“God Sent Meat and the Devil Sent Cooks”
I Googled this quote thinking it would be attributed to one person, long ago, of some renown. Apparently, this quote has around for as long as cooks have been around. Perhaps it was a pearl of wisdom grunted by a Neanderthal philosopher, observing the tribal cook throwing a mastodon shank onto an enormous pit of hot coals; and, since, passed on to every generation of critic, philosopher and cleric to allude a connection between cooks and The Prince of Darkness.
Most of the professional cooks I have known are not denizens of Satan. Devilish, maybe, but not horned, cloven-hoofed beasts who would possess one’s soul or steal and eat one’s children. Cooks are too self-possessed for that and, frankly, will eat almost anything except for children.
There is, however, a hellishness to the work environment of the professional cook. Unlike one who cooks as a hobby or a household responsibility, the professional cook toils in an environment of bedlam and suffering. There is stifling heat, thickened by clouds of steam, billows of smoke and the constant flames from burners, broilers and ovens. There is the ceaseless racket of exhaust fans, compressors and other gadgets, almost drowning out the frantic cries and demands of wait staff, the clang and clatter of dishware being washed, shook dry and frequently loudly shattering. The are sharp objects and flesh-searing utensils everywhere that can maim and even kill. Toiling in this thankless environment, cooks are under the unceasing stress of meeting a moment by moment deadline, for hours on end, with the added duress that failure, ridicule and ruin can be only one twist of the tongs or one flip of the spatula away.
And then there is the language.
Professional cooks are the most foul-mouthed, vulgar people I have ever met. They’re not vulgar in the sense that they have bad personal hygiene. Most of the cooks I know have an overdose of OCD. They wash their hands a zillion times a day, if for no other reasons than to get the stench of onions, garlic, shellfish and meat out of their pores, or just because they don’t have anything better to do. They do tell a lot of dirty jokes and pull a lot of pranks that are gross. Hanging a tenderloin of pork at crotch level and asking the new waitress out for a date was a favorite of one cook I knew, and it always got both chuckles and cries of disgust. But that was just to pass the time and take the edge off of the hellishness. Pranks and jokes are good for that. On the other hand, the language used in a commercial kitchen–whether it is busy or not–would probably horrify most people.
Anybody who has watched one of Chef Gordon Ramsey’s “reality” TV shows has probably figured out that all of the bleeps that interrupt most of the unbleeped dialogue is profanity. I’m guessing the bleeps are mostly “F” bombs….in all four parts of speech. Ramsey is that talented. And that passionate.
As unfathomable as it may seem to some viewers of celebrity chef programs, it is almost certain that all of the cooks on them swear like drunken teamsters. Both men and women. As disillusioning as it may seem, sweet, perpetually-smiling Giadia DeLaurenntiis and laid-back Ina Garten have probably hurled out more than their fair share of “F”bombs whenever they’ve cooked, both on and off the set. It’s equally likely that Paula Deen, with all of her mayonnaise-and-sugar-coated folksiness, has barked out multi-syllable expletives describing unspeakable acts of sexual congress. And why not? They’re cooks and passionate about what they do. Profanity, sometimes, is merely an expression of passion and not entirely a cry of anguish, frustration or vulgarity. Most assuredly, it isn’t Beelzebub speaking through his human vessel.
None of this is to say that one must have a severe case of potty-mouth to be a cook or to be passionate about anything. It is merely a symptom that I have observed in most cooks during the past 40 years of being a cook; or, if you prefer, chef.
My friends and family always like to introduce me to strangers as a chef or, if I’m really to impress these strangers, as a “Professional Chef”. They never call me a cook. I think that they also want to lend an air of respectability to me that my usually disheveled appearance belies; and, too, because I swear a lot. “Ooooh, he’s a chef…that explains the potty mouth”, the strangers would think.
Invariably, either to find common ground or to wheedle recipes out of me, these strangers usually say something such as, “I do a little bit of cooking myself”, or “I’m quite the chef too, you know?”. I usually smile politely, muttering something innocuous such as, “oh, really?”, or “that’s cool”, silently plotting a way to excuse myself from what will likely be a conversation about the last episode of Top Chef (I don’t watch it) or what do I think my best recipe is (for what? avoiding mindless chit-chat?).
Nowadays, cooking is a hip thing. People want to cook because it is cool and fun. Of course, few people would trash a six-figure-a-year job to work in a sweltering environment for a measly wage, with no benefits and the assurance of a lifetime of orthopedic ailments. The truly passionate people, the ones with the glint of the devil in their eye accept this life gladly. They’re the ones who can proudly proclaim, “Fuck it…send me the meat!”