Chefs work incredibly long hours. It takes a lot of time and effort to run a successful kitchen. Having consecutive days off is not a common occurrence in the food-service industry, especially for those running the show.
Chefs are also known to be solitary types, sequestered on a hot line night after night, barking out orders-with the day starting long before the first dinner ticket ever hits the rail.
But even though chefs are like a force of nature all by themselves, they become even more influential when they come together as a culinary collective. That's exactly the mission of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine, the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), an organization of food-crazed people that's been around since the early '80s.
"The dynamic of our group is to offer a culinary brotherhood in the Treasure Valley," explains Robert Finley, former executive chef at the Boise Centre and treasurer of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine.
While the group currently has around 50 members, many more cooks than that put on chef coats every day around these parts in the pursuit of culinary perfection. But a majority of them remain insular in their efforts.
"There's a difference between ACF chefs, who spend many hours educating people and helping with local events, and those who just put on the white coat and cook, without doing much else," says David Knickrehm, executive chef at Bella Aquila and president of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine. "Being a chef is hard work, but it's important to make the time to come together for the community."
It's amazing that any of these chefs find time in their already hectic schedules to band together for benevolent causes. Take the Culinary Walkabout, which Idaho Chefs de Cuisine helps to organize every year.
"One of our mission statements is, 'do community fundraising by offering our expertise at these large events,'" says Finley, who served seafood paella at last year's event.
The Culinary Walkabout, the signature annual fundraising gala for the Elks Meals on Wheels program and slated to take place May 16 at Boise Centre, brings together about 25 local chefs each year in a celebration of small bites - chefs are responsible for producing 2-ounce portions of their featured menu item, be it sweet or savory.
Many of the chefs involved in the event are members of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine. The group even goes as far as spearheading the logistical side of organizing all the food needed to pull off such a large gathering - around 500 people typically attend the event.
"We are extremely grateful to the continued commitment of the Chefs de Cuisine," says Grant Jones, director of development for the Elks Rehab System, which includes Elks Meals on Wheels. "Without them, we would have no Culinary Walkabout."
This is the main community fundraising event the chapter takes under its wing as an organization, yet all the chefs are individually involved in other benefits and festivals around town throughout the year.
The Culinary Walkabout raises around $30,000 on average for Meals on Wheels of Ada County, which provides hot and nutritious lunches to 800 senior citizens a day - delivered to people's homes and served at various senior centers. But event organizers are always looking to bring in more money, considering it costs $1 million annually to operate Meals on Wheels.
"We would love to get it up around $50,000," Jones says.
Idaho Chefs de Cuisine members start to meet in January of each year (every Saturday morning at Bella Aquila, to be exact) to knock out the details for the upcoming event, like the daunting task of putting together a menu and working with area distributors to get donated food products.
"Raising money for Meals on Wheels is such a natural fit for chefs, since we feed people for a living, but it takes lots of planning," states Knickrehm, who last year served sauteed mushrooms on grilled polenta with sherry cream sauce. At this year's event, he plans to dish up hand-rolled gnocchi with Gorgonzola cream sauce, a mainstay on the menu at Bella Aquila.
This year's menu hasn't been finalized at this point, but Knickrehm expects it to be set by March - in time for the event programs to get printed.
Besides helping to organize the Culinary Walkabout each year, Idaho Chefs de Cuisine offers ongoing educational programs and networking opportunities for up-and-coming chefs, not to mention current job listings for cooking positions in the area.
The group offers membership levels ranging from Student Culinarian to Senior Professional Culinarian, the latter being the status that Knickrehm and Finley have earned. The chapter adheres to the certification standards of the ACF, a professional chef organization (founded in 1929) with more than 20,000 members in 200-plus regional chapters across North America.
Idaho Chefs de Cuisine, formerly known as Idaho State Chefs and Culinarians Inc., depends upon a steady stream of new members, especially those just starting out in the industry. The group is in the process of rebuilding its membership base after it dropped off a few years ago due to a lack of recruitment.
"As our chapter advances, the younger culinarians become really important to the success of the chapter. We need people who are capable of replacing board members like me in the future," Finley says.
Most of the Student Culinarians come out of the College of Western Idaho culinary arts program and Renaissance, a culinary program for high school students in Meridian, run by longtime Chefs de Cuisine member Vern Hickman. These newbies also gain valuable experience by participating in community-based activities outside the classroom.
"It's great experience for students to get involved in events like the Culinary Walkabout. They learn so much by working with this many talented chefs," says Mark Ballen, executive chef at Lucky Fins Seafood Grill in Meridian and vice president of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine.
"One of the beautiful things about Boise is that all of us chefs are in it together, and this helps students to learn the importance of giving back to the community."
Knickrehm agrees that having younger folks involved in the chapter not only benefits the community, but it also has its perks for the students themselves. Idaho Chefs de Cuisine is paying all expenses for two culinary arts students to attend the Western Regional ACF Conference, which will be held in April at Coeur d'Alene Resort.
"We're sending a student from CWI and one from Renaissance this year," Knickrehm says.
"These conferences last for several days, with intense culinary training offered almost every hour."
Knickrehm, who has been involved with the organization since 1998, has reached the pinnacle of what the ACF offers by achieving the coveted distinction of becoming a Certified Executive Chef (CEC), which requires many years of experience and a grueling certification test that would put any competitive television cooking show to shame.
Not all chefs have the desire to reach that culinary level, but Idaho Chefs de Cuisine encourages its members to strive for greatness, whether at work or pitching in to help out with community events.
James Patrick Kelly, a former restaurant critic for the Idaho Statesman, is the author of the travel guidebooks "Moon Idaho" and "Spotlight Boise." He also teaches journalism at Boise State University.