Nicholas Doughty - Art Beyond the Kitchen

A conundrum that’s plagued chefs for as long as we’ve been serving people has always been that the food - which we work tirelessly to organise on a plate to visually please customers - is ultimately going to be destroyed in a matter of minutes, and hopefully, devoured until there is nothing but a clean plate. We work like architects, planning every conceivable aspect of both the aesthetic and the methods in which the dish should be consumed. Take for example, the endless debate about how something as simple as a burger should be structured – only to put one together for a customer and watch them slop it down with large fries and a diet coke. On second thought, if we could design buildings, we’d probably build them just so we could burn them downI suddenly see why Burningman Festival is a thing.

But why burn them down? Well, cooks – whether some admit it or not – are all pyromaniacs at heart. There’s something about the way a flambéed pan turns into a tower of fire that’s all things exhilarating, beautiful, and dangerous. Some of us, though, are more pyro than others. Take for example Nicholas Doughty, an aspiring art history professor turned chef, turned pyrokinetic.

This is starting to sound like a story straight out of a fan-fic Avatar plot.

By day, Doughty is the F&B Director at Elephants Delicatessen, a Portland-based, family-owned deli that’s been in business since 1979 and prides itself in sustainability and the excellence of their products. By night, Doughty’s hobby is pyrography - also known as wood burning - a technique for decorating wood or other materials through burning designs onto them with the use of a heated point. He bases his influence on the Japanese Ukiyo-e and Shin-Hanga art movement, as well as the Beggarstaff’s poster and graphic work.

I had the pleasure and privilege to sit down with him a while back when we were first starting out our Humans Live series on Instagram. A series where we sat down to chat about the restaurant industry and the toll COVID-19 had taken on it. We discussed his art, too, and how he had initially studied art in college with the aim of becoming a Japanese art history professor despite having spent most of his life in wineries and surrounded by food.

When I first encountered his work while doing research prior to us talking, his Food and Beverage Series was the first thing that caught my eye, I believe it was the 2017 ‘Kitchen Line’ wood block that I first came across, where he’s burned the image, pun intended, of a boiling hot kitchen line and it serves as a dedicatory piece to the people he’s cooked with over his 25+ years of foodservice experience. The scene is made up of five distinct characters that, according to Doughty, represent a different personality type of which you would find in almost any restaurant kitchen. I’ll leave it up to you to guess which of the five he is, and maybe which I am, too?

“Embrace the suck.”

There’s profound beauty to Doughty’s work, not just because of his astounding ability to imprint subtle details into works such as Break Time (hint, look at the graffiti in it carefully.) Or in his ability to capture the breath-taking vistas in his Vineyard and Winery series, but primarily it’a his ability to also capture a scene - much in the same way a photograph does - of the food world. He’s been able to adapt the art of pyrography to our environment, and modernise it with his own unique flair so as to capture and depict accurately, the every-day work we do and love.


Celebrating Bourdain's Legacy

Behind the closed doors of professional kitchens around the world, there are several names that are spoken and treated with godly levels of admiration amongst those in our industry. One could argue that the only thing missing are little altars with photos of those culinary masters set beside candles, the type of scene you’d see in a place of religion – or in our case, a sacrificial room fit for a cult. A place where chefs would perform sacrilegious acts and chant to the great deity of, say, Joel Robuchon whenever guests ordered well-done steaks and we gasped in horror, we were apologizing to our master for what we’re about to do to the beautiful piece of meat about to be butchered in the oven.

I’d be willing to bet that the only reason cooks don’t have those altars in our kitchens is because we neither have the space, nor could we explain such a sight to our best friends at the health department; it’s a sight we couldn’t hide - unlike the many other things we get away with, in secret.

Having said that, there are a few cooks who have been able to leave a mark on the world outside that of kitchens. Cooks that have sent ripples across pop culture and made a name for themselves within the civilian population. The guys, and gals whom even your aunt, who orders well-done steaks and refuses to tip waiting staff, has heard of. In our case, I’m speaking about a man who needs no introduction, a cook who made a name for himself by exploring the world over, stepping into cultures only true travellers would dare set foot in prior to him - not your typical Instagram/Food Network travel show type of thing. I’m speaking of Anthony Bourdain.

Tony Bourdain became much more than just the chef who opened the door to the depravity and twisted beauty of being a chef for the world to read about; taking the spotlight away from those Sunday morning cooking shows with hosts that would somehow manage to slice a finger off using a Gillette razor, if ever they had to hold one. Tony became a voice for the underlings behind the stove the world over and became a symbol for struggling addicts as someone who was able to overcome addiction and go on to have an exemplary career.

Kitchen Porters / Dishwashers are the backbone of a kitchen and you can’t have a smooth service without them, irrespective if Ramsay is behind the pass. Hell, I recall the many times I’ve been more dependent on the KP to give me back a piece of equipment in an instant, than I could count the times I depended on a commis to run to the fridge and get me parsley instead of a bunch of cilantro in the midst of a manic evening rush. The dish pit is a paradoxical place; they’re places where probably the dirtiest and grimiest jobs in restaurants are performed - dishes are scrubbed of excess food and leftovers into elbow-deep pools of murky water. It looks ugly from the outside – and uglier up close. The humidity levels are extreme and there are generally no windows anywhere; yet, so many including Tony, have found salvation in these dish pits. “Dishwashing saved my life, it was the first time I went home respecting myself, respecting others.” Tony noted in an interview with Rossetto Kasper of Splendid Table.

“Cooks hadn’t gotten a chance to see themselves until Bourdain painted us and our story in the pages of his books and the narration of his travels.” – P.G. McNabb, Anthony Bourdain’s Legacy in an Addicted Line Cook

 

 

Matter of fact, Bourdain’s depiction of Justo Thomas - the now famous Dominican-American fish butcher at Le Bernadin under Eric Ripert who could butcher 700lbs of fish by himself daily, was part of the inspiration behind Humans of the Kitchen. Tony devotes an entire chapter of the book ‘Medium Raw’ to Justo Thomas - following his daily routine, explaining the method to his madness and completely taking the back seat on the ride to showcase and emphasize his amazement with the work Thomas does.

Later on still, Tony grew to be a voice for the minorities behind the local favourites in every city he ever visited when he became a travel show host, able to seamlessly bond with just about anyone, anywhere, in his hunger to explore cultures for what they truly were. More than just wanting to travel and eat in every corner of the world though, came Tony’s curiosity to explore beyond the dishes in front of him. “I felt I could trust him to see what I saw in Trinidad, as if the heart of the country would be safe in his hands as a person and traveller. You trusted him with your heritage.” - Shivana Sookdeo

After being extracted from Beirut’s beaches by the US Marines while filming an episode of Parts Unknown in 2006, he’d go on to note this as his turning point to be more than just an uncensored travel show host.

“The days of happy horseshit – the uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act. That ended right there. [...] there were realities beyond what was on my plate, and those realities almost inevitably informed what was, or was not, for dinner.

This turn of events would lead Bourdain to become, essentially, an exploratory journalist on top of already being a curious chef afflicted with a bad case of the wanderlust, whose mission became to uncover the lives of those in the shadows. Parts Unknown would go on to become a multi Emmy nominated show, known the world over for its honest portrayal of culture and everyday life. It’s a feat that was so ironically and criminally uncommon that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) would later award Tony with the “Voices of Courage and Conscience” media award for his work, and would go on to be recalled as, “one of the most powerful voices for inclusion in [the U.S] by Sue Obeidi, Hollywood Bureau Director at MPAC.

It would be an injustice for me to write here a quote or two from Anthony’s many travels and interviews – or even quotes from his books; doing so would mean to limit what he’s said to a small number of quotes, making it a crime in itself and an insult to Tony. And I would need pages’ worth of space to include them all in order to truly encompass just how many eye-opening things Tony said over the course of his career after Kitchen Confidential. Everything, from his philosophy on travelling, to that of eating and his unwavering belief in the cooks that grind it out on the day-to-day and his desire to highlight them, irrespective of what corner of the world he may be in. Hop over to Vice if you want a list of stuff he’s said, they’ve got you covered. I will, however, include a quote here from Chris Bourdain on Tony’s legacy.

“Nobody showed what it’s really like on the ground in Libya, in Laos, in Congo, in a rural area of West Virginia – those were Tony’s most wonderful and artistic works. They’re beautifully produced, informative and showing you a reality on tv that nobody is showing. Nobody, nobody.”

Tony, I’ll be bold and argue that I speak on behalf of all the cooks across the globe that you’ve inspired, and on behalf of the team behind Humans. You may not be here, and we may not be in New Jersey to toast at your favourite restaurants; but across the world, we’ll toast together in your memory, and all you did for us and the world.


Adaptation and Solidarity During Corona Times

A letter on Corona without limes. Takeaway food and Darwinism.

People will argue that this great pruning is being caused by Mother Nature clearing out the infection that humans have become. Heck, I’ve heard people (who believe humans were destined to rule the earth and play on a different ball game than animals entirely) suddenly start spewing words on social Darwinism and survival of the fittest because they refuse to isolate themselves to prevent everybody and their grandmas from potentially getting infected. Oh, the irony.

As much as the economic forces reflect that image of adaptation – that only the businesses who are most capable of adapting to market situations will be the ones who come out on top, while the rest go bankrupt and close their doors for good is true. Or, in sticking with the analogy of Darwinism – Die. We cannot forget that in times of greatest need, societies throughout time have been able to put down their rolls of toilet paper, or whatever their equivalents were – and come together in support of one another to ensure the survival of their people. (A nice way of saying people at some point dig their thumbs out of their own asshole and help one another.)

It would be naive for people to simply say that the restaurant industry will survive because people will always need food and landowners will always need people to rent their lots, then proceed to turn their backs away from the problem while ignoring the local farmer’s market on the way to [insert supermarket chain here] all while posting on Facebook about how infuriating it is that bats in Wuhan are somehow responsible for Carla not being able to have her margaritas at the beach because they canceled her flights planned for her Instagram stories.

The fact of the matter is, the restaurant industry as a whole is taking a blow like nothing it’s seen in recent memory. Thousands of restaurants are closing their doors for good across the globe, leaving an innumerable amount of chefs and waiting staff out a job with tons of produce left to rot (the number of layoffs is in the millions, already.) Cities and towns all over will find that many of the restaurants in their neighborhood will simply not open their doors again once the quarantine periods are over, and even amongst those that survive, over half of them will have laid off staff members to cope. It’s a dire situation, and everyone from your local butcher up to world-renowned cooks are worried for what the future holds for our beloved industry.

The shifting sands

If there is indeed any light to be found in these dark times, the most evident place for it to be found is in the solidarity that the restaurant industry has always had between its crosshairs – a solidarity that extends beyond borders and across oceans. Cooks are like sports teams, except we’re all one large group of psychos who love knives, heat and transforming raw ingredients into magical things. We take pride in what we do, and we love to cook for others. I do believe that it is in times of need like these, that the overwhelming desire to help one another as well as our communities boils to the surface. Restaurants all across the globe have created initiatives to provide food for their communities, with the goal of ensuring that as many people as possible who have been affected by Covid-19 are able find comfort in knowing that, for as long as time allows, at least, there will be warm food on their tables.

But what about the money, what about the mass layoffs taking place? Community work like this is all well and good, but that won’t ultimately pay salaries, and the reduction in team sizes still leaves many people jobless. As soon as governments across the globe instated rulings that forced restaurants to close their on-premises seating areas, it became evident that the only way for restaurants to survive was a switch to a takeaway food model. However, the solution for the survival of restaurants isn’t just about putting things in Tupperware and putting them in a plastic bag – the entire approach to the sale of food needs to be turned on its head and reworked. Chefs across the board need to rethink their approach to the service they provide.

Amidst the uncertainty of this all, the desire for fancy food goes out the window – not only are the amount of people willing to pay premium for food dwindling, but the increased stress on the daily lives of everyone creates an opportunity for menus that focus on home-style food; dishes that make people forget that people around them are getting the boot. We need to remember that there’s much more to food than just sustenance or pleasure; food provides comfort, and it doesn’t get more comforting than home food. And if anyone doubts this fact, Chef Grant Achatz has switched his world-renowned restaurant into a take-out joint selling meals for $35. It is also imperative for chefs to analyze their connections to not only their customers but also their suppliers and other players in the industry. Critical opportunities for partnerships and collaborations are present, as seen by restaurants who have shifted their spaces to turn into markets of local produce from their farmers. Chefs like JJ Johnson in the US as well as chefs across the pond over in Europe have found ways to keep their heads above the water and retain staff by shifting their business models and catering to the immense demands for food by hospitals flooded with patients and the staff in the front lines of the outbreak.

While the situation is dire, not all hope is lost. “Where there is a will, there is a way” – or so the saying goes. New avenues for income are surfacing as the world adapts to the Covid-19 outbreak, and they’re ripe for the taking. The industry is seeing world-wide solidarity within, and we’re not just going to stick this out as the large family of chefs and restauranteurs we’ve always been – we’ll kick it in the teeth and come out on top.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who have learned to collaborate and improvise more effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Dawrin.


What separates good, from great? - José Tena

What makes a Chef great? Is the calibre of a great chef measured by the technical prowess they possess? Or, is it something else entirely?

“To be great you must work with the greats” is something all too often told to young people striving for a career in just about any industry in the world; and in kitchens around the world it is universally acknowledged that working with the world’s best is a near sure-fire way of making it into the big leagues. Presuming, of course, you can stomach the pressure and pace.

I believe that there is much more to that phrase than the simple passing on of technical skills at the avant-garde level to hopeful, knowledge-hungry new cooks, looking to progress above their mentors. The most crucial aspects can be taught by chefs at all levels of skill. Cooking, much like all arts and crafts professions, is a labour of love. However, let’s put aside the tale that dictates that if you “cook with love your food will automatically taste better,” for a moment and let’s dive into it a little deeper.
There are many things to love about cooking as a career. Some people strive to cook at the highest technical level possible; merging science into everyday cooking in their restaurants, distilling wet soil scents with chefs like Jordi Roca to develop mind-boggling desserts. Some are driven instead by the wild side of the industry and strive to work for people like Marco Pierre White (or well, used to back when he was at the helm of Harvey’s.) And some are driven by the thirst of exploration in finding new ingredients that are unknown to modern society. They migrate to Brazil to work with chefs like Alex Atala to discover indigenous Amazonian foods and explore the unknown.

But, what about the majority of cooks in the industry? The other 99% – are we to assume that unless they work with some of those world-renowned chefs, they are never going to make a name for themselves?

I would argue, then, that the greatest traits any chef can pass onto their cooks are not that of technical abilities, but instead, boil down to a couple of things.

One – the love for sharing knowledge with people; to not only strive to improve their own technique, but to share these talents and discoveries with the people around them in the hopes of enhancing their own abilities, while simultaneously learning from them. Take René Redzepi and David Zilber’s book “The Noma Guide to Fermentation” as an example, a book composed for the sole purpose of sharing their discoveries, successes and failures after years of R&D into the world of fermentation of Nordic cuisine. They aim to teach the masses – both home cooks and professionals alike – about the techniques they’ve developed so that people may build upon them in their own cuisines around the world, and further the pool of knowledge in this culinary field.

Two – the love for cooking as a way to enhance someone else’s life. To cook not only for oneself as a way to flex technical ability, but to instead learn to love the act of feeding someone at a fundamental level and understand the impact that food can have on people. To see the joy that one can bring to a person’s life through food is both extremely rewarding while also a very humbling experience. Food is as much a joy as it is a necessity, and while many of us may be serving expensive plates of food to well-off people, there are millions of people who live off food shelters around the world. One could argue that chefs have the greatest ability of all to bring happiness to these people’s lives on a daily basis.

To me, then, the greatest chefs are not those who strive purely for Michelin stars. But instead, they are chefs around the world who devote themselves to their craft at a fundamentally humanitarian level. And these attributes can be found in just about any corner of the world, not just the World 50 Best.


Kitchen Confidential – Jose Tena

Like so many cooks across the world, Bourdain’s kitchen confidential is a book I keep close to my heart, in the kind of way people hold the Bible dear.

Sitting on this two-hour train journey across Germany after a six-month stint in Dubai’s kitchens, I find myself listening to the Audible version of the book yet again – also narrated by the late man himself.

And I wonder; what is it about this book that hits home for so many of us?

In an industry as varied and vast as ours, why is it that this book crosses borders, oceans, ethnic and cultural differences, and even the vast differences in the lifestyles of cooks (I’m looking at you, part-timer private chefs) around the world, and manages to find a place in all of our hearts and connect us, so effortlessly?

For some, it’s the allure to that rock-star lifestyle that gastronomy’s Golden Age saw, and which, to an extent, still carries on to this day (albeit with more health and safety regulations) – the appeal of a job where you could tell your co-worker to eat a dick, without being called by HR the following day. Where rocking up with a black eye and smelling of whiskey was acceptable as long as you got the job done. A place where all types of quirks and looks find a home, united by a love for ‘the life’.

And for some, it’s the appeal of the camaraderie that can only develop in environments like those found in kitchens. Where people spend the vast majority of their days together in confined spaces and in high-pressure environments, resulting in situations where you are suddenly more in sync with one of your own depraved cooks, than you are with your ‘civilian’ partners.

I once heard a cook saying that, you don’t join our industry because you love to cook – any monkey can cook in the comfort of their own home. You join our industry because you love the lifestyle, – the long nights, the perpetual sleep deprivation and the role of being a full-time pervert that comes with the job description.

So I ask you to share with us, not only what initially drove you to become a cook, but what keeps you falling in-love with our industry over and over?

“Being a Chef isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle.”- Unknown