- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

LETTERS TO A YOUNG CHEF

By Daniel Boulud

Basic Books, $22.50, 176 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

Chefs — unless studded with Michelin stars — used to live pretty anonymously. Today, they are celebrities. We watch them on TV as they conjure up luscious dishes without any apparent hard work or cleanup. We see them in glossy magazines, smiling against the backdrop of their elegant dining rooms.

We dream of eating their gorgeous, pricey food. And we buy their books, hoping for insight into their culinary secrets.

Generally, such secrets take the form of recipes. Daniel Boulud, chef-owner of New York’s Daniel, Cafe Daniel and DB Bistro Moderne as well as a catering company, has already written two such books: “Cafe Boulud Cookbook” and “Cooking with Daniel Boulud,” both of which aim to bring his exquisite inventions into the reach of the home cook.

In contrast, his new book “Letters to a Young Chef” offers only 10 recipes, most of them previously published, but included here, he says, as “the recipes and inspirations that I can truly say I love most.”

The rest of the book is not, as its title would suggest, a series of letters but a collection of largely autobiographical essays. The first few describe phases of Mr. Boulud’s career from his start as a 14-year-old apprentice in a famous Lyons restaurant only 10 miles from the farm where he grew up.

After more experience in the kitchens of France’s premier chefs including Georges Blanc, Roger Verge and Michel Guerard, he worked in Denmark. He returned briefly to France and then left for America, cooking first at Le Cirque in New York before branching out on his own.

Mr. Boulud’s career thus follows a traditional French path from lowly kitchen assistant through the ranks of chef de partie, sous chef, chef de cuisine to executive chef and now chef-owner.

For him, this was the natural focus of ambition, but the young chef he posits as his reader may not find it so. Being a good well-trained cook is not enough:

“To be sure, you need to know all the basics: cooking, from savory to sweet, curing to baking, the almost mystical art of sauces, seasoning, spicing, texture and taste,” writes Mr. Boulud. “Add to that an up-to-date knowledge, or at least acquaintance with the evolving styles of the important contemporary chefs all over the world.

“Yet this is only the beginning. How to work with people, how to manage them in the cramped quarters and fiery heat of the kitchen, how to practice self-discipline and bring it out in others, where to find the best ingredients and squeeze every last penny out of them, how to move around the dining room and be genuinely interested in every customer, how to fulfill the constantly changing food fantasies of a demanding public — these are skills that have nothing to do with shaking the pan, but everything to do with whether or not you have what it takes to be a successful chef.”

And that’s to say nothing of the entrepreneurial skills that Mr. Boulud values in himself and his mentors in France. He consoles the reader lacking these, “You may opt for working in someone else’s kitchen. Being a cook is an honorable profession, even an art.

“There is a quiet satisfaction in doing a job well, but security, not money and renown, are its rewards. Still it is a life. If you are an entrepreneur, however, there is no limit to how far you can go or how much you can earn.”

All this is very alluring, and not because Mr. Boulud makes it sound easy. He emphasizes hard work. He advises aspiring chefs to travel to learn more about other cuisines; he insists that they spend years working in the kitchens of only the best restaurants, that they watch eminent chefs and emulate them, that they expect no congratulations. “Praise in the kitchen is the absence of criticism,” he warns.

Simply doing everything correctly in a first-rate kitchen requires “aggressiveness, concentration, and most of all, stamina.” Chefs work long and late, and they are busy evenings, weekends, and holidays when everyone else, including their families, is having fun. It’s a tough life — traditionally, a man’s life, and it’s all about service.

If this sounds a familiar note, it’s worth looking at the language and practice of the professional kitchen. The kitchen is regimented; cooks work on a line, and respond to a line of command running down from the executive chef.

As for their careers, Mr. Boulud talks of them “moving up through the ranks,” and as he points out, “If you cannot run a brigade of twenty people, you cannot run a restaurant. In order to learn to run a brigade of twenty, you must first learn to run a brigade of five or six — on the meat station, on the fish station, the hot appetizer station.”

Recalling his mentor Roger Verge he writes, “I can still hear Verge’s direction to his troops, which comprised his entire employee motivation scheme: Plus vite, encore plus vite. Faster, and then even faster.”

Such military metaphors abound. And they are reinforced by everything Mr. Boulud writes, by his insistence on teamwork, and his glory in his own role as commander in chief.

Compare this to the picture given in “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain, the bad-boy chef who spilled the beans on the drugs, the drink, the loves, and the quarrels that rage away behind the swing doors.

Of course, Mr. Bourdain never claimed to be instructing the young; he was writing frankly to reveal all to the curious public.

But so in truth is Mr. Boulud. Few of the many graduates of America’s cooking schools will ever work at the type of gastronomic restaurant that he admires, and those who do will learn their trade in school and on the job — not by reading Mr. Boulud’s so-called “letters.” These are indeed no more than an epistolary fiction inviting readers to peep into a hidden life.

When Mr. Boulud describes his route to the top, when he offers advice on such obvious matters as keeping knives sharp, maintaining a notebook of recipes, and generally paying attention to culinary masters, he is not addressing young chefs (who already know this stuff); he is writing for food mavens and home cooks who like daydreaming about being professionals.

So the interesting difference between Mr. Boulud and Mr. Bourdain is not their audience, but the publication dates of their books. Mr. Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” came out in 2000, when readers still thrilled to swashbucklers like those who had brought us the dot.com world. No wonder they loved his revelations about Jocks Who Cook.

Today, when the world looks less like anybody’s oyster and more like a private club for the rich and powerful, Mr. Boulud’s tale of the disciplined ascent up the ladder of success has a back-to-basics appeal for a public longing to hear that, Yes Virginia, Hard Work Will Get You to the Top — appearances notwithstanding.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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