By John Barrera
We have an obsession with all things food. Whether cooked, written about, or photographed, as a society we can’t get enough. In this frenzied state of mind, who better than the media to exploit our obsession. The problem, though, is their pervasive marketing of everything food has diluted standards put in place to ensure the high quality of our cuisine. The media has taken decent cooks and elevated them to chef status overnight. My dilemma is that our obsession is destroying both the quality of our cuisine and the people that have worked so hard to bring food in this county to such a high standard.
This obsession with food makes it increasingly more difficult to separate the real from the fake. As I’ve said before—just because you make a great quiche does not mean you should open a restaurant. Same with being a chef. Just because you have a neck tattoo and a chef coat, this does not qualify you as a chef. Today’s media has diluted this highly skilled profession throwing around titles such as “Head Chef” and “Master Chef” like pita bread in a falafel restaurant.
In Europe, before anyone would think of calling you “Chef” you would be in an apprentice program from your early teens on. Along with your basic education, you spent part of your day in a professional kitchen—first washing dishes and peeling vegetables. The entire time in the kitchen you would be tracking your hours and moving from station to station—learning everything from butchering to baking and becoming proficient in them all.
Here in the States, we also have standards that must be met in order to be certified as a chef. The problem is we do not require these certifications to get a job as a cook/chef in most kitchens. So what ends up happening is an industry that lacks basic skills and standards. And what makes this even more objectionable is our culture embraces this because the media calls for it. When someone on the latest cooking show addresses the person who just cooked a meal or baked a brownie what do they call them? “Chef.” Really? Some of these contestants are no more than decent cooks.
Before I start sounding like someone yelling at a skyscraper, let me give you some basic information. The American Culinary Federation (ACF) was formed in 1929 and oversees the culinary landscape in the United States. In 1976 they led an initiative to upgrade the definition of Chef from domestic to professional.
There are fourteen certification designations starting with certified culinarian (cc) which is your basic cook. The most prestigious of them all is certified master chef (CMC). A Chef with a Master Chefs Certification goes through a rigorous eight day test—both written and practical. What makes this even more challenging is the fact the test is judged by a panel of master chefs. So my guess is they’re not exactly telling you where the sheet pans are hiding.
I called the ACF to get the running numbers on how many CMC’s there currently are, and to my utter amazement found that there are sixty-seven. Years and years ago when I was getting my certification for certified executive chef (CEC) there were well over one hundred.
A few years back Emeril Lagasse (a chef who has his hands in more things having to do with food than even he knows) was involved in a sitcom. I had no interest in seeing this and neither did anyone else. It lasted a few episodes and that was it. So the moral is: chefs shouldn’t be actors and not all people should act like chefs.