Last night at the Drawing Center in NYC, the folks behind the annual MAD Symposium in Copenhagen hosted a panel discussion on what it means to be a chef. Moderated by Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan, NYC chefs Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune), Riad Nasr (formerly Balthazar, Minetta Tavern), and Lee Hanson (formerly Balthazar, Minetta Tavern) joined author Bill Buford and chef Mario Batali to tackle the question.
Over the course of their 90 minute conversation, the panelists touched on the increasing star power of chefs, whether cooks today are any better or worse than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and the impact of new cooking technologies on their kitchens. The conversation began with a discussion of career ambitions. Said Hamilton, to nods from the panel: "Everyone else here wanted to be something else, I bet." Below, the ten best quotes from the conversation:
1) Batali, on the impact of food television: "As chefs became famous, and the food world became something a little more evolved, suddenly now there are high school kids who say 'I want to be a chef.' Not necessarily because they love food and hospitality but because they want to be Tom Colicchio on TV. And that's not a bad path to go ... having role models that seem somehow inspirational is a way that now the food industry will have a lot of cool, smart, inspired kids in the next generation. So that's hopefully where it goes."
2) Hanson, on how the cooking career path has changed: "There's more of a desire to skip those hard years, those pesky steps and go right to being a sous chef. It's really important to be a sous chef. You know when we were starting in the business it was at least eight years before you became a sous chef. It was station after station. Try another restaurant, station, station, station. You really developed your palate and technique. Now it seems like you want to become a sous chef as soon as possible."
3) Batali, on his changing place in the restaurant community: "We used to be the indie band, now we're the old guard ... It's important for me to realize how the conditions have changed and I have to make a sweeter offer [when hiring cooks]."
4) Nasr, on why the food at Balthazar worked: "If I want to have that absolutely angst-driven chef experience, I can go out and find it and appreciate it. But sometimes I just want eat a f*cking tartare and have some champagne."
5) Batali, on balancing customer-driven service with chef-driven vision: "You try to say yes to as much as you can, without challenging the integrity of everything that goes on the kitchen. At what that is is living on the corner of art & commerce."
6) Hamilton, on shifting power dynamics: "Class is a part of this. We're no longer the help. The chef is no longer the help, the cook is no longer the help. Now we're the f*cking star."
7) Hamilton, on expansion: "It's taken me forever to figure out that I think I don't want another restaurant. It's so tempting right? ... I'm practically a full-time writer, and I have children, and I have a restaurant. I don't know how it can be done, and I can't do it currently."
8) Nasr, on his changing role as a chef: "There's a physicality to the profession. I won't say you're an athlete, but you have to be in the zone and trained .... I can stay on my feet all day long that's not a problem. Can I drop to knees, pull something out of the oven for six hours every day? Not so much anymore. So transitioning a little bit ... Chef would be the person that's actually there, in service at the pass, creating something that's going to be fantastic."
9) Hamilton, on new cooking techniques and technologies: "As a chef now you have to be flexible and nimble with the new tools and the new techniques, but you also have to safeguard and pass on the old technique. I notice a lot of people, very good with tweezers but don't know true braise."
10) Nasr, on the plus side of HR: "I smacked a busboy. It cost the restaurant $80 grand ... Was it a moment I could have avoided? Absolutely. Did it take that for me to understand that? It did. I probably would have misbehaved a little bit longer."