The Reluctant Chef

By Jim Webster


I am not a chef.

I never trained to be. I never claimed to be. I have too much respect for the term and the people that do it to feel comfortable with the term.


A chef is someone who leads a battalion of cooks. Often, the cooks are executing the vision, in the form of dishes, of the chef. I once saw an episode of Iron Chef America in which Rachael Ray talked about how humbled she was to be working with all the chefs on the show, because she wasn’t one.


My respect for Rachael Ray shot up at that moment, and I totally identified with her.

I’m a home cook. I might be a good one, that’s for other people to decide. But when someone calls me a chef, I demure, and I start explaining why I’m not one, in terms similar to the ones that Rachael used in that episode.


Then came Texas.


I was in Texas in 2008 after having won Mario’s grilling contest. I wasn’t the only guest of honor that weekend. So was Rachael Ray.


Rachael knew about the contest win, because it was announced on her show. When she saw me, she ran at me and started bowing. Bowing! Three times! (Not that I was counting, but it was definitely three times.)

Then it got awkward. Rachael Ray addressed me as “Chef.”


My reaction was reflexive. I started explaining that I’m not really a chef, and that its a term that I respect too much to …Then I realized who I was saying it to. Basically, the person from whom I based my narrative.


So I decided to shut up and just let Rachael Ray call me “chef.”


That’s not where the story ends, though. Later in the day, I met Tim, one of the cooks who was preparing for the party that afternoon. One of Tim’s responsibilities was to cook the pork dish that won the contest. My dish.


He had grilled off the meat, but it was going to need to cook for a while. He thought the grills were too hot and would burn the meat before it was cooked through.  “Chef, is it OK if I finish these off in the pizza ovens?”  I literally turned around to see if Mario was behind me. When I realized he wasn’t, and that Tim was talking to me, I almost went into explaining-how-I’m-not-a-chef mode. Then I realized that Tim was executing my dish– my vision, even.


For probably the only moment in my life, I was in a situation where someone was calling me “chef”, and it was totally legitimate.


“Pizza oven sounds like a good idea,” I told Tim.

Cooking the prize-winning pork dish at NASCAR in TX
“Chef” Jim Webster cooking the prize-winning pork dish at NASCAR in Texas


Jim Webster works at The Washington Post. Mario and Jim’s book, “America Farm to Table,” will be released by Grand Central Life & Style on Oct. 7. Follow him on Twitter: @jwscoop  

To pre-order your copy of America Farm to Table, click here. 

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