Expanding Your Culinary Horizons - Chef David Gilbert
From Jet-setting to Green Cuisine
What makes a chef great these days? As a professional who began his career prior to the rise of "celebrity chefs" and mass branding of products, there was one thing that separated the good from the best--a passion for learning and exploring world food culture!
I think there are several forgotten elements that can contribute to a chef's culinary growth. Here are some I'd like to share with young cooks entering the industry.
Traveling can broaden your culinary horizons more than any other activity. Whether traveling to another part of the United States or another country entirely, the exposure is unreal. I always had a passion for learning about other cultures and why they eat the foods they do. How did these foods come about? What are the customs behind their cuisine or specific dishes? It's important to go far beyond just the flavor profile or re-creation of a dish.
I encourage all my young chefs to get out and see the world, experience other cultures, taste their street foods, and carry those experiences into their own kitchens. It takes real discipline to save that kind of money, especially by peeling potatoes or sautéing grouper. But I assure you it is money well spent; you're investing in yourself. What chef does not want to eat fresh noodles from a Vietnamese market, Kudu meat from Namiba, or ceviche in Mexico? This life experience is a must!
Going Green: Food Sustainability
Food sustainability has become an important issue for chefs all around the globe. Using only local produce, recycling cardboard and glassware, disposing of used oil correctly-all simple things that really make a difference. It is about doing the right thing now, not tomorrow (when it could be too late). The environment is always changing and it is important that we do our part as chefs.
Consider the "Green movement." Saving the earth isn't just for hippies. A task that may take an extra 10 minutes of your team's day, like recycling, can have an important impact elsewhere. Sure, it's easier for us to send the porter downstairs to toss the boxes and empty wine bottles than to be proactive and separate them for recycling. But thinking long term is going to keep costs for all of us down now and in the future. The price of packaging has skyrocketed in the past few years because we do not take the time to recycle. Don't think that the vendors absorb the costs--we do as restaurant owners and chefs.
Another ticket to green cuisine is supporting local growers. Using fresh, local produce not only improves your menu, but goes a long way in supporting your local agriculture (especially smaller family farms struggling to compete with big agribusiness.) Check out Chef2Chef's Farmers' Market directory to find a Farmer's Market near you!
Staging: Know What the Other Guy is Up To!
Staging, or shadowing another chef, seems to be a dying culinary trend. Never be too proud to see what others in the industry are up to. I take a week each year (unpaid) and go to work in other kitchens. It's great exposure to new ingredients, techniques, and styles of cuisine. Staging also provides fabulous networking opportunities. It is a very small culinary world and the great chefs of today embrace others coming into their kitchens and learning about what they do.
Learn the Business Side of Food
One of my old chefs once said that a chef is just a businessman that knows how to cook, so he suggested I start learning about accounting and leadership. Wow, I thought, who is this guy? I am a chef. We cook! We don't sit in the office running numbers and doing paperwork, right? Nevertheless, I took his advice and got several books on restaurant accounting, leadership, marketing, and branding. (By the way, I highly recommend Michael Rhulman's Reach for a Chef).
You know what? Learning those business skills has paid off. Most great chefs really are business gurus! They wear a chef jacket, but they are running a business, not just cooking great food! In order to grow your business, you have to be able to manage your business from a distance, separating yourself operationally.
A Final Word about Your Culinary Growth
It is critical that you align yourself with the best talent and greatest mentors you can find. I highly suggest, before accepting any job, that you confirm the chef under whom you'll be working is an industry leader, or at least soon to be! When you work for a great chef, you never feel stagnant--they always push you to be better and to achieve more. A great chef can take you out of your comfort zone and challenge you to broaden your culinary horizons. Isn't that what being a chef is all about?