23 May 2012, 4:43pm
Essays:
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  • Tattooed Chefs and the Cult of Personality

    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.