the short term, blindly following whatever the flavor of the month is in the culinary world is fine – it puts butts in seats. But extrapolate out 10 or 15 years. Do you want to be known as the kind of Chef that is remembered for opening another cheesy gastropub? Or do you want to be remembered for breaking some truly new ground?
5. Work Hard. Party Harder
You, my friend, are gonna bust your ass working endless hours of toil for little money and probably not much appreciation. What little time you do have off should be spent rocking it as hard as you can. Peeps in The Biz are absolute notorious partiers and it is both the best and worst thing about what we do. It's a well-kept secret that working a Sunday brunch on two hours sleep so hungover you can hardly stand up is a skill only developed in trial by fire.
6. Choose Your Heroes Carefully
Who do you look up to? Who are the influential people in your life? It's easy to admire a well-established Chef that has been around awhile, same for food writers and food celebrities. But who (really) makes you, well, you?
Wanna know who the real heroes are? My late brother Chris who passed away 6 years ago last month. He's still the most soulful cook I've ever known.
Whoever figured out that smoke, adobo and Jalapeños could form something as divine as the chipotle pepper.
That dishwasher slaving away in the dish pit, wishing he was home with his kids rather than working three jobs just to stay afloat.
Any Midwest grandmother making a casserole for that big church social.
The guy that had the audacity to open the first Italian joint in San Francisco during the 1800's.
Sid Soffer, John Zubieta, Dan Bradley/Diego Velasco and every other maverick OC restaurateur who bucked the norm and really created something.
Bourdain is the leper with the most fingers when it comes to food personalities but he's a yes in my book.
As for Bobby Flay? Fuck that guy.