Oct 122010

“I am a professional chef and Food is My Passion.” “I am a chef which is passionate about food.” “I’ve been passionate about food all my life.” Ah, the “R” rated resumes I get.

There must be a lot of heavy breathing going on in America’s kitchens. Everybody’s passionate about food/their art/their trade/chocolate. Cupcake makers profess passion for  their cupcakes. Grill cooks are passionate about their steak. Wine stewards are passionate about wine.  I get at least ten resumes a week claiming passion for food, wine, pastry or “my art,” which  means  that I have ten possibly hysterical people wanting me to represent them, which is at times unsettling.

Enough already.

Passion exists. It is a rare and precious state, the  polar opposite of reason,  the latter being a highly desirable trait in this industry.  It’s the grist of  “crimes of passion” and  “the throes of passion.”  True passion is your prime and possibly sole focus, which you pursue and defend from attack at all costs, including your own comfort, outside life and social niceties and sometimes family – possibly legalities.  Passion is more than joy or commitment, and it  carries those blessed or cursed with it forward with fearful, purpose driven momentum.

What declarers of passion probably intend to say is, “I am really interested in what I do,  I take joy in my work, I care about my business and am committed to it.” But since reality TV and the ever less articulate food press sling it around so much, it sounds cool, like the must have accessory for the culinary aspirant. It’s not.

I know people who seriously passionate. Wine importers Lorenzo Scarpone and Raphael Knapp.  Food experts like Joyce Goldstein. Chefs like Chris Cosentino, whose every sentence is somehow offal related. Their lives are their business, or better their calling, and their businesses are their lives with a space for family.  A few burn out early like a phosphorous fire, but the intelligent ones ascend to the top of their craft.  They are  kids who spend their vacations cooking for nothing, who put up 70 hour weeks if they are allowed to bask  in the shadow of some great chef for no pay, whose social lives are all about food or wine or what they do.  They submit to abusive positions to learn everything, even though their heads are about to burst with ideas about restaurants and pairings and odd ingredients. If their own restaurant fails they open another and another, running against the odds until they get it right, and when they do, the restaurant embodies an element of worship. It’s Pat the pastry chef who was fired from Moose’s because he wouldn’t go home until it was perfect. Most are extremely bright and articulate. Find yourself in a group of them and they talk food and nothing else. They live food, sleep food, play food, or wine or the object of their obsession. They have a thousand cookbooks.  They never say, “I’m passionate” or “Food is my Passion.” Many of them are slightly and delightfully off kilter.

There’s nothing wrong with not being passionate. For many practical purposes in the industry of bringing food to people being professional is actually better. Commitment, well-honed skills and knowledge are vastly preferable to passion for the majority of restaurants. There are plenty of celebrated chefs and restaurant world class professionals without passion, although they generally share a lot of hard work, dedication and practice. They take joy in what they do – who wouldn’t – they are dedicated and committed and grateful to have found a wonderful niche, and they are very good at it.  They have well trained palates, high standards and focused skills, and they are usually pretty rational.

I recently had the electrifying pleasure of watching two passionate chefs in conversation. A friend invited me to see Coi Owner Daniel Patterson and Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma in a two man panel. They were so engrossed in their discussion of food, without a moderator to hinder them, that the evening went over by about an hour before they had realized, infecting every person  in the room with their single minded absorption to their trade. Redzepi in animated exuberance spoke at machine gun speed of eating on the floor in a village with no store, his roots, his ideas , his dreams, his staff, his kitchen, his love of French food, this and that, with Patterson absorbed, interjecting, expanding, explaining, complimenting, a match of back and forth with two men of a single mind.

Redzepi calls himself a “seal f*cker” which probably has little to do with sexual congress with pinnipeds – but it works, because passion is carnal, driven and sexual.   It is not articulate. It is not vocal. It doesn’t profess itself.   Neither Patterson nor Redzepi even mentioned being passionate.  They didn’t have to. It was obvious. Real passion doesn’t have or need a spokesperson.  It shows through in what you do and how your speak of the things you hold dear. Even if it’s offal.

If you really are passionate about food, let the passion itself do the talking. It will. Talking it to death just deflates its meaning.  If you want to escape from the cliche try something else: Love my  job, dedicated to developing my skills, take joy in my work, committed, pleasure, fortunate, because you don’t claim passion. It claims you.