Hollywood tainted love by leading people to believe that a wealthy man can fall for a wig wearing prostitute, and porn spoiled sex by tricking men into thinking that all women secretly crave explicit exploitation. Professional cooking, in turn, has been permanently fucked with by none other than Thomas Keller and his portrait of culinary perfection, The French Fucking Laundry. For my generation, this was the book to own. I pored over the pages for months on end, and cooking quickly switched from an interim means of acquiring beer money to an actual career plan. I had never seen food so clean and wonderfully presented. Even more alien was the inclusion of philosophy, as Keller preached about the “importance” of this or that. I drank the punch (and then I ate the bowl), which had obviously been cleverly reinterpreted and playfully titled, setting me up for several future disappointments. From then on, nothing I’ve done has been able to equal or better the standards laid out in his manuscript. I could look at this one of two ways: 1) I’m a failure, or 2) I was lied to. I’m going with the latter. And for the record, I count withholding the truth as lying.
What I mean by this is that I both credit and fault this book for forming the hopes and dreams of all the little cookers out there, slinging hash while pretending that it’s “hash” or whatever Mr. Keller would call it. The esthetic presented is Godly and pure: kitchen walls that have never heard a raised voice, a floor that has never felt a spill, complete with vegetables grown by Christ himself. Flip to a picture of anyone from the kitchen staff and imagine them with a halo and feathered wings, playing a harp to a pile artichokes. They’re practically glowing. I understand that I’m reaching, but it’s late enough that I’m convinced I’m onto something, so bear with me.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the book, but I feel like they’ve done cooks everywhere a great big disservice by omitting the shit show. In recent years I’ve gone from a bad place to a good place, and eventually an even better place, only to find that quality and crazy are correlated. I thought that the better I became at this job, the more calm and collected I and the people around me would be. I’ve since discovered that if you’re cooking under ideal conditions, you’re probably at home. I understand that perhaps they wanted to make a cookbook that would sell, and telling people exactly how hard it is to cook those things is probably a terrible marketing campaign, but I could have used a little bit of real. I know that bad things happen in that place, they must. With high levels of performance comes failure of equal or greater proportions.
Which brings me to my next point: what is real? I don’t know the exact number of seats and cooks, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot closer to equal than in any restaurant you’ve ever worked in, unless of course you’ve worked somewhere on its last legs, but that’s not the same. If they’re angels, there’s an army of them making sure those little sauce dots are in the right place every time. In a “real” kitchen, it’s less an army and more of a little gang. Only a few restaurants in the world can afford to do things the Thomas Keller way, so to treat the book as anything more than fantasy was probably my fault.
The reality of the business came down hard on my French Laundry fantasies, turning what I thought were bricks into mere dust (maybe some kind of vegetable powder). I’ve entered my rebuilding phase, chock full of awful nights and terrible mistakes, and while it may not be perfect, it’s perfectly real.