For a Christmas present years ago, I asked the Chef at the club where I was working for his pastry crème recipe. After some back and forth, he gifted me a framed recipe titled “Unforgettable Pastry Crème.” I planned to make fruit tarts that Saturday using his famous recipe.
When I looked closer at the recipe, I realized it was entirely in French with metric measurements and no procedure. (Merry Christmas to you as well, Chef.)
This got me thinking about all my handwritten recipes with drawn pictures. A copied plate diagram to be drawn on was progress during my Olympic days.
As a young cook and even into the 1990s cataloging recipes was done by hand. If you were lucky, you might have had them laminated. Today, chefs carry the library of recipes and portfolios of work on their phones or the cloud, with a portable backup the size of an eraser.
Maybe recipes are why so many chefs have journaled their entire careers. These pages included restaurant reviews, market descriptions, or important notes about the ingredients. A curious chef never left home without a small pad, pen, and camera dangling from their neck.
My first real journal came in 1991 when I landed in China. It was a living reference with pictures, dates, and phonically-spelled dishes. This habit I had developed of journaling continued into the Olympics in ’92 when I was able to document all of the new and exciting experiences, dishes, techniques and ingredients.
Back in the day, when you ate at a restaurant, you would call a friend of a friend who had worked in that kitchen if you wanted a recipe for one of the dishes on the menu. Usually, nothing emerged, but occasionally you would get this stained copied mess of a recipe that you hoped was accurate.
Pastry departments had the only good recipes. The science of pastry requires it. Meanwhile, most recipes are handed down through interpretation on the savory side of the kitchen.
So, when I moved to Asia in 2011, journaling was in my DNA. I would find myself typing for hours about what I saw, how I felt, or what I thought I saw. Here is an example from a 2012 trip to Mumbai:
As the car stood idol in Mumbai traffic a young girl, maybe ten years old, walks into my sight under such a depth of soot she appeared to be from some foreign tribe. Her hair was caked with the dust of society. She was moving emotionless to the beat of traffic. Where is she going? What could she be doing? How am I handling my first-world discomfort? It’s difficult to describe the soiled skins of India. Their stains come from years of not bathing. It’s almost absorbed into their skin as if they were coming from work in the West Virginia coal mines.
Here is an example from 2013 when I was in Lhasa, Tibet, having dinner with the mayor:
The tremendously delicious hot food arrived: there was a tea-smoked pigeon, Hunan ham of the famous regions and Sichuan peppered chicken with a spice that danced on your mouth like a d-battery on a wet tongue dare from your old brother. Vegetables had such texture, and the dumplings were delicate yet filled with such depth of flavor. Good food is good food no matter how “traditional” or modern. Twelve Bi Jui toasts later, and the table is rocking. It’s only 7:30. Everyone is starting to loosen up now, and all are best friends. I have survived 2/3 of this experience with only fruit and tea to finish the dinner.
A mentor of mine in 2003 had traveled the globe numerous times. He always said he forgot more than he remembered. He would tell me how he only really remembered the airport, the cab, and the hotel.
When you travel on the company dime, this is what the company expects. Business-driven trips are for results, and we are accountable for the costs. This mantra creates blinders for the traveler to only do what is necessary.
As a Corporate Chef, I had to reinvent how I would travel if didn’t want to repeat my mentor’s missed opportunities. I would send the Executive Chef an agenda to prepare for a hotel visit. Ninety percent of that agenda was company driven. Ten percent was titled “cultural learnings.” This meant cooking classes, markets, community visits, or vendor exploration. I would very intentionally schedule a time to explore and learn.
These cultural visits took place before or after company meetings. Squeezing in time between meetings seemed like a win-win for both of us. My visit often forced the Executive Chef to see something they hadn’t. For example, in Osaka, we visited the Tsuruhashi fish market at 4:30 am and ate sushi at 6 am, all before the owners meeting at 8 am. In Istanbul, we visited the famed spice markets at 7 pm and were back at the hotel by midnight, ready for the next day. Those sessions are what I remember most from my travels.
Those side trips helped me build wisdom about life, people, and empathy. I drank pulled tea in the wee mornings of Mumbai at the fish market while talking to Chef Geoff Simmons about life in a third-world city. I ate jerk chicken at Scotchies Jerk Shack in Jamacia while talking life under the stars with the hotel chef. I even watched the Tokyo tuna auction, feeling the passion of the auctioneer’s voice as the bids climbed.
You can read about the auction house in a book. But it’s an entirely different type of learning to be there at 3:30 in the morning in the cold, you’re rubbing your hands against a warm cup of golden miso broth with the tangy bite of chives.
Journaling has always been part of every culture. But it’s even more critical now for chefs to record and describe the past, present and potentially future both for their journey and those they impact in their kitchens and beyond.
Lawrence McFadden, CMC, ECM, Global Hospitality Professional
Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC, ECM is a Certified Master Chef and Search & Consulting Executive for KOPPLIN KUEBLER & WALLACE. He is also Executive in Charge of the Club Leadership Alliance Food & Beverage Experience Network. Prior to joining KK&W and CLA, Lawrence served as General Manager/COO of the 146-year-old Union Club of Cleveland. His impressive 30-year career spans the globe with roles in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as some iconic operations state-side, including The Greenbrier, MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, The Ritz Carlton Company and The Waldorf Astoria Hotel.