The term “chef” seems to be used frequently today, perhaps too frequently. Or maybe I’m more sensitive to the term living in Walla Walla’s wine-and-food age.
I hear folks on the street or in restaurants talking about this chef or that chef. The restaurants, too, seem to tout their executive (or head) chefs’ experience and awards. It makes sense top-end restaurants would have an executive chef whether in Walla Walla or Seattle or New York.
But I don’t get it when I hear about more modest restaurants (with more modest prices) having chefs. Yet, I see national chain restaurants — from Applebees to Hooters — claiming they have chefs. Even McDonald’s is into promoting its chef and his “culinary innovations.”
A McChef is simply too McMuch. Is anybody with a frying pan and whisk a chef?
What’s up with that?
Well, with all the chefs now in Walla Walla I thought I would pop into a restaurant and ask. Olive Marketplace & Cafe on Main Street seemed a good choice as it has some fancy food but is a pretty low-key place. In addition, Olive has a chef and is owned by a chef.
Certainly somebody at Olive could explain what makes a chef a chef.
I asked to speak to the chef and almost instantly Chef Jose Meza was out of the kitchen to see me. Wow, he really wanted to talk about being a chef.
A chef, he said, is someone who oversees a kitchen and staff. Chefs order the food, create the dishes and oversee the cooking.
But what separates a true chef from a cook is passion and acceptance, Meza said.
A chef has to accept criticism and suggestions from customers, the kitchen staff and anybody else who wants to weigh in. Accepting what is said and acting on it is how a chef gets better, he added.
A love for food and a zeal to create is essential.
“It is a passion, not a job,” Meza said, his face welling with pride as he began to talk about his journey to become a respected chef overseeing a kitchen.
“I worked so hard,” he said matter-of-factly.
He learned his art, he calls it, from others skilled in creating dishes and cooking them in his 12 years in the restaurant business. He got his start at Creektown Cafe (now Southfork Grill) with the guidance from Bill Pancake Jr.
“Was he a chef?” I asked.
Yes, he said, with a tone of appreciation and awe meant to convey Pancake was not only a chef, but a wizard in the kitchen.
After seven years at Creektown, Meza made a one-year stop at the short-lived Luscious by Nature before going to T Maccarone’s, where he worked under Chef Jake Crenshaw, the current owner of Olive.
The praise for the culinary talents of Crenshaw and Tom Maccarone gushed from Meza, who went on and on about how much he learned from both men. For a time, T Maccarone’s and Olive were co-owned by Crenshaw and Maccarone so Meza served as chef for both restaurants. When Crenshaw and Maccarone decided to end the partnership and each take a restaurant, Meza went to Olive.
Meza has had some formal training and learned from some other talented chefs in the area.
Ultimately, he said, the title of chef isn’t important; it’s the work — what is served and how it is received by customers — that matters.
So Meza said he isn’t offended when restaurant chains and fast-food joints make the chef claim.
The term means something different in that context, Meza said. An executive chef is the person who is in charge of all the recipes and how the food should be prepared, he said. These chefs, however, rarely set foot in the kitchen. They are more administrators.
When smaller, local restaurants use the term chef they are usually referring to the lead cook.
In Walla Walla, most of the chefs — estimated at between 15 and 20 by Meza — know each other and respect the variety of creativity and talent. Each chef in town (and, of course, out of town) has her or his own style.
Meza said his style is very hands-on in the kitchen, and he counts heavily on his staff for its cooking skills as well as creativity.
“In my world, I am in the kitchen all the time ... it is very much a team effort,” he said. “It is the kitchen (as in the staff members) doing the work, not just one guy.”
Meza, who is 29, hopes to one day own his own restaurant just as Chef Crenshaw does.
And when that occurs, I have no doubt Meza will be a fantastic mentor to others. It takes just 30 seconds talking to Meza to realize being a chef — not being called a chef — is a passion. And it is his passion.
Rick Eskil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what’s up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.