I’ve been reading a lot about Alice Waters – although, having recently started with catering, I might have been better off with a biography on Henry Ford. Learning about Alice’s character has been making me smile. She is a sort of antithesis to efficiency – striving for an artist’s perfection in the smallest detail, from the flowers to the plates to the post-work celebrations. She completely transformed America’s approach to food. The energy she exudes, even through the retelling of her story, makes the banquet cook sigh with wistful longing.
There is a very thin line between efficiency and imprecision and Alice wouldn’t dabble in either. Chez Panisse began as an ambitious project started by a bunch of Berkeley hippies, idealists, and Francophiles. This is the other part I love about the story – these people weren’t cooks – not originally. As someone who jumped into the food world from the outside, it’s nice to know that there are others out there that did the same and did so successfully.
Meanwhile, I’ve also been learning a lot about banquet food. Until I see otherwise, I believe there will always be a sacrifice of quality for the sake of volume. It is the difference between IKEA and a hand-carved rocking chair. I love IKEA bookshelves – would even go as far as to say that there is some artful choreography going on at IKEA. The massive store must be planned and orchestrated so intelligently that millions of people can flow through and get what they need with relative ease. The furniture does what it needs to do and usually, looks pretty good – but it doesn’t have much soul. I feel that the same thing happens to food once you begin serving over one hundred people.
I do, however, admire the ability to orchestrate a meal for one hundred people that is served hot, frozen, or un-wilted to everyone at the same time. It takes an organized chef and operation. Everyone from the front-of-the-house to the back needs to be working toward the same mission – making the best quality food possible for that many people. Delivering good, well-cooked food to the masses may not be fine dining, but there is an art to it.
Looking from Alice Waters to catering, it is amazing to see the many approaches to food – people’s expectations, the importance of ingredients, timeliness, complexity of flavors, etc. Whether we pop open our microwave or hand-make our pasta, we make daily decisions about how we approach what we eat. As a professional cook, where we work will also determine our approach to food. The chefs we work with, our access to ingredients, the size of the place we work – all of these things begin to form our individual food identities and eventually, it becomes not just about finding a job, but understanding our passions.
Last week I quit catering.