Shoemaker: Kitchen slang for an untalented cook.

While The Elements of Cooking is personal and opinionated and not without its omissions—where is levain, for instance, muddle, and wok, one of the most useful cooking vessels known (I love woks but stay away from the non-stick variety)?—but there is now at least one entry that I think I’ve gotten wrong.  I’m grateful here to be able to amend it.

I was in Napa last week to begin work on another cookbook and I, like Alex Witchel, ate at the restaurant Ad Hoc for three nights running, an unalloyed delight (I share Michael Bauer’s affection for this spot in Yountville which serves a single menu, which changes nightly, to all customers).

On the last night, I ate with the restaurant’s impressive chef de cuisine, David Cruz, who took issue with my definition of shoemaker.  To call a fellow cook a shoemaker is a not-uncommon put down in kitchens.  But talent or no talent was not the point, Cruz said.  Shoemaker indicated someone who didn’t care, who, in the heat of service, simply slapped food on a plate, wanting only to get the night over with, to get the food out the door and go home.  This indeed is what a shoemaker is, and I’m grateful that Cruz made the distinction.

UPDATE:  Eater LA didn’t just link to this post, they actually identified a chef NAMED Shoemaker.  I never considered the possibility!  He’s now the chef of Bastide, on Melrose.  That’s like being a dentist named Hurtz.  The guy who gave my wife an epidural was named Dr. Stork, which was cute until Donna’s screams came. I bow to Chef Shoemaker.  The work is hard enough without having to overcome what has surely been incessant ribbing from his colleagues.

UPDATE 5/8: This keeps getting better!  Chef Cruz has alerted me to an actual dish, Chicken Scarpariello, chicken shoemaker style (chicken with sausage), a cleaned up version of which he has put on the Ad Hoc menu.

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46 Wonderful responses to “Elements of Cooking: Shoemaker”

  • GoP

    My son’s speech therapist is named Mrs. Yell. Just had to throw that in there.

  • pete dogg

    Paul Shoemaker, the same tool who spoke of “tusking” a chicken…

    carolcookskeller.blogspot.com/2008/04/french-laundry-at-home-extra-trussing.html

  • Denny Bob

    Speaking of strange names for the profession. I had my vasectomy performed by Dr Richard Chopp in Austin TX. Top that.

  • allie

    The definition of “shoemaker” is discussed (and agrees almost word-for-word with Chef Cruz) in “Kitchen Confidential”.

    (I just finished reading it yesterday, my memory’s not that impressive)

  • pete dogg

    Paul Shoemaker, the same tool who spoke of “tusking” a chicken…

    carolcookskeller.blogspot.com/2008/04/french-laundry-at-home-extra-trussing.html

  • Phillip Runion

    dear sir,

    If one were making a pork belly confit, and happened to fall a bit short of rendered fat, would clarified butter be a reasonable substitute to top off with?

    thanks

  • luis

    allright guys lets just all agree this is not one of Rulhmans best topics and move on…or rather maybe he will move on to something really great!. Like stir frying local fish and veggies in a cast iron wok?
    From the books I have been reading up on this subject I am amazed at the veggie combinations.
    There should be rules I think! but I am far from sure as to what these rules are based on???
    I have it on very very good authority that I need to get a rice cooker if I mean to cook kick ass japanese stir fry dishes.
    Me, I am still zperimenting with the damm pressure cooker.

  • Bob delGrosso

    I respectfully disagree with Mr. Cruz’s definition of “shoemaker” and your endorsement of it.
    The word “shoemaker” is not so context bound and can be used to describe not only how someone is behaving at one moment in time, but as a general assessment of their lack of talent.

    So sometimes during the heat of service someone might behave like a shoemaker, while the dolt who can’t boil water is always a shoemaker.

    I’ve also seen this term applied to people outside of the cooking world who are not very good at their chosen profession.

  • Kate in the NW

    You people are punny.
    I have a sudden craving for sole…or maybe tongue.
    (you see, I’m not too straight-laced to make a joke…)
    On with the shoe! ;-)
    PS – how long with this last?

  • Steven Morehead

    Talk about offensive language!!!! Where I come from if you can sling hash that probably means given the right coaching and experience you can probably hang with the big dogs. That and your willingness to accept that slinging hash is not the worlds most glorious culinary incarnation. So slinging hash doesn’t make you cool being receptive to the people that are trying to teach you the ways of the culinary gods does.

  • Natalie Sztern

    …..but as the saying goes for the shoemaker…the road to hell was paved with good intentions….and don’t wear Manolo Blahniks in the kitchen!!

  • BenM

    It’s funny, I’ve heard that term bandied about for years and had no idea they used it in the kitchen! In stone masonry, which is my craft, calling someone’s work “a shoemaker’s job” means that they either don’t know what they are doing or they don’t have the ability. “Shoddy” workmanship also invokes the shoemaker, dosen’t it? The poor bastards don’t get a break!

  • kanani

    What do people in the shoe industry call their slackers?
    I’ve had shoes custom-made. Once, there was this particularly annoying pair that required multiple fittings. The things had to be taken apart and remade several times. When I finally got them, the freakin’ heel fell off the third time I wore them.
    I remember calling my cobbler a “hobbler.”
    However, I was fortunate that he never cooked for me.

    And lucky you, Michael, for being up in Napa. Great place, great produce, meats, cheeses, wines, scenery… great everything. Make sure you stop in at Cowgirl Creamery.

  • kanani

    John…funny!

    Ah, almost forgot. When you get back to Napa, go make the pilgrimmage and visit Chester Aaron. Professor of creative writing, author, grower of 100 types of garlic, writer of tomes on it as well. You’d love him. Say happy birthday to him, I think he’s 86.

  • Rochelle

    I almost went on a date once with a restaurant line cook named Shoemaker, but I just couldn’t get my brain around it. True story.

  • Pookha

    Funny how the footwear industry bears the brunt of epithets.

    There was a famous science fiction author who, when an editor published what the author considered a second-class story (after the editor had gotten done ‘editing’) would insist the magazine used the pen-name “Cordwainer Bird”, i.e. someone who makes shoes for birds.

  • John Mitzewich

    The origins of the term, as explained to me, is as follows:

    The was chef prepping for a special dinner one night, and he cut himself very badly and couldn’t continue cooking. He quickly ran next door to the shoemaker, who was just closing up for the night. The chef assumed that someone who was good with their hands, and used to working quickly, and precisely, would save the day.

    He talked him into helping and “talked him through” the rest of the prep; making sauces, butchering meat, and clarifying consume.

    The results were not good. Despite both men’s best effort the sauces broke, the consume was cloudy, and the meat messy.

    The shoemaker, while talented at making shoes, just didn’t have the skills, experience, and feel for cooking.

    So, to be called a “shoemaker” simply means that a shoemaker from down the street could have made the mess you just did.

    Having said that, I can’t speak for this explanation’s accuracy since the Chef I heard it from was sort of a shoemaker.

  • bigmike

    My understanding of the slur, and it is a big one, is that if you don’t care enough about the food to do it right, you should be making shoes. At least that way you won’t kill someone.

  • Tags

    When I was a kid, my grandpop (in construction) used to differentiate between a “shoemake” and a “mechanic.” The mechanic was the guy you could count on to do the job right.

  • bob

    Dunno…. I know a custom shoe maker that could teach some cooks a thing or two about taking your time, being precise, and not cutting corners. But then he’s paid more than most cooks…

  • John Mitzewich

    The origins of the term, as explained to me, is as follows:

    The was chef prepping for a special dinner one night, and he cut himself very badly and couldn’t continue cooking. He quickly ran next door to the shoemaker, who was just closing up for the night. The chef assumed that someone who was good with their hands, and used to working quickly, and precisely, would save the day.

    He talked him into helping and “talked him through” the rest of the prep; making sauces, butchering meat, and clarifying consume.

    The results were not good. Despite both men’s best effort the sauces broke, the consume was cloudy, and the meat messy.

    The shoemaker, while talented at making shoes, just didn’t have the skills, experience, and feel for cooking.

    So, to be called a “shoemaker” simply means that a shoemaker from down the street could have made the mess you just did.

    Having said that, I can’t speak for this explanation’s accuracy since the Chef I heard it from was sort of a shoemaker.

  • SJG

    “Shoemaker” was used so much during my days at the CIA, but no one seemed to understand its provenance. “Well, shoemakers burn the leather or something, right?” was about the best explanation anyone could muster. Then I had breakfast cookery with Chef Stephen Johnson, who not only forbade swearing in his kitchen, but also the epithet in question.

    “Do you know how much skill and talent it takes to make a shoe?” he asked the class.

    At least it gave us pause for a moment to consider how we were denigrating the work of other craftsmen.

    After that class, “shoemaker” was put back into heavy rotation.

  • John Mitzewich

    During my 5 years as an instructor at a culinary academy, I made it my personal mission to teach each student the definition, history, and various uses of the term shoemaker. I explained how it could be the ultimate put-down, OR a very coveted term of endearment from a tough, old, and most likely European Chef.

    It all depends on the context of course. After flawlessly serving a hundred steaks off the broiler, a “nice work for a shoemaker,” from the Chef, with a little wink, was almost as good as that ice cold shift beer.

    The other end of the spectrum was the horrifying “shoemaker!” delivered with scalding tone, as you stand in the puddle of freshly spilt demiglace.

  • Kelvin

    You’re missing a picture. Usually all your elements blogs have a picture. It’s clear to me that you’re too nice to include a picture of Sandra Lee in this post, but you really should.

  • pogo

    “What do people in the shoe industry call their slackers?”

    Hash-slingers, I believe… ;^)

  • luis

    The way I have viewed the “Elements of Cooking” all along is that it is a very fine effort and an excellent reference book that you might someday expand on, add new terms and drill down deeply into each term. It’s ok to offer the synopsys of each term but then it would be great to really discuss each term with more depth. But of course the book would end up in the six to eight hundred page read category which is probably something you made a decision at some point to avoid.

  • Dana McCauley

    Oooh, I wanted to make the cobbler joke!

    Here in Canada where I have worked as a chef, the insult has the same meaning so if I ever call someone a ‘shoemaker’ it’s a huge insult. After all, if you have talent and disrespect it by putting out slack, it’s a bigger crime than being a bungler who means well.

  • Wilmita

    Oh My!

    I should have thought a “shoemaker” could have been one who’d made meat as tough as an old boot.

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I have learned something from this post.

    -Wilmita

    P.S. At LEAST it’s not a “Bootblack”

  • Phil

    AdHoc is a great restaurant – my wife and I had a great experience there and plan to return this Fall. Three nights in a row, Ruhlman? Now you’re just rubbing it in.

    There was talk of Keller opening a “Burgers and Half-Bottles” project right next to AdHoc. Do you know if that’s still in the works, and if so – when they expect it to open?

    Cheers,

    Phil

  • Annie

    I don’t know why, but I consider your ingenuousness in not identifying Ad Hoc as a Keller restaurant kind of creepy. Do you assume we all know everything, or that anyone cool enough to read your blog knows everything? It’s just a little strange.

  • eat4fun

    Q: What do people in the shoe industry call their slackers?

    A: Croc-maker?

  • Culinary Sherpa

    Hmmmm “in Yountville working on another cookbook.”
    French Laundry is in Yountville. You worked with TK on The French Laundry Cookbook.
    Is TK putting out another book??????

  • Kate in the NW

    My Dear Husband and I were discussing this yesterday – we’ve both worked in lots of kitchens/food businesses. He cannot understand why a chef would throw a knife at someone over shoemaker behavior (actual event we witnessed), and though I don’t condone violence, I can sort of sympathize. With the chef.

    Anyway – now we both just cook at home (though sometimes for huge groups or events elsewhere, informally). He offered to help me make something for an event and I needed the help – but I had to promise to have a beer first, relinquish a teensy bit of control, give clear, civil instructions, and use the knives only on the food. In return he promised to care a lot about what he was doing and do it EXACTLY AS I TOLD HIM TO.

    I’m really not a monster outside the kitchen, but I think some people just don’t get it – the need for the lettuce to be towel-dried, or why sometimes you cut up 3 tomatoes before you find one that’s good enough. Or why, even on a stupid sandwich, the mustard has to be evenly spread ALL THE WAY TO THE EDGE OF THE BREAD and dug out of the little holes in the baguette so it’s even.

    God forbid he uses the stove (or my pots and pans) – I just have to leave the room.

    But yes, I do let him cook on occasion – because even I need a day off now and then. So we don’t dine on shoemaker food. Because at home, sometimes you don’t want to cook and just have to get something on the table. It’s hard for me to believe we’re not all guilty of doing that sometimes, even when we’re being paid for it.

  • lux

    If you look in the “About” section of this very website, you’ll see:

    “Another cookbook with the Thomas Keller team on cooking sous vide will be published in 2008.”

    And if I could threadjack slightly – there’s a new Facebook Fan page for Ruhlman – click the link above to join it (note: you need to have a Facebook account to see the page).

  • Eudaemonius

    funny which jargons mean the most in each setting. Printed this to add into the back pages of my copy of The Elements of Cooking. Very much enjoying, btw.

  • Robert L

    Vincent: It looks like to me that it must be another Thomas Keller cookbook as he lives in Napa! Could it be an Ad Hoc cookbook? or Per Se? Possibly another French Laundry(unlikely)? Ooo or a Bouchon bakery cookbook? That would be great! I wish I could remember what was on that lamb sandwich that I had as a special back in NY in March, it was delicious! Do tell Michael do tell!

  • Dot

    Do you notice in a professional kitchen when the word “asshole” is used the cook REALLY means it.
    All other curse words no matter how nasty or derogatory will be laughed off.
    Just a though….