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What Being a Chef Really Means

James Oseland contemplates the different managerial styles demonstrated in Restaurant Wars.

By James Oseland

I always love getting the chance to watch episodes of Top Chef Masters in which I'm not one of the people at Critics' Table. It's a great opportunity to get to know the contestants better, to watch the show for pure entertainment purposes, to really just sit back and enjoy the fact that it is — and I'm not just saying this — a really fun show.

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As I was watching this episode, one thought kept reoccurring: these men and women are chefs. The word itself is meaningful: it's French for "chief," the one who's in charge. The one who's the boss. The one who runs the show. Never on Top Chef Masters is the difference between a chef and a cook more apparent than on the Restaurant Wars episode: the very nature of the Elimination Challenge brings new facets of their character to light, almost always in fascinating ways.

For those of us who don't work in restaurants professionally, it's tempting to have a picture of a chef as an artist, someone whose pure creative vision is translated to reality in the sacred space of a perfectly appointed kitchen. The reality is much less glamorous: in fact, what a chef does is function in a much more managerial capacity. It's hum-drum, maybe, and probably not the sort of thing any kid wants to do when he grows up, but only a small portion of the daily grind is creating culinary magic. The rest is making sure the restaurant — a complex, multi-part machine — runs as effectively, cleanly, and economically as possible. (Remember when team Artisan was planning their menu and nixed certain ideas for dishes because they would need to be fired a la minute? Or when Jennifer called Bryan to find out if they had enough money in the budget to buy rice wine vinegar? That's not art; that's running a business.) 

As anyone who's ever had a job knows, managers come in all sorts of flavors, but for the most part your boss is going to fall into one of two categories. There are the ones who want to make sure their employees are happy, who project an aura of calm, go-with-the-flow energy, who prioritize being the good guy — think Neal, Lynn, or David. Then there are the control freaks — the ones who aren't afraid to strike fear into the hearts of their staff, as long as it produces the desired results. In that category we've got chefs like Sang, Jennifer, and Douglas

Each managerial style has its upsides and its downsides, but watching tonight’s episode it was clear to me that, at least in the kitchen, taking a slightly more dictatorial attitude is the way to go. Sang ran his kitchen like a drill sergeant, but it didn't make me like him less; in fact, I found myself appreciating him more, and respecting the rigor and perfectionism he brings to his profession. (I can't help but think that his uncompromisingly high expectations of everyone around him comes from the same place that has led him to create some of the most consistently exciting food this season.)

Whether you're playing kind boss or tough boss, though, the fact remains that being a manager is hard — in a restaurant kitchen, at a magazine, or running a corner store. It requires being limber, being nimble, being able to react to emergencies great and small with agility and aplomb, and knowing how to present the right face at the right time. It's great to see the chefs proving their managerial mettle in Restaurant Wars — that's what, at its core, Top Chef Masters is all about.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur.

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