One of the things I enjoy so much about where I’m working these days is the fair amount of freedom I get to produce what I want instead of being held to a list of prescribed recipes and procedures. Once a chef has spent a certain amount of time in self-employment, it is extremely difficult to go into someone else’s kitchen and do their thing their way – just as it would be for anyone in any industry to similarly adapt.
During the Great Job Searches of that dismal year 2012, I purposely avoided applying for employment in any kitchen run by, say, John Besh, Emeril Lagasse or any of the Brennans (among others). There were several reasons, but the chief among them was respect. These folks have excellent reputations and proven track records, and it would be an insult for me to try to “improve” on what they do. Given my junior status in the food industry and my lack of a culinary degree, it would be doubly stupid of me to think I could make their operations better by saying anything more than “yessir” when given a task.
I’m not much of a “yessir” kinda guy. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been my own boss for so long or because my dad was his own boss. Not that I’m uncooperative and not a team player (depending on the team, of course), But “motivational” posters remove my motivation and, for those who think money will motivate me much above simply paying existing bills, the idea of simply working more to make more money is ludicrous at best. I’m all about being a team player if the team doesn’t suck. Hence my failure at most team sports in high school and, very briefly, college.
It’s not that I have to make the rules. Convince me your rules are solid and I’m your guy. Most any of us who are engaged in a creative endeavor, such as in a good kitchen, are ready to take anything for the team as long as we’re convinced the team’s cause is just and the goal attainable. We’ll glad fight for the former even if the latter isn’t realistic, as long as we feel we’re respected for the effort. It’s complicated, but it’s not.
That said, there are two types of folks in a commercial kitchen. Both are equally valuable and a good kitchen has both. There are the creators and the doers. The creators come up with the ideas and the doers implement them flawlessly, night after night. Good creators can implement. Good doers are creative. Any head chef who thinks his/her rule is law is arrogant. Any line cook who loses the desire to be anything more than a line cook will always be nothing more than that. In the best kitchens, both learn from each other every day.
So – I am all about the creative and the freedom to be so. But as much as I’ve been about crusting tuna with pistachio or stuffing salmon with various things over the past week or two, I have also been turning a lot toward some basics and enjoying them tremendously. My 1960s mom would be so proud. This time of year, I’d suggest a couple of things….
1) King Ranch chicken: get a $7 rotisserie chicken from someplace, tear it up and let ‘er rip. There are a dozen different ways to make it and it’s done in 30 minutes. It’s even better the next day. And, no, the King Ranch in South Texas lays no claim to it. Not sure where the name came from.
2) Frito pie: It’s Fritos (FRITOS!) with chili and anything else you want put on top. Include lots of shredded cheese. Your soul will thank you. You heart will not. But isn’t that usually the case?
Damn. Now I’m hungry…
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.