Fat Cook, Thin Cook

Popular chef and author John Thorne profiles two professionals in the kitchen.

© iStockPhoto.com/ZlatkoKostic

Cooks come in two classic sizes, just like clowns: fat and thin. But while the most appealing of clowns is Pierrot, pale, lean and dreamy, with cooks, at least until recently, the popular one was the fat guy. Built solid as a side of beef, with blood-red complexion and well-licked lips, wiping his pudgy pink fingers on a greasy apron, he embodied appetite itself, with eyes eternally larger than the stomach.

He understood. “Eat!” he encouraged, and eat we did, not because his heft was proof of his capabilities (when the truth is told, I think, the thin cook holds the edge on quality) but because he cast no cold eye on the largeness of our hunger. In fact, he (or she, for sex is no issue here) assuaged our guilt. No matter how much we put away, we never rose from it looking like him. If he was gluttony, then our own most outrageous gorging was almost a golden mean.

Fat cooks are an inclusive fraternity: all are welcome at their table. The more who eat with them the better; they increase the pleasure of their own lips by the smacking of ours. Nothing delights them more than matching flagon to flagon, than some competition as to who gets the last chop on the platter—and wipes it clean of gravy with the last bit of bread.

His cooking is characterized by its ease of swallowing, the way each bite demands another to fill its place. Not that he isn’t finicky enough about flavor, but for him the taste of food is in good part its richness, the ecstatic slide of pleasure down the throat. The celebrator of fullness, he is the fat cook not only because of his personal avoirdupois but also because he writes his signature with butter on a dish already heavy with suet and cream.

For the fat cook, cooking is an extension of his appetite. He has already sat down to dinner when he lights the stove; he will have eaten a whole meal before he serves it forth. The whisk, the stirring spoon, go automatically into his mouth, not the sink, as do the few bits of buttery onion left in the sauté pan, swept up deftly by his thumb.

I knew a cook who would routinely prepare an extra portion for himself to eat before he came to table. That way the remaining servings could be equally divided without any worry he might not get the larger share. For a long time I thought this sort of greed was the motivation for stove-top tasting—a reward for doing the work, a head start on the rest of the diners. However, on further reflection, I think such greed is the exception, not the rule. The fat cook will carefully trim away the suet and gristle from a roast or some chops and then instead of discarding it, rub the bits with garlic and salt and fry them up as a solitary hors d’oeuvre. If there were a general demand he would be delighted to prepare a plateful to pass around. But he knows better…as he also knows that no one wants the broccoli stalks he crunches, or the carrot ends, or the sweet tips of the corncobs. They are his by popular surrender, not private fiat.

And what of the thin cook? M.F.K. Fisher, in I Was Really Very Hungry, a haunting bit of culinary writing, recounts how she once stopped for lunch in an old country mill that a famous Parisian chef had turned into a restaurant. It was off-season and she was all alone in the dining room. She had come in wanting only something simple to eat; she found herself the unwilling recipient of a magnificent feast, cajoled and bullied by the waitress into trying taste after taste, each more spectacular than the last, but in relentless total pushing her a terrifying distance past surfeit.

Monsieur Paul, the master chef who prepared—for this solitary foreigner—these masterpieces, remained anonymous behind the kitchen door. He never appeared, even at the end of the meal, to receive his applause and perhaps even share a glass of brandy with his fortunate victim. Although the author calls the waitress mad, she was but handmaiden to the cook. If mad she was, the madness didn’t stop with her. And that afternoon she pulled off an astounding feat—that of being high priestess to a private god before a reluctant cult of one.

Monsieur Paul: I imagine him as the thin chef carried to the ultimate extreme, a cook whose appetite can only exist in the mouths of others. Unlike the fat cook, who uses the appetite of others as a foil, an amplifier, for his own, for the thin cook, other people are his appetite. Only at that amount of distance can he allow himself to take pleasure in his cooking.

Thus the kitchen of the thin cook is entirely different from that of the fat cook. It is a place of immaculate order. Each ingredient is scrubbed, pared, polished into a tiny jewel, all coarseness fined away. If, in the fat cook’s kitchen, the best-fed mouth is his own, in the thin cook’s kitchen, it is that of the garbage can; into its maw tumbles the oddments and scraps, the less-than-perfect. Utensils, pots, counters are scoured clean as soon as they are used. It is as if the taste of what remains is concentrated by the essence of all the flavors that are flung away.

Where the fat cook feeds his appetite as if he were stoking a furnace, the thin cook strops it with denial until it holds a razor’s edge. He watches over his simmering pots with a fierce scrutiny but tastes them hardly at all, and then only enough to wet his tongue. He knows his flavors by denying them to his mouth. His desire, and it is often realized, is to taste his dish only in the startled, delighted mouth of the one he feeds. Or, like Monsieur Paul, merely in the rumor of its acclaim.

If the fat cook cries out “Eat! Eat!” the thin cook demands we taste. “Try this,” he says, offering a sliver of duck pâté dotted with glistening morsels of truffle and crackling bits of fried skin. And when we do, he is with us just for that moment when the flavor explodes across the tongue. For the thin cook, pleasure ends the split second anticipation becomes reality. If he had his way, he would never swallow anything.

It is, of course, the thin cook who is in fashion today, except for a few militant rebels led by that king of fat cooks, Paul Prudhomme. The thin cook is artist, not artisan (just as is the thin clown, Pierrot, who nowadays almost never appears at the circus but has become instead the persona of the mime). In the best restaurants today we find on our plates only a few limpid slivers of moist and milky veal, spun round with a lacing of succulent sauce, accented with a few perfect ovals of baby carrot, a graceful arch of herb.

Each mouthful is so poignant, however, that our appetite, if not assuaged, is at least abashed. To be hungry before such food is as vulgar—as seemingly wrong—as feeling lust before the Venus de Milo.

The thin cook invites us to use hunger, not satisfy it, to deny it even as we tempt it until our senses are pushed toward epiphany. Nothing puts off a thin cook’s appetite more than watching people actually devour his food. At best, he is happy in the company of others who, like himself, want only to taste and then quietly exclaim. But mostly he eats alone, after all the others, something simple and plain.

Ironically, this is the one thing the thin and fat cook have in common: both eat more alone, the thin cook because it is the only time he can eat, the fat cook because he cannot imagine a meal for less than two, and, when sitting down to it, he plays both parts with gusto.

Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy—you’re fond of one and think the other’s a goof or a bully. The same with the thin and the fat cook: we immediately take sides. They are myths, of course (although some cooks come surprisingly close to bringing them to life), masks we put on hunger to humanize it, the way a clown reduces life’s random carelessnesses to harmless buffoonery.

Appetite can torture us with revulsion even as it fills us with delight, can set guilty feelings astir as easily as visions of sugarplums. So, between appetite and self, we set the cook as gatekeeper, turning to the fat one when we are most at ease with it, the world our oyster. But we embrace the thin cook when we feel vulnerable, suddenly frightened of this act of eating, the world too hard, too awful to bite. The thin cook’s hypercaution, his peckishness, his dizzy excitement over tiny tastes, can perk up even the most neurasthenic appetite.

There’s no possible reconciliation: at any moment—maybe always—we feel kin to one or the other. But remember that, like Stan and Ollie, fat cook and thin cook feel for each other not antagonism, but a mysterious mutual—if barbed—affection. They are two different masks, but that which wears them is one.