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AN OPEN LETTER TO ALL CHEFS

Dear Chef,
Im a 24 year old chef from a small town in Yorkshire. I have worked in the hospitality industry since I was 16, and
made the move into kitchens at the age of 18 while studying at university. I have worked in pubs, gastro pubs, bistros,
neo-bistros, steakhouses, hotels and restaurants, in the UK, France and Australia.
During my travels, I have consistently come across head chefs complaining about the lack of chefs nowadays, and
questioning the quality of chefs in the industry. I have shared this concern for many years. From in depth research it
appears that most training options are not so affordable for the average person, especially not after having already
pursued a non-vocational degree that most people will still be paying for twenty years from now, which is bound to
result in either less people getting into the culinary arts, despite the careers many obvious advantages in high wages,
sociable working hours, ample holidays, and long term health benefits; or it will result in many people corrupting
the industry with half-arsed attempts at cooking up home-style recipes in commercial kitchens, charging through the
nose for the result that is no doubt overcooked, under seasoned, and fresh from a time portal to the 1980s in the back
of the freezer, hideously reheated in individual little portioned plastic containers in the microwave. So what is left of
the industry for those of us who do still want to cook to the best of our abilities regardless of training options?
Well, this is where a culinary elitism emerges. Between the high-end independently owned restaurant and the chain
restaurants that overpopulate our high streets up and down the UK, we are divided on price and quality. The quality of
the high-end restaurant is unquestionably better, but I think it is often the case that despite the great many food
programs on television these days showing us the possibilities, we are unprepared for the time and effort required to
produce this kind of cuisine ourselves, and find ourselves visiting these chain restaurants, fully unaware of what
actually goes on behind those closed kitchen doors. No doubt a lot of people are accustomed to food being a certain
way, having cooked for a lot of Brits abroad I know that British people have often preferred to have their steak well
done, all their meat some shade of grey, the vegetables cooked way beyond al dente; and immediately upon a plate
arriving at the table will reach for the salt and pepper to mask the blandness of the food without even first tasting
it. And of course, the price reflects the quality. If a restaurant makes their own stocks, sauces, pastries, not to mention
buying in from local butchers and respecting seasonality and locally sourced ingredient availability year round, versus
a chain restaurant that rolls out one menu for up to 50 restaurants across the country, offering the same meals cooked
in exactly the same way to a very fixed specification, and reheated for the exact same amount of time before being
piled high on a plate; how can we discuss the difference in price being unreasonable when the resulting meals are
worlds apart?
Thats not to say that people dont necessarily know any better. How can we not with so many food programmes being
constantly streamed on our televisions? We know more about food than any generation before us. We appreciate the
advantages of organic vegetables, we know more than ever about the conditions that our meat comes from, how
sustainably caught our fish is, and are fully aware of many extreme methods used worldwide to obtain eggs, among
other things, not to mention foie gras, though thats a different issue entirely.
We are more knowledgeable about food now, but is that necessarily a good thing? Knowledge doesnt make us better
cooks, it certainly shouldnt mean we know more than the chef in the restaurant kitchen, however it has put us in the
position of knowing how to complain and now restaurants are not allowed to offend anyone, and must cater to all
dietary requirements, however self-imposed, because we are not allowed to say no. People are scared of saying no to
their customers. I am wholly in agreement that the customer is always right, because they are paying the bill at the end
of the evening and without that we would all be out of a job, however it has gone too far the other way now.
Besides which, the knowledge hasnt made us better cooks. We all buy these cookbooks and look at them and scarcely
ever cook using them. Im certain this is because most recipes, however simple, require ingredients we have never
used before, and probably never will again, leaving us stuck with an entire container of five spice, a bag of quinoa,
three days remaining to drink our almond milk, and with vivid delusions of grandeur that leave us failing in an attempt
to knock together a deconstructed Knickerbocker Glory complete with miniature panna cotta for a family meal, purely
in order to use up the leftover and irritatingly costly gelatine.
So why is training no longer an option? Well, those of us who get in early and start a career as a chef by going to
college while still residing in our comfort zone, living at home, and taking an apprenticeship for half the week on half
of national minimum wage, may just be the lucky few who are the exception. For those of us who arrive late to the
game, we are unfortunately destined to either work our fingers to the bone to be able to afford to take on a course at
Cordon Bleu or Tante Claire or the like, or learn purely by experience. And learning by experience sounds simple

enough on paper, but its a seriously long game to play, and with so many establishments boasting fresh homemade
food, we would be foolish to think otherwise. However, I am here to tell you that unfortunately the places that do
make their food entirely from scratch, with fresh ingredients and locally sourced products, tailored to meet the
requirements of a menu lovingly designed by a chef at the helm in the kitchen, leading a team to death or glory, day in
day out; those places are few and far between. So how can a chef gain the right experience if he wishes to reach the
top?
Elitism shows its hand again here, as many chefs may have years and years of experience in kitchens cooking, but
when faced with an AA Rosette kitchen or even a Michelin starred kitchen, their feet wont touch the ground. There is
a huge rift between the leagues here, on both sides of the pass. I have heard tales of chefs knocking relentlessly on
kitchen back doors insisting they be allowed to enter a kitchen of prestige and tradition, in order to learn and progress.
Ive also heard of chefs who scratch a living in London or Paris, working three jobs to be able to afford a few squalid
square metres of mattress in a dingy little flat just to further their passion. But if we, in this country, intend to turn
around the state of our kitchens, insisting on a living wage, and more reasonable working hours as many kitchens
seem to be boasting recently, then it needs to begin at base level. We must not complain about the availability or
quality of chefs in the current industry if we are not willing to give them opportunities and train them. I appreciate that
a lot of food television has given many young apprentice chefs a false sense of security in the kitchen. I have worked
with many young pastry apprentices who assumed it would be less Hells Kitchen and more Great British Bake Off
and so would fold as rapidly and quickly as one of their half-arsed souffls they once saw Jamie Oliver do on the TV.
People romanticise our job now, we used to just be chefs, then we passed through the age of rockstar status, and even
saw the rise (and fall) of many celebrity chefs, and now its heavily romanticised to the point that those who can cook
at home think they can cook in a kitchen and are shocked to find its not the same thing. Ive had people ask me when
Im going to get myself a real career, as though its just prancing around dusting plates with icing sugar, snorting
cocaine and bedding naive waitresses. This is not our industry. It is changing.
Bistronomy seems to be the current scene, and despite its distinct lack of emphasis on classic sauces, pastry technique
and even chef whites, we must move with the times, even though I fear that this generation of chefs studying under the
new regime in these kitchens may receive the shock of a lifetime if centuries of tradition were to come back into
fashion, and suddenly no-one remembers how to make a simple roux, puff pastry, or even knows the name Escoffier at
all. It may sound extreme, but Ive already worked under chefs that are exactly all of these horrors. Chefs are artists
and hipsters now, standing at the pass in their open kitchens with their tattooed arms uncovered by their pastel
coloured t-shirts, the only thing highlighting their position being the denim apron hanging round their neck just below
a beard and man-bun. But for how long will this trend hold out? We may have found ourselves riffing so inventively
and unrelentingly into a trance-like gastronomic bebop style, that to trace back to our original roots would take
nothing short of a revolution on both sides of the pass.
So the question on my lips is this: Can a self-taught chef survive if the tide changes and all they know is how to
microwave a portion of fish pie before seemingly artistically piping mashed potato on to the top? Or if all he knows is
candied bacon bark, lownslow pulled pork, or if he knows no better than a basic pesto, avocado hummus, and eggs
any way on gluten free toast (because the customer knows best)?
I am posing these questions simply out of curiosity, a willingness to learn and adapt with the current trends,
participating in making the world taste that little bit better, with the daily 12-hour dance, balancing flavours, spinning
plates, and working relentlessly in ones own culinary vision with grace under pressure.
Any advice on the subject would be greatly appreciated.
Yours,
Chef de Partie