March 1st, 2013

The professional chef: Behind the menus

Running a restaurant, with its long hours, demanding schedules and high rates of failure, would be the epitome of the nightmare job for some people. For others, it’s the dream of a lifetime spent preparing for just that role.

What does it take to become a restaurant chef/owner? Who succeeds and why?

Scott Haas, Ph.D., chief psychologist at Human Resource Institute in Brookline and a food writer who has contributed to a number of national publications and was the recipient of the James Beard Award for radio work in 2005, spent 18 months trying to answer those questions.

After working at the high-end restaurant Craigie on Main in Cambridge for 18 months, he wrote “Back of the House: the Secret Life of a Restaurant: a front-line account of the behind-the-scenes life of a busy restaurant.” He spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about what he found.

Q: You are both psychologist and food writer. Which profession takes center stage?

A: Well, my practice is mainly consultative which leaves me with an enormous amount of freedom. I spent last week in Japan doing a story on food for the in flight magazine for Thai airlines. I spend as much of my life, if not more, on writing as I do in hospitals.

Q: How do the two fields intersect?

A: Until recently, only in one concrete way. On consultations, I am asked to interview people and document the interview to determine a diagnosis or a level of functioning. That kind of work provided me with a skill set that could be applied to interviews with any number of people. So, when I talk to someone who has reported hearing voices, I may say, “When did that start?” in the same tone of voice and with the same quality of love for the other person as when I am saying, “So, when did you start grating parmesan onto the chicken?”

Q: So you decided to take it a step further, to combine your two specialties and look at cooking through a psychologist’s lens?

A: The editor of Gastronomica asked me to write an article on “Who Becomes a Chef,” who works in kitchens and what kinds of family issues are part of creating a menu/restaurant? I have spent a lot of time with chefs and in restaurants but this was the first time that I applied psychological insights to restaurants.

Q: The book grew from that first article? What approach did you take?

A: This is anecdotal, not research-based, evidence-based, per se. It came from being embedded in a restaurant in Cambridge for 18 months and observing what was going on throughout the restaurant with all of the staff. I also interviewed the mom, dad and wife of the chef and went to New York to spend time with five or six chefs I knew there.

The question was ‘where did the narrative of this Boston restaurant fit with the narrative of other restaurants?’ My opinion is that every restaurant tells a story and the question becomes, what kind of story is the chef trying to tell?

Q: A story? What do you mean?

A: For instance, the restaurant I wrote about has a tasting menu for $115 per person. Why people are willing to spend that money is that he’s telling a story about himself and about the food and it’s fun to participate in the story.

At Craigie on Main, it’s an extremely personal story. You can’t find these things on any other menu in town. For instance, half of a pig’s head dipped in black sausage dip for $60 for two. Some people find it kind of a turn on, how cool, that they are on the culinary edge. He is saying this is not your father’s food, your father’s restaurant.

But it doesn’t have to be that expensive to tell a great story. There is a hot dog restaurant in South Boston, Sullivan’s, the kind of place where everyone is there, a real sense of community. Another great place in the North End, Galleria Umberto, has the best square Sicilian pizza. But there has to be something else going on there. The food is good but at the end of the day, it’s hotdogs and pizza.

Q: How has your interest in food helped you in your work as a psychologist?

A: It’s a great relief. I go into locked facilities and see people who are very sick, individuals who don’t so much get better as just get more functional. It is frightening and upsetting especially as my kids get older and I am finding that my barriers are not as thick. If you have that experience for four or five hours, there is nothing like coming home and making a really good pot of soup. It is a nonverbal refuge.

Although home cooking is completely different from restaurant cooking, one thing it has in common is a distraction from the daily troubles of life.

Q: So, who becomes a chef?

A: Well, it varies from chef to chef – but there are a few things that they have in common. I get a lot of referrals from the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston and I began to see commonalities between them and young cooks: they both wear uniforms, have to follow a script that they can’t deviate from, follow orders that they can’t question. I meet a lot of people in their 20s who lack direction in life. Initially, the restaurant industry is a great way to have a sense of purpose when you can’t provide yourself with one.

If you want to make cooking into a lifestyle and if you are lucky and willing to work psychotic hours, maybe you can become a chef. But you also need to find investors and be able to lead and teach. The cooks I met, the cooks who I thought were going to move forward were serious and passionate and committed to what they are doing.

Q: What is next for you?

 A: I am doing a lot of writing on the culinary scene in Japan and I’m going to focus on that. I am also working on a book about my father and uncle. They are in their mid- to late-80s and I am trying to understand the relationship between their interesting lives and my interest in food. They are both from Bavaria so I grew up with my dad saying, ‘This food is okay, but it’s nowhere near the milk, cheese, bread I had growing up.’ I began to wonder at a young age what can food taste like? That got me going, imagining not just the food but the world he came from and if that world could be created through the food.

Q: Was the food really better in Bavaria or just in his nostalgic memories?

A: Having been to Germany, I have to say that he has a point. Back in the day, the bread was pretty bad here. We didn’t have great beer or cheese either. Now in 2013, we have unbelievably great beer and bread and cheeses in this country.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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