The unique camaraderie among cooks and chefs

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures
photo by Kyle Klein

Sometimes it’s just a nod of recognition, maybe a handshake or a fist bump. But there’s always something that signifies unspoken understanding and respect. When you are part of the club, you are part of a unique group of hardworking, dedicated craftspeople.

It makes little difference if you work in a fine dining operation or a classic diner — if you cook, you belong. It’s not difficult to pick a cook out of a crowd. There is something about how he or she acts, walks, and talks. That look in their eyes, or the cuts and calluses on their hands — the signs are there. If you tie on an apron there is an understanding that the work will be hard, the hours will be long, the challenges are often unpredictable, and the stress always present. At the same time, these foodservice warriors share a passion for food, a sometimes hidden need for artistic expression, and the skill confidence that comes from being on the firing line day after day.

If you are in the club then you share a level of mutual respect. As cooks and chefs we always carry the V.I.P. pass. Cooks are welcome in most any kitchen, and as a member there is always a cup of coffee available, maybe a pastry, and always a chair in the chef’s office. Dining in a fellow member’s restaurant is always accompanied by a table visit from the chef or sous chef, an extra appetizer or dessert, and a team of line cooks extra-ready to please. When one of our own is in the house we want to be on our game.

Why is this so? I’m not sure that there are many other professions (maybe the military, firefighters or law enforcement) which cherish this connection at the same level as cooks and chefs. Here are some thoughts that might be considered part of the application for membership to the informal cook’s club.

There is no way around it: nothing can prepare you for the intensity of the work. There are no shortcuts — any cook or chef worth a grain of salt has to pay his or her physical, mental and emotional dues to become competent at the job. Every cook that carries a level of confidence has felt the pressure, has been deep in the weeds, has felt that loss of being in control and has found a way to fight his or her way out of those challenging moments that seemed to be insurmountable. Work intensity always tends to unify groups of people and cooks and chefs feel this intensity every day.

It is more than a white jacket and houndstooth pants hanging in a locker room, it’s a symbol of a proud history. When you slide your arms into a white double-breasted chef’s coat you are paying tribute to Escoffier, Pointe, Careme, Robuchon, Bocuse, Trotter, Child, Waters and Keller. When a cook reaches a point in his or her career when his or her name appears on the breast of that jacket, it signifies something special. It is validation of that club membership.

Spending 10-12 hours a day on your feet and working with open flames, sharp knives, ambient heat and humidity and heavy stock pots yields cuts, burns, sore backs, swollen feet and strained muscles. The physical nature of the work is somehow gratifying and definitely unifying.

If you have felt the adrenaline that comes from those last 15 minutes of work to get ready for service, or the rush when you pull through that unrelenting peak of business that occurs between 7 and 9 p.m., or of being unable to calm down for a few more hours after a 12-hour shift, then you know how desirable it can become. Many cooks, especially the younger ones, live for that feeling. It is addictive.

Cooks and chefs may try to downplay the notoriety of chefs today, but in their hearts they really believe “it’s about time.” For years, the job of cook was somehow categorized as less than worthy of any level of respect. When people smile and ask a cook to talk about their work today, there is a nod of appreciation. Moving from a sub-culture to one of honor and intrigue is seen as a real victory among cooks.

Transparency is a good descriptor of the working atmosphere in most kitchens. Cooks are typically unencumbered when it comes to expressing their opinions and relaying their observations and concerns. This honesty leads to a connection that only exists when people respect each other’s ability to say what they feel.

Maybe above anything else, cooks live in an environment where “me” always takes a backseat to “we.” Nothing works in a kitchen without reliance on the person next to you. Like any professional team sport, every member knows that his or her success is dependent on the success of the person next to him or her. Teamwork leads to respect, acceptance, support and defense of each other.

Finally, every cook senses just how important their work is to others. What we do provides nourishment, comfort, reassurance, joy, health and a forum for people to talk and enjoy each other’s company. Cooks and chefs inherently realize that people who take the time to break bread are always at their best and cooks are able to set the table for that to happen.