I want to throw up. I want to toss myself into the toxic waters of the Seine or walk into a big black endless hole or just simply throw up. I've been given the sand swallowing promotion of Chef de Partie.
Under normal circumstances this would be very exciting. If I was back in the U.S. I would be shaking up champagne bottles. But here, in Paris, where students start careers in cooking at the age of fourteen and pass their entire lives in clastrophobic kitchens, this is like being handed ten sacks of flour and ordered to run a marathon without having trained properly.
For my age it is a good title. I am old enough to take the responsibility. I know how to run a team and work with people. I'm fun (occasionally). I have creative ideas. And I have trained and proven my love of hard work and French cuisine. But lets face it, my French is remedial. I have problems understanding rapid fire orders in French and I haven't done my time, so to speak, as many of these derserving French cooks have. Ah well, leave it to the crazy American to stir up the pot.
When I found out my new position today, I could only reply: êtes-vous sûr ? (Are you sure?) I was cautioned that it would be a lot of responsibility, and indeed it will be.
In America we toss around the word 'chef' like a used towel, but in France the word strictly translates as 'boss'. To be a Chef de Partie is to be the boss of a part. In essence this postition will make me responsible for one station in the kitchen. And it is still miles in distance and training from sous chef or executive chef. So don't think I'm walking around with a swollen head or anything because I'm not. I'm scared.
You know how sometimes you think you really want something and then all of a sudden you get it and you just want to run away? Well, that's me right now.
Basically this title will mean that if anything goes wrong (as it surely will during my tenure) then I will be the one to catch hell. Not the commis, not the stagiers, not the apprentis – me. It also goes without saying that my role will be to insure all food is accounted for, properly prepared, beautifully plated, and expertly cleaned up at the end of each service twice a day at my station.
I've heard new cooks in America call themselves "chef" just after graduating from cooking school, and at one point I wrote "American Chef" under my self-description on this blog. I considered myself one because I had worked in restaurants, taught high school cooking classes, and attended cooking school (in that order strangely enough).
Oh, I was so wrong. In the French world of cuisine 'chef' is given with humbling respect. When I call my boss 'chef' in the kitchen, it's because he's cooked over thirty-two years and demanded perfection each day of his career. It denotes more than some one who can carry around a satchel of knives or pay for a fancy cooking school education. It means you understand food and the business of food with every muscle of your body.
That is why the grand chefs of France are so highly regarded. Because everybody in the business knows how long and hard they have worked to achieve success. The road to French chefdom is not paved with glitz and glamour but with fourteen hour work days two shifts a day, little pay, and ruthless critics tearing you down or catapulting you forward.
And I'm worried about being a measly Chef de Partie! I can't imagine how it must feel to run a whole kitchen, feed over 150 clients a day, retain three Michelin stars, and open restaurants all over the world, simultaneously. Mon Dieu, the responsibility!!!
For now, I'm only a cook. And being a Chef de Partie is thankfully just that: a cook with a ton of responsibilty. But, I can finally say – jokingly at least – that I am a tiny chef in France.
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