dealing with disgust in the kitchen

As a culinary instructor, not a week goes by when I don’t witness one or another of my students facing certain tasks in the kitchen that they have never before attempted. Depending on my particular frame of mind that day, these episodes are either completely hilarious, or completely maddening. The “certain tasks” I’m referring to are those goopy, raw, moist, squishy, and/or smelly ones that manage to overwhelm the novice cook with feelings of fear, revulsion, and disgust.

Continuing education for the professional chef:

I’m currently reading, for the second time, Michael Pollan’s lifestyle-changing book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (www.michaelpollan.com), in which the author spends several pages discussing the idea of human disgust reflex in relation to how far most of us are from the actual source of our food. In the chapter titled Hunting: The Meat, Pollan hunts and kills a wild pig, and then assists as his hunting partner proceeds to disembowel (dress) the animal. As the internal organs flop to the ground with a wet thud and the odor of partially digested pig food wafts up into his nostrils, the author is so overcome with a wave of nausea and disgust that he is forced to walk away and regain his composure, lest he lose his lunch. Even though he knows that the meat of the pig is a delicious treat he’s eaten many times before, being so close to the post mortem in progress is still a difficult thing to be comfortable with. The case in point here is that as we move forward as a society that embraces commercial agriculture and the supermarket method of gathering our food, we are also moving father and farther away from any real connectedness to the animals and plants that we consume on a daily basis.

The job of a chef-educator:

After eight years of teaching people how to cook at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Chicago (Chefs.edu/Chicago), it no longer surprises me when I come across a student who has never before cut up a whole chicken into pieces, or one who has never even seen an oyster, let alone shucked and eaten one while it is still vibrant and quivering. As their culinary ambassador, I feel that it is my job to help them embrace and reconnect with the whole, unprocessed ingredients they regularly eat. Standing up in front of the class demonstrating how these things are done, as I observe my students’ faces, it is almost immediately apparent who among the group has a problem with the thought of actually touching these ingredients with their bare hands. I always make a mental note to spend extra time with these individuals…for their own good, but also for my own amusement. On oyster day, it is these individuals that I insist try to eat a raw oyster. If they don’t like it, that’s fine, but at least they tried it.

Cooking in the professional kitchen:

As a professional chef, it’s easy to forget how difficult these types of things are to do the first time…or the first few times. We do them all the time, so the novelty has worn off…I can’t tell you how many thousands of chickens I’ve cut up, or scores of oysters I’ve shucked (and eaten!), or how many kilos of fish entrails I’ve yanked. But the truth of the matter is that many people cannot easily overcome the natural human reaction to dealing with these visceral things: disgust. And once you have truly experienced the feeling of disgust in relation to a certain food item, it is extremely difficult to get back to a place where you might actually eat that thing again.

Obviously, the disgust reflex is a necessary and helpful evolutionary tool that has protected many of us and our ancestors over the years. Usually the things that people feel the most disgusted with are those items that would make you very ill, or possibly kill you were you to ingest them. When you work in a professional kitchen though, any reactions to the disgust you feel for an ingredient that the chef loves should be held in check. No chef wants to hear that one of their cooks is grossed out by something they’re working with. Chefs are typically passionate about a lot of ingredients that other people might find strange, and they like to have cooks working for them that feel the same way.

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