Two Chefs on Finding the Egg | Civil Eats

Two Chefs on Finding the Egg

“Failing that, I realize that a writer’s business is setting fire to Piggy Sneed—and trying to save him—again and again; forever.”

This isn’t about how to be a writer but about how to be a cook, and then once you are, how to be chef. That final line in a story by John Irving, though, runs through every good lesson in knowing what one’s job is. It is usually something much stranger than you had expected and more like what John Irving realized his was when he realized he was a writer, which was to set terrible fires every day and every day to put them out.

Writers need good grammar and need to be able to hear when words sound musical next to each other. Professional cooks need to be able to cut vegetables and meat and to taste for salt and smell what’s burning. But those are only things you need to know to begin to be a writer or a cook. They are not what the job of either is.

In the interest of helping aspiring cooks figure out whether cooking professionally is what they want to do, we, a former chef and a current one, and a brother and sister who talk about these things all the time, have written down what the job of each is, along the lines of John Irving’s spilling the beans on what you really have to do to write.

The job of a chef is to find an egg, and the job of a cook is to keep a chef from having to.

That’s what we call it because five years ago, after seventy hours of cooking and writing scheduling and cajoling and checking and re-labeling and re-packaging and insisting and encouraging and tasting and tasting and tasting, one of us ducked down to triple-check a cook’s reach-in refrigerator and found, sitting calmly under the sauté station, a single, elegant, insolent egg.

The one of us who saw it looked at the egg and the egg looked back, and we realized that after having spent months explaining the value of cleaning one’s station, and double-checking everything, and caring for ingredients, we were failures, and our cooks were terrible, and now, having found a not-cleaned, not cared for, not-ever-glimpsed or worse, ignored egg was the sign of our failure, written appropriately on the kitchen floor.

The egg and its significance were quickly transcribed in an impassioned email to one of our mentors, a better chef than either of us, and the kind we would both like to be. It lamented the travesty of the world in which we cooked. We were, we wrote that we knew, supposed to be making food sing, and instead were losing our battles with reach-in refrigerators, and kneeling on our hands and knees and confronting insolent eggs on Sunday mornings.

The chef wrote back and said that no matter how good anyone was at knowing what to put in a pot, she was not worth her clogs if she did not have the patience and fortitude, and above all the determination, to find the egg. He wrote that we should stop thinking that our job was much other than to every day kneel down and every day look for the egg. To not find it, he wrote, would have been a failure. To find it was part of the day’s work.

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So there is the reason for our private terminology. One of us no longer cooks professionally and has given up on her pursuit of the egg for now, one is the sous chef of a very busy, wonderful restaurant, and looks for it every day. But we each know that it’s not the cutting or the salting, or the typing, or the hearing music in the words or in the pot. It is the reverence and the will to stop and find the egg.

Here, then aspiring cook, is your egg. Do what you can to keep whatever sad soul is looking for it from facing it down. And you, new chef, do not stop checking the reach-in and do not stop finding the egg. Doing it is the only way to keep the delicate world of your kitchen spinning on its tilted, perfect axis.

1. Someone will always be looking over your shoulder. That’s their job. If you don’t want them to be constantly checking up on you, don’t give them reason to. Do the things they’re checking to make sure you’ve done. Change dirty containers out for clean ones. Label and date all your containers clearly. Decide when it’s time for leftover food to be used for family meal.

2. Treat it like it all like it’s yours, and someday it will be. Always ask yourself, “If I owned this restaurant, would I want a cook that didn’t care to put food in clean containers, or repackage food to make room in the walk-in, or use the oldest parsley before the parsley that arrived today?” This mindset is one of integrity. It’s what makes the drudgery of cooking gratifying. Doing it well makes you a more valuable cook.

3. Everything matters: your handwriting, if your towel is folded, if all the handles of pans on your station face the same direction. If you think it doesn’t matter, you are missing the point.

4. You will make mistakes. You will fall short of what is required of you. That’s fine. Don’t make the same mistake twice; it shows you’re not focused, and not paying attention. Attention is your stock-in-trade.

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5. Make everything you do deliberate and effective. It’s not the last dish you put out, but how organized and graceful you leave things at the end of a grueling seven hour service, that defines you as a cook.

6. The day you think there is nothing else to learn and no more room for improvement, quit. You’ve missed the beauty of this vocation.

Everyone who wants to cook: only the tiniest part of your job requires that you stand over a stove and cook. Be, for the rest of it, unwilling to treat any detail as small. Take as much pleasure in a perfectly packed bustub of parsley as in perfectly cooked bowl of pasta. The frustration you feel with the meanness of your tasks is the sharp, identifiable feeling of what it is to cook for a living. So find an egg or steal an egg, crack an egg and cook it.

Tamar Adler is a New York based writer. She was the founding head chef of Farm 255 in Athens, GA, and a former cook at Chez Panisse. Before she started cooking, or writing about cooking, she was an editor at Harper's Magazine. Her first book, An Endless Meal, will be published by Scribner in September 2011. John Adler is the sous chef of Franny's restaurant in Brooklyn. He's cooked at some of the best places to cook, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Per Se, St. John's, and Arzak, and can currently be found most market days loading produce into the trunks of taxis by Union Square. Read more >

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  1. This is a great article! Well done!
  2. Bill McCann
    Great job Tamar and John. Cooking,writing, or driving a taxi, it really doesn't matter what you do to make your living, but we all need to know that there is a spiritual component to work that can make everyones life have real meaning. If we were all looking for that egg that we left behind; we could just about have a peaceful world.
  3. andy
    Am I the only one who really did not enjoy the writing in this article? Good content but too many of the sentences were too long. For the life of me I do not understand, "Treat it like it all like it’s yours, and someday it will be."

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