The Reach of a Chef, paperback
In November, 2004, middle of service at the restaurant per se in Manhattan, a "60 Minutes" film crew was making a chaos of the normally quiet and orderly kitchen…and there was Thomas Keller sliding around on the tile floor in stocking feet. He’d lost his shoes, and was in danger of losing his balance. I opened Reach of a Chef with this moment because it symbolized for me the precarious point the chef had reached in our culture.
And since the book came out a year ago, I don’t think much has changed. Critics say that I idolize chefs. That may have been true of Soul of a Chef, but in Reach of a Chef, which has just been released in paperback, I’m skeptical of the chef, or rather much of what we think about chefs. Reach of a Chef does address all the silliness of celebrity, the unpleasantness of branding and the need for it, but it does portray some chefs appreciatively, without glorifying them. Two of my favorite chapters in the book are favorable portraits of two different chefs. Masa Takayama, sushi taisho and performance artist, and Melissa Kelly, bare knuckled cook and garden siren of Primo in Maine. (The latter was excerpted in Best Food Writing 2006 and her kitchen was my favorite of all the kitchens I spent time in. I try to stay in touch with her. She wrote last week in an email, and this is indicative of her personality generally, “The gardens are amazing, Emily has taken it to another level…studied soil management this winter and have added lots of amendments to make our land healthier. She is testing the Brix in the vegetables with a refractometer and getting the most flavor and nutrition out of our food. Very exciting! I find this so much more exciting than liquid nitrogen and foam!!” If you’re in Maine this summer, check out her restaurant. It’s perfect.)
I have a deep affection for The Culinary Institute of America because it’s a place that changed the course of my life, but returning to see how changes there reflected or forecasted changes in the industry was uneasy not because but the school had changed but rather the students had—they wanted TV shows, they wanted fame, and seemed less willing to work hard or take the blows, and it’s our fault, the food-addled, chef-glorifying masses, I think, because of the way we’ve turned food into fashion and entertainment diminishing our appreciation of food as sustenance and a giving and visceral pleasure.
With the paperback of Reach just out, I’d love to discuss it or answer any chef-related questions here. Like what’s Rachael Ray really like, why did the publisher change the cover and subtitle of the book, is $350 for a seat at a bar selling raw fish, Masa, really worth it, and did Keller ever find his shoes?
The work of the chef and what our culture thinks about the chef’s role in society is changing. There’s probably never been a more exciting time to be a chef in America, but it comes with more dangers than ever as well.