A Note From the Line
Mecca Bos on age, rank, and embracing the title of cook in the name of the craft.
December 31, 2018 ● 3 min read
By Mecca Bos | Art by ChefsFeed
For nearly twenty years, I have worked in some aspect of food operations, largely as a cook. I am not a chef, and I have no true aspiration to be.
There is an unspoken assumption in American culinary culture that everyone worth their cooking salt will eventually “rise” to the ranks of chef: Top Chef, Iron Chef, Chef de Cuisine, Chef de Partie, Executive Chef. I’ve worn my fair share of checks and whites, and sustained the mental and physical battle scars to warrant more respect and accurate public representation. There are no real chefs without cooks—so where’s our TV show?
For the better part of my career, the message was clear: the kitchen is a white man’s world, and those men were—as we all now know —allowed to say and do whatever they liked within the confines of their restaurants. The onus was on me, as a woman, as an outsider, to adapt to the often sexually-charged and harassment-fueled environment, not the other way around.
I rarely, if ever, saw a black female chef. That certainly could have had some kind of impact on my aspirations. But even if I had, I never much cared to join the ranks of marauding chefs, apparently so stressed by the job that few things get accomplished without swearing, screaming, or throwing a pot across the line. Those images and experiences reflect the polar antithesis of what food means to me, which has always been a way to show love and create conviviality.
As the national culinary narrative continues to crack and shift to embrace the fact that there is more to a life in cooking than the brigade system and watered down European contribution, maybe the Era of Chef Worship is finally coming to an end. Even if it is, the casual observer still has a befuddled recognition of the man (and woman) power it takes to run a professional kitchen, outside of that cheffy imagery, in spite of someone like Anthony Bourdain’s missives to observe the efforts of the Latino prep cook, the dishwasher, the trash talking women who held down the line with as much power and bravado as any man. Where does that leave us?
On the occasion that I was a sous or a chef, people outside of the industry immediately recognized my position when I'd tell them what I do. They'd excitedly grin and ask me about working in kitchens. But, especially as I get further into my forties, when I tell people about my career as a cook, they falter. What happened to my ambition? It makes little sense to them.
It makes sense to me. I've never been drawn to the idea of managing other people—managing pots and pans is more my thing. Perhaps because it’s an untenable job for a serious adult, considering the pay and benefits, a cook in her forties is like spotting a unicorn. The reality of the job pales in comparison to any notion of a corporate “glass ceiling;” after a decade at the job, I was making almost the same hourly rate as I had ten years prior, with no discernable advancement in benefits, working environment, or respectability. It was an obstacle course of stumbling blocks and bewilderment, and my only saving grace was having a second skill set I could use to supplement my income: writing. Were it not for that dual career, I would have burnt out, chosen management, or changed careers altogether.
A former colleague and friend of mine, likely the best line cook I’ve ever known, recently left the business altogether because he couldn’t carve out a way to make a living. He too did not find happiness in managing other people, even if he had a knack for turning the line into nothing short of a ballet. The industry has lost a genuine talent in him. With the cook shortage reaching a fever pitch, and the resulting plummeting quality of restaurant food (at least in my city), when will being a cook begin to mean something more?
In my personal life, I’ve gotten comfortable with correcting any introduction that attaches the word “chef” to my name. I'm not deflecting a compliment, or any defamation of the job—like all of us, I have a long roster of chefs who I greatly respect. But I'm proud of being a cook. I'm proud to have a strong handle on culinary systems and equipment and working with sharp and hot things. I can conjure a flavor profile without the aid of recipes and cookbooks, but by taste, memory, and practice. My calves and callouses bear the proof of physical labor. And I love it. By taking back my actual title, and wearing it proudly on my lips, I show that I’m not in deference to my chef colleagues, but in solidarity. The kitchen, after all, is a team.
Too many days away from a professional kitchen leave me feeling bereft. Like living in a cold winter region and forgetting the sensation of a long walk in the sunshine, my limbs start to ache for the craft. To be a cook is to enjoy a rapport with history, geography, culture—not to mention answering the call of the most basic of human needs. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the last place for ego, competition, and tyranny. I don’t want that in my food. Instead, I want cooperation and modest dedication.
I want to be a cook.