A Chef’s Life: Welcome to Wiping Countertops


By Emma Kobolakis

It’s sexy to be a chef right now. With TV shows and movies dedicated to the topic and the very concept of a “celebrity chef” becoming a normal part of the cultural lexicon, there’s no escaping the stereotypes. Social media has done its fair share of dissemination, feeding us narratives of flying knives and bloodthirsty cooks contrasted with romantically-lit bushels of vegetables and slow-mo shots of a stir-fry, mid-saute.

Of course, the hot lights of television are one thing, and a hot kitchen is another. Footage can be, and always is, edited, condensed, and painstakingly strung together for maximum sexiness and drama. This is not to say that kitchens don’t play host to their own heated scenes—it’s just that the screaming and yelling happens while the plates are still going out. The customer, not the chef, is king. Whereas an inflated ego can carry an entire season of Food Network programming, chefs too big for their britches cause more trouble than they’re worth.

My personal favorite fairy tale stars the adorable, almost cloyingly sweet Instagram photos of market-fresh fruits and vegetables, snuggled together under the afternoon sun, just waiting to be caressed and coaxed to peak flavor. Perhaps a manicured hand is hovering, as if waiting to select the most perfect cherry to adorn a cupcake-in-waiting. Hashtags about summers in the Hamptons and #farm #fresh #produce abound. Snicker, snicker.


In a restaurant, crates and crates of vegetables crash-land, all at once, yet always manage to carry exactly none of the varieties you’ve patiently waited for. “Where are the fucking beets?” I’ve heard, more than once, shouted from underneath an avalanche of carrots, turnips, radishes, lettuce, really, everything but beets. Even the local, organic farm your restaurant might source from, everything comes coated in dirt. Because vegetables grow in the ground. They do not arrive in color-coordinated baby baskets. They are not clean. It is someone’s job to clean them. Usually mine.

When you’ve spent hours disentangling baby dandelion roots by hand, you drift further and further away from the concept of manicures. I remember sending a photo of my curled fingers, stained with soot and striated with dirt, to a friend in the field. “Does this ever go away?” A photo of his own grizzled paw, the crescents of his nails fully blackened, was all the answer I needed. If only these hands, and not fancy plates or well-lit cocktails, were the stars of the photos I so often saw splashed across the pages of Bon Appetit. Would these hands put people off their dinner?

One scene from the movie Chef stands out in my memory: the titular character forces his son to scrub out a stainless steel pan of fetid ingredients, months rotted, while restoring a salvaged food truck to serviceable glory. “That’s a perfectly good hotel pan,” he tells his gagging child. “We don’t throw that out.”

Welcome to wiping countertops.

Photos: Chia Messina