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Everyone has heard the term “control freak,” which describes a personality dominated by a need to control others and situations. In essence, the person wants things done their way with little or no regard for other’s wishes. The truth of the matter is we’re all control freaks; it’s just a matter of degree. It’s human nature to pursue our innate inclinations and construct an environment amenable to our desires. As stated, some of us are worse than others, but who doesn’t prefer to have things their own way? Such is the human condition.
Obviously this drive can manifest itself in any area of human experience but I find it particularly noteworthy in the culinary realm. Everybody has their own way of doing things in the kitchen. Think about when you were growing up. Your family members had their own style of cooking. You probably adopted some of their practices and added some peculiarities of your own. Now you have your own style. But how flexible were your mentors in the kitchen? And how flexible are you when others diverge from your accustomed techniques?
A neighbor of mine saw my osso buco recipe in one of the publications that I write for. She sharply asserted in a judgmental tone: “I never heard of putting parsnips and turnips in osso buco”, (as if to say), I’ve never done it that way so it’s wrong. I am awestruck by the folks who think that their life experiences are the eternal truth for the rest of us. It’s one thing to have your own way of doing things. It’s a whole other psychological ballpark to believe that your way is the gold standard. Obviously I am not referring to culinary situations where there’s clearly a right and a wrong way for performing certain tasks. I’m alluding to the innumerable “gray zone” situations that have multiple approaches and the individuals who think their way is right and everybody else’s is wrong.
The professional kitchen undoubtedly offers the best examples of narcissism of this magnitude. I’ll never forget the day a fellow chef chastised me for whipping my cream in a circular motion as opposed to a side to side motion. Or the chef who told me to hold the asparagus perpendicular to the cutting board as opposed to parallel when peeling it. This is the level of egocentric kookiness I’m talking about. And the individuals who insist on having things done in their own idiosyncratic manner always have a plausible explanation for their modus operandi. Their routine is always the fastest, the easiest or the tastiest. Yet every chef who has a different approach to the task will say the same thing, so as they say, you do the math.
Even in cooking school there were a variety of techniques that the chefs disagreed on. These were seasoned professionals with years of experience and they still couldn’t reach a consensus on some practices. But what I found most striking was not that there was a diversity of opinion, but that there was an arrogance of opinion. Each one thought their procedure was right and either verbally or non-verbally rebuked the other chefs for their “incorrect” one.
Virtually every restaurant chef dreams of having his own restaurant someday. No, not just for the money. So he can do things his own way! So he can finally free himself of the countless number of other chefs who have been over his shoulder for years barking at him about how to do things. Or, for the true control freak, liberation from other’s domination is not enough. He also relishes the opportunity to turn the tables and make others do things his way. Identification with the aggressor certainly has its psychic rewards.
I think the kitchen is highly amenable to control issues because 1) there are numerous ways to approach culinary tasks and 2) although some rules are etched in stone, many are open to interpretation, debatable, and/or flexible enough to allow for a great divergence in implementation. When the rules are iron clad and objectively valid, then external reality regulates the situation. But when there is an absence of hard and fast rules, or the “rules” are subjective, then people control the situation based on their interpretation of the rules.
But what makes people so dogmatic about their methods? I think that once again the frailty of the human ego comes into play. Anyone who thinks that that their way is always right, and/or insists that others do likewise, is inevitably struggling with insecurities. You might retort with: “But doesn’t the head chef have a right to have things his way?” Absolutely. That’s not in dispute. The question is: Why do some possess an absolutistic NEED to assert that right to extreme proportions? I worked for a head chef who stood next to his line cooks incessantly yelling criticisms for their almost every move during the entire dinner rush. Such behavior has nothing to do with his “rights” and everything to do with his craziness.
When too much ego comes into play we lose sight of the real goals. Producing correctly prepared, aesthetically pleasing, and delicious food, in an efficient and cost-conscious manner takes a back seat to pedantic regimentation. Nazi-chef will claim that quality is his motivation but there are plenty of chefs who get the job done without the Machiavellian mindset. Once again, such behavior speaks more to the person’s character than the seemingly plausible goal of quality control. Excessive controlling demoralizes and stresses out staff, undermines their respect for you, increases staff turnover, and frequently leads to passive-aggressive behavior. It matters if things are done right, but don’t right things that don’t matter.