As people who often share our kitchen with world class chefs we get to see first hand how other people work and to experience their personal attitudes to perfection, standards and achieving your potential. Doug McMaster has cooked in the ‘best’ restaurants in the world and now runs his own. He reflects on whether 'perfection' and ‘best’ are the right things to aim for, and what the alternative is.
When watching cooking programs, why is everything described as ‘perfect?’
Of course, it isn't perfect. So what is it? Perhaps as a quick buff to their credibility? Everything that’s good gets promoted to something it isn't. So, when you actually do create something truly brilliant, how do you describe it?
Speaking as someone who has worked in some of the world’s best restaurants I can confirm this idea of perfection is the cake at the end of the tunnel. Cooking at the top is a world unto its own. High standards mean pressure, long hours and an unhealthy appetite for competition. Perfection can be achieved by aligning all the variables precisely. This is enforced to achieve the best food in the world. It's a matter of many hands make light work. Program lots of chefs to do very little… Perfectly.
Back in the day, I took a job in one of these 'holier than thou' kitchens there was a chef for every customer. A typical command and control operation and no talking of anything other than the job at hand: 'Welcome to the machine.’ Content with a day of laying carrot ribbons onto silicon or organising parsley stalks into test tubes these droids believed that: because they worked for the best, they were the best.
One day a senior chef decided he had a problem with me. He made it clear: my quail cooking technique was not to his liking. It was a routine 'show them who's boss'. This guy was about as sharp as a spoon, a master of his own reality. In a moment of bravery, I stepped away from the marching line and challenged him: I told him that he was wrong. He bellowed out something that didn't really make sense, I replied ‘’let’s both cook it in our own way, and let the kitchen decide if mine is inferior.‘', his eyes began darting around as the remainder of his body became paralysed in a unique silence. He knew he was wrong. Speechless, he floated off into the background.
I often reflect on those early years spent in these elitist pressure chambers. I was led to believe we were the chosen ones, our cooking was an extension of God's arm. What did I learn? How to be clean & efficient; techniques only relative to that time and place; how to polish the head chef’s ego? Necessary for survival, perhaps? But did I learn to cook?
Perfect cooking doesn't exist and it never will. The search for such a thing is a misguided waste of time. Imagine how much more we would achieve if we didn't cover everything in glitter. Now, I work to a different standard: 'Brilliant is enough’. I like the idea of food always being brilliant but with charm and character; less time putting fluff on a plate, more time doing things properly. I believe if these rock-star cooks had more humility we would have more great food to enjoy.
Being a great chef isn't about working in the best restaurants. Like most things in life, it comes down to your character. It’s who you are and your experiences through life. Allowing yourself to make mistakes, only to appreciate why. If your personality isn't one with passion or of determination, you’re out of luck. It's a craft that requires your personality to shine through. Don't conform to someone's else's ideas. Food will taste good when you enjoy cooking it, and when it represents who you are it will be brilliant... and that's enough.
This piece was written by Doug McMaster
Doug is probably best known for his Brighton based restaurant, Silo, the UK's first zero waste restaurant. He has a unique experience in the kitchen, beginning in the pot wash after dropping out of school, but quickly moving on to 'better' things. He won numerous awards as a young chef, and by 2012 was already exploring the idea of cooking with food that would otherwise be 'Wasted', winning the title of 'Britain's Most Irreverent Chef' at the Y.B.F. awards in 2012. A trip to Australia resulted in the creation of 'SILO by Joost' the world's first waste free cafe with artist, Joost Bakker. Doug is out to prove that a sustainable business model is financially viable and that ecological farming can feed the world.
We met Doug at the Pour Symposium in Paris and he came to EFS as a guest chef for our first anniversary weekend with a unique menu of food and matched drinks inspired by the symposium. He recently launched Cub in collaboration with Ryan Chetiyawardana, continuing to push the boundaries of sustainability within the contemporary dining experience. You can find him on social @dougiemcmaster.