In honor of tonight's "Top Chef" finale (my favorite TV show) I thought I would share my observations about the last two books I read: Jacques Pepin's "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen" and Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Both are chefs made famous by TV, and both offer a lot of insight to someone like me, who loves food and enjoys cooking, but has never seen what REALLY happens in a professional kitchen. The books are quite different in tone, as you might expect if you have seen them on television: Pepin is warm, easy-going, and avuncular, while Bourdain is biting, sarcastic, and takes no prisoners (including himself - he is not at all self-serving, and subjects himself to the same criticism as everyone else).
What I gained, as a musician, from reading these books (and that is not the only reason I read the books, mind you) is the realization that we are not the only ones who experience ups and downs. Both chefs have experienced, in the broad sense, huge progress in their careers, but things did not go in a straight line, without the occasional miscalculation or string of bad luck. Neither was too proud to work in less-than-glamorous situations, even after being, for example, the official chef to Charles de Gaulle (as in Pepin's case). I have likewise experienced highs and lows, and just because I have played a recital in the Wigmore Hall doesn't mean I am unwilling to play a concerto with a student orchestra (schedule permitting). It worked for Pepin and Bourdain, and in the end the thing that shines through is that both of those chefs love to work, almost regardless of the restaurant.
My own grandfather worked as a chef, though I didn't get to know that part of his life too well before he died. I remember very vividly how much I love eating Oysters Rockefeller at his restaurant in California as a young kid, and I remember another time when he made escargots at home. If I ever have the time, I would love to take a serious cooking course at the Cordon Bleu or something like that. Maybe when the kids are grown up (and aren't only interested in macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets). But it does seem, based on what Bourdain says that one's hands can get pretty gnarly from repeated use of sharp knives, splattering oil, etc. So I'm not sure I should risk my career just to be able to make a great meal.
One of my first conducting performances was at a "Symphonies for Youth" concert organized by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at their former home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I was conducting my school's orchestra (I was 16 or 17 - the Crossroads Chamber Orchestra was no ordinary school orchestra, having produced the concertmasters and principal players of several major orchestras including the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and many others) in a piece I had written (nothing special, mind you). The theme of the Saturday morning concert was "Cooking with Strings," an attempt to help kids understand music through an analogy with chefs and cooking. I was supposed to be a "real live chef" (unlike, say, Beethoven) and had to conduct the orchestra with a chef's hat on. I had been asked to conduct with a wooden spoon, but even as a teenager I just had to draw the line somewhere, and was allowed to use a baton. I don't know if the orchestra really respected me with my chef's hat on, but in any case I wasn't quite up to being respected by an orchestra even without a silly costume.