Why Do You Cook? Chef Andrew Little Answers

Chef Andrew Little

Chef Andrew Little ›

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An e-mail showed up in my inbox a couple of days ago from Craig McCord at HandPicked Nation posing the question ‘Why do you cook?’ and the timing of this question could not have been more perfect. At the time I received the e-mail I was attending the 16th Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. Being able to take a few days away from Nashville not only allowed me to think about Southern foodways, but also provided me with a great deal of travel time with my friend, colleague and fellow chef Sal Avila. It’s about a four hour drive from Nashville to Oxford and much of that time was spent talking about food, cooking and the life of the professional chef; granted some of that time was spent talking about drum corps (a coincidental interest for both of us), but mostly it was about food. As fate would have it, I actually remember talking about ‘why I cook’. So, you could say I got a little jumpstart on the thought process for this column.

I really like the question ‘why do you cook?’. I think this is such a critical question and something that every professional cook should consider throughout their career. In fact, I think this question is so important that cooks should take the time to write down the answer yearly and keep the results of this exercise as I believe that while the question is static, the answer is fluid. Throughout the course of a cook’s career the answer may change; I know it has for me.

Why have I cooked? Early in my career, I was attracted to the speed of the kitchen and the sense of accomplishment that came with producing a finished product, day in and day out. I liked the lifestyle of a cook and I liked being able to end my day dirty, sweaty, tired and knowing that I had accomplished a certain set of tasks to the best of my ability. That was it, I wanted to come in, bang it out, go home and do it all over again the next day; and I loved it.

At another point in my career, I became attracted to the idea of perfecting technique. I was driven by the desire to create ‘perfect’ food and ‘perfect’ technique. That was the push; that was why I cooked; chasing the perfect sear, the perfect braise, the perfect color on a loaf of brioche. As I matured and gathered more life experiences, my view of what was perfect changed, but I was still chasing an ideal that lived somewhere in my head.

In 2013, in Nashville, Tennessee, I cook ‘full circle’; start to finish; field to kitchen to plate to mouth.

Another stage of my career brought on an obsession with ingredients. I cooked so that I could best represent the products that I had either grown in my kitchen garden or procured from farmers with whom I had special relationships. I wanted my hands in the dirt, I was obsessively driven by terroir and I wanted the finished products I cooked to be 100% in the service of the ingredient.

Why do I cook? If you look closely at the paragraph above, there is one obvious piece missing. There is never a mention of interaction with the guest. Which is not to say that in the past I haven’t been concerned with the guest experience, I have. I mention lifestyle, chasing ‘perfect food’ and terroir, but every answer is a decidedly a ‘behind the closed kitchen door’ type of answer. What happens once the food leaves the kitchen? That’s not the end of the story. At points in my career, I always felt as though if the reason I cooked had been satisfied, then that was the end. If the product was respected to the best of my ability, I had accomplished my goal or if I had attained what I viewed as a ‘perfect’ technique I was happy.

In 2013, in Nashville, Tennessee, I cook ‘full circle’; start to finish; field to kitchen to plate to mouth. The restaurant Josephine will have an entirely open kitchen, so it will be possible for cooks (who may be at any one of the stages of evolution in their career listed above) and guests to visually interact, which I think is an important part of the process.

The ‘end’ for me is presenting all of my life experiences on the plate and opening up a conversation with the guests. I cook for the ‘exchange’. That moment when a chef gives over to the guest and there is unspoken communication. Restaurants have an amazing restorative power and I cook to help bring that feeling to guests.

Am I still driven to perfect technique? Yes. Am I still turned on by being able to go in to work, bang it out and come back the next day only to do it all over again? Yes. Am I still ingredient driven? That’s the only way to be. Add to all of this a desire to ‘cook for the exchange’ and you have ‘full circle’ cooking.

Why do you cook? Think about it. Simply stepping back and writing it down is an incredible experience.

This is why Chef Andrew Little cooks. Why do you cook?

Photo credit: Andrea Behrends