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Inside track: Neil Rankin lists the true qualities of a chef

05 November 2019 by
Inside track: Neil Rankin lists the true qualities of a chef

While the macho, high-pressure kitchen may have once reigned, Neil Rankin says it's time we stop expecting our chefs to be resilient above all else

There are a few people in this world who understood the 2015 film Burnt and most of them are probably not chefs any more. Actually, when I say "understood", what I mean is "empathised", because if there was one stand-out problem with the film, it was how audiences failed to connect with the central character.

Whatever chef or chefs inspired the director on the realities of how a professional kitchen was run probably didn't see that coming, because they may have felt there was glory in being the overworked outsider.

Burnt 2015 film
Burnt 2015 film

I'd like to say that I'm aware of the negative aspects of intense kitchen pressure, but sadly I too understand the masochistic side of professional cooking. In fact, I absolutely loved it. It was like a drug to me.

For years I thrived not on alcohol or substance abuse, but from the joy brought to me by sleepless nights followed by intense days of pressure and intimidation during a five-hour dinner service comprising fast-moving pans, sharp bantz, hot stoves and a lot of screaming and swearing.

All this energy would climax in a moment of total satisfaction at having survived all that, followed by the intense pleasure of a cold beer while vigorously washing down a fridge seal with soapy water.

We ‘nut jobs' all look back on this with great affection, but let's not fool ourselves into believing that this kind of life is actually a job – it was more of a fucked-up sport with shit pay. Stock traders go though a similar pummelling, but unlike chefs they get the opportunity to make enough money to retire in five years. Our only rewards are more shit jobs and maybe a beer at the end of service. We're idiots.

The number of chefs able to go through this and cobble a career together, compared to the number that burnt out and moved on to something else, makes any argument that this was the right way to train anyone or to run a business laughable.

A management structure that has no regard for the future of all of its staff isn't really a management structure. The irony is that the same people that are complaining about the lack of chefs today are the same ones that burnt though 15 new recruits a week and didn't see that statistic as a failure on their part.

Chefs like Marco and those who agree with him come to the conclusion that women struggle with the "emotional pressure" of a professional kitchen, but in reality, the pressure they're talking about has absolutely no connection with working in a kitchen or being a chef. It has far more to do with working with big egos, the negging and often sexist atmosphere and vicious lad bantz, combined with a competitiveness that they cultivated specifically to weed out the sort of people who wouldn't follow them without question.

It's not surprising that women, in their eyes, fell short, because women, to my mind, have been a little more savvy in being able to identify male bullshit culture.

The qualities you need to be a good chef are a good palate, to care about the end product, and the willingness to do something enough times that muscle memory sets in and the skills become natural to you. Putting up with intense pressure from a job while being insulted and paid badly are not the qualities of being a chef – in fact, if there had been fewer idiots like me who put up with it in the first place, this industry might have grown up a lot faster.

One day in the future the phrase may be: "If you can't take the heat in the kitchen, maybe you need to look at your extractor and call out an engineer".

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