Hunter S. Thompson practiced a highly editorial, sometimes mostly factual form of writing that he called gonzo journalism. When asked, he said that GONZO is “learning to fly while falling”.
I’ve worked with a few amazing gonzo cooks. John Besh absolutely could not be stumped, be the ingredient wild arugula or wild boar still on the hoof. Eric Ziebold, who was the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry during the two years I cooked there, was the king of gonzo cooking. Watching those two, I learned to be especially wary when someone makes it look easy.
Right off the bat, I saw that I could no more cook on EZ’s level than I could write on HST’s. But as I worked with him over the next two years, I gradually understood that what he was doing wasn’t sorcery. It was an accumulation of knowledge and experience that turned a harrowing service, full of split-second decisions in a tense, intimidating, 100-degree environment, into a walk in the park.
And as he taught me the steps in the process, each became learned, then engrained, then second nature, then natural. The wisps of white smoke in the oil said the pan was ready for the medallions of veal. The inflection of the expediter’s voice told me that this pickup was more urgent than the last. The other expediter’s long fire call to the fish cook told me I would get crushed in fifteen minutes.
The electric salamander I had turned on was radiating heat onto my forehead, so as soon as the veal came out of the pan, it could be gratineed with the truffle crust. The garde manger cook wasn’t busy, so he could put plates in the oven for me. The sauteuse had been on the eye of the stove too long and should be pulled off to a cooler spot, the meat had to be turned, the plates had to come out, the polenta cakes had to be flipped, the pizza pans had to be lined, the veal came out, the strings got cut, and on and on till everyone got fed.
But that’s not gonzo, that’s just line cooking. Gonzo was when EZ or Thomas Keller had ordered us a whole animal: goat, shoat, lamb, whatever, just to see what we would do with its subprimal parts. Have you ever had veal flank steak? Well, there’s two on each baby cow, and you can do more than just grind them for bolognese. The gonzo cook applies his genius right here, because he HAD to use all those cuts, and he HAD to use them for VIP guests.
When the VIP orders came to the kitchen back in those days, they were pretty much blank, and the cooks and sous chefs had to fill them in. Well, what’s in your drawer, meat cook? Well, I have some stuffed rabbit shoulder, couple pieces of lamb neck, lamb saddle on the bone, two ribeye caps, a pork belly. Great. Make it happen.
So when YOU, line cook, are able to elevate yourself above a busy service, with who-knows-how-many pans going on the stovetop and in the oven, and to compose four-star dishes on the fly with the ingredients at hand while executing all the steps above, that’s when everything flows in perfect synchronicity. The adrenaline races up and down your spine, muscle memory takes over, everyone else is in slow motion, you know the call before it comes, you can see six or seven moves down the line, and everyone else in the kitchen knows it. A throwdown like that is nothing you can put on your resumé—it won’t make you famous or rich or even well-liked–but for a line cook, it’s pure glory, and that’s all you need.