Notes from the Week in Toqueland (February 2 – 9, 2018)
Greetings, Citizens of Toqueland,
Hope you all had a good week.
Personally, I’ve been immersed in the exciting, stressful, and ultimately exhausting enterprise of planning a book tour–did my first telephone interview (3 weeks before publication); wrangled two chefs and a restaurateur for a television story; planned a few bookstore and cooking school events on the road (details to follow); and generally imposed on about two dozen friends and colleagues to do everything from speak to moderate to cook to host to donate food and alcohol. It’s not easy for me to ask for things but fortunately I live at the crossroads of two professions–cooking and writing–that (most of the time) maintain their traditions of camaraderie, and many people (you know who you are) have made it easy for me.
As I’ve found the time to keep tabs on what’s going on in 2018, here’s what caught my eye this week. This post isn’t as well-honed or chock-full of pictures and links as I’d like it to be–hopeless perfectionist that I am–but I’m trying to keep to my commitment of sharing here at least twice weekly, so hopefully the info is worth the typos! Here you go:
“You Can’t Treat Your Carrots Better Than You Treat Your Employees”
Last weekend, Ms. Toqueland and I caught up with our friends Loren Michelle and Hervé Riou, a chef couple whom I met on the research trail for my book; Loren cooked for Barry Wine at the late, great Quilted Giraffe and currently owns Naturally Delicious catering; Hervé was chef of the Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel, among other gigs over the years. We had dinner at Fausto, Joe Campanale’s new restaurant in the beloved former Franny’s space in Brooklyn where chef Erin Shambura is turning out rock-solid Italian food, including perhaps the best meatballs I’ve ever had. (I ordered a second round without consulting with my table-mates, prepared to down them all on my own if necessary.)
Hervé is an old friend and fellow toque of Eric Ripert, who needs no introduction here as the executive chef of three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin.
Hervé is also trustee of the L’Academie Culinaire de France. He and Eric both came up in some pretty tough kitchens back home; Eric’s time working for the famously demanding Joël Robuchon is well-documented in his memoir 32 Eggs. Hervé trained in a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Laval, France.
As we all know, brutality is as much a part of professional kitchen lore as Escoffier and consommé, reminisced about and romanticized by whisks and writers, including me. It makes for good war stories and great copy, and those who defend it will tell you that–as boot camp does for soldiers–it creates good cooks.
But is it really necessary? Is there no other way to prepare somebody for the nightly pressure cooker of a service, or extract what you need from them during that service?
Eric and Hervé are convinced that there’s a better way, and they’ve created a Charter of Conduct that they want to see signed by as many US-based chefs as possible and proudly displayed in as many American kitchens as are willing for all to see and abide by (it’s featured at the top of this post).
Hervé sent me the charter after the weekend and I got him and Eric on the phone (separately) this morning to kick it around with them a little. They make persuasive pitchmen for the value of this modest-looking document that might have more power than a first glance suggests.
Of his motivation for the campaign, Eric said, “When I see on television, still today, some British chef promoting insults and verbal abuse and bullying in kitchens, I’m like, Wow, the job is not finished to create an environment where talented people can blossom without fear.”
For Hervé, the moment to act came after reading French chef Gérard Cagna’s article in Nouvel Observateur, a French publication, detailing the misfortune of a a young apprentice who was injured in the kitchen of a three-star Michelin restaurant.
“Enough is enough,” Hervé thought. “We need to get into the 21st Century. We need to stop not telling the truth, to stop the macho attitude. A lot of chefs signed his declaration, and it was very important in France. But he also had some pushback. When I heard about it, I met Gérard and spoke to Eric about doing something. It’s something that’s still there. So we created a chart of good conduct for America.”
Hervé, 58, readily admits that it was a long road to his enlightened state. “I was violent in the kitchen,” he says. “I was not a saint. If you would have known me twenty years ago, I was not a nice guy. Society is evolving; some of us evolve and some of us don’t.”
He says that he began to see the light when he opened his own restaurant in 1993 and one of his sous chefs–who’d followed him from the Plaza–looked him in the eye one day, and confronted him about his mood swings: “Chef, when you come angry, we are all angry; when you come happy, we are all happy; when you are sad, we are all sad. Your mood reflects into our cooking. You need to change, to be even-keeled.”
“I loved him dearly, and really loved what he said,” says Hervé. “I thought a lot about it. I started to realize there is another way. We don’t have to be what we were taught.”
The transformation also coincided with Herve’s discovery of Buddhism, which he partially credits for the change. Ripert also practices Buddhism, but is hesitant to bring religion into the conversation: “Buddhist principles cannot hurt but this is a secular charter and way of behaving. I don’t don’t want to attribute it to Buddhism; it’s about common sense and being compassionate. That can be universal.”
The most poignant moment in my conversation with Hervé was his positing of this question: “Everybody says to me: ‘Look: I rough them up, and look how great they are now.’ But if you go with the same reasoning, how many incredible chefs have we lost? How many could not take that beating? We probably lost hundreds of Kellers, hundreds of Riperts, because they couldn’t take the violence and the abuse. It’s the excuse of the poor-minded, of people who have no vision.”
That’s hard to argue with, no?
I’ll be honest, as I was with Eric and Hervé: The charter didn’t seem that potent to me; what’s the value, really, of a few paragraphs on a piece of paper? But both men explain it in the same terms: It’s a first step. Signing it, as signing anything does, gives one pause, demands that one consider what they are committing to. And posting it in the kitchen for all to see takes that commitment to another level and–the hope is–creates a certain measure of mindfulness, and accountability.
These two veterans also have no illusions: “We are all human beings,” says Hervé. “Sometimes we will blow a gasket and it’s fine. If everybody tries to change a little bit now, in twenty years, kitchens will be very different. We don’t ask everybody to change overnight. It’s very simple principle of life: Don’t abuse; don’t fight. You cannot treat your carrots better than you treat your employees.”
Eric echoes the sentiment, volunteering that even at his Le Bernardin, it’s inevitable that people will lose their temper. The key thing to him is that those moments are minimized, and apologized for.
The charter is meant for American kitchens, but has mostly been adapted by French organizations, albeit many US-based ones. Hervé and Eric are actively lobbying other groups and guilds. Hervé even pleaded his case to New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio when they met at a restaurant, and has been following up with his office, though hasn’t gained traction yet, on the idea of getting the charter circulated to every restaurant in New York City.
The charter is an admitted modest first step toward institutional change, and it’s a long road. But these two chefs are committed, and have their eyes trained on the horizon line.
Says Hervé: “This is for the chefs of the future.”
Tony Bourdain and Pete Wells got into it on Twitter at the outset of the week on the topic of critics looking the other way where bad kitchen behavior is concerned:
I’m not looking for a tussle with Tony (that’s a losing proposition for anybody), but I will add my two cents: As somebody who’s collaborated on more than two dozen book projects with chefs, and logged hundreds of hours of kitchen and after-hours time with kitchen professionals, I can only speak to my own experience. I’m sure many might disbelieve this, but I’ve never personally witnessed any of the abhorrent behavior that’s recently been outed, and I’ve only ever heard the most vague intimations (“so-and-so’s a pig”). It’s only after the dam recently broke that even close friends on the other side of the swinging doors have shared what some of them know with me, and even then it’s only been about people who have been written about. I am NOT doubting any of what’s been reported, just speaking to my own personal access to information. It could just be that I choose my collaborators as well as I choose my friends. Or that I’m enough of a square that I’ve been spared. But it could also be that people guilty of that sort of behavior develop the almost animal instinct and ability to conceal and clam up about it when in the presence of those who don’t, or who have a platform to write about it. My own personal observation since the commencement of The Reckoning is that far more people in the hospitality industry had witnessed the horrors we’ve all been made aware of recently than have journalists. That’s strictly anecdotal, but it’s based on a substantial number of conversations.
(Along these lines, I somehow missed it last week, but Sara Moulton’s admirably honest piece about this subject, sharing her own experience, is worth your time.)
On the Road Again
My podcast guest this week was Hillary Sterling, of the NoHo mainstay Vic’s restaurant in New York City, continuing a trend this season of my interviewing mostly chefs who I haven’t met or spoken to much before. Hillary and I have shaken hands a few times, and once small-talked for five minutes when I was in to dinner with my bestie Evan Sung–and have similar and impeccable taste in eyewear–but that was the extent of it. We had a blast, discussing everything from the Mexican Thanksgiving dinner she cooks for her staff every year to the importance of sound cues in the kitchen. But the most interesting bit might have been Hillary’s comments on why cooks and chefs love to travel so much: “It’s the unknown. We live such a regimented life. Our goal every day is to do the exact same thing over and over and over again. So getting on the road… it’s an adventure. It’s something new on your palate. It’s brightening. It’s an awakening.” Hope you’ll give a listen.
One More Thing:
One of my favorite documentaries is 20 Feet From Stardom, the Oscar-winning movie about backup singers (seriously, it’s brilliant). So, I’m excited to check out this new collaboration between 20 Feet‘s director Morgan Neville and David Chang:
Thanks for reading; have a great weekend!