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Top Gun

Richard Blais talks about the similarities between the military and the kitchen.

By Richard Blais

The kitchen hierarchy is a bit archaic. The brigade system, formalized in the early 1900s by Auguste Escoffier (the one part Joël Robuchon and one part Ferran Adrià of his time), is still utilized in the modern kitchen. It’s a pecking order. An organized list of rank and file, led by the Executive Chef and followed closely by the Chef de Cuisine. Then comes a Senior Sous, a Junior Sous, a Saucier perhaps, and a few Chef de Parties, who are in charge of specific stations or departments. All of that is supported by the Commis chefs. And if the commis are lucky enough, an abundance of stagiaire, interns, and wanderers hanging around to learn and gain experience.

It’s ironic that our system has a somewhat militaristic structure, as we are heading to an Air force base for the elimination challenge in the third episode.

In the modern kitchen, usually with less employees than Escoffier was accustomed to (He led royal facilities and hotels), many of these jobs have been consolidated. A good sous-chef for example, may also be the saucier, the butcher, baker, and so on and they may excel at all of those jobs. 

So, I found it strange, that in tonight’s episode, Mike Isabella suggests that Jennifer Carroll take on the role of “tournant.”

It’s an interesting approach and reveals a lot about Mike’s character. We now are getting to know the cast a little better, and this play is vintage Isabella. Let’s ask the “girl cook” to take on an archaic title that can best be described as a substitute teacher. Classically, it refers to a cook who works all the stations in other cooks’ absence. A position of skill, sure, but not really of certified rank; A position that may be the proverbial glass ceiling for a woman in Mr. Isabella’s mind.

I said cook, earlier, intentionally. Because I get the feeling, that Mike would have a hard time answering, “Yes, Chef!” to any woman.

Jennifer’s response? Sure, I’ll be the Executive Chef. Touché! 

Actually, Jennifer’s task was very reminiscent of culinary school. Usually a class rotates its students, all on equal rank, throughout random positions for the term. One of which is sous-chef, or “leader du jour.” That would mean picking up a cart of vegetables from the basement requisition area, calling out attendance, and making sure your classmates had their neckerchiefs on. Mattin, check! And, somehow, straddling the political line of colleague, friend, instructor’s assistant, and manager.

Chef Carroll needs to do no straddling today though. She embraces the challenge, and in a rare Top Chef moment, gives us a glimpse into a restaurant world, that only those of us who know it, may have enjoyed. We were treated to a military-like operating system of concise verbal commands and quick responses.

There isn’t any idle chatter about beer jugs and such when fighter pilots are communicating in the air. And there shouldn’t be any unrelated conversation in a serious kitchen either. And whether the responsibilities were given or taken, Jennifer was the leader in that kitchen. Not your friend and not your colleague.  

Someone, somewhere, yelled out at their television … “What a bitch!” Go ahead and own up to it if it was you.

It’s unfortunate though, considering that no one would have said that, if the colonel acted such a way with his airmen. It’s unfortunate that women need to rationalize their leadership style in a kitchen by defining it as “being bitchy” and not just being a “leader.”

Of course, you could argue that cooking isn’t anything like the pressure of combat. Chefs aren’t making split-second decisions where mass destruction is at stake. Cooking certainly isn’t a life or death job, and it would be a position hard to defend when paralleled with warfare.

But for some chefs, its similarities drive us. It’s about the the seriousness, the commitment, and the discipline of our craft. It is about respecting the traditions of those who came before us, and who we have trained and learned under.

For many of us, our only association with the military is in the kitchen.

Thanks for checking in this week and don’t forget to check out my companion piece “Second Helping” where we discuss “Simple vs. Contrived Food” over at Creative Loafing

And find me on Twitter @richardblais

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

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