A quick search and you can find any number of articles about the rising popularity of tattoos among chefs such as these at the Mail Online, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Weekly and the Village Voice—and even a nice profile of Canadian chef-star Chuck Hughes‘ ink.*
Of course, tattoos are becoming more socially acceptable in all spheres, so it’s not entirely logical for the media to focus so much on the rise in tattooing among cooking professionals, but even a cursory glance at any of the more recent competitive cooking shows and you’ll see everything up to full sleeves on display on any given episode.
Before I get to why I think this trend is largely a bad thing, let me establish for the record my feelings about tattoos in general: I’m all for them. I have four tattoos myself, of which I am all very proud. Only one could be considered even tangentially related to cooking, an elegantly scripted line in Tibetan Sanskrit of the OM MANE PADME HUM HRI mantra on my forearm; as you can see from this awkwardly taken cell phone photo:
I say “tangentially related to cooking” for two reasons, first because this mantra can be found just outside the market in Namche Bazar:
Which, I’m guessing, must be one of the highest places on earth that people have long gathered regularly to buy and sell food—past the altitude sickness barrier and the last stop before Everest Base Camp—the roof of the world.
And secondly because of how I interpret OM MANE PADME HUM. I first read about the mantra in Peter Matthiessen‘s wonderful book The Snow Leopard during a particularly challenging period in my life. The middle part of the mantra—”the jewel in the heart of the lotus”—is sometimes interpreted to mean that enlightenment (the jewel) can be found in the heart of the cycles of samsara (or the lotus as representing everyday life).
For me, this tattoo is a reminder to focus on the details of everyday life as clearly as I can. Something I think about most often while I’m cooking. The sometimes long and laborious process of cooking elaborate meals can be a real pleasure for me if I’m in the right head-space. I find chopping to be particularly mind-clearing and peaceful—a fulfilling craft.
All of which is to reinforce the point that I am, on the whole, pro-tattoo. In fact, I think many of the tattoo artists—and let me be clear, tattooing is an art—who inked this vast cohort of superstar chef wannabes are far more creative than the cooks themselves.
And this is where I get down to my real argument here: the cult of celebrity that has built up around the profession of cooking is a largely negative thing in my mind.
Post Bourdain, more-and-more professional cooks see themselves as pirates, which goes some way towards explaining the proliferation of tattoos among chefs. I’ve had several friends in the industry and I know there is rampant egotism and bad behaviour in professional kitchens all over the world. But let’s step back for a second and remember that they are just cooking.
Can a cook be an artist? Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London often comes to mind when I think about this question:
“Undoubtedly the most workmanlike class, and the least servile, are the cooks. They do not earn quite so much as waiters, but their prestige is higher and their employment steadier. The cook does not look upon himself as a servant, but as a skilled workman; he is generally called ‘UN OUVRIER’ which a waiter never is. He knows his power—knows that he alone makes or mars a restaurant, and that if he is five minutes late everything is out of gear. He despises the whole non-cooking staff, and makes it a point of honour to insult everyone below the head waiter. And he takes a genuine artistic pride in his work, which demands very great skill. It is not the cooking that is so difficult, but the doing everything to time. Between breakfast and luncheon the head cook at the Hotel X would receive orders for several hundred dishes, all to be served at different times; he cooked few of them himself, but he gave instructions about all of them and inspected them before they were sent up. His memory was wonderful. The vouchers were pinned on a board, but the head cook seldom looked at them; everything was stored in his mind, and exactly to the minute, as each dish fell due, he would call out, ‘FAITES MARCHER UNE COTELETTE DE VEAU’ (or whatever it was) unfailingly. He was an insufferable bully, but he was also an artist. It is for their punctuality, and not for any superiority in technique, that men cooks are preferred to women. “
Orwell used the word ‘artist’ but that classic Orwellian mode of trying to be an open minded socialist, while simultaneously reinforcing his class prejudices, allowed him to compliment cooks only so much. Orwell writes ‘artist’ but it reads like ‘craftsman’—which I think is closer to the truth.
A cook can be an artist as Heston and Ferran have conclusively proven, but, of the world’s chefs, how many are at their level? I would think 1% is probably generous. So then, what are the vast majority of chefs? They are excellent craftsmen. I don’t want to diminish what I see as the very valuable contribution of the craft of cooking, but the current trend towards celebrity chef worship is nothing but the cult of personality repeated ad nauseam.
And it’s this trend of chef worship that has reduced the cooking channels on television to endless variations on the Iron Chef competitive theme. I love cooking, but I’m tired of these pissing contests. I’d rather watch a cooking (or better yet, a cooking and travel) show on PBS where I might actually learn something.
Many times civilians I have met who find out that I cook a lot, and reasonably well, have called me a ‘chef.’ In the past, I have always quickly corrected them: no, I’m just a cook, chef is a title you have to earn. I used to correct people out of a sense of respect for the difficult job of being a chef, now it’s sometimes because I don’t want to be associated with a bunch of egotistical loudmouths.
Coda: Regardless of your feelings about tattoos or celebrity chefs, though, I think we can all at least agree that this song holds up better than expected.
*Honestly, I’m a fan of Chuck. He still has an actual cooking show—with very good background music choices—and is proudly Québécois in all the least irritating ways. I can’t help but like him.
A few years ago I read a fun article on Slate entitled, “Scratch That.” The writer, Jennifer Reese, shared her experience of trying to make cheap grocery staples at home. Her article is the reason why I now make my own yogurt and always keep on hand a big jar of Alton Brown’s granola.
What has lingered the most from Reese’s article, however, is the continual drive to see if I can ‘one-up’ those who make my favourite food. Can I make it taste better? Can I make it healthier? Can I save money making it myself?
We typically do not eat much processed food. You will hardly ever find a factory-made meal in our freezer or items that only need to be zapped in a microwave but there are a few things that we will buy already made and a bag of perogies is one of them. I do love how easy they are to make and on a cold winter’s night, there is little better for warm comfort than some dough-wrapped potato.
Side note: This is one of those projects that is perfect for Andrew and me to make together. It’s always nice when we can find a project that requires his cooking skills (the filling) and my baking skills (for the dough wrapping). This was a fun one.
A couple of years ago, my Ukranian colleague told me that she and her Polish husband had combined their grandmothers’ recipes, tweaked it themselves and concluded they could claim the recipe for ‘ultimate pierogi.’ As a super white, 5th generation Canadian whose other side of the family was simply French Canadian, I was eager to borrow their Eastern European family wisdom and make one of my favourite comfort meals.*
In as much time as it took me to read the first few ingredients on their list, I knew I was going to adapt the recipe. Their traditional family recipes included gooey, neon-orange processed cheese. Now, I love Cheez Whiz as much as anyone should but I wasn’t going for my ultimate grilled cheese sandwich (which I will write about another day when I confess to my true guilty food pleasures). I was going for Nana’s old-fashioned pierogi and so Velveeta and the like were just not going to do.
What I did get from their recipe was a great starting point. They used all-purpose flour exclusively but my latest batch of these was made with a blend of all-purpose, whole wheat, and rye flours and it gave the dough a solid earthiness without competing with the flavour of the filling. I also chose to cut the regular sour cream with light sour cream. If I were to do it over again, I might even use some home-made Greek-style yogurt in place of the light sour cream if I happen to have some on hand that day but I am quite comfortable now with this general recipe:
For the dough:
3 1/4 c all-purpose flour
1 c rye flour
3/4 c whole wheat flour
2 c container sour cream (start with 1 c and keep working it into the dough, depending on how much fat is in your sour cream and the flours you use, you may need less to get it to a good workable consistency
1 pinch sea salt
For the filling:
6 russet potatoes (they used red potatoes in their original recipe and for those, they used around eight)
3 oz grated gruyère cheese (or another good melting cheese to give good texture to the filling)
3 oz grated old cheddar cheese (or another good sharp cheese to give a tangy flavour)
4 tbsp onion paste**
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
You can boil the potatoes but Andrew just gave them a good scrub and baked them loose in the oven until fork tender. No need for oil or salt at this stage. Once cooled, crudely peel the potatoes, leaving about 1/2 the skins on the potatoes. Not only does this make prepping the potatoes super easy but it pumps up the fiber content in the filling and adds a little texture to make it more interesting.
We put the potatoes through a food mill but a ricer would work, as would a strong mixer. You could of course also mash the potatoes by hand but that is a lot of potato to do (if you double or triple the batch the way we tend to do for this type of project) and a mill or ricer does help produce a very smooth filling to your end dumpling.
Mix the filling up together in a large bowl. I did mine in two batches in my strong stand mixer. I am sure it would have taken it all in one batch but I didn’t feel the need to test its limits. The way we did it allowed us to adjust the seasonings easily.
Seriously, I could have just eaten that filling with a fork until I fell asleep but I did the proper thing and rolled out some dough, cut it into circles 10 cm (approx. 4 inches) in diameter and filled them each with a small scoop of filling. The dough is easy to work with and is quite forgiving but work fairly quickly even if only to minimize the time you spend on this stage. It will take some serious time so plan accordingly.
Place the potato mixture in the middle of the circle of dough.
I started doing this according to their directions, using teaspoons to make piles of filling but then I pulled out my small ice cream scoop to make the task a lot faster and more even. The scoop put out a little more filling than the spoons and that is the reason why I used the size of circle cookie cutter I used but use the tools you have. Just be sure to put in enough filling so that your perogies are not full of air but not so much that they won’t close cleanly. Prepare to make a mess of the first few to learn the best way to approach the ratios.
Once filled, wet the edge of the dough with some water and fold it over to meet the other side, making a 1/2-moon shape.
Press the wet edges together and reinforce the bond at the edge with the tines of a fork (this also makes a nice detail on the edge).
One bonus of these dumplings is that they freeze very well. I froze them separately on a tray in my freezer first and then tossed them in a freezer bag, which kept them from clumping together. That makes it super easy to pull out in the quantity I need.
When ready to eat the perogies, you can cook them from frozen. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil (no need to salt the water) and drop in the perogies. Once they come to the surface, let them cook one more minute (or until soft but not so long that they split open) then drain. Do not over-cook them or they will get gummy. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper (or spice of your choice… I happen to like the odd sprinkling of Old Bay seasoning but to each his/her own) and serve. It is typical to sauté the perogies for a few minutes with some butter and onions or bacon before serving so explore options based on your own taste but I like them plain with a dollop of sour cream and a little smoked paprika. Delicious!
* Any guide on healthy eating is going to tell you to limit yourself to a couple of perogies as a small appetizer before a properly balanced meal that includes fresh vegetables and low-fat protein. This is not that guide. I love a plateful with plenty of pepper and sour cream but I leave you to your own vices… I mean devices.
** Andrew makes a fantastic onion paste, which is basically onions cooked down and pureed, similar to the process of making applesauce. Onions bother my digestive system unless cooked so this was his way of incorporating their flavour into dishes without upsetting my stomach. As it turns out, it is super handy to have ready so you can just add a scoop of onion into your dish without a long sauté every time. For soft perogy filling, the texture of the onion paste was perfect. In the original recipe, they cooked down three onions with butter and blended that into the potato filling for flavour so if you do not care for the onion paste idea, go with tradition.