New Word for Your Lexicon: 'Chefing'

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor

GIF Credit: Hell’s Kitchen Appreciation

A writer spends her time writing. A chef spends her time “chefing.”

The term is as simple as that: “chefing,” at its root, is the act of being a chef, a job that nowadays goes far beyond the traditional realm of cooking, according to Columbia University sociology professor Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. A chef also manages a staff and (usually!) runs a business. 

Chefing has not always involved posting selfies to Instagram or performing cooking demos on the “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” but it sure does now. This, writes Ferguson in her new book Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food, is because of America’s growing obsession with food, and the new ways in which we we seek to experience it. “There’s this whole notion of eating as an adventure now,” she told us.

Although she introduced the term in her previous book on food, Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine, Ferguson returns to the notion of chefing in Word of Mouth. Here’s what we learned about it when we spoke with her:

"Chefing" makes cooking part of a show.
As mentioned, cooking is part of a chef’s job. Actually—wait—not necessarily. Some restaurants are “huge organizations where chefs can delegate that stuff” so they themselves can manage the staff, keep the ships running, and maintain public personae. That third BIT is what’s new to Ferguson. “Chefing has, with the celebrity chef, become absolutely everything. Half the time it’s outrageous”—late-night talk show appearances, for example—“and far away from a meal that gives pleasure.” Ferguson realizes that this is a “matter of survival in a restaurant world of competitive dining.” 

Extreme chefing makes food unrecognizable.
“When you cook anything, you transform it,” Ferguson told us. But ”chefing, especially now, insists on the maximal approach, on total transformation. You get stuff that’s not recognizable.” Examples: the kimchee taco and the cronut, two popular dishes Ferguson would call “haute food” items. “Creativity is the watchword, innovation the goal, endless reinvention the motto,” Ferguson writes in her book. “Haute food chefs do not need to set their sights on the familiar classics. They want, and the restaurant needs, to come up with the unexpected.” 

Chefing makes food “an intellectual adventure.”
At the now-closed El Bulli, for example, Ferran Adria “clearly said he doesn’t care whether you like the food or not. It’s about creation and reinvention.” And this ambitious corner of the food world is the one that gets “more than its share of media attention,” according to Ferguson. “How many people ate at El Bulli? Nowhere near the number of people who know what it is or the number of chefs who are influenced by it.” There is an emphasis on creativity now that never existed before, right down to the grub at food trucks. 

Chefing makes food the sole star in the dining constellation. 
“At the ideal meal, food is just one of the elements. Chefing has turned food into the only element.” By this, Ferguson means that instead of uninterrupted conversation about, say, your mother’s latest flame, you should expect to hear an essay about the sourcing and preparation of Chef’s braised pigeon delivered by your waiter. “Sometimes waiters come tell you everything you want to know—and don’t want to know—hijacking the meal, almost.” Her worry? “That so much emphasis is on the food that the social occasion a meal represents—and eating together represents—gets lost. The food takes over the meal.”