I admit that I’m only familiar with Chef and Restaurateur Hugh Acheson due to his appearances on the popular show, Top Chef (Have you heard of it?). I’ve always enjoyed Acheson’s critiques because they felt honest, straight forward, and always constructive. So being the Top Chef fan that I am, I won’t deny that I was just a little excited to see Acheson speak in person at the recent Colorado Restaurant Show.
During his opening keynote presentation, Acheson spoke on the state of today’s chefs and the industry as a whole, “I tell a young chef that they need to care. This is not easy work.” With labor shortages sweeping the country, many are starting to lament the “celebrity chef” (an irony not lost on Acheson) because of the unrealistic expectations it sets for new generations. Widely known for terrible hours, low pay, and sometimes a hostile work environment, the foodservice industry is no stranger to hard work (and a lot of it). And for those who racked up large debts from culinary school and are seeking high wages to compensate for it…you might be out of luck. “I’d much rather hire someone who spent a year or two traveling the world experiencing new cuisines,” Acheson says. Travel and stage—doesn’t get much simpler than that.
“Chefdom” as it were, has evolved way past the chili pepper pants found twenty years ago.
If the world seemed simpler to you then, that’s because it was. What was once a straight-forward business has become more complicated. Customers demand transparency on their menus. Where are you sourcing your products from? Was the protein raised responsibly? Customers demand social responsibility. How much water are you using? Are you providing compostable to-go containers? What are you doing to combat food waste? Because when it comes down to it, customers aren’t just looking for food that tastes good—they want to feel good about it too. If cook, mentor, accountant, marketer, handyman and manager weren’t enough titles for today’s chef, here’s another—social activist.
In many ways we look to chefs as our representatives for environmental conservation, responsible ranching and an overall advocate of the family farm.
The Beauty in Feeding People
Midway through Acheson’s keynote he was joined on-stage by Chef Daniel Asher of the newly opened River and Woods in Boulder, CO. Seated comfortably in armchairs, the chefs engaged in a casual conversation as if they were having a drink together, with a hundred or so of us audience members acting like the proverbial flies on the wall. For me, I love hearing people talk about their passions (which is why the features on Pica’s Mexican Taqueria or Jax Fish House hold a special place in my heart).
For a chef, that passion should be simple—you have joy in feeding people. Sharing that passion might mean introducing a new vegetable (oh, hey Kale) or educating your guests on unique proteins. Or maybe you just love people gathering together around a good meal because of your own fond childhood memories. Whatever drives you to this profession should be simple: Do you like to cook? Or do you have to cook.
Ultimately to be a chef is to “turn on the lights in the kitchen and enjoy it,” says Acheson, “You need to find your never ending story.”