rumination 29: we need more experts…
A group of us were huddling together in the frigid night when our taxi – one of those odd European hybrids with a cramped third row of seats in the back - pulled up. Daniel Boulud was the first to jump in, crawling into the far, back corner. Someone else jumped in after him, but was quickly pushed back out. No, Boulud objected. He wanted the “kid” back there with him. We surveyed each other, and we knew he could only mean me. I was the smallest, and the youngest.
Wedged into the back with Boulud, I jokingly objected to being called a kid. I was definitely older than he thought I was. When he asked, I told him I was 32. I was still very young, he insisted.
Not young enough. In one of those moments when my memory for detail came in handy, I reminded Boulud of his own words. “Remember, chef,” I chided, “in chapter eight of your book ‘Letters to a Young Chef,’ you specifically pointed out to the reader that ‘these are Letters to a Young Chef’ – emphasis on the ‘young.’” I continued to recite, “‘In other words, if you were thirty years old, I would not be writing this to you, because the demands of the job and competition out there require that you start young…’”
“Ça va, ça va,” he conceded with a laugh. He, too, was young, and perhaps a bit foolish, when he wrote that book, he said, almost reminding himself wistfully. It was not too late for me to become a chef, he reassured me.
If you are an aspiring chef, young or old, or just curious about the career of a chef, as I was, I highly recommend Boulud’s book.
Now, a few years later, I wouldn’t consider myself old yet. But I am older. And I look at young cooks, many of whom are not only a decade younger than I, but also seem to already be far along in their careers, and marvel. At twenty-five, I was just starting law school, the trailhead to a long, expensive, and confusing detour away from the direction I probably should have been headed at that age. Unlike young cooks these days, I didn’t have the conviction or courage to follow my dreams. I also had options, which I know that many young cooks don’t have. And those options paralyzed me. Instead of throwing myself headlong into learning a craft that interested me, I opted for a career that, I thought, would stabilize me.
Before I proceed too far down this storyline, I’ll stop here. This post is not about what I would have done if I hadn’t gone to law school (even now, I’m not sure I could answer that). And it’s not about regret either, because I don’t regret a thing. I know that every inch of my life has been essential to putting me where I am now. In my last decade, I have learned more about myself, my values, and what it is I want out of life than I probably would have otherwise.
Instead, I’d like to tell you about my recent encounters with a couple of young cooks that made me think more deeply about an aspect of our country’s, and, more specifically, my hometown’s restaurant industry.
These two cooks, both around twenty-five years old, asked to meet me, and talk with me about their future. Both cooks are in a transition period, having just left their jobs in Kansas City, and are about to move to a different city to find a new home and kitchen. To my great joy, both told me that they intend to return to Kansas City one day. And, both, wanted to know what Kansas City’s restaurant scene lacked, what void could they help fill when they return.
First, I want to make it very clear, as I did to these young cooks, that I do not consider myself qualified to be coaching young cooks, or even giving them meaningful advice. Although I had worked in the front of the house in my youth (and even that is a laughable claim), I have never worked in a professional kitchen. As such, I encouraged them to ask other cooks and chefs whom they trusted and admired for advice (and, it was in these conversations that I was reminded of my endearing exchange with Boulud a few years ago). I could only given them advice based on my observations as a third-party participant in the restaurant subculture.
Second, although I use my hometown of Kansas City as an example here, it is only an example. What I have to say may apply to many other places in the United States.
I applauded these young cooks for wanting to come back home, eventually. The primary thing that I think a city like mine lacks is a steady stream of talent. Without it, chefs, especially at the higher end, have a hard time retaining staff, or developing any sort of meaningful kitchen culture, which I think is an essential part of building a great enterprise. Without an eager pool of talent waiting for them to leave, cooks in smaller cities don’t have the same pressure to strive and grow, or remain loyal, as their counterparts do in bigger cities, where ambitious cooks constantly circle the kitchen, waiting to replace the weak.
Many cooks leave the smaller cities to go to the bigger cities to cut their teeth in the more demanding kitchens of our country. I think this is important. But, the problem is, few bring their big city experiences and dreams back to the smaller cities. Those that do, are often faced with the realities of opening and running a small business in a less-sophisticated environment, with a less-appreciative audience. Discouraged, or financially exhausted (or, sometimes, just plain lazy), they set aside their big city lessons and dreams and settle into status quo. It’s understandable, but disheartening nonetheless.
But, both of these cooks insisted that they intended to gain experience elsewhere, and then return home to Kansas City. And they wanted to help our city’s culinary scene grow. What else was missing?
Experts. We lack experts, I told them. Experts create a dynamic dining culture. And that’s what smaller cities, like mine, need.
I understand that a lot of chefs and restaurateurs aren’t interested in having a higher-level discussion about food. They just want to run a good business, provide for their employees and families, and make their customers happy. That’s a very admirable goal; the backbone of the American free market system.
And yet, I hear so many of these sorts of chefs and restaurateurs, ones that I would put in that category, wonder why the mainstream media doesn’t pay more attention to them. Why doesn’t Kansas City get more national coverage? Why aren’t our chefs and restaurateurs winning more awards? Why do outsiders only come here for barbecue?
Because, that’s who our experts are: barbecue pit masters and champions.
We have arrived at an age when good restaurants abound. You can find good food being served in good restaurants across our country. So why come to Kansas City when you can find comparably good restaurants nearer to you? What in Kansas City is better than that which is closer to you? With all due respect to the chefs and restaurateurs in my hometown (many of whom are good friends), I ask: who or what in Kansas City is unique, outstanding, authoritative? The food media looks for experts (well, ideally, they do). When they want to write about wild fishing, butchery, cheese-making, spices, organic farming, pastry-making, or Italian, Indonesian, Greek, or Moroccan cuisines, they seek out those who have the most knowledge about those things and who cook the best versions of those cuisines.
I last wrote about Kansas City on this blog two years ago. Since, many have emailed me asking me to update the post. I recently went back to read what I had written. And I have very little to add. The people and restaurants I named are our city’s experts, those who have dedicated themselves to perfecting their craft, and, who provide our city with a quality product: Jay and Carol Maddick at Campo Lindo Farms, who raise tasty, free-range chickens on their organic farm in Lathrop, Missouri; Leroy and Barb Shatto, who produce some great dairy on their dairy farm north of the city; Sarah Hoffman and Jacqueline Smith at Green Dirt Farm, who raise sheep with organic practices, and who make excellent cheeses in Weston, Missouri [disclaimer: I photographed for their farm this year]; Jeff Stehny and his champion crew at Oklahoma Joe’s, who turn out consistently great barbecue; Christopher Elbow, a chocolatier and ice cream maker with an eye for detail and business; Fred Spompinato, who makes the best bread in our city at his little bakery on Summit Street on the city’s near-West side; and a few others. To that list I would add Linda Hezel, who grows amazing and wonderful herbs, fruits, and vegetables at her Prairie Birthday Farm just thirty minutes outside of Kansas City. When I was writing “the bluestem cookbook” with chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts, we used Concord grapes from her farm. She had grafted those grape vines from her uncle’s vineyard near St. Louis. (Hezel was recently featured in the New York Times.)
If they want to have a meaningful impact on our city when they return, I told these two young cooks to spend their time abroad discovering an area of the restaurant industry that they particularly love, and then work to become an expert at it. It could be something as specific as making charcuterie, or ramen noodles, or wine service, or as general becoming experts on developing flavor, or understanding texture. Experts drill down to the heart of a matter. In doing so, they come to know and value quality in their area of expertise, and only care to produce it. We need more experts.