Men and women in fatigues are probably the last things we think of just as we dig into a beautifully-plated dish at an upscale restaurant, but the culinary and military worlds overlap in surprisingly countless ways from how the modern restaurant kitchen is organized to the packaged foods in our pantries.
Some of the parallels between the two worlds may be familiar to curious eaters. SPAM — the iconic, shelf-stable canned meat — first comes to mind. Purchased by the U.S. military to feed troops during World War II, SPAM found its way into a variety of dishes as an inexpensive protein during and after the war in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Hawaii and elsewhere. Yet many of us are unaware that many of the modern foods we take for granted were initially developed in U.S. military laboratories aimed at extending the shelf life and the palatability of food for those in the field. We have those labs to thank for innovations that keep pre-washed salad greens in bags fresh, or that keep cookies and energy bars from going stale in their packaging.
The Kitchen Brigade
Rigor, discipline, precision. These easily describe any military operation, but can also apply to the grueling demands of the busy professional kitchen. The traditional hierarchical structure found in a restaurant kitchen, known as the brigade system, traces its roots back to the battlefields of 14th-century Europe. As armies traveled long distances, cooks were chosen from the ranks to feed the troops during battle and for feasts during peacetime tournaments. In the process, principles and practices of the military such as rank, discipline and cleanliness made their way into the kitchen.
In the late 19th century, influential French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier developed the modern kitchen brigade system while working at the Savoy Hotel. A former army chef himself, Escoffier observed the hierarchical structure of the military and thought a similar system would help a civilian kitchen run more efficiently and smoothly, cut down on duplication of efforts and create specific staff functions — especially in high-end establishments where 60 to 80 people might play a role in service.
At the top of the chain of command in Escoffier’s kitchen brigade is the chef de cuisine (executive chef), considered the general of the kitchen, who is assisted by the sous chef. Below those top ranks are the chefs de partie or station chefs, each responsible for a specific task such as saucier (sauté and sauces), rôtisseur (roasts), poissonnier (seafood), garde manger (cold food), pâtissier (pastries), and much more. A similar hierarchy can also be found in the front of house, particularly in fine dining operations, with the maître d'hôtel, chef de salle or head waiter, sommelier and so on. While many modern kitchens employ fewer staff than the grand fine dining operations of the past, simplified versions of Escoffier’s kitchen brigade can be found around the world today.
“It's discipline. That's the biggest factor in a kitchen,” explains Robert Irvine, a chef closely familiar with the kitchen brigade system and military order. In addition to hosting “Restaurant: Impossible” on the Food Network, and recently opening Robert Irvine’s Public House at Tropicana Las Vegas, the decorated chef also served in the British Royal Navy for a decade. From preparing huge feasts aboard aircraft carriers to visiting troops at overseas bases, as well as working with wounded warriors and veterans of both the U.S. and British armed services, Irvine sees numerous parallels between how a professional kitchen functions and a military operation.
Irvine compares the discipline, order and clear communication needed in both settings in order to operate efficiently. “We have ten people in the army, we have ten people in the kitchen. When an order starts coming in, and the chef says, ‘Hey listen, I need one fish, one steak, one medium rare, one this, one this.’ What's the first thing everybody says? They acknowledge the order given. [‘Yes, chef.’] It's the same in the military. The captain says to the sergeant major, ‘I want you to do this and execute it.’ He says, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he walks off. So the discipline piece is huge.”
Philip Mack, executive chef at Maple at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, also has a strong appreciation for the order and discipline of a tightly run kitchen brigade having served in the US Coast Guard from 1998 to 2009. While traveling during his years of service, Mack was exposed to cultures, art and food that he says he might not have otherwise encountered, helping to broaden his perspective on the world. He was particularly inspired by the flavors, ingredients and preparations of low country cuisine and soul food he encountered at his first duty station in Pascagoula, Mississippi, “It touched my soul, and from there I never looked back.”
Mack explains that the brigade system leaves little doubt about who is in charge, and when used effectively it’s not only very efficient but also allows individuals to achieve their own goals of advancement. “When I made the decision to follow my passion of becoming a chef, part of the reason is the similarities between the two,” Mack admits. “The hierarchy system has always been appealing to me.”
Teamwork in the Kitchen
In addition to creating order and efficiency in the kitchen, Mack also considers the discipline of the kitchen brigade system as a means to develop pride and camaraderie amongst the fellow kitchen staff. “We speak our own language, and refer to others as civilians, setting our tribe apart from the rest of world,” he explains. “What can I say, I love it. It is a system that rewards work ethic, knowledge and organization. It is for this reason I run my kitchen very similarly.”
Irvine echoes Mack’s appreciation for the camaraderie and teamwork that comes with working in close unison, both in the kitchen and in the field. “When we go on a mission in the military, we stay as a team, we eat together, we sleep together, we live together. The same is pretty much true with a chef's society,” Irvine says. “90 percent of our life is spent in those kitchens together. Even when the kitchen closes, we clean, we get a drink, we eat. Then we say goodnight, and we come back three or four hours later and we do it all over again. So it's a repetitive discipline, the teamwork, the loyalty, camaraderie. And it's the same that works in the military. That's why people that come out of the military do so well [in restaurant kitchens] because they're disciplined and they care about their team's welfare and well-being. That's how that brigade system works so well.”
According to Mack, it’s the organization, discipline and teamwork that gets a kitchen through the rapid-fire succession of a busy night of service. “When I was a line cook — which, by the way, was the most fun I have ever had in a kitchen — my coworkers and I always felt like we were preparing for battle, a “service” battle,” he explains. That preparation means having a clean station with your mise-en-place — the French term for “put in place” — a well-orchestrated system for having the tools and ingredients you need in place. Just as those in combat are expected to intimately know their equipment and weapon even in the dark of night, a well-trained chef will know his or her mise-en-place even if they were blindfolded.
Mack continues, “Ensuring your station, your piece of the puzzle was properly prepared for, loaded up, awaiting the sound of the tickets and the call of the sergeants (sous chef’s) orders and realizing the success of the evening dinner service wasn’t on you — it was on the team. Everyone needed to play their part. Be professionals in their role. From the dishwashers to the chef, we all have to be in sync with one another for an evening to run smooth. The same can be said for a Search and Rescue sortie. We all had our roles; we were all a part of the team with an overall objective. We all have to be professionals and masters of our craft in order to be successful. The only difference is no one dies at the end of a service if someone can’t hold their own. The same can’t be said for the military.”
The double-breasted white coat commonly worn by chefs — also known as “chef’s whites” — is also often credited back to Escoffier who sought to professionalize the chef’s uniform. Just as military uniforms denote order and discipline, Escoffier wanted to bring the same level of seriousness to the kitchen. For the design, Escoffier took inspiration from the white pastry coat favored by Marie-Antoine Carême — the French chef whose influential haute cuisine Escoffier modernized and streamlined — and made a few improvements. Before Carême, most chefs wore grey, but both he and Escoffier considered the stark white coat to signify cleanliness and order in the kitchen. (White can also be easily bleached to remove stains.)
Escoffier replaced the white coat’s typically cheap clipping buttons with cloth French knot buttons, or in some cases, buttons made from sturdy oyster shells, which didn’t run the risk of easily breaking and winding up in the food. The buttons offered a touch of elegance, while also making it safer and easier to remove, especially for hot oil spills or other emergencies. Escoffier also made the jacket double-breasted instead of single(?)-breasted, so that a chef could easily switch the soiled side to the clean side in the event of a spill or when meeting important guests. He also required looser fitting trousers for chefs, more akin to a military cut, to allow for easier movement. The pants were also made with a black and white houndstooth print to better camouflage stains.
The classic chef’s toque, those towering white cylindrical hats, is often credited to Carême. The chef thought that the tall hats, propped up by a round piece of cardboard, indicated a healthy chef as opposed to the floppy hat preferred by some of his peers, which suggested “a state of convalescence.” Other theories trace the tall hats further back, including one that suggests they were inspired by the tall hats worn by Ottoman soldiers. Given that the height of a chef’s hat once indicated their rank in the kitchen, with the chef de cuisine wearing the tallest, the military comparison seems apt. Of course, these days, the tall hats have fallen out of fashion in many kitchens, and you’re more likely to see a short skullcap, a baseball hat or no hat at all.
Chef Irvine points out that chef’s whites still remain the standard uniform in many kitchens, but these days you’re likely to see a variety of colors both in restaurants and in military kitchens. “I think with the modern times, obviously chef's whites if they're pristine they look great, but they dirty very quickly in an environment, in a theater, in a war zone, in a submarine,” he explains. “White shows dirt, black doesn't. Red is not as bad. Even most recently we’re going to polo shirts. So it really depends on the command as to what they allow their chefs to wear. Obviously not in culinary school, but definitely in the military. It's an interesting change.”
He adds that the shift away from the more formalized chef’s uniform offers a more relaxed feel, perhaps reflective of a more casual approach to contemporary cooking in general. “I think, for me when I wear a chef's jacket, I become a different person. Less fun. And more formal. So for me a polo shirt instead of wearing a chef's jacket — which has to be pristine and razor sharp every day — it allows a little bit more creative freedom.”
Reflecting on the important role that those who cook in the military play, Irvine adds, “I think it's the best job in the world. I think it's the most needed job in the military, period. You know, there's an old saying that Napoleon Bonaparte [or Frederick the Great may have] said, ‘An army marches on its stomach.’”
Top image: U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alexander O’Reilly, from the 116th Air Control Wing (ACW) Services Flight, Georgia Air National Guard (ANG), prepares vegetables for dinner/Wikimedia Commons