I have worked for mad chefs and for obsessive chefs. The two are not necessarily the same.
One mad chef told everyone in the kitchen different stories about his life: to me, his daughter was finishing her studies to become a doctor; to the sous chef she’d just been airlifted by helicopter to a specialist brain surgeon in Switzerland after suffering brain damage in a car accident. Mad chefs are mad.
Obsessive chefs can be nice about their obsessions; with them, a disappointed glance at your attempt at recreating their favourite plate is enough to send your heart tumbling down into your steel-toed kitchen shoes.
Other obsessive chefs are just plain horrible to work for: one screamed at me for five minutes for putting a packet of paper serviettes in the wrong place (to the left, the LEFT, no not THAT far to the left!); another was so jealous of his ideas and recipes that he didn’t unveil the new season’s menu to me, his second de cuisine and deputy, until the first night we were supposed to be serving it.
But Magnus Nilsson takes this to a new, Olympic level; a chef who closes his restaurant for two months of the year so his brigade can design and rehearse the new season’s dishes.
His book, The Nordic Cookbook is more a work of journalism in some ways than recipes to follow along with at home; an exhaustive pilgrimage through Scandinavian cooking history. He garnered headlines by daring to include recipes for whale meat – it tastes of fish – but for me it’s his fanatical attention to detail that’s the most interesting.
Spending hours pondering how to peel and arrange asparagus on a plate, for example. Writing in The Guardian, Jordan Kisner explains:
I watched two men spend several hours auditioning asparagus. It wasn’t clear at first what they were doing. One would pick up a green stalk from the 10 that had been selected and turn it over in his hands gently, considering how best to peel it. Then the other would pick a stalk up and frown at it. After a while, one of the men, Nilsson’s chef de cuisine, a young Italian named Jakob Zeller, picked up a small paring knife and with meditative care traced a light cut around the circumference of the stalk, just below the crown. He then placed the asparagus back down on the cutting board and, taking up a traditional vegetable peeler, made delicate strokes from the incision to the base of the stalk. A haystack of asparagus wisp collected on his board. Next to him, the sous chef, a Swede named Neil Byrne, tested ways to remove another stalk’s buds, hoping to make it look as though they had not been removed at all but that the restaurant had found magical asparagus that never had them to begin with. It took these men 35 minutes to peel three stalks.
35 minutes for three stalks? In every kitchen where I ever worked you get 35 minutes to peel and cook 5 kilos of asparagus AND take your lunch break. Good grief.
This is why his 30+ course tasting menu costs over $330. Good and grief are both suitable expressions, separately and apart.
But I’m glad that chefs like this exist; without demanding – bizarrely demanding – chefs we’d all be eating well done burgers and frozen fries.
Obsession is painful to live with, both for those like me who were subjected to unreasonable demands and those who are the obsessives.
Luckily some have it, and hence we have Olympic athletes, Formula 1 racing drivers and great chefs.