Your Signature Dish Sucks

The latest in an occasional series by San Francisco pop-up chef and blogger Richie Nakano.

It’s late after a particularly busy pop-up, I’m about three whiskeys past my comfort zone, and I have to start all over again eight hours from now. I switch into auto mode and wash my station down, the still-hot French-top range hissing at me every time I scrub anywhere near it. I just want to wrap it up and go cry in the shower a little, but my cook has been hounding me about an idea for a dish, and now I’ve got no choice but to hear him out. He hands me a piece of paper scrawled with columns and arrows and drawings and ingredients and for fuck’s sake what am I looking at?

All told there are 18 ingredients spanning proteins, dairy, pickles, and a healthy sprinkling of Activa: meat glue. He describes it to me nervously, his words pouring out so quickly that I only catch every third disclaimer about how he’ll need to test it four ways until he nails down the right way to make it. My eyes glaze over a little, and I start with the most glaring question.

“So—18 ingredients?”

“Well, I mean, it’s just a list. I’ll try to simplify, but I was thinking—”

“Eighteen. It’s a lot. We don’t really do dishes like that. And Activa? Really?”

The conversation goes on for another 20 minutes, during which I drink two more whiskeys and a glass of very sugary Riesling. Eventually I’ll ask him to make the dish so we can taste it, but in the days that follow I end up shooting it down completely. He’ll quit, after saying I’m not open to new cooking techniques and that he just wanted to make my food “better.”

And I will realize that—shit—I’ve been here before. Only last time, I was the one who felt betrayed.

GROUP FAIL
It’s three years earlier, and I’m standing in a cluttered pastry station at 3 a.m., locked in a screaming match with the restaurant’s other sous-chef. The low ceiling and fluorescent lighting are only adding to the tension of our menu-writing face-off. He’s doing his job: sticking to the formula, figuring out the best way to highlight new ingredients from the market, etc. But with every retort and rebuttal, my voice gets a little louder, my flailing arms a little more out of control.

Coming off a stunning meal at Aziza, I’ve been obsessed with all things Moroccan. I make the argument that our salsa verde steak garnish is played out, but charmoula: Now that would be some next-level shit. I bark about preserved Meyer lemon purées and ras el hanout, and while we’re on the subject, shouldn’t we really be sous-vide-ing that pork chop?

Sitting down with my chef the next day I expound on the importance of collaboration. I tell him I feel like I’m not being heard, and moreover that I think we’re going to start losing cooks if we don’t allow them to have more input. He nods and listens, then does something I don’t expect: He calls the entire kitchen staff in.

“The lamb sausage: Who has an idea for that set tonight?”

I look around, expecting an outpouring of ideas, polite debate, shared inspiration. I halfway expect this meeting to be the genesis of some Alinea-type collaboration shit. Instead the grill cook says we should sauté the sausage. “I’m pretty overloaded with items right now.”

The sauté cook protests. “I’m already picking up chicken, fish, pasta, and two sides. Speaking of which, I don’t understand why pantry can’t fry their own peppers ...”

The meeting devolves into a bitch session right out of Hell’s Kitchen. Above the arguing I manage to yell: “DOES ANYONE HAVE ANY IDEAS ABOUT NEW SETS FOR THE MENU?!?”

You could have heard crickets chirp. I look at my chef, expecting to see a knowing smirk, but instead he keeps working on the menu. He knew it was going down like this, and he’s moved on.

THE CREATION MYTH
What my chef knew that day is that cooking isn’t about having the brilliant idea. It’s the craft of feeding people. It's about repetition, and the monotony of prep. It's coaxing your ingredients into an expression of care for your guests. And it has almost nothing to do with creating.

I won't completely absorb this lesson, though, till several years later. Eventually, when I leave to become my own boss, I'll still carry the idea of the idyllic, collaborative kitchen where everyone's ideas matter and where everyone gets a say.

Looking back on the weeks and months leading up to the fateful 18-item-dish conversation with my cook, I realize that serious cracks were already starting to show. His prep was painfully slow. He had pathetic shifts operating the fryer that usually ended in me taking over his station. There were mutters about how he felt like he got stuck with the bitch work; that he was above vegetable prep and breading chicken. His feelings of entitlement about being allowed to create something outweighed his urge to learn.

There’s an epidemic in the restaurant industry of young cooks who’ve seen too many reality shows asking chefs for their "signature dish," too many culinary schools that exist to help students define their "cooking style." Before you know it they’re gone, taking the first job that offers an avenue to flaunt the latest recipe in the modernist tool kit. I can only imagine the dishes these "chefs" are dropping on their guests at the country club or hotel bistro.

It's hard not to worry about the future of cooking. The pressure on young guys to be stars is leaving restaurants without cooks to build a team with, and ultimately lowering culinary standards as a whole. But things aren’t all bad.

For every cook trying to learn spherification before they know how to carve a chicken, there's another one putting in long hours picking herbs and sweeping floors. The recent rise in specialized cooks who just want to make the best bread, or jam, or charcuterie could be just the shift that keeps us all from drowning in a sea of mediocrity.

Now when I interview cooks, I don't talk about how great it is to work for me, how collaborative my kitchen is. Instead I offer this: "We feed people here. A lot of people. You into that?"

Also by Richie Nakano: Why Chefs Sell Out

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.