Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Lowly Cook

"Now we have by and large been taught these points about which trades and occupations are to be thought of as decent and which ones disgraceful: these trades are...fishmongers, butchers, cooks, poultrymen and fishermen." Cicero, the famed Roman rhetorician. The above quotation from Cicero sums up the typical historical opinion about cooks. Cooking has always been relegated to the lower strata of society. Cooks came either from the poor or slave classes, the wealthy and noble thought of cooking as being far beneath them. Two of the most important chefs in modern cookery were both born into poor families. Antoine Careme's family was so poor that his father made him leave home at the age of 13 to find a job. He would go on to become the first 'celebrity chef'. Carame was the chef who codified what is now known as Haute Cuisine. Auguste Escoffier's family was not nearly a destitute as Careme's but he was none the less part of the laboring class as his father was a blacksmith. Escoffier was largely responsible for the development of modern French cuisine. The cult of celebrity chefs is only a very recent phenomena, one this cook wishes would go away. I long for the days when we cooks were just cooks. It is only in the past 20 years or so that it has become 'cool' to be a chef. In fact, in earlier days it was not the chef that people came to see, but the Maitre d'Hotel that people would come to see perform. Ironically, the vast majority of those who cook food at the highest level would surprise the average person. I think I'll let Anthony Bourdain take it from here, "Are they young, ambitious culinary school grads, putting in their time on the line until they get their shot at the Big Job? Probably not. If the chef is anything like me, the cooks are a dysfunctional, mercenary lot, fringe-dwellers motivated my money, the peculiar lifestyle of cooking and grim pride." Yea, my kind of people. I for one am proud of the rag tag group of people who have made up my cooking ancestors. I am proud that they have been slaves, poor, and laborers. I am proud of the fact that the upper-classes have found the job of cooking to be distasteful, all the while feasting on the fruits of their labors. The next time you are having dinner in your favorite restaurant, take time to step into the kitchen and thank those responsible. They don't get much of that.


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