Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Escoffier & Ho Chi Minh--Or Vietnam Explained

Anyone who has worked in a restaurant, particularly one that is higher-end, has experienced a microcosm of war. Hatred simmers quietly between the kitchen and the front staff; for despite the occasional, alcohol-fuelled carnal sessions between the two sides, the kitchen is convinced that the waiters are vastly overpaid (via tips), while the servers believe the kitchen has it easy because they so rarely have to interact with the public.

Within the two sides, there are also conflicts. In the kitchen, the chef abuses his sous-chefs, who in turn curse the line-cooks, and the line-cooks offload foul language and as much prep as they can get away with on to the dishwashers. The front staff is a little more fluid, but the maitre’D and the Sommelier are usually the elite; the dinner staff are above the lunch shift, and the bussers are anyone’s game (including the kitchen staff’s). On the floor, the main conflict arises from quietly hissed discussions about NOT wanting to serve the Australian table (they rarely tip), or whose turn it is to take the boorish celebrity who NEVER tips.

Over the sizzle of sauté pans, the suspicion between the cooks is more vitriolic. The chef is convinced, often correctly, that any one of his sous-chefs is plotting to either supplant him or steal his best recipes and move on to a better paycheque at another establishment. As a result, he will bully and denigrate them in a hateful fashion. The closer the chef is to the European kitchen tradition, the more of abusive he is, the result of the equally foul treatment he received as an apprentice.

This army-like system was formalized by Auguste Escoffier, who, in 1914, was the world’s most famous chef--and the boss of Nguyen Tat Thanh, a twenty-four-year-old college-dropout from French Indochina who reached employment at London’s Carlton Hotel via passage on the Admiral Latouche Treville as a cook’s assistant. It would be thirty years before he returned to his homeland, by then modestly calling himself Ho, the Shedder of Light (Chi Minh). During those years he studied in Moscow, formed a communist alliance in France, reputedly lived in Harlem, fought the Japanese in China and Thailand, and marched with Mao Tse Tung’s Eighth Route Army.

What, one wonders, were the effects of his kitchen experiences on the rebellious young Nguyen? To travel thousands of miles to escape the bleak realities of French Colonialism, only to end up at the beck and call of the man called the “Emperor of Chefs” must have been galling. To take, in exchange for the shillings that saw him through London’s brutal winter, the casual racial epithets and snarling abuse that is still a common feature of the kitchen experience. Most kitchen underlings boil over with a job-ending swing of the fist at their tormentor. This one went on to drive the French out of Vietnam and hand out a whipping that American armed forces last experienced in the War Between the States (and, in that instance, the sting was mitigated because the side that won was American).

The Vietnam War cut a swathe across American society, polarizing many of the offspring of those who had fought in the Last Good War against the parents they deemed blindly patriotic. Was America justified in attacking a foreign nation without provocation, anti-war activists asked? The ends of defeating communism justify the means, replied those who supported the war. As the world watched the fall of Saigon, a militarily humiliated America withdrew from Vietnam. Many in the American Right felt that, rather than the logistical nightmare of running an unsupported war where every civilian was a possible foe, the defeat was caused by internal flag-burning traitors, a position that both Bush Senior and Junior agreed with.

In September of 2001, blind patriotism got another chance. With a nation in shock, the government was able to quietly remove many of the rights and freedoms that had been fought for in the Revolution. Journalists unprotestingly swallowed whatever they were fed by the Administration. An unprovoked war was initiated, without any of the awareness and accountability that the Vietnam experience should have fostered. Rather than independent critics, the media were now “embedded” cheerleaders. Military virility was reasserted as the US led coalition quickly marched through to Bagdad.

America was finally back in the kitchen. What did it matter if it was the wrong one, and if no one had any clear notion of how to get the meal from hearth to table?Bush and Co.’s illogical determination to invade Iraq (Pakistan or Saudi Arabia would have been more logical targets, if it really was about terrorism) came, in part, from the perceived humiliation of not “finishing” the first Gulf War, that war overshadowed in turn by the defeat of American military might delivered by a bunch of "gook" peasants lead by Uncle Ho. In light of all this, is it so inconceivable that one of the sparks that lit the current conflagration was a young Vietnamese baker’s resentment over his treatment at the hands of the man who gave the world Melba toast?


SansPedes said...

Dispite the long standing myth, there has never been any evidence found to support the claim that Ho Chi Minh ever worked under or with Escoffier. He may have worked as a chef at the Drayton Court Hotel on The Avenue in West Ealing, though this is also in contention. There may be some credibility to the claim that he worked at the Carlton Hotel in the Haymarket in Westminster where once Escoffier ran the kitchen. The only known evidence though, is a plaque on the the wall of the New Zealand House, which occupies the site of the hotel today, which states that in 1913 Minh worked at the hotel as a Waiter, not as the oft reported Chef. The plaque sites no references and gives no exact dates.

SansPedes said...

Additionally, while I'll ignore the Anti-American and Pro-Communism/liberalism leanings of the article, I must address the re-writing of history. 1st: America did not attack a nation unprovoked in Veitnam. America was asked by the only recognized government of Veitnam, for aid in combating, what was considered a communist rebel occupatio in the north. 2nd: America intially did no fighting in Veitnam, merely providing training, inteligence and logistical support to the South Veitnamese Military. We were slowly drawn into fighting when it was clear that the south couldn't stand on it's own and it was decided that Veitnam could not be lost to communism and Russia(not justification just fact. I think the whole war was unnecessary). 3rd: There are no quotes on record, by either Bush, that show a belief that protesters caused the American defeat in Veitnam. Most historians and military strategists agree that the war in Veitnam was mainly lost due to three things; the loss of support by the American Public, interference in the tactics and prosecution of the war effort by politicians in Washington(on both sides) and the loss of support by the citizens of Veitnam (which occurred slowly over the course of time, not from the very beginning as the author would have you believe). 4th: the Patriot Act was originally written by Joe Biden in 1998 not as a response to 9/11/01. Aside from the right to send money to support terrorist organizations, what rights has the average law-abiding citizen lost? What can't you do now, that you could before the Patriot Act? 5th: Iraq's supposed stockholds of WMDs and violation of multiple UN resolutions was the main justification for war, not support of terrorism. Intelligence failures and confirmation bias were reasons why the Bush Administration thought Iraq was an imediate threat, not some conspiracy by G. W. Bush to finish what his father started in Desert Storm. Saddam's own Generals and administrators thought the WMDs were real. Saddam claimed to have more WMDs than he had, because he wanted his people and the rest of the middle east to fear him. Lastly, having worked as a chef (both soux and executive) in numerous high end restaurants across the country(including Ming Tsai's famed Fire & Ice in Boston), aside from the occasional friendly rivalry between the kitchen & wait staff and a few tyrannical executive chefs/managers/owners, I have never experienced the kind of work environment the author claims is so common in the industry. Either I've been improbably lucky or the author is cursed by terrible luck. I just find the whole premise of the article to be unsound.

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