More Than a Chef
Cooking is a tempting, but destructive, mistress.
by Brad Neumann ’98
Food didn’t become the so-called center of my universe until 2000, when I graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City’s SOHO district.
Never again would I be able to go out to eat, cook something for myself and others, or even enter into a simple conversation without gourmet cuisine being so central to, well, everything.
Food always intrigued me. A meal was the highlight of all of my favorite holidays—the busyness in the kitchen, the aromas, the “magic” that happened before everyone sat down.
When I was growing up in Iowa, my brother and I had a babysitter who was a college foreign exchange student. She taught my mom how to cook authentic Taiwanese food, a taste beyond anything I’d previously known. I was hooked. My dad still recalls my determination as a high schooler to perfect a crepe, an avocation my family never expected. Ever.
After college I spent 15 boring months at a small advertising agency in New York City. While everyone else read Advertising Age, I chose Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur and Bon Appetit. So I left and spent the next nine months temping during the day to attend the Institute three nights a week. I’d never before seen veal bones or sweetbreads, learned French, understood the science behind a soufflé, tried to comprehend why someone would eat consommé (still don’t), or been made to feel like such an idiot time after time.
Ask 99 percent of the chefs out there—cooking isn’t something you do for the money; you do it because you can’t help yourself. You do it for the love of cooking.
For the next three years I spent a minimum of 10 hours a day at least five days a week getting my butt handed to me by some of the best chefs, fellow cooks, and discerning diners in the country. I never made over $14 an hour, a pretty generous rate for a line cook. The work nearly ended my marriage (before I switched to the day shift), but I couldn’t get enough of it. Professional cooking can ruin people. The industry is full of alcohol and drug abuse, shattered relationships, passionate workaholics, and scars and burns. We can’t help it. Even now I often miss working on the line, with all the fast paced lunacy and post-shift binge drinking it involves. Cooking is a tempting, but destructive, mistress.
Life is full of trade-offs. With a talented and loving wife and two beautiful daughters, I opted to put my wife’s career over mine. Given her earning power and saner work hours, that seemed to make sense. Before transitioning to catering and teaching cooking school, I spent six amazing months at home with my first daughter. And I will probably not work full time in the near future, which might save my knees and sanity before retirement.
As I reflect on the various decisions that have shaped my career I find myself wondering about our definition of what it means to be a man. So often the husband is expected to be the breadwinner, the provider, the protector, the bad cop, and even the decision maker. Yet I’ve never met another father who wasn’t envious of my position as the mostly stay-at-home dad, even if just for a couple months of their lives.
In the end, I simply don’t want to be defined by cooking.
It has become the first question people want to ask me, the easy task I can volunteer to do, the advice for which someone will always call me, the genre under which most of my gifts fall, and the book section to which I am most drawn.
I also want to be the man who chauffeurs his kids, who helps them with homework, who is available on weekends for vacations and other family activities, or the man who will be there to tuck them in at night. I want time to read great literature, visit museums, see plays, discuss politics (okay, maybe not that one), and be a role model for mine and other kids.
I also can be a chef who not only cooks amazing food, but who cares enough and has the time to research and advocate for larger food-related issues: food security, the benefits of eating locally and sustainably, the need for access to healthy food in our poorest communities, the future of seafood across the globe, the call for putting an end to eating the amount of factory raised meat in this country, and many others.
When I first came to Wabash, I wasn’t sure what kind of career I would have or the sort of man I would become, but I’m glad it gave me a firm footing to struggle with these and other questions.
The world could use more liberal arts trained chefs and Wabash men. One day, I think my kids will appreciate that, too.
Brad Neumann is chef-de-cuisine for Primal Alchemy Catering in Long Beach, CA, a farm-to-table catering company. He is pictured above with his wife,