Why one Chef hates the word “Foodie”

Three spoons with different spices

I embrace the word “foodie” but use it with my friend Janna and her eyes start to roll. So of course, we’re just five minutes into our meal and already I’ve used the term to describe the new coffee and pastry shop just around the corner and yup, those eyes are a’ rollin’. Finally, I ask her to explain to me just what it is about that term that gets her so irked.

“It’s okay as an adjective I guess, though it’s totally over-used. But instead of that, which I can deal with, it’s an identity.”

I try to get her goat a bit and ask her what’s wrong with it being an identity in this social-media driven world of ours where people talk about “branding” themselves like they’re products, not people. At this point we start ranting about social media and wax nostalgic about the good old days when people went out to meet other people and yes, they had conversations, trite or mundane as they might be, people spoke face-to-face or on the phone. This brings me back around to the foodie-thing. I tell Janna I consider being a foodie an antidote to the disconnect that’s so much a part of this hyped-out friend-me culture we’re in. Food forges bonds and nearly everyone likes to eat. The foodie movement is, as I define it, very democratic. Food doesn’t have to be exclusive. You don’t have to speak French and start putting on airs. You simply have to be into food.

Turns out, the reason I identify with being a foodie is exactly why Janna rejects it. I love seeing chefs, servers, purveyors, farmers, brewers and lots and lots of eaters gathered together at a food festival, talking about food. Janna is all for festivals but not so crazy about everyone being so much on the same level.

Janna explains it perfectly when she says, “Some of us have worked really hard to get to where we’re at.”

My friend is the epitome of the workaholic chef. She discovered she had a thing for cooking when she was working as a waitress back in college. One day, one of the chefs called her back in the kitchen to help prep and that was the beginning of it all. Up until then, the extent of her culinary skills was boiling eggs and segmenting her morning grapefruit.

By the time Janna graduated with her B.A. in History, she knew she wanted to work in food. She explains it calling it “like something totally beyond me. Like something from a past life.” Instead of going to some high-brow culinary school, Janna apprenticed to a well-known chef for a number of years and, after lots of challenges along the way, finally opened her own catering company. Janna was trained by a chef of the old-brigade, which is great but also explains a whole lot about how she thinks about the craft. To her it’s about earning your stripes and those stripes include real burns, real headaches, fourteen hour workdays and the stress that is goes along with all of it.

Want to be a foodie? Well, all you’ve really got to do is embrace food, talk food and just to be sure you’re up on the latest happenings–read the blogs. Think you have to cook to be a foodie? Naw–all you have to do is eat and they’ll gladly make you a card-carrying member. Into making your own masa? Age your own beef? Make your own cheese–then you’re VIP! Got your own food truck? You’ve achieved rock-star status!

To be fair, because the foodie movement is sodemocratic it isn’t just hype driven. Sure there’s hype but thanks to Yelp and all that connecting via the Tweet-o-sphere, Facebook and Instagram, the cream does rise to the top. If you’ve got great food, at a price people are willing to pay and your location doesn’t suck, the foodie community will let everyone know about it faster than your PR person will. Hype will only carry you a few months. Those places with the real good grub, they stick around.

Perhaps the most thought provoking argument Janna makes is the one I’m loosely translating here: Anyone who has worked their way up in the culinary world has had to spend thousands of hours working, listening, doing just what they’re told and then all of that stuff you’re learning starts to seep-in and little by little you start to create, to really be a chef yourself.

“You see different things, taste things differently. There’s no way to shortcut that.”

I tell her I understand. The proof of Janna’s hard work can be tasted in her cooking. She can make the most simple of ingredients downright sublime. She nods when, half-jokingly, I tell her “The last thing you want to do is alienate your eaters.” This seems to reach her better than any of the headier stuff I’ve been telling her about changing demographics, cultural shifts and the democratization of food. Long story short: Chefs need eaters and, if there’s to be any thriving food movement at all, eaters need chefs, not for every meal but for experience, ideas and inspiration.

After a pause, Janna gives me that quintessential New Yorker grin of hers and pops me on the arm.

“Let’s go to that foodie place you mentioned,” she says.

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