Updated: May 18
In Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession, Andrew Friedman recounts going inside Chez Panisse meeting young infamous chefs like Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse where “the chefs, their struggles, their cliques, and, of course, their restaurants are brought to life in vivid detail”
Chefs are classic loners. Imagining them having "cliques" or social groups would seem contrary to the typical archetype of the grumpy chef, eating alone on a crate. It’s not that chefs aren’t social people but the typically crazy hours and inflexible job demands make it a lifestyle that often precludes any sort of group activities.
Bonding tends to happen based on what kind of cheffing one does, and since the responsibilities of the job can be wildly different, it also naturally attracts certain personalities. So, diving into generalizations for the sake of offering some light into the otherwise conspicuous territory known as "the back of the house" (BoH), here is a breakdown of some of the typical chef cliques that exists in the vast culinary world.
Some of the chef cliques are among traditional roles like the Executive restaurant chef. Depending on who the owner is greatly depends on how much creativity the Exec chef has. Generally while the job may still be physically demanding, the role is also very administrative. Awards like Michelin stars and good reviews are important standards for this clique.
Hotel chefs are often working in a corporate environment so there may be less creativity and catering is a daily part of the job to factor in. Tasks like purchasing are usually done at large chain hotels according to large-scale price agreements so there may be little flexibility in choosing purveyors. In the restaurant and hotel chef categories, even tighter cliques exist according to roles in the kitchen. Not just with obvious structures like rank, but also the course which the cook or chef prepares. For instance, pastry chefs tend to be in a rank of their own as they often work different hours than the rest of the crew that might be required to pull double shifts.
The newest arrivals into the industry usually fill a stage role. Not quite yet chefs, they create their own clique, sometimes offering support and creating bonds that later help them to navigate the industry. The relationships formed at this early point often continue throughout their careers for the veterans the stay in the industry long-term.
Cliques based on gender are obvious, as women, or lady chefs to be ironic, and LGBT chefs tend to be marginalized in the industry. Women have historically been relegated to cooking in the home but for years the culinary field has been notoriously masculine, a dynamic that has been perpetuated in great part by the media that has tended to favor male chefs. Given special award categories and having still little international representation in the culinary field, women and LGBT chef cliques are a still growing and diversifying clique with more awareness about the gender imbalance being brought to light.
Be it private cheffing for multiple families or brands, this chef could be flying from the Swiss Alps to a private island, cooking for famous rappers and bands, or preparing breakfast in Miami after clients get back from clubbing. This chef is may be a content creator, leveraging their status, or at the opposite extreme, may be required to keep much of their activities low on the radar to protect the privacy of their clients. We could also refer to this chef clique as the bougie chef. Often social media savvy, this and the celebrity chef clique are the most common to collaborate with major fashion brands and artists.
Food Truck Chefs.
A customer-facing role, food truck chefs are tweeting their way through cities across the world. This chef clique is defined by a personality doesn't mind working and planning in a small space. Owners often rent a separate location to hold stock that doesn't fit while the kitchen is in service. Depending on the city, food truck chefs also have to consider constantly changing city regulations and manage relationships with other food truck owners sometimes forming coalitions.
Yacht and Jet Chefs.
Yacht chef cliques are as tight as their cooking quarters. Usually working alone or with a skeleton crew, their irregular schedules and tiny work and living spaces make this a clique that's almost impossible to separate. The cooking conditions tend to be tricky at best, usually requiring McGyver-like skills to account for a unusual environmental conditions, limited tools, and even basic appliances.
The Nomad Chef.
We're not talking about Rene Redzepi's famous restaurant, Nomad, but a clique of chefs that "cook on the go." Taking their skills to the test, members of the nomad chef clique move around the world from Bali to Bologna, working gigs, cooking in whatever kitchen needs an extra set of hands. These chefs are often looking for adventure, on the hunt for new tastes and experiences that form unique menus.
Every country has their own set of celebrity chefs with known food cities being hubs that bring top culinary talent together. Thanks to media franchises like Masterchef, Top Chef, and Chopped, many of these chefs have become household names. The influence of chefs in this clique is often extensive and not surprisingly, one of the most widely recognized.
Now more than ever, the food industry is changing and offers immense opportunity for anyone who has the right imagination. Just like everything else, chef cliques and the roles within them are constantly evolving, with the next generations entering the field, bringing with them fresh ideas, new perspectives, and evolved dynamics.