Letters to a Young Chef

May 28, 2017

Lessons from a master chef on the business and craft of cooking.

Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef is, on its surface, a collection of advice on how to make it in the restaurant industry. But if you take just a step back, it’s full of wisdom on how to live, work, and learn. I was delighted to notice obvious parallels between Boulud’s profession and my own of programming, starting right in the first chapter:

The more you look at cooking, the more you realize it is always an unfinished education. There is truly no limit to how much you can learn.

With so much to learn, Boulud urges patience:

First, do not be in a hurry. Even if things fall into place perfectly, it will take you at least ten to fifteen years before you can truly call yourself a chef.

I wish someone had told me that when I began my career. Perhaps because programming involves so much building on the work of others, I remember thinking a couple years into my career that I could probably build Facebook if only I had the time. Now ten years in, I know much better just how much I don’t know, and what tremendous effort is required to make things look easy.

With no limit to what you can learn, the author encourages breadth as well as depth. Asked whether it’s important for a chef to also learn wine:

The young chef who has ambitions to be a great chef is interested in every aspect of the business, and wine is a very big aspect.

It’s an important point that by “great chef,” Boulud doesn’t just mean someone who can cook well, but also manage a successful team and business. This is also something I’ve learned in my career: being about to code well is important, but in most jobs it’s far from sufficient. First, there are the ancillary skills of debugging, optimizing, monitoring, testing, and estimating. What’s more, you must be able to communicate about technical concerns with both technical and non-technical audiences, which means being a skilled public speaker and writer. And having great ideas is worth little if you can’t convince your team to adopt them, so add politics and persuasion to your toolbox. Finally, a system is only as strong as its weakest component, so you must also be a teacher capable of improving the abilities of those around you. In all, what most people think of as programming (and what I though was all of it when I started out) is but a small part of the job. I imagine most jobs are like that.

In short, cooking and programming are both collaborative efforts, so the ability to find and train great teammates will prove more valuable than focusing entirely on one’s own skills. As Boulud puts it:

If you become a top chef, being good is not good enough. You need to hire great.

And it’s not just employees. Boulud places great emphasis on building relationships with those who provide the things your work depends on, arguing that you can’t cook great food without great ingredients.

Purveyors, to use the term more common among chefs, are our connection to quality. Find these people and treat them like family. Feed them when they come to you. Send come cakes and cookies home for their kids. Spend time with them discussing their passion (that is, your ingredients).

…If you meet people who talk about the ingredients they offer with the same fond smile that others save for anecdotes about their children, get to know them.

In programming, this may mean getting to know the infrastructure folks down the hall who manage the servers your code runs on, or the operations team that keeps it running. And following the ethic of open-source, help out the people who write the libraries your code depends on.

Furthermore, be grateful especially to those who criticize you, even if they’re jerks about it:

Being courteous to a charming customer is easy. Being nice to a pain in the neck is professional.

Indeed, the more successful you become, the harder good criticism is to come by:

When you have a famous restaurant, almost everyone will tell you how great your food is and how great your place is. Tat is nice, but it does not necessarily help you improve.

Criticism, on the other hand, helps you make corrections.

And on the subject of success and humility, I admire Boulud’s eagerness to help out with even the most ordinary tasks for the sake of the final product:

Sometimes, when things are busy and the wait staff if backed up, I will take an order or help serve something tableside. The staff appreciates it. The customers appreciate it. And it actually helps in a practical sense.

Bottom line: Do whatever it takes to make things go smoothly and everybody stays happy.

In all, Letters to a Young Chef is a delightful read if you’re interested in craftsmanship, but especially if you spend any time in the kitchen. I’ll close with Boulud’s “Ten Commandments of a Chef,” which are as fine a set of guiding principles as any I’ve come across:

  1. Keep your knives sharp.
  2. Work with the best people.
  3. Keep your station orderly.
  4. Purchase wisely.
  5. Season with precision.
  6. Master the heat.
  7. Learn the world of food.
  8. Know the classics.
  9. Accept criticism.
  10. Keep a journal of your recipes.