As I was watching Iron Chef last night, guest judge Donatella Arpaia commented, once she was able to speak without being interrupted, that the dessert Bobby Flay made was good, and tasted fine, but that it seemed safe. Her comments need to be taken to heart by any aspiring chef. To make great food requires one to take some risks.
The kitchen is not a safe place to work.
The essence of the chef life is danger. Not because of the flames of the stove or the spatter of hot grease or use of sharp knives all day long. The biggest risk lies in the act of putting your creations into the hands of a server, who will deliver it to a patron, who will ingest in into his or her body, which ultimately becomes a part of that person. It can make them at best, happy, or at worst, sick to their stomach. As a chef you are banking on the former, but if the latter happens, it puts you in an awkward predicament. But even if the response is indifference, like Donatella’s, the chef feels the dull ache of the blunt blow.
This is why I choose to face the music straight on. I try my best to make it around the dining room to get direct reactions from my guests. I need to stay in a position of being vulnerable. I can’t play it safe. No chef can. If you do, start looking for another line of work. Bobby Flay didn’t rise to his position serving safe, boring food.
And by safe and boring, I don’t mean you should buy a case of sodium alginate and a tank of liquid nitrogen and start trying to flex culinary muscles you don’t possess. Taking risks doesn’t mean doing something weird and inaccessible. No, it simply means being vulnerable enough to allow a negative comment to bug you to the core.
Many of the dishes we serve are not ones we have tested over and over again. We don’t have that luxury of time. Instead, my kitchen staff relies on acquired skill, technique and gut instinct to put new entrees on the menu, almost weekly. We’d never done a smoked meatloaf until the night we served it a couple of weeks ago. We had an idea, trusted that idea, and watched it pay off in the end.
If a guest doesn’t care for the pate, maybe it’s just a preference issue. But if I see several bowls of half eaten chowder coming back into the dish room, I can’t be so quick to condescend on them as unsophisticated palates. Pony up and realize that maybe I sent something out that just wasn’t that good. I can do better, and staying vulnerable ensures that I will. Become calloused and I watch my customer base dwindle.
You cannot be a great chef without the constant threat of getting your food crushed by criticism. You wouldn’t disagree with the writer if you got a great review, but your defenses will rise quickly if you feel writer is less than favorable. And even if you disagree, are you able to objectively examine the feedback and learn from it?
There’s an old saying that goes, “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” I hang on to this as I read comments posted about our restaurant on sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp or UrbanSpoon. I can tell which remarks are something we can fix, and which we just need to let slide. Some folk just like to bitch, and that is their right. But some people really want their words to construct, build up and matter, and the wise chef will recognize the source as valuable information.