Chef Ego: When Convenience Matters More Than Craft

The craft approach to making great food is the only approach. Even the fiercely profit-driven, microwave-popping, food mills have their origins in somebody’s good idea that simply grew beyond the confines of craftsmanship. But how did that happen? Doesn’t every chef, every cook want to make food that is grounded in skill and pride? Opinions on scratch cooking and making every dish part of the chef’s egomaniacal tapestry vary by segment, resources, talent, and commitment.

Is the juice worth the squeeze? Time is always, always short. Anybody that works in a kitchen that says otherwise is doing something wrong. Or lying.  “When you have a three-man, hole-in-the wall place, you can’t always do it. But maybe make an eight-item menu and do it from scratch. That’s why you have a 15-hour day,” said Bill Hoffman, chef/owner of House of William & Merry in Hockessin, Del.

Effort is often better applied in the more sophisticated aspects of cooking, rather than the knucklehead stuff that can be easily outsourced. Making a big, flavorful, dark chicken stock makes more of an impact than steaming whole crabs to make crab cakes. The answer is in balance by putting resources where they matter most.

Convenience food when there is too much chlorine in the talent pool. “Scratch? Everything doesn’t have to be, but you do the best you can. Sourcing humanely raised animals, sustainable fish. It’s cliche, but not everybody does it. Whole ducks. Whole chickens. When you work with the whole animal, you start the scratch process. You, as a chef and your staff, you become completely connected with your food. With that connection comes innovation. But I understand why you cut open a bag of fries,” added Hoffman.

More than a few reports have come to light about the tightening of the culinary labor market, from culinary grads making the jump over restaurants and going the corporate path, hitting the grocery segment, or going into private practice with home-meal service. That shallow pool of talent, mixed with growing expectations for bigger salaries, makes for very real obstacles. To counter, some ingredients need to be sourced. Some need to come in fabricated. Or ready to use. It isn’t a slight on chefs’ talents, it is pure economics.

It’s a business — bills have to be paid. “I tend to use more quick scratch and ready-made food items for large catering and lean more toward all-scratch for my line menu,” said Jason Talcott, chef at Utah-based Ogden Golf and Country Club and who also serves as captain for the US Army Reserve Culinary Arts Team. “It’s always a question to make or buy.”

“I feel pressure to be fiscally responsible, put out great food, and be as ethical as possible in my buying choices,” he continued.

“Look at me and my fancy car and my bank account. I wish I could take it all down to my grave.”  Of the innovators? What about the foragers, the pioneers?

“They’re willing to not make money. They live and cook the way they want to. I get rewarded and paid in other ways. When customers see all that work, it is an OMG effect. It is you doing that! Having a great restaurant can’t be about just the money. I’m searching for answers. For flavors. For better farms. For the next best place,” said Hoffman.

Perhaps there is a virtue to not being the most profitable bright light. Rather, looking for a higher calling may be the bigger payoff. A measure of skill can be just keeping the lights on.