Cuisine or death: The real chef’s motto

One of the world's best pastry chefs explains what drives him

Topics: Notes from the Kitchen, Chefs and Cooks, Restaurant Culture, Bolivia, Food,

Cuisine or death: The real chef's motto

You have to be so earnestly devoted that if you were any more devoted it would be perverse, and any less, it would not be enough. – Charlie Trotter, “Becoming a Chef”

When I fell into this thing, this cosa nostra of cuisine, it was by accident. I had a background in fine art, and I was seduced by the creative process of cooking and the satisfaction of making things with my hands. Fifteen years later, I’ve been a baker, a line cook, a sous chef, now a pastry chef, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. But back then, I never planned to make a career out of it, and the “foodie” culture we know today was still in its infancy. Back then, people still craved what came out of kitchens more than access into them.

Now, fueled by cooking shows and the Web, we have a culture of cuisine-as-entertainment. We’re barraged by food porn, coffee-table cookbooks, and gritty tell-alls of the professional kitchen. Customers are constantly looking for what’s new, the next big thing. As a professional, I’ve seen this culture make certain cooks hungry for stardom, hoping to be on TV shows and in magazines. But I’ve also seen that interest in cuisine shrink the world, making exotic ingredients more accessible, and push us to keep discovering new flavors and learning new techniques. It’s a truly exciting time to be a chef, but it’s always taken certain kinds of personalities to excel in cuisine, to have that geeky kind of masochism that drives us to aspire, impossibly, to perfection in both art and athleticism.

Ten years ago, I was the pastry chef of Tribute, big fish restaurant in a little pond, a rare culinary destination in suburban Michigan. I had two young and dedicated assistants, and, like the rest of the cooks, they had muscled their way into our brigade for the career-changing opportunity to work alongside our chef, Takashi Yagihashi. A native of Japan, Takashi’s personal brand of French-Asian fusion made a name for him in Chicago. With his arrival, the opening of Tribute offered Detroit a level of haute cuisine higher and far more creative than the traditional continental fare. Most of us cooks had little training or experience under our belts, but we all found ourselves thrust into a world where the ingredients and techniques we once only read about were a daily reality. We quickly and confidently added sweetbreads, uni and foie gras to our vocabulary. Sous vide and foams found places in our technical arsenal. We’d made it. Total immersion fueled our enthusiasm and, to be honest, no small measure of conceit.



In our fleeting moments of downtime, our equivalent of water-cooler conversation rarely drifted into talk of last night’s game or what happened on TV, but stayed on point with regard to food. We discussed our last meal at another restaurant or what we cooked at home; we debated and argued endlessly over techniques and ingredients, or which faraway chef was more talented than the other:

“Dude, Gagnaire is way more creative than Alain Passard!”

“But Passard’s minimalism is so badass — I heard the guy doesn’t even serve meat anymore, just vegetables!”

We swapped dog-eared magazines and cookbooks like they were rare and precious manuscripts, though to be honest it was more like we were swapping vintage comics or baseball cards. We were geeks, caffeine-fueled and adrenaline-charged.

One day Anthony, one of my assistants, complained that his head hurt. While the 9-to-5 “straight” world honors the concept of sick days, the kitchen demands a higher threshold of discomfort. Unless someone’s calling an ambulance or you’re making other people sick, you suck it up and endure the rest of the shift. It’s a mentality that comes with working while others are at play and from knowing that your kitchen crew is a machine that has to fire on all cylinders just to make it through the night. I could have sent Anthony home, but that would have put the rest of us in the shit. Our closeness, coupled with our obsessive pursuit of perfection, resulted in an odd vernacular of ridicule and tough love. As empathy and encouragement, I uttered, “You know, it’s not ‘Cuisine or I Have a Headache’, it’s ‘Cuisine or Death.’” Anthony soldiered on through dinner service. And we erupted into laughter.

But then, over the following weeks, “Cuisine or Death” took hold; it became a rallying cry to combat ‘bad’ cuisine, inferior technique, or less than total commitment. COD became a state of mind. Suddenly we weren’t just cooks swapping cookbooks in our spare time; we were guerrillas, theorizing manifestoes separating us would-be chefs from mere cooks. We took greatest pride not in our skills but in our dedication, borrowing a phrase from the maniacal British chef Marco Pierre White, “We’re all commis,” referring to the lowliest rung of the traditional kitchen ladder. We plotted culinary sabotage — at one point, we plotted to hijack trucks distributing soulless, generic produce to other restaurants. We imagined stickers for our knife cases and a line of uniforms emblazoned with tiny skull-and-crossbone patterns to replace the conventional hound’s tooth. We debated tattoos to brand those worthy enough to gain entry to our secret society. We’d all come of age in the punk underground, and we co-opted its aesthetic. One morning, my second assistant Aaron paid homage to the definition of the word “finesse” that famously hangs above the kitchen door at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. He showed up with a poster of the words “Cuisine or Death” for the pastry station scripted in old English font.

Our newfound ideology was, of course, tongue-in-cheek, but we did indeed become all the more intense and passionate in our daily work. We were akin to the strictest order of monks, perpetually humbling ourselves by muttering, “commis,” over and over. Had the pre-reality TV persona of Gordon Ramsay been more than just gossip from across the pond at the time, he may just have been the patron saint of our self-styled guild, scowling at us from on high as we pushed ourselves. We lived for the kitchen intensity that, for better or for worse, has since become cliché as pop culture continues its ride on the foodie train.

Underneath, it was all a little funny for me. I’m intense about what I do, and I’ve certainly been guilty of a tantrum or two in the heat of service, but in truth my personality tends more toward being quiet and introspective. I mean, I once told someone that the pastry chef’s trade is about comfort and nostalgia, hardly the words of a hardened warrior. But despite the militaristic tones and frat-boy mentality, I still quietly adhere to the spirit of the Cuisine or Death code. Though it was funny at the time, bravado wasn’t really the point. Rather, my young assistants and I were realizing and confirming that we were a tribe of craftsmen, that we were part of something special and unique. The acronym COD speaks of a life-long dedication, a justification of the personal sacrifices we’ve all made for our jobs. Maybe there are better training tools and motivational slogans, but none are as clear as “or Death.”

I now find myself a relative old sage in the restaurant world. To this day, I’ll occasionally extract a knowing smile from a harried cook as I urge him or her on with a whispered, “COD.” And I have the satisfaction of fostering a legacy of sorts, as those first apprentices — and several since — continue to hone their skills now as chefs in their own right. Anthony’s headache went away, and he’s gone on to master both the sweet and savory realms, no doubt passing on that energy and enthusiasm to his own cooks.

Aaron, a true culinary mercenary, continued his journeyman’s path, cooking here and there for short intervals, and eventually returned to his native West Coast. He recently visited New York and we met for a beer. He shared his ongoing exploits in food with me when suddenly he interrupted himself. “You’ll love this,” he said as he rolled up his sleeve. I looked at a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist, and in that familiar old English lettering, there was the single word, “commis.” 

Michael Laiskonis is the award-winning executive pastry chef at New York's Le Bernardin restaurant

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>