“Never trust a thin chef,” they say. “Or a chef who doesn’t eat his own food.” If a chef does not take pleasure in eating, the thinking runs, how will they ever convey pleasure on the plate? There is a counter argument (fat chefs are indiscriminate gluttons), but that prevailing wisdom chimes with what head chefs try to drum into their brigades, that when cooking you must taste, taste and taste again. As Grant Achatz, chef at Chicago’s three Michelin-starred Alinea and a man who once temporarily lost his sense of taste to cancer, told Esquire: “The most basic and important thing a chef can do is taste.”
This is not just a technical fail-safe. Tasting is about checking if a component has been cooked ‘correctly’, but it also forces chefs to ask themselves questions. Is this the best it could be? Was it better yesterday? How could I further improve it?
Likewise, eating in good restaurants (and eating the dishes created in their own restaurants), is crucial in helping young chefs develop intelligent palates. It is a matter of inspiring chefs with what is possible: letting them experience the irresistible internal logic of truly exceptional dishes and encouraging them to think about the creative process behind great dish design. It is not intuitive.
Eating out also encourages young chefs – tomorrow’s chef-owners – to think not just about cooking but about the art of hospitality, about place settings, cutlery, crockery, plating, the pace of service, the service style. And how, at all levels, these elements should be simple stylish and user-friendly.
However, few ambitious young chefs have the time or money to eat out. The industry talks of developing sparky talent, but even in our best restaurants the next generation typically works long hours for modest wages in kitchens where – the cooking compartmentalised by section – there is little opportunity for junior staff to involve themselves in dish creation. At Noma, every Saturday night five chefs presented a new dish to the whole team. How many restaurants do something similar?
There have been some moves to address this. Dan Doherty’s Chefs of Tomorrow event, where CDPs create dishes for supportive industry mentors, is one. But that is only one element of this puzzle. More generally, how could the industry enable more (skint, young) chefs to eat adventurously?
Stages would be one place to start. Some kitchens make sure keen stagiaires get to taste dishes, or even offer them a free tasting menu at the end of their stint. “It varies massively,” says Richard Adams, a young Leeds-based chef and artisan baker. “Some places rely on stagiaires for labour, others you can ask a lot of questions without the pressure of being on a section. At Dabbous, I ate every dish on the menu during service.”
Restaurants could also formalise the swap system (which exists informally, among mates), so that eager chefs could eat free or at a discount at the participating venues. “If a young chef comes from a restaurant I’m close to, I’ll comp the drinks or give them extra dishes to make it more affordable,” says Le Cochon Aveugle’s Josh Overington. “Doing swaps is a great idea.”
Regionally, it would be simple to organise. Head chefs could set up a WhatsApp group and, as empty tables come up at unfashionable hours, offer a (capped, annual?) number of them to young chefs. Although, as Adams points out: “This is not just an issue for junior chefs. A lot of chef-owners totally misjudge the level they’re at because of their failure to eat and travel.” Perhaps we all need to get out more?
This column first appeared in the November issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK’s restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.