Saturday, September 1, 2012

Chef, Teacher...Compass

People say that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession; I’d make the argument that it’s hard to walk a street corner on an empty stomach. So cooking is probably tied for first or a close second. It may not be as profitable but you do get screwed more, just ask any cook on pay day. So there has to be something or someone that makes us do what we do. In the cooking world we call them chef, our mentors…our compass.

In the layperson’s world they are teachers and professors. In some cases these are people we are inspired by and respect so much we would rather springboard into a pool of burning oil than disappoint them. Then there are those we blame every time we freeze up when challenged with a task. We are all teachers to some degree so whatever you do…be the former.

You can go back as far as a Sicilian born cook working in Greece named Mithaikos in the late 5th century BC. He wrote the earliest known surviving recipe. I’m not sure if Mithaikos carried around a cookbook from his mentor but there was definitely somebody he once called chef. Somebody he apprenticed under to learn his craft. Somebody he learned from and carried forth their recipes and in a respectful manner...put his own slight spin on.

After being kicked out of Sparta for being a bad influence (today this is the equivalent of being kicked out of Detroit for being a bad egg) he went to Athens where he was given ancient Greece’s version of a bad critique from none other than Plato himself.  You know studied under Socrates, “Theory of Forms”, “The Republic”…yeah, that Plato. I mean, people are still reading and falling asleep to his works this very day!  

I thought of saying that this was something of an ancient Greek Yelp review except for the fact that ancient Greek is certainly more relevant then Yelp, and since Plato will always be remembered and Yelp won’t...let’s stick with the food critic analogy.

But as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Athenaeus an “ancient foodie” promptly stole the recipe from Mithaikos’and wrote it down for the word to see in history’s oldest version of a blog…a book which was called Δειπνοσοφισταί. Now if you’re ancient Greek is as good as mine (My Greek consists of the crass word for excrement and “I’m tired”), you’ll know this can mean several things including “The Banquet of the Learned” or simply “The Gastronomers”

This book was about a banquet where the host was to have learned discussion with such folks as lexicographers, grammarians, hangers-on, musicians, my seventh grade English teacher and other folks that are as exciting as refrigerators humming. In short a complete bore of a book, but a befitting description of most blogs today.

The recipe was for a fish dish and if you’re Italian this would be a good time to cover your eyes as it flies in the face of your keenness for keeping it simple, and if you’re Jewish…well it’s just not Kosher.

Tainia~ gut, discard head, rinse, slice then add cheese and olive oil.

This was not a popular preparation and in fact got a “comment” from a poet of the time named Archestratos. He quipped that “Sicilians spoil fish by adding cheese…” Mithaikos undaunted by his detractors kept his style and moved forward with his slant on classic dishes for which he is remembered.
By all accounts he was a solid traditional cook as that was how he was no doubt trained. He was the kind of cook chefs stole recipes from and adapted to their tastes that carried through to this day in one form or another. He had a following of young and even established cooks who wanted to cook with, and learn from him.In short he was Mario Batali in a toga.

Fast forward to Modern Cuisine and people from François Pierre de la Varenne, up to Auguste Escoffier, or even modern day Paul Bocuse. What do they all have in common? Well aside from the fact that each one has a fish dish with cheese in their repertoire. They are what you think of when someone says classically trained traditional chef and yet each of them was in some way innovative. They all had their own style and way of doing things. But if they were a compass heading they would be pointing to magnetic instead of true north.

Chefs, remember that when you are teaching young cooks. Keep the reigns tight during service and prep because after all it is your kitchen. But once in a while with a daily special or with family meal let them go to magnetic north. We all remember that one chef that wouldn’t let us hold a whisk or peel a carrot differently…don’t be that kind of teacher.

We can all learn something new, even if it’s from a student and the lesson is “here’s another way not to do béchamel.” Strive to be that one teacher, that one chef who you still call to this day to share your successes and failures. The one you know will kick your ass when you need it, and offer solid advice when you don’t. Be a compass.

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