LUCY BURDETTE: I was beyond excited when I stumbled over a fellow psychologist who is a serious foodie. Scott Haas has a book coming out from Penguin about the psychology of chefs--how fascinating! But since we have to wait until 2013 to read it, I persuaded Scott to let us post an excerpt from an article he had published in Gastronomica. He was working as a line cook at Hamersly's, an upscale bistro in Boston at the time of this writing.
SCOTT HAAS: It was my job to cook the food and shut up. For a second I wondered if I ought to apologize to the chef for appearing to have questioned his order, but instead I went back to assembling and firing the orders. I was working on sixteen dinners, all of which needed to get to the customers within the next thirty minutes.
I am not used to working fast. Though I pride myself on being efficient, everything I have ever done outside of a restaurant kitchen requires deliberate and relatively slow observation, memory, and the ability to use language to express my ideas—not mindless repetition and physical strength. What was so great about being robotic, about being so tense and focused that all my concerns were erased? Outside of playing sports or having sex (and even there focus is nowhere near as necessary or possible), cooking in a restaurant was the first time in my life that I was forced to achieve a complete state of immediacy. There was no looking back, no looking forward, no chance of distraction—all I had was a mandate to cook and cook and cook and cook. My entire world was reduced to six feet in four directions: the stove, the mise en place, the wait station, and the center of the kitchen where the chef stood expediting orders.
In the restaurant kitchen, the natural confusion, introspection, reminiscences, imagination, and creativity I rely upon daily to see mentally ill patients in my job as a psychologist vanished. And yet, a strange, unfamiliar peace came over me; I transcended anxiety through cooking.
My time at Hamersley’s was brief—a few months—but for the cooks and the chef the restaurant was a way of life. Night after night, six days a week, from four in the afternoon until midnight, they were robbed of the typical consciousness possessed by those they fed. After service (a term used to describe the dining period, which to me has religious connotations), most of the cooks headed to clubs for dancing, drinking, and drugging. They were too keyed up, too wired to sleep, talk, or even make love.
Make no mistake: a lot of cooks and chefs are oddballs, misfits, and outcasts. Being a member of a restaurant family gives them access to a safe place where their emotional and social difficulties are tolerated. The restaurant is a kind of demimonde, a place where at last they feel at home. Outside of the restaurant world, their problems interfere with their success. But thanks to the inherent tolerance of this unique world, working in a restaurant is as close to intimacy as many of them ever get in life.
A restaurant kitchen accepts odd behavior without too much fuss. Few bosses outside of restaurant kitchens can afford to be so tolerant. I once complained to the bistro’s owner, chef Gordon Hamersley, about Dave, a line cook who was driving me crazy. Dave spoke so quickly he was impossible to understand. He was impulsive and quick to anger, mercurial in his moods, loose in his associative processes, inattentive, very limited in his insight, and incapable of sustaining relationships with women he loved. Gordon replied, “I know he’s a nut, but he’s our nut.” Another time, when I asked Andrew Carmellini, chef at Café Boulud, about the strange, paranoid, and vaguely threatening remarks of a line cook from his kitchen, he said, “He doesn’t get out much.”
“A restaurant provides a home for social deviants,” said Hamersley. “It provides structure for those who ordinarily don’t have it—and it’s a very liberal, creative place where people can flourish. We don’t care about the sorts of emotional problems that would matter in other work settings.”
Restaurants have always been a refuge for actors, painters, writers, musicians, and those excluded or victimized by society for being homosexual. The kitchen—and the possibility of sleeping through most of the next day after a night’s service and debauchery—have made the restaurant environment a favorable hideout for the shunned who would otherwise have a hard time functioning in other work and social settings.
The emotional security provided by restaurants enables many chefs to express love that would otherwise remain repressed. This love is expressed in the food that they cook. That chefs often cannot function in a nine-to-five setting and do not have ordinary home lives indicates that their ways of expressing and receiving love differ fundamentally from others’. Just what is their relationship to love? Chefs often give in order to receive. They seek validation from those they feed. This need for validation explains, in part, their exceptional and enormous generosity.
“Don’t you know why Todd English’s food is so rich?” asks chef Jody Adams of Rialto restaurant in Cambridge. “It’s because he wants to be loved so badly. We all do.”
The need for validation also accounts for the emptiness in many chefs’ lives. Wanting to be constantly surrounded by food, obsessed with feeding others, not always knowing when to stop putting ingredients in a dish or when a customer has had enough to eat—all these behaviors are symptomatic of a love that goes unfulfilled. Like performers, chefs have a powerful and overwhelming need to be loved. This need results in a tug of war with the customer as a vicarious other self, a representation of their own inner hunger. It is the customer who determines whether or not they are validated, and that is why chefs are as notorious for their anger as for their love. Being dependent on someone else in order to satisfy one’s personal hunger is both frustrating and terrifying.
And yet, chefs rarely sit down to eat a meal. They resist the satisfaction that comes from eating in order to feed others instead. More to the point, the satisfaction they derive from feeding others is as profound as if they themselves were the ones eating. They express and receive love from feeding people—an act that is giving even as it creates a barrier between the chef and food. Fundamentally, the chef’s experience of food is heightened and mitigated by other people eating his or her food.
Who in their right mind would choose to relate to food in these complex, regressed, indirect, filtered, and primitive ways?
When I stood in the open kitchen of Hamersley’s Bistro and watched customers eat the food I had prepared, the mental image I had of myself and my fellow cooks was that we were children cooking for the grown-ups as a favor, as a token of our esteem, to show off our cleverness. What good children we were! The adults were eating food we had cooked for them!
Chefs need the approval of many people, often complete strangers, who tell them that they have done a good job. The cult of celebrity associated with the postmodern chef is kept alive by armies of publicists, but it is rooted in the chef’s psychological yearning to be loved by thousands.
LUCY: Fascinating Scott! we will never eat in a restaurant in the same way!
Scott Haas is the author of “Hearing Voices” (Dutton) and “Are We There Yet?” (Plume) and a co-author of “The Da Silvano Cookbook” (Bloomsbury). He won a James Beard award in 2004 for his radio work. His work appears in a variety of publications, including Wine Enthusiast, The Boston Globe, and Gastronomica. He has a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an active consultative practice emphasizing diagnostic work. His new book on the psychology of being a chef and running a restaurant–which focuses on Chef Tony Maws and Craigie on Main–is being published by Berkeley/Penguin in 2013.