What it means to be Chopped
Contestants routinely cite their competing on Chopped as an appeal for validation that they are truly good enough, that they made the right choice in their profession, that they (excuse the pun) “make the cut.” As one contestant said, a win “would be a complete affirmation that I’m going in the right direction.”
This obsession with being “good enough” seems to me to correlate quite closely with the academic graduate student’s obsession with being “smart enough,” or “published enough,” or whatever benchmark they believe they might have some measure of control over as they enter what they know will be a brutal job search. Ultimately, many candidates who are plenty skilled will not make the cut, just as many talented chefs don’t pass muster on Chopped.
Training or Education?
I’m not sure what the ratio is of professional chefs (and I’m not sure if that term has a standardized definition) who are “trained” on the job versus those who are “educated” at culinary institutions, but there does appear to be a clear distinction on the show, an unspoken tension among the different classes. Those who have attended a famous culinary school make a point of naming their institution in much the same way as those who have degrees from highly sought-after academic programs, and anyone who has training in the French style makes a studious point of letting viewers (and judges, and anyone else in the vicinity) aware of their awesomeness.
The self-taught chefs, however, present the most interesting perspective on their education. They almost always note that they didn’t go to culinary school, which they follow with either an expression of doubt or hope that they will be able to perform or a self-conscious assertion that they are just as good as those who attended a culinary school. Sometimes the competitor appears to really believe themselves, and other times they are transparently justifying their position.
All this makes me think about the difference between training and education, and the purposes behind each. When I think of “Training,” I think of something, generally of short duration, that is designed to impart specific skills to do a given task. I get training in Canvas, our college’s learning management system (think Blackboard), I get training in how to navigate Word or build a web page. In foodservice, one might be trained in some certain aspect of the business, say dishwashing or prep work. Later, one is promoted to the grill or line cook, and learns this job. After several years, the employee has held many of the cooking jobs, and knows how to do almost everything, so they feel confident and apply for Chopped. They are well-trained, but are they educated?
To be educated implies more than simply having amassed a certain number of skill sets, although the connotation is not widely agreed upon. An “education,” particularly in the humanistic tradition, implies taking a longer view than simply learning discrete skills that someone might pay for; this is historically the difference between getting a degree (Associate’s, Bachelor’s or higher) or getting a certificate, the difference between a certificate from a mechanic’s institute and the mechanics program at a community college.
What’s the Takeaway?
What’s my point here? At regular intervals on Chopped, the contestants must deal with exotic, often truly odd ingredients, the sort of thing that no one, I mean no one, ever really cooks with. Someone who has a fuller education, generally, finds themselves in a better position to address these odd ingredients. They may never have actually used (or even seen!) a hundred-year egg, but they’ve heard of it. Sometimes they’ve never encountered an ingredient, like goat brains, before, or fenugreek (is it a grain? Is it a spice?), but they can more easily assess its qualities and make a better (wait for it) educated guess about how to address it. Ultimately, it comes down to a difference of knowing how to do something, versus knowing how to think through a unique problem. The solution of education is the ability to think through unforeseen situations more so than the ability to perform a predetermined set of specific tasks.
For contestants on Chopped, as it is for our students, pursuing an education is an act of faith that the things learned are intrinsically valuable; even though they may take their culinary degree and work in a rib joint, knowing how to julienne an exotic vegetable just might come in handy someday. Our students often bemoan the pointlessness of required courses like English and Math, but I submit that, like their culinary brethren, having an education pays dividends far beyond the concrete skill set required for a particular job title.