Monday, September 22, 2008

Gastronomic Concepts #2 - Shoemakers, Cowboys and Hacks, OH MY!

"Stabilized on methadone, I became nearly unemployable by polite society - a shiftless, untrustworthy, coke-sniffer, sneak-thief, and corner-cutting hack, tolling in obscurity in the culinary backwaters.  I worked mostly as a cook, moving from place to place, often working under an alias." - Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

now in every workplace, there are those people that are able to fly under the radar, getting by doing just enough.  they usually waltz in about five minutes late everyday, are cheerful and popular, take time to have coffee and cigarette breaks, share minor complaints about how the coffee machine broke (AGAIN!), or how they watched their favorite reality/contest/ comedy/doctor/lawyer show the night before.  they aren't terrible nor are they exceptional at what they do; they are just there.  

in the kitchen (or at least mine) there is no time for such things, and i'm so glad that since i changed careers, i don't have to deal with the bullshit of people that don't pull their own weight.  we get into work and we only have "X" amount of time to complete "X" amount of projects, and if it doesn't get done, "WE" are screwed, and by "WE" i mean the kitchen, because if one person doesn't have something they need for service, that holds EVERYONE up.  we don't have the luxury of calling our boss and asking for an extension until next week, we can't really say that, "Oh, I never got that memo, let me check my spam," or, "I sent that out last week, but for some reason the tracking number I have isn't registering.  I'll send it again."  if we, in the kitchen don't have it, it's our ass, and no cook ever wants to be in that position, so we do our damnedest to be ready.

however (heh heh heh) there are people in kitchens that work slow, are messy, don't know what they're doing, don't try to learn to know what they should be doing, cause accidents, don't show up for work, steal food, use bad/rotten product, send out stuff that's fallen on the floor, use dirty pans, don't wash their hands, can never put the same dish up consistently, have the taste buds of a goat, and just plain don't care about what they're doing.  these people are known as Shoemakers, Cowboys, and Hacks (OH MY!).  

now, before i go any further, i must stress that in my kitchen, we don't have any of the cooks doing any of those things described above.  it is a fine dining, michelin rated establishment, but i do have experience working in other restaurants of lesser caliber, and it is in those places that i witnessed, first hand, the horrors of such fiends.  things like, having to replace moldy berries on fruit tarts (that were already a week old) with fresh ones because they were on the menu for a party, twice fried fritto misto that had been sitting up in the window too long or that needed to be stretched out for two portions because the ordering wasn't done right and we didn't have enough calamari, or things like the sewage system backing up and flooding the kitchen floor, ugh.  these were reasons why i chose to get into fine dining and specifically the restaurant where i work at present, because i knew the quality control would be of utmost importance, and since working, the restaurant has exceeded my expectations.

so, Shoemakers, Cowboys and Hacks (OH MY!).  These three terms generally mean the same thing; a cook that doesn't care about the work they do.  there are subtle differences and reasons behind the names.  

a Shoemaker usually applies to a chef that, although is in charge of a kitchen and should be the leader, inspiring cooks and the menu and generally making the restaurant as successful as it can be, passes off the work to everyone else.  the chef pulls recipes from cookbooks instead of creating their own or the sous chefs end up writing the menus, they come in to the kitchen for maybe a few hours out of the day to "delegate" and "oversee" things, and spend more time in the dining room with the guests kissing ass than back in the kitchen making sure things are running smoothly.  even worse, they are in the office drunk or snorting coke and looking at porn on the computer.  my co-worker, Steven, told me that the name "Shoemaker" came about from the old fairy tale, "The Shoemaker and the Elves." 

the story tells of an old shoemaker and his wife who are very poor and only have enough money to buy materials to make one pair of shoes.  the shoemaker sets everything out, ready for work in the early morning and goes to sleep.  when he wakes, he is surprised to find that the pair of shoes has already been made and a customer buys the shoes at an expensive price.  as time goes on, the shoemaker keeps putting out his work the night before, with the intention of completing it in the morning, but finds the shoes all made.  one night, his wife decides that they should hide and watch to see what goes on in the night, and they see two little naked elves making the shoes.  the couple decide that they should make the elves some clothes in appreciation for helping them, and the next night, the elves find the clothes, in place of shoes that need to be made, and they are so happy that they dance away, leaving the couple to their own happiness and wealth.  

now, the story is much nicer, portraying the shoemaker and his wife as humble people that have worked hard all their lives, but just needing some help, and that the elves were happy to help the couple.  i can assure you that a Shoemaker Chef is very capable of doing his work and is just a lazy bastard and that the kitchen elves are PISSED when they have to do more work on top of their own.  

i had heard the name, "Cowboy," after asking one of my british ex-pat coworkers what they call "Hacks" in England.  "We call them Cowboys," he said in his imperial british accent.  i thought that was funny, and ironically, he ended up getting sacked because he was a Hack.  anyway, i asked another british ex-pat coworker, David, why the name Cowboy.  he responded, "Cowboys, they just plow through everything, don't they?"  No finesse, no care, no delicacy in the work, just rough riding and getting it done.  made sense, and as far as Hack, it's the same as hacking wood with a dull ax.  so if you're an American cook in England and they call you a cowboy, it's not a compliment and vice versa.  

consequently, most if not all culinary students start out as hacks/cowboys, but they can't help it; most have little or no experience and honestly, they don't know WTF they are doing. hopefully they'll grow out of it, but unless they find a kitchen that is willing to train them and help them grow, they are doomed to forever troll in culinary graveyards working for Shoemakers and other Hacks, never to be fired because it's hard to find good help, and because the Hacks and Cowboys grossly outweigh the real cooks.  so they get their tattoos, and think it's cool to be a chef, and drink and swear and have a deep affinity with pirates, talk about Anthony Bourdain like he's a god (while i don't doubt that Mr. Bourdain is a competent chef, we must remember that he became famous for being a writer and not a Chef), think they are rockstars, and do a lot more talking than cooking, collect their paychecks and are just there, doing just enough, getting along by the skin of their teeth, finding ways to cut corners instead of doing the technique right in the first place, and they don't care.  


ah me.  well, it's good to be part of a profession where, at least i know i give a damn, and it shows.  



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