Let’s open with a question. Who is your favourite celebrity chef? Are you a Jamie, Gordon, Nigel or Nigella? I know you have one… a guilty, little, secret crush fuelled when the pepper pot twists and the basil is torn. They are this decade’s answer to the Hollywood stars of the 50s, the sportsmen of the 70s and the pop royalty of the 80s.
Me, I find this new age of “Chef as Celeb”- heat magazine would call it a Cheleb© – really stressful. I speak to other guys like me, good, honest cooks, and we are all in agreement that the pace of life in a kitchen has changed drastically over the past 20 years. It used to be that you were handed your whites and a set of knives – now you need a smartphone (because you will be tweeting / facebooking), a computer (to write your blog ;-)) and an ego the size of a small munro to get you out front and telling everyone how utterly wonderful you are!
Social media is a can of worms when it comes to a chef’s world. These fragile egos can be boosted, cut down and re-born all in the space of 140 characters. It is an age where nothing is hidden, private or sacred and if you go dipping your toe in the water you can be sure that at some point you’ll be in up to your neck! I was pushed into this world and told by my PR (I know… I have a PR, check me!) that it was now part of the job. That a chef with rosettes and awards and accolades should be talking to the public. I resisted at first; I wasn’t trained for this, they didn’t tell me 20 years ago at chef school I would have to talk to people. This felt like yet another stress that I would have to manage and it was much, much worse than the others. Because it meant that I would have to stick my head above the parapet and be prepared to have it bloody blown off. And as I have said before… my confidence levels aren’t really up to that sort of punishment. I chose a behind the scenes career for a good reason… we’re a strange breed indeed, remember?
A small aside… I have a confession… I may have been pushed into the twitter thing but I have embraced it wholeheartedly. I find it uncomfortable and amazing in equal measure. I can see that for a small, family-run business like ours it gives us a voice. We can highlight what we do, quickly and cost effectively. I often wonder “How did we live without it?”. Following our favourites, learning new stuff, keeping up to date – addictive stuff. 6 months ago I’d have happily clung onto my nokia 2210. And now here I am – man of low self-esteem with a PR person, a twitter account and a blog. How the hell did that happen?
This idea of a chef with personality is a strange one. I’m working in one of the toughest economic times I ever have; I have the same family stress that everyone does; I work long hours strapped to a stove and yet each time I come to end of service I am expected to Man Up, tweet out and get ready for my end- of-night-rounds. The “wedding speech fear” as I call it, is very real for me. To this day I dread walking out of the swing door, across the black and white tiles and into the body of the restaurant. Please don’t get me wrong, it’s not you! It’s me! I am not a 3-michelin star chef, I am a cook. But because Ainsley Harriott donned some silly trousers and Gordon Ramsay swore a whole bunch of times I am suddenly elevated to the position of “ performer”. I worry that if I am not this big personality people will see it as a weakness, be disappointed almost. It is very strange indeed – I feel I should be more elegant, more verbal and yet I deliberately went into a kitchen because my nature is to avoid these situations. Ironic, no?
There I am, smiling like a madman and my wee, crumpled ego and unrelenting fear of failure can’t really take it. The thirty “amazing”, “great”, “wonderful”, “delicious” comments are all trampled into oblivion when one person says “it was ok”. That “ok” becomes my horrible little friend who stays up all night with me and taunts my insomnia. It is ridiculous. Ok, I am trying to be honest but I’m now slightly concerned I sound like a bit of a nutter.
Why then, do I put myself through it? The pushing of the swing door at the end of the night, the standing up and talking about my craft, the endless awards and shortlists that will inevitably end in both highs and lows. The truth is, I have always been a slow burner; some chefs are blessed with greatness, a natural ability. My gift is passion and enthusiasm and a fire burning in my belly that seems to grow year on year and is being fuelled by my own life – a real life. One that includes a wife and children and a business that needs me to work twice as hard as I did a few years ago.
And I love it. This very real, very honest life that has, somehow, carved out a man that isn’t quite as star-struck or ego-stoked as his 19 year old self. Who knows that his food is just as good, prepared with just as much thought and passion the night before the photo in the paper as it is the night after. And you may terrify me at the end of a night, you lovely lot, but I am learning that a smile and thanks from you is exactly what my fragile ego and flailing confidence needs.
Cheleb©? No thanks. I am a cook. But I will be tweeting in between lunch and dinner if you want to say hello.