People always ask me, “Hey Chef, what’s your specialty?” or “Hey Chef, what’s your favorite thing to make?”
When I answer, “Whatever is local, fresh, and in season,” typically they will say, “No, you don’t understand. What is YOUR favorite thing to cook?”
At this point they do not want to hear my answer because they have formulated their own romantic fantasy idea of a response they believe a chef should share with them. If I were to say, “lobster thermidor with octopus ink pappardelle, baby fiddle head ferns with caviar champagne gastrique,” they would make Fuh fuh fuh sounds and say Buddah. This is what they want to hear, because they see it on television.
By pre-formulating a response and not truly listening, they have precluded themselves from my expertise, the reason they asked me in the first place.
There are more than a few ways to inhibit yourself from properly listening to a response, criticism, or advice. Approaching a conversation with emotional distress, arrogance, distraction, or presumption can bias your decision-making process and lead to limited options. And everyone likes options, right?
I graduated Chef School in 1994. Two days before graduation, I had gone to one of the instructor chefs’ office to argue a grade. I had aced all the tests, I was never absent or tardy, and my skills were spot on. I had a frank and cordial relationship with the instructor and knew we could speak openly and truthfully, so I banged on the door and entered.
“What the hell, Terry!” I growled.
Chef Foster looked up from the piles of papers on his desk. “Hello Broc, what can I do for you?” he said, coolly leaning back and rolling his shoulders to stretch them a little. I slammed my report card down onto his desk with my palm flat.
“You robbed me of an A. I was up for honors. What the hell!” I repeated.
He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger, exhaling deeply. “You didn’t leave a family meal for the next class coming in behind your track,” he said, looking me square in the eyes.
It is tradition for every outgoing class to leave a “family meal” for the incoming class following them, just as before leaving every normal day a meal is prepared for your own class the next day.
“It was not my responsibility to make family meal. I was not Team Leader,” I fumed.
“You might not have been Team Leader in title, but everyone counted on your daily direction,” he said, leaning in on his elbows. “And while we are on it, I believe you should follow a career path in writing or publishing and put your culinary future on the back burner.” By now all I could see was red. I shook with anger and my mouth opened and closed without forming words.
“The papers you wrote for my class were exemplary,” he continued. “Not many people in our line of work have the ability to grasp a concept and explain it quite like you. And it’s not just me. I asked the other chefs too, and they believe, like I do, that you have talent.”
I was irate and perplexed. I could barely conceive my surroundings, let alone fathom his meaning. Leave cooking for writing? I had worked hard the last three years to be where I was at this moment and the man I trusted the most thought I should forsake my calling and start again? I stormed out, crumpled score card in hand, vowing to not listen to his heresy and to pursue my life as a chef.
Anthony Bourdain’s A Bone in the Throat came out one year later in 1995, and Kitchen Confidential came out in 2000. My book, Flying High with Barron Hilton, should be released the beginning of July 2018.
Because I was not open to hear the words of a trusted advisor, my book has been gathering dust for 24 years. It might have been nice for me to have options then?