Notes on the Week In Toqueland (January 20 – January 26, 2018)
Hi, everybody, and welcome to our first week-end wrap. I’m still tinkering with this new recurring feature, but couldn’t be happier to be back posting regularly and hope you’re enjoying it, too. Here you go:
The great scripted chef movie remains at least as elusive as the Great American Novel. Movie after movie seems promising, but each successive one leaves a trail of dashed expectations in its wake. For my money, Jon Favreau’s Chef was, despite its title and largely favorable reviews, actually a movie about a middle-aged man’s struggle to master Twitter; and Burnt, for which I had high expectations, was a two-hour wallow in every tired bad-boy-chef-as-tortured-artist-and-brutal-taskmaster cliché. There have been glimmers of hope in the documentary realm, such as For Grace and A Matter of Taste, and of course there’s the fine work of David Gelb in Jiro Dreams of Sushi and, now, as director-producer of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. But all too often there’s something missing (see notes on Michael Phillips’s article, below, for some insight on this front).
But now, as of last Monday, we have an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short set in a restaurant in Thomas Lennon’s Knife Skills, about Edwins, a combination restaurant-hospitality school in Cleveland, Ohio, that doubles as a social experiment: Founded by an ex-con who himself was saved by restaurants to give fellow ex-cons the same precious opportunity. The film has screened enough to be eligible for its Oscar nod but is, at this moment, painfully unavailable to the masses. I’ve been lucky enough to see it, and can vouch that it packs more emotional peaks and valleys into its lean 40 minutes than most films manage in a feature-length running time, and also makes several poignant observations about the restaurant trade, both the front of house and the back. When it gets its now-inevitable (knock wood) theatrical release and finds its way to streaming services, I urge you to seek it out.
I may actually write more about this movie in a stand-alone post, but for now suffice it to say that Knife Skills celebrates one of the less savory but simultaneously beautiful aspects of pro-kitchen life, namely that many people who wind up as cooks were spared a life of crime by a lucky break or twist of fate that landed them, often in the nick of time, in their chosen profession. Having interviewed hundreds of chefs, I can safely say that more of them describe their childhood selves as “misfits” than don’t, and that a large percentage of them engaged in some kind of illicit behavior in their teens; I’ve lost track of how many biographical interviews I’ve conducted include a moment when the chef makes passing reference to “getting into trouble” or “hanging with the wrong crowd” or something to that effect in their adolescence, and I usually get a strong vibe not to probe any deeper. Those moments occur just before they find the kitchen, and those who don’t, I’ve often thought, end up continuing on a road to nowhere. On a recent episode of my podcast, Curtis Stone and I had a long talk about this, in which he described his restaurants’ one-year commitment to Chrysalis, which helps people find second chances with jobs. In our conversation (you can listen here, starting around the 39:30 mark), we got into this aspect of the profession and how (perhaps unsurprisingly) well his cooks, many of whom hail from Michelin-level kitchens, got along with the employees who came to his restaurants from prison or homelessness via Chrysalis.