Chefs. What would we do without them? They make our food-obsessed worlds go round by making the delicious things we love to eat, photograph and talk about. How do we love thee, chefs? Let us count the ways.
An average working day for a chef can range between 12 and 18 hours, which often translates to early mornings and late nights. They could be in the kitchen as early as 8am to prepare for lunch service. When lunch is done and dusted, they might get an hour of free time before they start preparing for dinner service. Though kitchen hours vary, most chefs don’t get home until 11pm. (By which time we’re fast asleep in front of the television.)
It’s easy to complain when things go wrong but, we concede, we probably wouldn’t be able to produce most restaurant dishes ourselves. Chefs need to be highly skilled to produce the truly incredible plates of food we encounter at restaurants around South Africa. Despite those intense working hours coupled with physical and mental pressure, they still manage to produce inspired plates of happiness. (And often also have to adapt on the fly, thinking up masterpieces despite diners’ allergens, intolerances and sensitivities.)
Chefs usually only have one or two days off a week, despite working double the hours the rest of us do. And on those days off, they still have to do the same mundane things we all do. Be it going to the bank or a dentist appointment, they somehow manage to operate like regular human beings instead of falling face forward onto their beds and staying there for 48 hours.
Chefs don’t get to knock off for weekends away and can’t always attend weddings, birthdays or other important celebrations. They miss out on a lot and often it’s so we can have our celebrations at our favourite restaurants.
Being a chef is not just about cooking. Chefs need to be good leaders, be organised and be in complete control of their section of the kitchen. In many cases, they’re also in charge of ordering ingredients, planning new menus, calculating costings and dreaming up marketing initiatives. As if that’s not enough, they also need to be willing to deal with difficult customers and graciously take criticism that might not always be particularly constructive.
Asbestos fingers are real and these chefs prove it. If something urgently needs to come out of the oven, in the heat of the moment, chefs tend to pull them out without oven gloves. They’ve also been known to pull things out of fryers if necessary then keep going as if they didn’t just acquire second-degree burns. Also, remember those 12 to 18 hours? The bulk of that is spent on their feet. (Hence the Birkenstocks.)
Another perk to being virtually indestructible? Needles are no big deal. Many chefs are covered in tattoos – an outlet that allows them to express their personalities despite spending their lives in chefs’ whites.
Life hack? Befriend a chef. Some of the best food you’ll eat will be at a chef’s home, when they’re off duty and cooking their favourite meals. They’re also able to whip up with ease dishes that strike fear in the hearts of most, like eggs Benedict or a perfect plate of risotto. (They may even throw in a masterclass if you ask really nicely.)
While some high-profile chefs have a reputation for swearing and mistreating their teams, that’s by no means the only way to work as a head chef. Many spend hours mentoring and training their teams, and help to build young chefs’ careers. Because when it comes down to it, a true rockstar knows that for the show to go off without a hitch, the whole band needs to be performing perfectly.
It takes a lot of passion to survive as a chef. So most chefs have a huge love of food. While we all love being able to eat highly sought-after ingredients like uni or truffles, chefs have a higher appreciation for quality ingredients than we can even begin to comprehend. Many of them spend hours working towards more sustainable options and helping farmers to make positive changes. To them it’s about more than eating – it’s about sourcing, admiring, preparing then lovingly incorporating an ingredient into a dish that lets it shine.