Why Chefs Sell Out

This is the first in a series of essays by San Francisco chef and line cook. blogger Richie Nakano.

I used to think I was a real cook, legit: burnt arms, late nights, and an unusually high tolerance for whiskey. I believed I was part of something, a generational stance on cooking that was a strange mix of punk ethos and military discipline—a savage precision. It felt like the food I cooked was real food. Honest food.

On any given night you could find me spouting off over a shift drink about all the food world’s bullshit. I would rant about cooking shows I hated, restaurants that were corny, and above all which chefs were sellouts. Guys who pandered to critics made me crazy. And whenever I found myself at another glossy event plating bites of yellowtail crudo, I would scowl and mumble disdain for all the elite foodies I was serving.

In my days as a line cook there was no degree of compromise I found acceptable. I had come up reading White Heat by Marco Pierre White. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential informed and usually validated my behavior. Rick Bayless was the crazy guy talking Mexican food in his bathrobe on PBS.

CHEFS, INC.
Then came Top Chef and the rise of foodie blogger-ism, Bayless endorsing a shitty chicken sandwich for Burger King, White bending over to do a reality show, and suddenly it was all Bourdain, all the time. Tom Colicchio was hawking Diet Coke, and chefs who’d won James Beard Awards were taking jobs at Chipotle. Just a few weeks ago I saw Thomas Keller (the brand, not the man) in an American Express commercial.

What does it mean to sell out when you’re a chef? Consulting for a chain restaurant on the side? Sellout. Being slathered in makeup for a TV appearance? Sellout. Pebble Beach/Aspen/South Beach food festivals for the elites? YOU ARE A SELLOUT. And it got worse. Guys I knew who became personal chefs, caterers—they were all compromised. I was righteously purist even with my own kind.

That is, until I sold out.

THE FAME RACKET
Kitchen lifers are notoriously underpaid. It’s part of the game, what you signed up for. In the beginning, this is fine: You get hooked up at friends’ restaurants, live in a rough neighborhood that compensates with good banh mi. You scrape by. Then you get older. And when a child enters your life, all of a sudden things look very different.

So when some ad agency for a housewares manufacturer contacted me to appear in a new “edgy” magazine campaign, I listened. They said: Here’s the equivalent of a few months of line-cook wages; all you have to do is fly to New York and have your picture taken for the ads. That’s how I found myself with an endorsement contract in hand, getting caked in makeup for the photos, and plotting out monthly cooking demos I’m legally obligated to do for the next year.

Back in San Francisco, I ran into a chef I know at a market one day and told him what I’d done. His judgment was quick: “Sellout!” But other chefs—guys who are also dads—they understood. Corporate chefs get to spend evenings home with their kids, make a better life for their families. Shit, with that money I was going to be able to pay off my Diapers.com bill and put some away for the restaurant I’m planning to open. Selling out is always a calculation, a weighing of benefit against cost.

I have limits. I won’t do any endorsement for food corporations, especially for industrial or fast foods. I refuse to appear at those mega-exclusive events in Aspen and Pebble Beach—I have no idea who those festivals are for, or why they exist.

But I do know that selling out comes with new responsibilities. Will I totally lose any credibility I’ve built to this point? It’s one thing for an ad executive to look at my tattoos and think I’m edgy; it’s another thing for my food to live up to the hype. The result: I’m under new pressure to be a better chef. The truth is, I took the cash for my kid, but money’s never free. Sometimes the sellout is the realest guy in the room.

Photographs by Christopher Rochelle / CHOW.com

Richie Nakano is chef-owner of Hapa Ramen in San Francisco. He’s Colton and Merritt’s dad, plus he tweets a lot. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.