I’ve been watching the show Mind of a Chef, a fantastic show on Netflix narrated and produced by Anthony Bourdain. It follows a series of chefs, each of whom get their own eight episodes focusing on a range of different topics and themes within the world of cooking. For example, “Noodle,” “Southerners,” “Roots,” and “Latitude” are some of the episode titles. The host of the show changes, giving each half of the season a different feel. However, the format of the show remains largely the same: the host meets up with different chefs, farmers, butchers, etc. and cooks delicious-looking dishes that, for whatever reason, the camera never shows being eaten.
Mind of a Chef is really quite artfully done, which might be why it first reminded me of comedy. It isn’t your typical cooking show; it’s about what it’s like to be a chef, not about “here’s how to make a dish” like many cooking shows seem to be. Yes, there’s peculiar stuff like Chopped and Iron Chef and Hell’s Kitchen too, but those are more of what I consider entertainment for pure entertainment’s sake. Those show concepts sound like someone who doesn’t know anything about cooking went “Cooking is lame! How can we make cooking more exciting?!” and then somebody else went “Don’t give the chefs enough time to make anything good!” Either that, or they find a really wacky, crazy chef and it just becomes reality TV with food: a brilliant but substanceless combination.
Anthony Bourdain is one particular chef who seems to break out of this mold. I’ve been a fan of his shows because they don’t lose what cooking is about and they have great writing. No Reservations and The Layover are good shows because he narrates them. They aren’t about flying to different countries and trying crazy things, they’re about understanding the culture and the deeper meaning behind the food. A casual observer might criticize the shows as “overdramatic” at times, but I think it’s better to lean more to the side of romanticizing cooking than to the side of “Ah!!! Food!!! Go!!!”
What’s different about Mind of a Chef is the focus on the chefs themselves. No other show that I know (some serious assonance right there) cares about the person behind the apron and I think that’s the most interesting and artistic part. Chefs on the show often talk about the pressure to do TV, but how many chefs do you know from television? Compared to all the 3-star Michelin restaurant chefs out there? Not many. Usually, those chefs are doing anything to make a name for themselves – jumping at a chance to win a competition and get a little attention rather than worrying about the “art” behind what they do. Which brings me to the first similarity between Comedy and Cooking.
Chefs on TV are Different
When you see a chef on TV, he’s giving step-by-step instructions on how to make a dish, standing behind a counter in bright daylight, facing the camera with all his ingredients laid out in front of him ready to go. That isn’t what he’s used to doing. He’s used to working in a hectic kitchen at night, giving orders to his sous chefs and throwing plates together at all different ends of the kitchen. Similarly, comics on TV aren’t quite the same. They’re hosting talk shows or writing comedy series or simply acting – not much of it is stand up, which is how most comics get into all of it.
Television has changed for comics. Back when late night was what it used to be, doing one good set on Carson could easily launch a career. Nowadays, it takes a lot more than that. Being on TV isn’t “making it.” In fact, it’s a necessity for headlining at most clubs. You see a lot of comics doing whatever they can to get on TV: commercials, hosting, even reality TV. The lack of “artistic” chefs I see on TV reminds me of the same struggle. In the end, to many people it matters less what you’re doing on TV than actually being on it. It’s unfortunate, but what can you do? People go “Ooh you were on TV? You must be really good!” People never go “Oh I heard she has a high quality blog but nobody knows about it, so she must be good.”
Of course, there’s a ton of talent out there in both industries. I’m not saying that all TV is BS, all I’m saying is that people will do a little more jumping through hoops to get there and, in the process, they might lose a bit of themselves. There are a ton of comics out there doing a lot of crazy new inventive stuff, but “new and inventive” isn’t what sells on TV. Insert reference to Seinfeld almost tanking.
Mind of a Chef reminds me a lot of comedy podcasts or, speaking of Seinfeld, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Podcasts and shows like Seinfeld’s focus on the comics themselves rather than the product of the comics. It’s great to see that shows like this are getting some notoriety. It is unfortunate, however, that it usually takes someone like Seinfeld to use a comic-focused format to gain attention from it. Any comic could see that CCC is really just a podcast…it isn’t a novel idea. Someone like Marc Maron should be getting a lot more credit for what he’s done with WTF Podcast. Maybe lesser known chefs have been doing the same thing that Anthony Bourdain is doing for years and I just don’t know about it.
Creating an Ephemeral Experience
People eat food. People hear jokes. Afterwords, they’re both gone. They’re different sensory experiences, but they both disappear and can only be re-experienced in our memories. One of the chefs in the show mentioned the odd feeling of putting in so much time and effort into creating a perfectly beautiful and delicious dish, only to have it disappear in a few minutes. Although part of the battle is not making it seem so, the fabrication of a good joke is the same way. It takes time and practice and editing until it’s just right. And then when it’s told on stage, poof! There it goes. People don’t hear or taste the effort behind it, they just want the experience.
A good joke seems effortless because it’s been practiced so many times. A good dish seems perfect because it’s been adjusted just right.
I was surprised to hear so much of an emphasis on consistency on Mind of a Chef, but it made a lot of sense to me. Some of the chefs talked about how their mothers or grandmothers cooked without ever measuring out ingredients or even writing down recipes. They could smell a dish from across a room and tell that the pot needed a little more salt. Of course, all the chefs on the show tended to be much more precise; serving a dish in a restaurant requires extreme attention to detail. One of them mentioned something like “You want that customer who enjoyed the dish you made the last time they were at your restaurant to have the same exact experience. They want to re-live exactly what it was like the first time they had it.”
As a comic, it’s hard for me to want to hear a joke exactly the same way twice (because I love the process of editing and changing material and learning from that). But, that skill is something that I really admire about professional performers. When you’ve perfected a joke, you can perform it the same way with the same enthusiasm every single time, which is what an audience wants. They want the best version of the joke every time. In the same way that a restaurant goer wants the same eggplant parmesan, the comedy club goer wants that same DMV joke, told so perfectly that their own re-creations don’t even come close. The comics who can perform so consistently that their jokes sound the same every time have developed that same “grandmother cooking” instinct, but for a joke. They know just the wording to use and how to say it to get the best reaction possible.
Collaborating in the Kitchen
Something I’d never considered was the degree to which cooks bounce ideas off of one another. Mind of Chef is predicated on the collaborative creation of dishes among different chefs. Usually one chef introduces her recipe as another chef watches and helps, sometimes offering some suggestions. That’s just what a comic would call “riffing,” but instead of on a joke, it’s on a dish. Not only this, but chefs in the show place a huge emphasis on understanding what goes into a dish. Having a good relationship with butchers and farmers that you work with allows you to know where your food comes from and know that it’s the highest quality possible. You won’t have the best dish unless you have the best ingredients. Not only that, but seeking out others who are as passionate about the ingredients as you are about the finished product allows you to come up with better ideas as a chef.
Similarly, relationships in comedy are super important. Not only do they serve as “connections,” but they allow you to learn more about your own jokes. Writing with other comics gives you a different perspective; different people take jokes in totally different directions. So bouncing ideas off of one another can widen your perspective on a bit and understand why a part of it doesn’t work or how it could be better. I think “knowing your ingredients” does relate to knowing the words and topics you’re using. You have to be an expert on your opinion. But it also means that you have to know about what’s out there. You have to understand what all the comics around you are doing and learn from that. You learn what works from seeing other people do it. It also means that knowing the history of comedy is really important. Hearing old jokes and using them to inspire a new perspective is a great technique. In cooking this manifests itself in scouring through old cookbooks and prodding cooking legends for scraps of knowledge.
Just as comics have to earn their time on stage, chefs have to earn their customers. Something has to keep people coming back. Chef Ed Lee describes how, after taking over an award-winning restaurant in Louisville and changing the whole menu, he lost nearly all of his customers. He questioned whether he was doing the right thing. But because the food was good, people started slowly coming back and trusting his dishes. With a good enough reputation, people will trust you. They might not want to try eel on their own, but if you tell them “Here, try it the way I made it,” and you know they’ll like it, then they’ll be scrambling to follow you on your next journey. Chef Lee says that his favorite people to win over are people who are skeptical and would never think of trying certain dishes: people who normally tend to pick the menu staples and things that they already know they like. Winning over these people is the most satisfying because you got them to experience something new and have them keep coming back for new things.
As you might guess, I think that reputation in comedy works the same. Once people trust you, you can do some wild things and get away with it. And if you do it right, people will like it better than anything else you’ve done before. People don’t always know what they want and if you can deliver what people want without them knowing they want it, even better. The best comics are those who do things their own way. Before Louis C.K. was what he is now, he did the same type of material that everyone else was doing – bits. It took throwing away his material and just talking to find the comic he is today. He took risks.
In both comedy and cooking I think that it takes time to develop who you are. You have to gain inspiration from what’s around you and be yourself and different, but also meet your audience halfway. At least until you earn that trust.
Maybe the reason why the dishes in Mind of a Chef are never eaten is because of the focus on the creation process of the food, not its consumption. I like that, because comedy to comics I think is really about the joke, not about laughter.