Very pleased that Eater let me write about one of my culinary heroes. (Link below)
In my second year at the Stratford Chef School, I was assigned as student executive chef for a tribute dinner honouring the great chef Fernand Point. The dinner was on the last night of classes before the Christmas holiday. On the surface, the menu appeared simple, but its execution required skill and subtlety. I was a perfectionist and hell-bent on achieving Michelin three-star results in a teaching kitchen in rural southwestern Ontario, no matter the strain. I’d fallen hard for Point while doing my research and, crazy as it seems, of all the people I needed to please on that night, I most wanted to get it right for him.
Point steered the course of French cuisine toward the future at his restaurant, La Pyramide, in Vienne, France. Moving it away from its often overwrought classical past and toward a sophisticated, lighter approach still recognizable today. He worshiped ingredients and thought they should shine. Flavourful reductions began to simmer alongside the flour-thickened sauces of the past. Elaborate menus were scaled back. Most of the three-star chefs who would later create Nouvelle Cuisine were apprentices in his kitchen. They were carriers of his lessons. They loved him, as did his peers.
I’d been in the kitchen until late the night before the dinner, working with the student assigned to pastry. The dessert for the evening was Gâteau Succès. We were busy piping rounds of almond meringue and slowly baking them to a crisp finish, whipping buttercream to a light fluff the colour of fatty cream and then flavouring it with praline. In the end, the success of our pastry prep left me feeling in control and entertaining gilded dreams of the dinner. That bliss would be short-lived as, the next day, one small detail went astray.
The evening’s main course was one of Points most famous creations, Poularde en Vessie, chicken cooked with aromatics in a pig’s bladder. The bladders were the final item to be struck off my prep list and were essential to reproducing the dish with historical accuracy. I’d written into the evening’s script a grand parade through the dining room of a just-cooked and fully inflated bladder set on a silver tray, just like the pictures I’d seen in historic cookbooks.
I’d ordered the bladders from the local European butcher well in advance, and they seemed pleased to fill my unusual request. My last stop before heading to the restaurant in the early afternoon of the dinner was to collect them. Mr. Weideman and his son Daniel presented me with a long strand of bladders, blown up like balloons, and strung together like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The holiday riot of their delicatessen lost its coloured-foil lustre as I instantly realized they were too small.
I’d had to paste a smile on my face big enough to conceal my disappointment. With bulging shopping bags in each hand, I headed out into a wet, heavy snow that clung to my boots with the weight of the failure stuck in my head. The stainless steel sky tinged the town the colour of despair. My mind was racing to find a solution to a problem that had come on like the flu.
The kitchen was empty when I arrived at the restaurant. I’d planned time to review my orders before the day’s activity began. By nature, I am tightly wound but on that afternoon, my nerves clanged like the sauté pans heaved into the dish pit during service. I prided myself on being fastidious and yet one of the details I’d attended to with such care had gotten away. I couldn’t think what to do about the bladders and settled on hand-wringing instead.
When the teaching chef arrived, he could read the distress on my face. We set the crew to work, and the chopping and hustle calmed me. The chicken would be cooked for dinner service, so we had the luxury of a few free hours. Out of the blue, the chef wondered aloud if Ziploc bags could substitute for the bladders. We had enough time and ingredients for a trial run. I put a large stockpot of water on to boil while someone ran off to the store to buy the bags.
We needed this solution because we didn’t know that pig’s bladders vary in size and shape. The bladders I received could accommodate a small bird like a squab or a quail but certainly not a chicken.
The bag containing the chicken, liquor, and aromatics stayed suspended in the barely simmering water bath. The ethereal scent of the bird when it emerged from the bag shattered my worry. The chicken was succulent with the flavours of cognac, Madeira, and black truffle. In late December of 1991, long before the advent of modernist cuisine, we had invented a primitive form of sous-vide cooking. The Ziploc intervention worked a charm.
We all exhaled and the rest of the night’s prep was done with ease. The first course, gratin de queues d’écrevisses, was a luxurious dish of langoustines in a shellfish reduction, rich with cream. It took Point seven years to perfect this dish. The chicken was garnished with glazed baby root vegetables from a local farmer. Saint Marcellin cheese followed, wrapped like a gift from nature in chestnut leaves, perfectly ripe and earthy.
My cheeks were flushed from the heat of the kitchen, and I was giddy with the success of the evening as the last dessert left the kitchen. Something important had happened to me. On that winter night, in the tender, early days of my development, I had fallen truly and deeply in love with French cooking. I spent the next decade pursuing its masters. As I passed through the dining room greeting the guests, several told me that Fernand Point was smiling down on me that night. I recognized the compliment as a generous offering to a young cook, but I also knew in my heart, having passed the test of recreating the work of a great master, it was true.
I inherited my grandmother’s tea set. It came to me in a cardboard box, the dishes wrapped in tissue paper turned pale yellow and soft from time and wear. The surface of the plates and cups were painted with oriental vignettes in blue and white with a delicate gold border. On one, a duck makes ripples on the surface of the river he swims in while a goose eats at the river’s edge. A woman wearing a kimono and concealed under a scarf crosses a bridge while looking over her shoulder. Mountains and temples can be seen in the distance. Fertile parkland frames the scene—flowering aquatic plants, Japanese Privet trees dangling clusters of berries and a cherry tree in full bloom. The tea set is Royal Crown Derby Blue Mikado pattern. It’s incomplete. My grandmother likely ordered it piecemeal from the Eaton's catalogue.
I’d been searching the remnants of her young life when I received it, wanting to know more of my family (and me). My grandmother had passed with a secret she longed to tell. Her urge to share it with her family usually swelled with a couple of bourbon manhattans. Under those conditions, none of us wanted to listen. Inebriation pollutes the truth.
I’d shut my heart a little to her. From her parents, Odile and Arthur, she’d inherited a stern composure—fortified for hardship and mostly intolerant of children. There were a few occasions when she was tender toward my brother and me. She looked after us for a weekend when my parents were away. She made me the lunch of my dreams on Saturday—cottage cheese, canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. I sat in the booth my grandfather had built in the corner of their kitchen, my legs dangling from the bench. Light chatter ran between us while I enjoyed my lunch and she puttered, pleased at having given me pleasure.
She made bubbles in our bath at night with a squirt of Sunlight soap. My grandmother especially liked when a child’s delight could be had on a shoestring. I loved how tightly her beds were made. It was soothing, like being swaddled, I imagine.
After she passed, my interest in her young life was piqued, freed of obligation. I made some sparkling discoveries but because I’d failed to ask the questions she most wanted, what follows is of my own making.
Theo, my grandmother, fell in love for the first time at around 18 years of age with a man who was a daredevil. He’d survived a trip over the Horseshoe Falls in a ball he’d made and was earning his living selling small scraps of rubber from the contraption and tall tales of courage and foolhardiness. More than two decades separated them in age. His wife and children in the U.S. proved no barrier to his pursuit. He likely never revealed those inconvenient truths.
My grandmother was an interesting beauty—just shy of six feet tall with a slim but sturdy frame. She sewed clothes for herself through much of her life, in part to have something that fit. She had great style.
I imagine my grandmother as a girl back then. This unlikely union was made possible for her by the first flush of love and a headlong run from a harsh childhood. Theo and her daredevil had some kind of arrangement. Their bond seemed promising enough that she began to assemble a trousseau. The tea set speaks to her good, if impractical, young taste. She was imagining a union that would lead to her hosting afternoon tea. Crumbs of pound cake left on a plate painted with the scene “Sad-Eyed Wandering Lover.”
Theo became pregnant and in the months before giving birth her brothers came and took her away. I don’t know if she ever saw her daredevil again.
She went to a "wage home" in Toronto, working as a chambermaid for a wealthy family in Rosedale. Her love of cooking began there and she learned much from the resident cook (she did tell me this). My grandmother maintained a friendship with the matron of the family for years afterward. My father recalled her limousine pulling up in front of his childhood home in Welland once a year. He and his siblings were shoed away during her annual visit.
Her child was born at Toronto's Hospital for Unwed Mothers—Grace Hospital today. There's no record of the birth. A fire in the 40s took care of that. Unlike many young women of the time, Theo did reunite with her young son. They loved each other as family for a long time.
I lived within blocks of that hospital for years. While walking home in Rosedale I would imagine my grandmother coming along the same route or working in the houses behind the brick walls and gates. I can’t imagine her struggle—brokenhearted, with a child on the way.
My grandmother held onto the tea set her whole life. When I looked on it as I was unwrapping it all I could see in it was what she’d lost. I cried. She might have found my tears intolerable. Sentimentalism was another kind of intoxication.
Now I look on that set as evidence of the love she’d enjoyed. It’s just as possible that’s why she never let it go. Scrubbing lost love from lives is a social norm. Yet she kept those dishes in plain sight in a cabinet in her dining room.
She knew love again with my grandfather Harry. He was soft and kindhearted, just what she needed. They made a good life.
I don’t know if I’ve laid out her secret perfectly right. What gives me great pleasure is showing it the light of day. I’ve heard it said that we’re only as sick as our secrets. My grandmother bore a heavy burden of Catholic guilt. Her pregnancy and the birth were needlessly complicated by it. The saddest part of this story is the shame she endured and the silence that has sustained it. Maybe I’d gone looking for the source of her shame so as to free myself of that heavy unspoken inheritance. Where once I’d closed my heart to her, now my heart is full of her. She and I are making peace with the past. I’m celebrating her love and great courage by having tea and cake on her set and I’m setting a place for her.
 Nancy Schnarr. “Nowhere Else to Go - Homes for Unwed Mothers in Canada during the 20th Century.” Commissioned to accompany the show, Foundling, by Michéle Karch-Ackerman at the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery.
I knew nothing of this particular panettone before I met Annie Sciarra. She’s a client with exceptional taste. I do a bit of holiday cooking for her. She gifted me Rustichella d’Abruzzo’s Panettone Classico the first time I cooked for her on Christmas Eve. It’s become a tradition now between us. Carrying the beautifully wrapped package home that first time, I was unaware of the experience I was soon to have and how inextricably it would be woven into my experience of Christmas.
Beneath its gorgeous outer wrap, the panettone is sealed in a cellophane bag. The moments after first opening are sublime. I stick my nose into the bag and inhale deeply. The smell fills me with a seductive mix of desire and wellbeing. The candied peel is first and then close on its heels is the scent of flame raisins. It’s bound together by vanilla and the caramel smell of long baking. Closing my eyes I can hear the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
I’m calling it a rich bread, as historically it would have been. But the eggs and butter in the dough give it a delicate cake-like quality. It’s often compared to brioche but I believe it’s a much softer dough. One of the clues is in the cooling. The panettone is suspended upside down once baked, like an angel food cake, so as to preserve its light-as-air structure and its domed, cupola-like shape.
The history of panettone doesn’t interest me that much. There are a few stories. Put simply its Milanese roots span several centuries. But for me, Panettone Classico is an exquisite experience of the here and now.
Once cut through, the dark burnished exterior gives way to a crumb the colour of saffron. It’s the colour of enlightenment and is synonymous with many Milanese delicacies. Egg is the second ingredient and yolks alone appear again further down the list. Its gorgeous gold hue owes much to the Italian chickens that lay eggs with orange yolks.
I like picking the dark caramelized nearly burnt bits from the traditional mould it’s baked in. The fruit is soft, fresh and tender. Large pieces of pale green and yellow citron, like translucent pieces of sea glass, fleck the bread. Tender is too tough a word to describe it. It’s something more. It’s like eating a sweet soft cloud pierced through with a ray of sunshine. It’s what I imagine cherubs would enjoy.
I like it plain with tea but I also toast it and lavish good butter on it at breakfast.
It’s artisanal bread and, like everything Rustichella d’Abruzzo makes, flavour is its reason for being. The quality of Panettone Classico owes everything to good ingredients and the good taste of its makers (and the people who share it). *
I offer this small sweet piece to you as a way to give thanks. It means so much to me to have people read my writing and enjoy it. As the writing goes, 2015 has been a good year. There’s been praise and plenty of connection. More than I could have hoped for.
* This is spontaneous praise. I was not paid and did not receive gifts in kind.
…that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior
crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.
I was audited early in my culinary apprenticeship. It began with the restaurant that employed me and rippled out to include all staff. At the time, the government had set its sights on the underground economy and the restaurant business, with its tipping culture, was fair game. Omissions were discovered in my accounting. I wanted to minimize my time with the government and not incur excessive fines so I settled up quickly. I did feel resentful. I wondered why the government was shaking down an apprentice for such a paltry sum. The cash in the envelopes I received was like a gift to me, boosting my meager bottom line and my spirits. There’s a lot of room for fuzzy thinking in benevolent systems like tipping. As a young cook, I couldn’t imagine what the financial outcome of the audit was for the restaurant and staff or what taking aim at the tipping economy in the industry would yield on the whole. I would come to see my sense of entitlement enabled a covert system of accounting to thrive.
My story is not unique. With some regularity, news rises out of the restaurant industry of top tier chefs dogged by multi-million dollar lawsuits related to the improper accounting and distribution of tips. The legal proceedings are exposing a hierarchy of benefit that suggests some of the financial reward stays in the business through accounting loopholes. What remains is divided unequally among employees, with cooks traditionally receiving the smallest portion. Suspicions rise as more lawsuits are settled in favour of employees. Cooks are left wondering if the chefs and restaurateurs encouraging them to work for passion—and not for money—are reaping the business benefits that come from underpaying staff.
There’s also a sense many restaurateurs could be exaggerating the hardships of their slim profit margins. There’s no denying the pressures of ownership. Real estate in particular is a formidable expense. But it doesn’t seem to stop the flow of newcomers wanting to open restaurants. I spent my career working for highly successful restaurateurs who didn’t appear to suffer economic hardship. I don’t want to deny owners their right to success; I just don’t want it to be at the cook’s expense.
Our image has been further tarnished by media reports of poor working conditions in independent restaurants including charges of sexual harassment, threatening behavior, and incompetent oversight by management. There’s growing awareness in chain restaurants of the high salaries and dividends enjoyed by executives and shareholders and those of their employees who struggle to prosper. Add to the pot a lack of affordable housing and other social safety nets that make living in cities impossible on a cook’s wage.
The industry response to disheartened cooks who leave our ranks has been apathy. We’ve dodged dealing with the needs of maturing cooks and been naïve about the trickle-down effect their exits have had on our young. Cooking as a career is largely a ruse. It’s marketing propaganda used by culinary schools to woo the young. It’s one thing to enter the trade from school with the expectation that working for a minimum wage will be the reality for a while but it’s the length of the wage squeeze in our sector that drains our culture. How long can a cook work in the absence of any return on investment? Five years of quality experience in the business can net a cook a whopping $15/hour—or less if they’re working for day rates. Passion often doesn’t survive these conditions.
Many young cooks assume the financial pressures they feel extend to all in the business. When asked to speculate on the earnings of high profile chefs, many imagine between $40,000 and $80,000 annually. They’re surprised to learn the figure can be much higher. Some of their favourite chefs from culinary school earn above six figures. They’re too green to question the moral fibre of a high profile chef who publicly complains about a lack of quality cooks in the business, while acting in their kitchen like they can’t afford to pay for experience.
There are chefs who pay their staff well but they’re the exception, not the rule. I can think of one chef in Toronto with a stellar reputation who for decades has employed career cooks. He is proof it’s not as difficult as some would have us believe.
Restaurateurs are looking to overhaul the tipping system in order to improve cooks’ wages. The response has been mostly predictable. Restaurant associations warn of customer and job loss. Restaurant oligarchs like Drew Nieporent prefer the system to remain the same. (For the record, his net worth in 2015 was estimated at $42 million dollars.)
Powerful opposition to increased wages comes from the fast casual sector. Its profits depend on cheap food and labour. Allied with restaurant associations, it forms powerful political lobbies to influence legislation to cap the minimum wage. To date, it has been persuasive. The hospitality industry often holds the top spot as the largest minimum wage employer.
My ire rises when I hear an executive place blame for increased consumer prices on the backs of minimum wage workers. I want to know if rising consumer prices are impacting their million dollar earnings? Workers pushed to the brink have inspired great labour movements and unions, looking to make new inroads in an organization, view these conditions opportunely.
Evidence to support change is coming from the front line in places like Portland Oregon, where the minimum wage was raised citywide to $15/hour in February. Early reports from restaurants say all the fuss has amounted to much ado about nothing.
Poor wages are making it difficult to attract and retain talent. Chef Amanda Cohen and restaurateur Danny Meyer, both in New York City, are betting the safest place to be is out front, finding ways to increase cook’s wages. They sense the inevitability of change and know failing to act is affecting their business.
Substantive change is not easy. Being brave and facing it is admirable. Cohen and Meyer are not simply addressing the obvious injustices in the arbitrary system of tipping. They’re also setting out to prove that reasonable profit and quality working conditions are not mutually exclusive in the restaurant business. To make it work, they’re counting on customers to embrace higher prices. They’re hoping the desire to improve the lives of cooks is shared.
Most restaurateurs are comfortable to spectate these outlier moves. But they may soon have to surrender their bleacher. If wages rise in one part of the industry it will be impossible to stem the tide in the rest of it. But for every cook looking hopefully to this future, there’s a naysayer hoping the experiment will fail.
The business of cooking is losing its lustre. We don’t look good. That’s some of what Cohen and Meyer are trying to escape. Amanda Cohen has talked prolifically about the ridiculous conditions of professional cooking. The truth of the matter is it’s a bit of an embarrassment that a move to look after cooks is seen as such a radical act. That says so much about who we are. We’ve cared less about the living conditions of the cooks we employ than the farm animals we cook.
When I failed to claim all of my income in those early days I was head over heels in love with cooking. It was everything to me. Fast forward some eight years later and I was weary of handouts from benevolent patrons. I longed for opportunity and financial reward in line with my experience. I couldn’t find it. I left the kitchen. For too long that’s been my loss alone. Now there are some who are counting the loss as theirs as well. I’m grateful.
“Some claim that men must be central in the curriculum because they have done most of what is important or distinctive in life or in civilization.” Peggy McIntosh
I taught young women and men destined for culinary careers for more than 15 years. I was passionate about food theory and was frequently assigned this curriculum. In an introductory course, two of a total 28 hours was assigned to culinary history. It’s a paltry allotment and the squeeze forced me to leap and careen through our culinary evolution.
My passion for the subject led me to study independently. I soon realized that some of what I was passing on was seriously impaired by its western orientation. Through Susan Pinkard’s, A Revolution in Taste, I came to understand that Catherine de Medici’s role in the evolution of haute cuisine was overstated. Pinkard calls it “one of the evergreen myths of culinary history.” The fork did not spring from Catherine’s hand nor was it evidence of Italian superiority at the table. Rather, it points to the trading ties Italy had forged with the east. The fork came from Byzantium. Other culinary innovations, such as ices and sorbets, came from Persia. Catherine de Medici was a carrier between the east and west.
I loved seeing this truth light up in the faces of my students of Turkish and Persian descent. For me, it was a minor lesson in the benefits of inclusion. A realization began to take shape in me that our culinary culture could benefit from more truth seeking and telling.
I usually inventoried for my students the chefs who made vital contributions to our evolution — Apicius, Careme, Escoffier, Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse. I was French trained and had inherited an immense respect for a few of these figures. But I was mostly asleep, repeating by rote the things that I had been taught and deemed to be true. The exclusivity of this version of our history was slow to dawn on me.
That changed in my early 40's when I discovered chef Eugenie Brazier, a woman whose achievements eclipsed that of Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse, and whose absence from our history demonstrated our perverse cultural bias to celebrate only the accomplishments of white, European males.
How is it possible that a woman we’ve never heard of could outshine the likes of Paul Bocuse? Using the French measuring stick of Michelin authority it is on record that Eugenie Brazier was the first chef to be awarded three Michelin stars in 1933 and the first chef to hold six stars, three stars for each of her restaurants in Lyon and col de la Luère. That later achievement remained unchallenged until chef Alain Ducasse exceeded it with nine Michelin stars in 2005. Paul Bocuse has never held six Michelin stars, nor has Fernand Point. In this regard, chef Brazier’s achievement lands her in the rare company of chefs like Joel Robuchon and Thomas Keller. In his forward to the book, La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking, Paul Bocuse writes that Eugenie Brazier “remains one of the pillars of global gastronomy” who “taught all of us about flavors and gave us a taste for hard work and work well done. There would have been no success for any of us without her; something we often forget these days.”
But Paul Bocuse also provides a good example of just how this kind of forgetting happens. His attitude toward women in professional kitchens is no secret. We shrug off as French idiosyncrasy the fact that he refuses to employ women in his kitchen. (Ironic, given that his namesake school in Lyon benefits immensely from the tuition contributions of many female culinary students.)
In the Lyon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN program, Parts Unknown, Mr. Bocuse bares his unseemly bias when speaking of his first mentor. Early in the episode, tribute is paid to Brazier but when Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Boulud are in Mr. Bocuse’s presence at his restaurant, she is dealt a fatal blow. When asked what he remembered about her Mr. Bocuse’s only comment is about her temper. Nothing about the early skills she imparted, about a cuisine that won the highest level of gastronomic approval, or of her Michelin achievements. Anthony Bourdain closes the subject by characterizing her as a “truly terrifying figure.” Three esteemed male chefs feasting on the remains of an incredibly talented woman. How I wish that scene had been left on the editing room floor.
How is it that Paul Bocuse is celebrated for a cuisine that hasn’t evolved in more than forty years while nothing is said of Brazier’s cooking? Are we to believe that Bocuse never raised his voice or pushed an apprentice hard? Are we to assume that what happened in chef Brazier’s kitchen has never happened in a Michelin three star kitchen? I worked in a Michelin two-star kitchen for a French man and on most nights I could see his tonsils clear across the kitchen from the pass.
When does it stop being okay to degrade an esteemed contribution because a woman makes it?
In the compressed culinary history I delivered, Catherine de Medici was the only woman of significance clear through to the 1970s when Alice Waters and Julia Child came along. Eugenie Brazier was not there. Worse still is the fact that we don’t see our culinary history as diminished by her omission.
What is the danger in celebrating chef Brazier? If we can so easily paint such an accomplished woman out of our history who else might be missing? What of the great American chef Edna Lewis? What of the long line of Bise women, beginning with Marguerite, whose cooking has achieved Michelin acclaim at the Auberge du Père Bise? Are we afraid that given this knowledge, young women might build more ambitious professional lives for themselves?
The real lesson I was inadvertently imparting to the young women and men who sat in my classes, carrying all the enthusiasm of a brand new career, was that women did not contribute significantly to culinary history. I’m humbled by the fact that, charged with advancing the minds of a young generation, I accepted this biased view and passed it on, unquestioned. But I’m buoyed by the fact that my own curiosity and desire to teach better led me to a much richer understanding.
I want young women and men to know that this canned version of culinary history is a half-truth. It is a fictionalized account not worth learning. Brazier’s accomplishments challenge the idea that white European males have done most of what is important or distinctive in culinary culture. As Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud and Paul Bocuse demonstrated, the achievement of white, European males rests mainly in their ability to muscle a particular version of events into the books. It’s well past the time for an inclusive history to be written. Let’s begin with the message that we deliver to our young.
 Peggy McIntosh. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. (Massachusetts: Wellesley College, 1988)
 Susan Pinkard. A Revolution in Taste. The Rise of French Cuisine. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009) p. 30
 Drew Smith trans. La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking. (New York: Rizzoli, 2014) pp. 6 — 7
 Lyon. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Season Three. Episode Three. Sunday April 27, 2014.
It makes me cringe hearing a chef advise young cooks to take to the stove for love, not money. I get it. Passion is the pilot light that sparks a career. It’s a key ingredient in great cooking. Passion binds us to our masters, peers, and customers. But I’ve spent enough time on-the-line to recognize the subtext. In the business of professional cooking we want cooks with low expectations. It’s best when they want little.
I’ve heard this message twice in the past month—once at a culinary conference and again in the documentary For Grace. In the film, chef Grant Achatz discusses his professional commitment (and in turn, his expectations for his staff). He tells us that after a 12-hour shift in the restaurant he feels conflicted about whether to go home to his girlfriend or continue to work. We understand that when it comes to love, the restaurant usually wins. He tells potential employees that if they have pets they will need to find someone to care for them because they won’t have time. It’s clear from a video on Alinea’s website that 16-hour days are the norm.
I admire Achatz’s achievements but there’s a small voice inside me insisting that his practice is crazy, beyond the realm of reason. In pushing labour’s limits has he lost a sense of humanity? Is he normalizing working conditions that are socially (and legally) exploitive?
Must cooks be socially and personally deprived in order to create culturally enlightening cuisine? Why can’t a restaurant like Alinea—where the cost to dine is astonishingly high and customer demand never wanes—hire more cooks? Run a second shift? What’s the business case for this? Where does Grant Achatz draw the line?
Partners, lovers, and pets are the things that make us most human. Does doing it for love mean abandoning the ones we love? Missing weddings, funerals, and important events is a badge of honour for most cooks. But what does it say about the sanity of our culture?
The companion issue to long working hours is compensation. There’s an uncomfortable scene in For Grace that takes place on the doorstep of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago. Chef Trotter greets chef Curtis Duffy (who has plans to dine in the restaurant that evening) by ordering him explicitly to get off his property. Duffy had reaped the financial rewards from a class-action lawsuit launched by Beverly Kim, a former Trotter employee, over lost wages due to overtime work.
What’s striking is Trotter’s indignation. He clearly still feels justified in a practice that a court of law found problematic. His sense of what was right for his cooks needs correcting. I think of this abuse of labour (and power) when I hear a chef tell young cooks to do it for love. The perversity of Trotter’s indignation is clear to one writer: “Perfecting your craft is important, and in many professions you have to work your way up through the ranks. But the idea that you don't get paid a fair wage for the hours you actually worked? Maybe if you're an artist or a scholar and your work doesn't produce any revenue, that makes sense. Last time we dined at Trotters, the bill was over $1,000.”
Most restaurants these days deal with the issue of overtime by offering a flat day rate. In Toronto, rates average $140 to $150 a day. A 12-hour shift (not unusual) paid at minimum wage is roughly $143.50 ($10.25 x 8, $15.38 x 4). Because most cooks are doing it for love they don’t do the math and are unaware that they’re working for minimum wage. I sat with a cook recently with two years of culinary school training and five years of the best quality experience in Toronto restaurants. She was surprised by this bottom line. What surprised me was the indifference her employer had for her professional experience. I think of that when I hear chefs telling young cooks not to worry about the money.
Labour issues are like a simmering pot in our kitchens. It’s getting increasingly difficult for chefs to predict when it will boil over. Batali, Boulud, Puck, and Colicchio are just a few of the chefs who have met Trotter’s same fate. Chef Daniel Boulud makes it clear just how pervasive wage theft is: “If I was the only one in New York being into these things, I will be upset…but I’m not the only one.” It’s hard to tell from this statement if the offense—stealing wages and tips from employees—even registers as problematic to him.
It’s ironic that those being force-fed the rhetoric of working for passion must call to account chefs who appear to be doing it for the love of money alone. The interests of a chef or restaurateur can be at sharp odds with those of the cooks they employ.
‘Slim profit margins’ is the standard business response to these thorny matters. There’s no denying that rising costs—not the least of which is real estate—put considerable pressure on a restaurant. But something about this system works for business interests. If it didn’t, many of our most esteemed chefs and restaurateurs wouldn’t lobby governments to cap the minimum wage.
This isn’t limited to Canada. This past week restaurateurs in New York State were warning of job losses if the minimum wage were increased. It’s far easier to squash the financial ambitions of cooks than to ask customers to pay more. Imagine if such talented and esteemed members of the culinary community set their minds and experience to finding a way to adequately compensate the cooks they employ rather than investing so fiercely in the-sky-is-falling narrative.
Who determined that customers weren’t interested enough in the quality of the lives of cooks on-the-line to pay them a decent wage? In the same way we’ve had to teach customers about the value of quality products we will have to teach them that providing legal and humane working conditions may mean that meals cost more.
I don’t want young cooks coming to us without passion. But I do want them to come to the profession expecting a whole lot more. What would the business of cooking look like if we valued balanced lives? If we appropriately reimbursed cooks who contribute to a restaurant’s profits? Do we damage our profession when we expect rising talent to live on passion alone? In light of our recent history, and in the absence of any demonstrated leadership from chefs who matter reimagining the future of professional cooking will likely fall to cooks working on-the-line.
 Anthony Todd. “The Darker Side of Charlie Trotter’s.” Chicagoist. August 2012.
 Robin Kawakami. “Chef Daniel Boulud Responds to Lawsuit Over Employees’ Tips.” Speakeasy Blog. Wall Street Journal. June 17, 2014.
“My soul hurts.” That’s Richie Nakano’s grief talking. He’s mourning the loss of his beloved Hapa Ramen. Strange to say but when I read his story in Inside Scoop SF my soul hurt too. I’m a long way from San Francisco, with no connection to the restaurant or Richie, but reading about this talented young chef and his lost dream was hard. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of restaurant business partnership.
It is damn near impossible for any chef to single-handedly fund a restaurant’s development. Many must get hitched, in the business sense, in order to see their dreams come true. To understand how difficult it is to find a good match, do a Google search of chefs and business partners. There’s an endless stream of stories of famous and not-so-famous chefs involved in bitter legal battles. At root they’re all about the same thing—the partnership wasn’t right.
Richie Nakano’s business partner was from the tech sector and had a long list of accomplishments at companies like Amazon and Facebook. It’s unclear if he had previous business experience in restaurants.
In return for the cash injection Richie Nakano sold his soul. He signed away the rights to the Hapa Ramen name and brand, a business he’d been building since 2010. Those terms should make a chef nervous. They should make their legal counsel nervous too. I wonder if Richie was advised that his talents were business assets? That the life he breathed into Hapa Ramen had value?
The unraveling comes early and begins with profitability. Four months in to the venture and the investor’s looking for return. Was he expecting the same fantastical profits he’d experienced with online start-ups? Restaurants don’t work that way. Covering expenses and paying down some of the capital costs in the first year is a triumph. Unrealistic financial expectations would have backed Nakano and his artistic integrity into a corner.
Deborah Blum, restaurateur and advisor to the tech investor, pointed to Nakano’s social media personality as a pivotal issue in rapidly deteriorating relations when Nakano publicly challenges a mediocre review by a well-established San Francisco food critic. His reputation as a straight talking chef was part of the Hapa Ramen brand; it's not a sudden shift in character. Shaming Nakano is a weak attempt to evade responsibility. But there’s something else in her finger wagging. Could it be that the investor (under poor advisement) didn’t practice due diligence in researching his investment? Were the financial accounts for Nakano’s market stall and pop-up events reviewed? Did the contract specify Nakano’s obligations to balancing the books? Was that tied to bonuses or penalties? It seems that the big pile of cash didn’t come with a whole lot in the way of restaurant business grey matter.
I’m reminded of a story told to me by a successful female restaurateur. Before striking a deal, she and her potential partner had a lawyer take them through every possible worst-case business scenario. She described the experience as traumatic and told me it struck fear into both of their hearts. They signed a deal and their restaurant partnership lasted more than 30 years.
I suspect it was a less rigorous, more optimistic beginning for Nakano and his partner. As a chef, I stand with Richie. I’d like to wave a wand and restore his dreams. I wish he’d found someone with business talent to match his own.
What remains between them is a lifeless brand. I hope that after the grief, something new comes. I’m sure that the mind that created Hapa Ramen from scratch can create more and next time he’ll know the value of his soul.
I began my cooking career in fine French restaurants during the mid 80s when the revolutionary ideas and techniques of France’s Nouvelle Cuisine movement were taking hold in Canadian kitchens. One of the most significant changes involved cooking vegetables—green ones in particular—for less time so that they retained their vibrant colour and pleasing texture. Anyone overcooking vegetables so all their natural appeal was discarded with the cooking water was thought déclassé. (Exemptions were made for grandmothers: Who had the courage to tell them times had changed?)
Cooking vegetables perfectly requires skill. Crunching on vegetables more raw than cooked is as disconcerting as eating those killed by overcooking. Ever had to wrestle with undercooked vegetables on a dinner plate? When a fork or knife can't penetrate, things can get very messy: carrots, broccoli or beans are projected, missile-like, across the table.
But there are times when vegetables are best cooked to completely tender. There's an essential pleasure in simmering or stewing them well beyond reason in dishes where the rich vegetable concentrate that results from long cooking is an integral part of the recipe, not to be drained away. These dishes, cooked in a manner the French call paysanne, have deep agrarian roots.
For me, there are three vegetable soups that deliver this kind of simple enjoyment. They're not the vibrant green or exotically spiced purées of celebrity chefs. They're made with little more than fresh vegetables, some good meat stock, and salt and pepper to taste.
The first is Marcella Hazan's Minestrone di Romagna. So dear is this soup to me (and to my father) that I used it to pay tribute to Marcella when she passed late last year. Here, a mixture of hardy roots and tender green vegetables are simmered over very low heat for three hours. Miraculously most of the vegetables retain their shape while hovering perilously close to deterioration. Because the simmer is slow and gentle, at the end of cooking discernible cubes of potato and zucchini remain along with the green beans. The vegetables that do meld into the base are the sliced caramelized onions that start the flavour-building process, and the shredded Savoy cabbage that marks the finish of the vegetable additions. They add sweetness and form a tender soft mush that is the soup’s underbelly. It's the kind of humble nourishing meal that would be found in the bowl of the farmer in the painting Il Mangiafagioli (The Bean Eater) by Annibale Carracci. Marcella writes that this soup "has a mellow dense flavour that recalls no vegetable in particular but all of them at once."
That descriptor perfectly suits another soup that I adore. It comes from a book I think no discerning cook should be without: Simon Hopkinson's Week In, Week Out. His Simple Cream of Vegetable Soup would be on my deathbed menu. When fully cooked and puréed, its colour calls to mind the muted green and golden yellow of split pea soup, the two bunches of fresh watercress called for losing their brilliant spring green after an hour of cooking. Hopkinson claims to have learned how to prepare this soup "as a keen young apprentice at The Normandie, the renowned French restaurant near Bury, Lancashire, when I toiled there during a couple of school holidays in the 1970s."
Like its colour, the soup’s flavour is a gentle mix of sweet and earthy from leeks, carrots, mushrooms and watercress. Its smooth, slightly thickened texture owes much to being puréed in a food mill rather than a blender, and it's finished with a lavish amount of whipping cream, no surprise given its Normandy roots. It's a soup that speaks of another time and perhaps that's what I like best about it. It's a reminder of wonderful simple dinners in French bistros, and of mature chefs who cling with fierce pride to the dishes of their youth.
Simon Hopkinson's Cream of Vegetable Soup
The final vegetable soup comes from The Roux Brothers French Country Cooking by Albert and Michel Roux, who were seminal influences during my apprenticeship. I met Michel Roux once and when I asked him to sign this book (now sadly out of print), he beamed and told me that it was his favourite book because most of the recipes were his mother’s. It was a golden moment for me.
Their recipe for Soupe au Pistou is stuffed full of just that kind of Gallic charm. It stands head and shoulders above all other versions. Over time, I have made a few small revisions to the recipe—I use good-quality chicken stock instead of water and cook the pasta separately—believing the brothers would approve. The cooking time here is the shortest of the three vegetable soups so the broth remains clear. The final flourish of thick pesto, stirred in just prior to serving, is a triumph. As the soup arrives at the table, an ethereal herbaceous cloud, pungent with fresh basil, envelops the eater, stimulating the appetite. This soup was on a lunch menu I crafted when I worked at The Old Prune in Stratford, Ont., and customers would often wax poetic about it (and about the goat cheese soufflé from the wonderful chef Sally Clarke of London, England).
If there were little in my culinary repertoire besides these three vegetable soups, I'd still be considered a damn fine cook. They're old fashioned, elegant and accomplished. So complete that they need little else—a good loaf of bread, some fine butter, a piece of ripe cheese and local fruit to finish.
Much is made of modern chefs planting gardens and turning to vegetables as a primary source of inspiration. Chefs everywhere want to be seen with their kitchen clogs sinking into a garden’s dark loamy earth. This trend is often pitched as a revolutionary state, a modern innovation, like nothing we've seen before. And in its subtleties it could well be. But when I look into a bowl of one of these three vegetable soups, I can see its roots. I know with great certainty that, where vegetables are concerned, everything old is new again.
 Hazan, Marcella. The Classic Italian Cookbook. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) p. 63