Professional Cooks and Sacrifice

Sacrifice…” Sacrifice of one’s personal interests or well-being for the sake of others…” Think about this the next time you’re in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, or hell even Arbor Day. I mean damn, those cooks and chefs would like to be out planting trees too! But they’re not; they’re forgoing being with their husbands, wives, children and loved ones to ensure you have a good time and great food.
In exchange for their sacrifice they have some of the highest incidences of alcoholism, divorce, drug abuse, suicides, stress related health problems and injuries in the working world. So with these problems so prevalent in cooking… why do they do it? Why would you give up so much time with friends and family to cook with such a band of social miscreants?

Must be the money right? How does a cook become rich and successful? Well that’s an easy one; he/she quits cooking and gets a job as a hedge fund manager. Sure there’s still a high incidence of stress, alcoholism and drug issues, but at least when you die you can be buried in a Ferrari and leave a billion dollars to your cat Fluffy McWhiskers. This is something a cook could never do. 

No folks it’s not about the money and it’s not about fame…it can’t be. It has to be something deeper and more personal. Becoming a cook for the money would be akin to becoming a convict for the excellent health benefits.

Some folks say it’s because cooks don’t fit in anywhere else in the working world and it gives them a sense of anonymity while at the same time the opportunity to belong, a sense of being or purpose. I think this might hold true for a couple of percentage points of the industry as a whole but not nearly as many as some would have you believe. Cooks by their very nature are gregarious types and fiercely competitive so in theory they could fit in just about anywhere in the work field…although I wouldn’t suggest you hire them to take inventory of your liquor cabinet.

Passion? Because what’s not to love?! I mean who wouldn’t want the chance to work in front of a wall of flame on the grill station, with the instant read in your chef’s coat telling you it’s 125 degrees and your face is telling you it’s more like 200! Yes without a doubt there is passion involved but probably not to the extent you’d think. You obviously have to like what you do or you wouldn’t do it, otherwise we’d all be floating around in a pool sipping daiquiris. Sadly this floating and sipping thing doesn’t pay very well and besides, the straws and umbrellas can ruin a pool filter.

The long and short of it is there is a combination of things deep down in a cooks very being that makes them do what they do. There are intangibles that can’t really be quantified as well as some things that can. I posed the question to highly acclaimed and respected Saint Louis, Missouri Chef Josh Galliano…

“Why do you do it?” His response was brilliant… “I love it, but why do I love it is a better question. I grew up with so many creative people around me. They played guitars, or painted… I didn’t really feel like I had anything. Cooking is that creative outlet for me and it is even better than all those others… First, I get paid, and I’m not sure if they will get paid to paint or sculpt…  Second, instant gratification. I cannot tell you how huge that is… it’s instant because you get feedback from the person eating it. Third, I have an instant rewrite if I don’t think the product is good enough. I didn’t waste the clay or the canvas. I wipe the plate clean and I start over.”

I asked Chef Galliano why he thought other people cooked, what with all the personal, emotional and physical sacrifice involved… why are people doing this? “I never believe the guys who say they can’t do anything else. Or that they are just there for a paycheck. You can clock in and space out somewhere else for a lot less stress. It’s always something more with cooking, that you are master & commander of a ship. You can be better than your “place” in the world…you get to be better… because you know how to cook that food to get the most out of it and they don’t.”

So next time you’re in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day and you’re playing kissy face with your soul mate or date du jour over filet mignon and lobster tails… think about that person in the kitchen helping make your dreams of getting lucky a reality. They don’t do it for the fame or the fortune, but they don’t mind a thank you once in a while either. Send a personal thank you through your server to those cooks…or better yet… tell your friends and your social media outlets how much you enjoyed their food.

In closing I asked Chef Galliano if he’d like to add something I overlooked he said… “How many chefs out there need counseling? Probably all.” HAHAHA…eh…thank you Chef… and… I’ll be over here in the corner until you’re done frenching that rack of lamb…Valium anyone?!

Chefs, Restaurateurs? … meet Twitter

Before I begin I’d like to give a shout out and a big thanks to a friend of mine and Saint Louis’ own Evan Benn. for helping me understand editing in only a way a six year old would understand it…which is apparently the way I needed it, on a spoon. That’s all I can say for now as I’ve now gone over 900 words…sorry Evan.

A week or so ago I gushed about how well established Saint Louis’s Twitter community is, then bemoaned New England’s Twitter scene …but I was hopeful. It turns out I had no idea just how awful the New England Twitterverse really was. In fairness I need to do more digging in the more metropolitan areas like Boston, Portland, Hartford and Providence before I call it a total loss. That being said, since I did that story I have been searching to find chefs that are using Twitter as it should be used: effectively and engagingly. So far I have found exactly four. I know there must be more out there. Right?

Here’s all you have to do to become Twitter savvy:

Sign Up
Yes, that’s right: Get a Twitter account. Don’t be “that guy.” You know the one. He’s the same guy who refuses to espouse WiFi because “dial-up works just fine,” and the same guy who still has a clamshell flip-phone. Don’t be him. Embrace the technology and social media because it’s quick, painless, (mostly) free and – most important – here to stay. Come on, genius, you can tourné a carrot, you have all the skill you need to open and use a Twitter account.

Being a New Englander, I understand we can be stubborn and resistant to change. But when someone asks on Twitter about the special you’re running that night, take a second out of your prep work and answer them. When your cooks ask questions, you spend minutes if not hours a day answering them. Cooks don’t make you money but the customer does, so take a few moments and communicate. You don’t have to respond to every tweet; don’t feel like you have to. It’s a learning process, but once you get into the rhythm you’ll find Twitter to be invaluable.

Twitter is not a popularity contest, unless of course you’re an actor or politician. Twitter is a succinct means to communicate with people and places that interest you, like other chefs or restaurants. It’s a means to entertain, gather and disseminate information. Not following people is like choosing to be blind to what’s going on around you. Go ahead, follow all the famous restaurants and chefs you want to, but then follow your local chefs and maybe some regulars. This will create a mutual feeling of loyalty because you are showing that you actually care about your patrons.

Twitter Is Not a Billboard
Twitter is like having a face-to-face conversation with each and every follower. You wouldn’t walk up to a customer or friend and say, “Cookies are three for $1!” and then not say anything else. Now don’t go getting all squirrelly on me, there are exceptions. For example, aside from dialogue with customers Doug Sohn of @hotdougs in Chicago uses Twitter to post his weekly specials…once a week. People want to be talked to and not “at” so keep the hawking to a bare minimum. If you want to introduce something you feel your customers might be interested in, introduce it as a special. Answer price questions only when asked. Remember Twitter is a relationship builder and you are a friend, not a huckster.

Do Not Let Someone Tweet For You
Nobody knows your business or your passion for that business like you do. If you had a Ferrari and absolutely loved driving it, would you let me drive it for you when you didn’t have time? That’s what @SocialKitchenNH  and other companies like it would have you do, and on top of them driving your Ferrari they’ll also ask you to give them gas money.

These companies have restaurants pay them to shill without any customer interaction. They get new clients partly because people are scared or unfamiliar with Twitter. They would lead you to believe they are experts in this field and only they have the expertise to run your Twitter account. In my opinion they’re frauds pushing the next Y2K scam, but this time with no expiration date.

You won’t be able to fix every problem you find on Twitter just by responding. I mean, some people would complain if you hung them with brand new rope. But being the voice of reason and showing you care enough to respond is sometimes all a customer wants. They want you to be accessible. “Sorry you didn’t enjoy your app @JoeBobbleHead Please come back so we can give you the experience you deserve. We appreciate the opportunity to earn your business.”

When people you follow have something informative or entertaining to tweet…re-tweet it! Known as a “RT” in the Twitterverse, it’s a simple way to pass on someone else’s comment to your followers with the touch of a button.  You’re not a clown after all and nobody is expecting you to be the only entertainment source.

The Bottom Line
Twitter is as easy as falling out of a boat. It’s a tool you can use a little or a lot. Either way your relationship with your customers will foster respect and loyalty because you’re not only feeding their bellies, but their hearts as well. Twitter may not make you the next @Mariobatali , but it will sure as hell help you and your restaurant by expanding your name, brand and your reputation by knowing your customers’ needs and how to service them.

Saint Louis Makes Twitter its Bitch…

My Twitter Dream (a.k.a. Saint Louis, MO)

Now that I’ve beaten the living hell out of the evil that is social media in the form of Yelp and other such sites, maybe it’s time to look at the good side of social media. I mean not every form of social media could be chucker-block full of a-holes looking to give one star to a restaurant for having the audacity to serve them gazpacho… chilled…Can they?

I was looking around at different cities and found some shining examples of who’s doing great things with regards to food and social media. St. Louis, MO is perhaps one of the best examples I found of what good can come with the proper use of Twitter, Foodspotting and other social media sites. Sure there are probably bigger, better and (badder-ist?) cities that are somewhat further ahead, with NYC, Chicago and LA coming to mind. But as an outsider looking in, I couldn’t imagine being more comfortable than in the STL.

It all started with a likely business trip to STL that started me looking into the food scene there. I already had a friend on Twitter in the form of @mcharcuterie who is a prominent and respected fixture in the STL food scene. So I started by picking her brain as to where I should go and eat. Being as sweet as she is, she was happy to oblige and proceeded to give me some general ideas as to where I might find some good food. Finding out I had a culinary background she immediately said, “You know who you need to talk to is Chef Joshua Galliano @cookingkid, you and him can talk shop and really figure out the food scene around here.

@mcharcuterie got started in social media several years ago because she was tired of reading in the paper about food events that were happening all around her… after the fact. Social media filled that void and then some. She started taking pictures of the foods she was eating at these various events and local restaurants and sharing them through Foodspotting. This took off and really got her some attention to the point @stltoday did a story on her. Now she has nearly as many followers in the one year she’s been using twitter as my local food magazine has for its entire existence…more on “them” in a minute.

Thinking to myself, Awwww how cute…she knows a cook I can talk to. Not wanting to be unprepared to talk to him and being the nosey bastard I am, I looked this guy up so I would know whom I was dealing with. Holy Shin Splints, cook indeed…this guy has a cooking pedigree and background so deep that by comparison…there was no comparison. I was trying to figure out what I would ask this chef first and how to phrase my e-mail so as to avoid the mention of my so-called culinary school…then I got an E-mail.

It had only been some fifteen or twenty minutes since my friend had thrown the idea out there and had given me the contact info and that “son of a bitch” (meant with the highest respect and meant as more of a state of shock blue collar New England thing) had already composed an email with no less than thirty or so places “to start with”  as well what I should eat at each place, farmers markets, butchers and specialty stores, and if I had any questions I could feel free to contact him. *blink….blink* Where the hell do I even begin?

I’ve sent emails, tweets and on a few occasions tried to contact local chefs here on the seacoast, Boston and New York and each time getting a chef to reply is like pulling teeth. I’m not talking the Mario Batali’s of the food world here (who is actually very much into twitter and communicating with fans and patrons), as very few of them had anywhere near the cooking chops as Chef Galliano. Yet this man took the time to drop me an email that was more than… “Here are three fine dining places…good luck in STL.” I was truly awed by the act of kindness and thought perhaps this was the exception rather than the rule.

I am happy to report…it is most assuredly not. If I am looking for restaurant recommendations for STL or nearby cities (and one time Kansas City), thoughts on an ingredient, farmers market info or where is the best place to buy such and such a food… everybody from Chefs like Gerard Craft @GerardFCraft, Joshua Galliano @cookingkid, Kevin Nashan @knashan John Griffiths @jgriffs and many others will more than likely weigh in…

These are some weighty chefs here people! Don’t just take my word for it; ask the good folks who nominate chefs for James Beard awards. Yet somehow these people are reachable. The gruff but loveable freelance writer Andrew Veety @amveats will put his two cents in, and sometimes five if the topic so moves him…as will writer Evan Benn @EvanBenn a beer columnist (best job ever next to inventory taker for a blind liquor store owner). It seems as though everybody in this damned town has something to say on food.

Restaurants often get involved, the local craft brewers, the Saint Louis Brewers Guild, food stores, Food trucks (which there are a ton of and damned near all of them awesome, the ones that aren’t awesome are by all accounts are great and striving for awesome) farmers markets, Bloggers @AmuseDouche11 @sippinstl @MoEats and @ironstef  as well as the local “cibo” (see urban dictionary…I reserve the word foodie for assholes) population like @CashewChicken or @jpjernigan.  It’s a very comfortable, fluid and God help me…symbiotic relationship between all food related entities.

I’d seriously love to mention everybody from Saint Louis who has reached out and offered help, kind words or recommendations…but there wouldn’t be enough room to gush about how awesome they all are.  The good people of Saint Louis understand it is about the greater good of all parties involved. I don’t want to make it sound like a tree hugging bark eating commune, so let’s just say this…. Saint Louis, Missouri has embraced Twitter and made it… its fuzzy little bitch.

Their own Food magazine @SAUCEmagazine actually promotes all foods… from the humble sandwich shop to the best in fine dining and everything in between. Every week they give shout outs to everybody and anybody in their food community, they promote cibo folks, bloggers, restaurants, chefs and anybody else who has something to say regarding what’s happening in the STL food scene. In return the people there look to SAUCE as a current, relevant and integral part of the food community.

When there is a problem with a dinner service from a customer, it gets aired on twitter and solved on twitter in a smooth matter of fact manner that everyone understands as the only way to do things. They get social media…they understand that it is the future and have figured out the best way to use it so it benefits all people. Nobody is insulated and everybody is accessible. If you’re in STL and you need to find out where the next food festival, feast in the field, food truck gathering, beer fest, wine tasting, restaurant opening, restaurant charity benefit, Pop-Up or anything else food related is… Just find any one of the aforementioned people and if they don’t know…they know someone who does.

My Reality

Ah Portsmouth, NH…where do I begin. It’s a nice town of some twenty odd thousand people forty minutes north of Boston, and if you include surrounding towns and coastal communities you have maybe seventy to a hundred thousand people. Being an old New England seaport town means it is filled with quaint little boutiques that have words like Ye Olde and Shoppe in the title and usually means if you want to buy anything here you need not pull out your folding money… as only plastic or a first child will do. As a result of this “charm” it is also overflowing in the summertime with fanny-pack sporting affluent flatlanders from points south.

A fortunate ancillary benefit of the tourist industry is that the restaurant scene is quite nice with a goodly mix of fine, moderate and low priced dining establishments. Most do a fairly good job and most have something good to offer. The fact that it’s a seaport means seafood and as a result plenty of inexpensive, plentiful, high quality seafood is available at all times. There are Butchers, specialty shops, bakeries, excellent grocery stores, farmers markets, online food magazines, cheese chops, pastry shops basically all manner of food one could ever want with just one little problem…nobody’s talking to each other.

I did a review of a local restaurant that’s doing some really good food. In a follow up discussion I had with one of the chefs I asked him about his twitter account. I have one but I never use it. I said, I know I tweeted to you the other day and you never responded. His response…”what’s a tweet?” ARRRRGH! He told me he was into yelp, and even had a yelp sticker on his front door as do most restaurants in town.
Yelp is dead I told him. He looked surprised and confused by the comment. “Look…Don’t you ever get tired of answering stupid questions from people who don’t know what they’re talking about?” “Yes” he said, somewhat relieved. Well, that’s my point…most everybody who cares and knows about food, is on Twitter. Only foodies and peta assholes depend on yelp.

The downside to Portsmouth being so touristy in the summer is that it is cricket city in the dead of winter….well it would be if crickets could survive the seven to ten feet of snow and below zero temperatures one can expect from Portsmouth in any given winter. So restaurants survive with a feast or famine ebb and flow.
Through the use of Twitter it wouldn’t have to be this way…but still they chug on with little notice of such a powerful free tool at its fingertips. Often the restaurants here that are on twitter…with Grape Ape as my witness…PAY people to tweet for them. I shit you negative. They pay people to tweet for them because “it’s too time consuming!”

After I started to discover the wonders that are the STL food scene, I decided I hadn’t put enough of the same effort into my own town so I went looking. I found my local online food magazine called @TasteMagazine and started flipping through what I felt was a decent effort… but it was missing some things. I tweeted them requesting a DM and got nothing. A few weeks later I tweeted again, and again received nothing in response. So I found an Email contact and sent off a note with my thoughts to help them make it more appealing for the readership or more importantly… potential readership.

I was happy to get a reply within five minutes to tell me they were extremely busy but thought that I had some “interesting ideas” and would reply within the next week or two….It has been over 4 weeks now and I have sent a friendly reminder that I’d still love to hear from them. *chirp chirp…..chirp chirp* So somebody shows an interest in what they are doing, and doesn’t even rate so much as a follow? So I thought maybe I’ll go through their followers and see who the real heavyweights were in the seacoast food world. What I found was shocking…

It was loaded with every “marketing spambot” known to man, and had I weeded them all out I’d probably stand a good chance of having more followers then them. Uh huh, just what I thought…@TasteMagazine has a bad case of cranial rectal inversion. It has what I like to call “Yankee” disease. Yankee is a national magazine based out of New England, based on New England and at one time… on New Englanders. Now it’s about multi-million dollar Newport RI mansions and Martha Stewart types and nearly unreadable except by people named Biff and Bunny Tipton. So if that’s what you’re looking to do Taste…you’re headed down the right track except for one small detail…readership…you’ll need a readership to drag to the land of the pretentious foodie.

So Portsmouth, it looks like we have a lot of catching up to do and without a flagship to guide us…it looks like it’s up to me and precious few others to single handedly yank some heads out of some asses. Saying this is akin to telling your spouse off in the mirror, when your spouse isn’t in the house…or even in the country. Because the reality is, hardly anybody in Portsmouth is listening to anybody else save for a couple of good food writers in @cjmcmahonSMG and @RachelForrest. We are never going to be as large or as well put together as Saint Louis, but we sure as hell can do better than this.

So to you wonderful people of Saint Louis I say thank you for being so generous and giving of your time and if you’re ever heading to the New Hampshire seacoast, please do tweet me so that we may break bread and have beers together. Allow me to show you my New England. But whatever you do don’t ask me what’s going on food wise, because that would involve driving around with the windows down and our noses out trying to smell what’s happening. “Here…hold the wheel…I think I smell something!”