Is the Food at Fancy Restaurants Just “Hocus Pocus”?

A chef and his colleagues work in the kitchen of a Bangkok restaurant on Sept. 15, 2010.

Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

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I went to a well-known, pricey restaurant the other day. Since it was an open kitchen, I was able to watch the meals being prepared. The head chef seemed quite uninvolved with the actual food preparation. From what I’ve heard, this is not unusual—the more famous the chef, the less likely he or she is hands-on. Instead, the head chef is more focused on preparing the menu and developing recipes. Why am I paying high prices for food prepared by someone who probably never spent a day in cooking school? Am I a sucker? Is this the emperor’s new clothes?

Answer by Jonas Mikka Luster, former cook, blogger:

Oh, so much to answer.

First, you don’t want to eat food made by people who “spent a day in cooking school.” You want to eat food made by people who were trained to execute the vision a head chef has for the food. Do you really think that cooks (or chefs) dance around a kitchen “creating” dishes? No, no, bunny ears, we execute them. We make the same dish hundreds to thousands of times. You don’t need to be a culinary genius to follow orders. You need to have a certain ability to perform the same action over and over while bringing a baseline understanding of things to counter the fact that food isn’t uniform.

Cooking school is the last place you find those people. What you’ll find there are guys and gals who want to be chefs, not cooks. Cooks are the magic in kitchens. Now, let’s be clear here: In many kitchens the chef could do all that work. Chefs of a certain caliber have worked themselves up from prep cook, and at some point decided that they’re better working the other side of the window, the place where dreams are dreamed and quality assurance is performed. But for a day-to-day operation, a good chef is someone who hires and builds a team that could continue the restaurant’s vision for years if chef took a vacation or a nose dive in front of a speeding steamroller.

You don’t want the head chef to be involved with prep. You want her to keep an eye on the kitchen while quietly learning road blocks, issues, and strengths of her current team, menu, and kitchen. You want her to streamline and improve when everything is quiet and your kind is at work or in bed—when the cooks are gone. That’s when a chef shines, when she takes thousands of data points and improves everything that needs to be improved.

And to answer the bold headline: Everything in a restaurant is hocus pocus. We take extremely hard things and make them look effortless. We deal with diners and suppliers and critics and everyone else, and fake being your best buddy and so freaking happy that you’re here. We make super easy stuff look like it’s magic. We manipulate you into being happy and relaxed. Because, for Andhrímnir’s sake, that’s what you pay us for: to feed you; to make you happy; to give you your money’s worth in food, hospitality, and Instagram pictures.

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