Are Chefs A Special Species?

My Mexican Pastry Chef Jorge and me, San Diego, CA, 2004

In some way, yes, we are, but so are lawyers and doctors. All professionals are somehow special in their own ways, sharing common traits and characteristics. This is true for cooks and chefs too. What is special about chefs? Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is their ego. I think most chefs would agree with me. In the kitchen it is all about profiling yourself. That sounds counterintuitive, since I’ve have often said that the kitchen is a team sport. That is still very true — without your team you are nobody.

I think one of the most extreme examples is Gordon Ramsey. He is without doubt a great chef and very experienced. He has a distinctive and unique style. The way he conducts and presents himself demonstrates his ego in action. It’s either my way or the highway.

I think the main reason for this kind of behavior is that when we are creating certain dishes, we attach ourselves to them too much. When you get positive comments then you are happy, but just let someone criticize your dish or give a negative comment, and you take it very much to heart.

Chefs put a lot of ideas, planning and passion into the development of new dishes. Sometimes it is a long process, which guests never see. Customers only enjoy — or sometimes don’t enjoy — the end result. It really depends on your personality. I am definitely more on the sensitive side of human nature, but you have to learn to grow a thick skin. I’ve managed to do that over the decades, but it can still get very uncomfortable. Sometimes it seems that you have people around you who never appreciate anything, just take things for granted. I feel pity for these folks, even when they piss me off.

I want to share a typical example, so you can imagine for yourself what a chef must go through. Imagine that your boss, in this case the General Manger (GM), requires you to do a food tasting for a new menu. Imagine that you have planned and thought about the menu and the dishes, you have ordered all ingredients, and thought about how to plate the dishes. You did some drawings, on paper and in your mind. The day of the food tasting comes. You are excited because you want to show your best side, your best pieces. You are showcasing yourself, your skills, your ability and creativity. You serve all your dishes accordingly. After a while, your GM calls you to his table and starts to pick almost everything to pieces. How would you feel and respond? Depending on how the GM delivers his message and what kind of personality you have, that can either hurt or you can deal with it in an emotionally intelligent way.

It took me many years to learn how to deal with it properly. I took everything to heart for a very long time. When the comments were good, I was happy, and when the comments were not so good then I was disappointed, sometimes even angry and upset, upset about my boss’s stupidity. I think this is just human. I really took it too personally, but over the years I learned to take it less personally. How did I do that? Well, I learned that everybody has different tastes, different perspectives. Now you’ll say, hey Marcel I know that, everyone knows that, what’s your point? Exactly. The point is that in theory we all know that, and when it comes to real experience we start to struggle.

It is so easy to criticize someone or something, but are you able to perform better than that? Can you appreciate the effort somebody else put into some project?

Not to overreact is a sign of emotional intelligence, as is giving constructive feedback.

Everyone has a different taste and perspective on things in life. This is reality. Therefore, if you are really a tolerant human being, you’ll understand this. You grant other people their opinions without feeling hurt or offended. Hey, at the end of the day it’s just an opinion, so what? It is not the end of the world. Yes, of course it is your boss’s opinion and hisor her opinion matters, I agree. But try it out! Go and collect other people’s feedback and you will see that there are people who really like your food. They’ll give you compliments, and this will lift your mood. At the end of the day, the customer needs to like your food, not your boss.

I had to learn to balance that. How you deal with criticism is part of your personal development. It will make you grow. Yeah, it is uncomfortable, but growth is always uncomfortable because you are leaving your comfort zone.

One of my biggest realizations in life was that everything is relative — nothing is absolute. There is no measure of all things in this universe. As I write this today, the current population on earth is 7.6 billion people. This is how many perspectives there are on this planet. And every perspective is unique and equal to the others at the same time. Understand and realize this.

So … are chefs a special species? Who knows...

Thanks for reading my post!


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