by Bourdain

You’d think after the damage done by their recently convicted former president, the questions raised about their whole purpose, and the nauseating revelations of how little money the James Beard Foundation were actually raising for scholarships, that they’d maybe learned something. That they’d adapted, moved on, become more sensitive to the widely held perception that they are in fact, nothing more than a private dining society, a high-rent memorial to a much disliked crank who–once a year, throws a lavish stroke-and-choke where corporate sponsors can “honor” prominent chefs and restaurant folk at what remains–for better or worse–the “Oscars of food” ceremony.

Apparently, you’d be wrong.  For an organization that exists (purportedly) to ” honor” the craft and profession of cooking, the Beard Foundation continues to send a message of continued cluelessness and disregard.  With their most recent startegic masterstroke, they have, yet again, sent the message, ” We like famous chefs just fine–especially if we’re handing’em the Cuisinart/Vulcan/Fiji Water Humanitarian Award–but who are these nasty cook creatures we keep hearing rumors of?”  The $400 dollar a pop awards–where, traditionally, chefs and cooks from all over the country are “invited” (in a Carlo Gambino sense of the word) to contribute food and labor and personnel for a grand tasting clusterfuck near the ceremony, were, until recently, held at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. This venue had the appropriate–one would think–virtue of actually having a fucking KITCHEN. Presumably–and I’m just guessing here–COOKS like-when laboring for free to put their restaurant’s best foot forward and bring honor to their clans–to have an actual KITCHEN. You know..that place where they actually COOK?

Not this year, friends. This year, it has been decided that in favor of bigger and swankier accomodations for the self congratulatory nearly all-white attendees, that the cooks can take it in their collective poop-chute. At The new venue, Avery Fisher Hall, only hot boxes, induction tops and propane burners are allowed. Reheats only! Out of town chefs with ambitions to actually cook at some point in the prep process are invited to bunk with the locals, jamming their food and staff into New York’s already too-small, too crowded kitchens. It’s a breathtakingly tone-deaf, dismissive move–one that will only cement the unspoken wisdom that the clueless Beardies are “outsiders”–not “one of us” at all–and completely uninterested and uncomprehending of the real world of cooks and restaurants.

I will careful tell you of an equally horrifying episode. At a recent event, I was introduced to the incoming (Beard House honcho whose position I will not describe here). Suffice to say it was a high position. Very high.

When she inquired about the possibility of my involvement in some tandem Beard event with my friend Eric Ripert,I declined, saying it would be hypocritical of me–given what I’ve said and written–to take part. I explained that I would be an enthusiastic supporter and participant of all things Beard when and if I saw some kind of an effort to acknowledge the people who are actually doing the cooking in this country–the between 30 and 70% of restaurant employees of Mexican and Latino origin–of varying legal status. I was thinking a few bucks set aside for free para-legal advice. Maybe a widely accessible library. English lessons.

Her response? She looked at me with an expression of absolute sincerity and said, ” Oh..we’re very aware of the important contribution of our Lateeeno population.” Then, proudly boasted about the good works Beard House has been doing on their behalf: ” Why…just last week at a dinner at the House, 7 out of 10 of the waiters we hired were Lateeno!”  She looked at me, guilessly, as if expecting a pat on the head.

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117 Wonderful responses to “STROKE THE CHEFS/FUCK THE COOKS”

  • Jennie/Tikka

    I’m mystified by this whole thing, I really am.

    The last restaurant I worked in was Chef’d by a young man in his early 20′s. He was Mexican. He was a culinary school grad. He had been cooking since he was 13.

    He explained to me that he was responsible for every single recipe in the restaurant and had total freedom to put what he wanted on the menu, and that he loved his job because of that. He was not the least bit concerned because he had not won any awards. He had zero ambitions for becoming a celebrity chef. He was profoundly happy having gotten to a place where he was in control of the recipes. His name appeared nowhere on the menu. I asked him if he would move on if he was offered another job where he COULD put his name on the menu and he said he wouldn’t do it.
    The people in that restaurant tended to have long careers there. They were happy employees because there was no drive to be famous for what they did – myself included. I was just a line cook and that was fine with me (as it was with everybody else who worked there). We worked to our OWN standards and judged among ourselves what was good and what wasn’t. We didn’t need anybody to stroke our egos. We weren’t that insecure.

    Either he lied to me, or, a more likely conclusion – fewer people than you might think have fame as a specific career goal…at least not the ones I run into and cook next to.

    I don’t honestly know anyone (besides the people here and a few people on t.v.and a magazine here and there) who even care about the James Beard people. If that “smacks of white priviledge” then we are just going to have to agree to disagree – I think that is a completely inaccurate conclusion.

    You people can yammer about this as long as you want – I’d rather hang with the cooks who don’t care. Whether you spend your time saying you are “for” or “against” James Beard awards, both endeavors seem pretentious to me.

    I’ll leave you with a Groucho Marx song:

    “Whatever it is – I’m against it. And I’ve been shouting since I first commenced it – I’m AGAINST it!”

  • Mercutia

    Hey, Tikka–you’ve gotten back in the restaurant biz? I remember reading last summer on the NR message boards that you had tried once but after a bad experience had stepped out. (I haven’t kept up with the boards of late.) You’re back in now? Go you!

    I’m just curious myself as to haw many female Latino/a cooks there are out there, and how they’re getting along. I’m not accusing anyone of overlooking them, it’s just that most of what’s been talked about here seems to be “Latino males vs. white females”. I’m sure it’s a bigger mix than that, although I agree generally with those who say white privilege, as defined by sorcha, definitely makes some things easier in America. Sucks to be poor/overlooked/unemployed, though, no matter who you are.

  • elarael

    I’ve always totally enjoyed the multicultural atmosphere in the kitchen but it’s also led me to wonder how low paid those BOH jobs would be if managers stopped hiring illegal labor and focused instead on increasing profits based upon the merits of quality and service and passion. Could Americans who love to cook then actually be making a living wage?

  • latenac

    So a rant against the James Beard Awards, their crappy ceremony with reheated food and lack of attention to the group doing a lot of cooking in kitchens becomes Mr. Bourdain is a mysoginist who doesn’t recognize the plight of the unfortunate everywhere? If only someone had mentioned Hitler it would be a prime trainwreck. Oh wait, I just did. Now it’s complete.

  • Claudia

    Oh, thanks a LOT, Latenac! Mention Hitler, and now we’ll never get the blog back on track! (biggrin!)

    OK, who’s ready to get really steamed at the Food Network Awards? Let’s rumble on THAT topic! Oh, please! (Heheheheh!)

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Yeah, that was me, Mercutia – and my next kitchen job was completely different than my externship was!! Seriously nice people there.

    On your topic – both places I’ve worked had a female Prep cook but no linecooks.

    I’ll really get a chance to do some ersatz research in this area soon since I’ll be staffing restaurants for a charity event later this year. It’ll be interesting to see who’s actually out there doing the cooking.

  • SashaStone

    I was really happy to hear that they had a “fucking kitchen,” because frankly, the bedroom of late has made fucking a chore.

  • Jeanine Harsen

    Tony, thank you. Finally an excuse for not frequenting the JB House, I am even contemplating tossing the JB cookbooks I’ve accumulated over the years. Are you going to tell me now that I an elitist for enjoying Escoffier and American Bounty from time to time? Please, tell me the CIA is not filled with more pinheaded, racist schmucks like that woman you alluded to.

    Gee whiz though — at the risk of sounding like a jerk to Sorcha, doesn’t it matter to restauranteurs that breaking the law is wrong? Isn’t hiring talented Americans or talented imigres with valid work permits possible? As a New Yorker, I am more then happy to frequent places where I know the owners and staff (Lateeno or not) are fellow citizens and legal workers. I would happily part with a bit more cash for this lamentably quaint ideal (and god, why is that such a laughable concept for some of you?).

    Of course, I do not choose to eat at celebrity dives. I want a great MEAL. I don’t care if a women, a man, a hemaphrodite or Mr Flay’s aliens cook my steak… so long as it is palatable and I do not have to shout over the muzak to hear my guests I will be content.

    I don’t want to buy your cookbook. I don’t need your glad-handing. I don’t want my photo in the NYT. I actually want to savor a dish executed better than I could possibly have managed it in my own kitchen.

    When I travel this summer we plan to sample LOTS of new places, many of which were found via this blog. Thankfully, those cooks/chefs that are forming a negative persona in my mind are still anonymous.

    (Now, go ahead and flame away you freaks.)

  • Claudia

    Does anyone have an actual headcount of how many alien hermaphrodites are cooking for Flay? Just ASKIN’ here, you understand (!!) :)

  • whisk

    would the new Beard “honcho” be Dorothy Cann Hamilton of the French Culinary Inst.?

  • Gelato Fabulous

    Wow, Euro-Americans are so…”quaint” in their ideas about brown folk.

    Jeanine, I understand your point and for the most part, I agree with you, but unfortunately you and those with an opposite opinion are looking at it from a naive viewpoint.

    For one thing, hiring immigrants illegal or not, is alot cheaper than hiring a U.S. citizen regardless of what gender/ethnicity that person is. “Hiring talented Americans or talented imigres with valid work permits” is possible, but guess what, they’re going to want more money, and if they work full-time they’ll want benefits such as health insurance. Any business that would hire illegal immigrants (that’s who the public should be angry with), knows that they’re doing it to save a buck. If you had a thriving restaruant replaced all their immigrants, legal or not, with U.S. citizens, wages go up, the price of menu items go up; while some people won’t mind the increase, alot of people will. Furthermore, regardless of your position in the restaurant industry, many Americans still look at, and look down upon it as a “service” industry and those who work in it don’t deserve respect. So that “Lateeno” story as well as the anecdote from on poster where a white guy figurately snaps his fingers for more water doesn’t surprise me at all. I don’t care how non/anti-racist you think you are as an individual, but White America as a whole has brown/blacks=underclass/subservent programmed into its psyche.

    Even if you have a white person who lives UNDER the trailer park, I bet he or she will still think they’re too good to start a low position in restaruant kitchen, unless his/her passion is working in the food industry.

  • Claudia

    (Regardless of whether you agree with him/her or not, Gelato Fabulous deserves major style points here just for having a FAVOLOSO screen name (!))

    Well, now, seems like Anna Nicole Smith’s first hubby, an 18-year old fry cook called Billy Smith, is white and was pretty much from UNDER the trailer park, but I doubt he had a “passion” for food. Pretty much desperation, I guess. And he got paid the same crappy wages. There’s a pretty good book called – I believe – Nickel and Dimed, about all the people who make a poverty-level wage in the US, a not-so surprising number of whom are cooks and waitresses, and a number of whom are white, too. So, while I agree with most of everything you said, Gelato – or do you prefer “Fabulous”? (!) – there are obviously more than a few white people who can’t afford to think a lowly kitchen job is beneath them. (Not defending any group of people here, you understand – I’m just saying that the color of poverty in the US varies from region to region, and you might find a lot more white, very lowly-paid kitchen workers in, say, the heartland and mountain states than on our coasts and in our border states.)

  • disquiet_us

    “Furthermore, regardless of your position in the restaurant industry, many Americans still look at, and look down upon it as a “service” industry and those who work in it don’t deserve respect.”

    And here, I think, Gelato has a real point. The service/hospitality industry as a whole is probably one of the most underpaid/undervalued professions in the US. Why? Because most US citizens don’t understand how to react to service, can’t be bothered to remember that the people providing that service are actually people with real emotions and can’t understand why the person carrying their bags is entitled to a real living wage.

    Most of us, unless we have worked in the service industry, don’t understand that mutual courtesy and respect are required to make it work smoothly. Most of us don’t realize how much of the pay in the service industry is dependent on the whim of the customer. Most of us don’t realize the kind of hazardous conditions that exist in a restaurant. Honestly, from what I’ve seen, most of us don’t particularly care.

    This is a class issue. Within that class issue there are subsets of further issues that include race, sex and a whole host of issues that nest within each other like some kind of sick matrioshka.

    I personally believe that “immigration debate” is a code phrase for racism. We want to build walls and issue papers to guarantee control over an “invisible” population of Latinos/Hispanics (isn’t it amazing how any word, from certain mouths, becomes offensive). But they aren’t so invisible if you know where to look. In kitchens sure, but how about 14 men unloaded from an SUV on I-40 by a highway patrolman? How about an uncounted number huddled on a flatbed truck trundling and bucking into a cotton field in hundred degree heat? If you want to take up the flag of legitimizing Latinos/Hispanics in the kitchen and you work in the food industry that’s great. Do what you can do, where you can do it. But don’t forget that there are plenty of places you can find our “invisible” population if you keep your eyes open.

    But these are complex issues that span race (there are other races in our kitchens to be sure), sex (funny how women are relegated to the kitchen at home but aren’t masculine enough for a restaurant kitchen) and any other social issue you care to mention.

    But these are complex issues that aren’t confined to our kitchens.

    So what can we do in the face of insurmountable problems?

    Do what we can do, where we can do it.

    I happen to like Anthony Bourdain and I believe that his power lies in educating the public about food and its deep connection to people and culture. In educating the public about our own hidden culture of food and how it subtly affects mainstream culture. If he happens to make a few people think about some other important issues along the line, then he has gone beyond his calling.

    If you get up and speak out about an issue that he brought to your attention, then you only have yourself to congratulate.

  • Headhunter

    Anthony,

    You bemoan the “high-rent” James Beard foodies and the celebrity chefs — yet you seem to be a fixture at the Food and Wine Magazine and American Express swag-fests.

    Those who live in glass kitchens…

  • mike bryan

    Know what the real shame is? The real shame is James Beard was a wonderful chef and a fun writer and a great cook. Ever read his Beard on Pasta? Beard on Bread? Any of his other NUMEROUS books? They’re funny, smart and very easy to cook from AND the food is good. Very good. Not earth shattering, but solid and tasty. All of this is so far from the goal which is good food made well for EVERYBODY by EVERYBODY by a former master of the art.

    I can just imagine what James is thinking looking down on what his group has become.

    Sadness.