We tend to take our chefs for granted. Earlier it was because they were faceless entities, working behind the scenes. Now, thanks to a steady diet of alluring food television shows, we assume they're all Jamie Oliver clones, casually chopping vegetables in slick kitchens when they're not picturesquely wandering around herb gardens with little wicker baskets.
As with everything else in life, the reality is a lot less glamorous.
Kitchens are brutal places to work. Especially big commercial kitchens. The hushed scented air, plush carpets and sparkling chandeliers of a restaurant might give you the impression that its kitchens are just as beatific. But push open the door to the restaurant kitchen and you'll be plunged into another world. It's hot, humid and loud. The pace is fast and the pressure immense. A lot of this work is physically exhausting — lifting heavy pans, steady stirring and, of course, cutting though huge piles of vegetables. Constantly handling blistering kadais, sharp knives and spluttering oil, all of which leave battle scars.
In addition to all this, the hours are long. Work timings are erratic and unpredictable. Think it can't get worse? Then remember this. Their most intense work load is on holidays, when all the rest of us turn up at restaurants and hotels to kick back and drink too many margaritas.
Worst of all? Putting up with us. Customers can be infuriating. Divas with all kinds of strange food quirks, clients who demand to be fussed over incessantly, people who throw temper tantrums when their steak doesn't come out exactly they way they picture it in their heads. The yellers, the whiners, the drunkards.
Yet, in all the years that I've interviewed chefs and reviewed restaurants I've never heard a chef complain about his job. In fact, they seem to thrive on the pressure and workload, probably because they honestly love cooking for people.
All this because October 20 was International Chef's Day. It seems an appropriate time to thank our chefs, not just the Executive Chefs who are — finally— being made the faces of their restaurants, but also their hard-working teams, from the dishwashers to the onion choppers. Stirrers, fryers, kneaders.
The chefs, meanwhile, following tradition, used the day to discuss ways they can help the world. The hotel industry has always taken some responsibility towards fighting hunger. This year, they're focusing on ‘Chefs Without Borders.' A humanitarian aid initiative by The World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) its mission statement says it “aims at saving lives, alleviating suffering and restoring dignity and basic human rights by providing nutritious food and clean water to the hungry and the malnourished, in response to national as well as international situations.”
Gissur Gudmundsson, WACS president, says “On the first day after the Haiti earthquake, I was watching television and witnessed that my country, Iceland, was the first on site. This made me question, ‘But where are the chefs? Why are we not participating in helping the rescuers and the needy?' Coming from a country where disaster can strike at any time, I truly believe that we, chefs of the world, should always be ready to help, serve and support anyone in need.”
Meanwhile, for the chefs who choose to do battle from home, the challenge this year is to ‘Go Green.' So 9.3 million chefs all over the world got together in different locations to discuss ways to effectively save the planet.
In Chennai, the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations had a day-long conference with 150 chefs from across South India to put across the most salient points. Most of them can, and should, be followed in home kitchens too.
Eat local. Food ‘grown by our own' is healthier and tastier. Focus on slow food — traditional food that is good, clean and fair. Save energy. Segregate waste, and recycle.
Do your bit. Like any powerful seasoning, a little goes a long way.