Today we add another voice into the mix of writers. As you probably know, I’ve been wanting to get some insiders opinions on the restaurant industry; a view of what it’s like to be a line cook, a dishwasher, sous chef, etc. The following essay is from first person that stepped up. He has a different way of writing than most of our authors. I hope you enjoy it.
First a brief bio:
I am a food person. A professional. I’ve been paying dues since I dropped out of high school at fifteen. I’ve washed your dishes, and catered your weddings. I’ve cooked your breakfasts, lunches and dinners (plus that meal that you crave at two in morning for what ever reason). I’ve baked bread, and pastries. Made fine cakes, and peanut butter cookies. I’ve worked greasy spoons, supper clubs, fine dining, bars, bakeries and coffee shops. I’ve spent two years in school, done an internship and apprentice ship. But I have been in training since I learned to make Texas style chili when I was five. I love what I do, but you’ll have to excuse me as I am bit excitable.
By William T Campbell
Kitchens are stressful places.. Cooking at home can be hectic, what with the heat and the time restrictions. Maybe you’re trying a recipe for the first time, and your book is vague as to what a soft ball caramel should be. You’re hot, you’re multitasking, it’s messy, and you worked all day. All these things build up; add to the stress of your already hectic modern life.
Now pretend it’s your job. Assume that I have to feed two hundred people in a night, instead of four or something. Assume also that it’s twenty degrees hotter in the kitchen than it is outside, and that I don’t get to say “that’s close enough”. Plus if I don’t have at least five things going at once than I am not moving fast enough. This is what I do to pay my bills (most of my bills, some of the time).
Cooking has been slightly romanticized, and there is a certain romanticism to it. Food in and of itself is romantic, the sights, the sound, the smells. These things are beautiful, my collection scars, on the other hand, are not.
Cooking is a high energy job, with 99% of your shift on your feet. You have the demands of the customers, the wait staff, the chef, your coworkers, and yourself. Also, this isn’t mindless work. In order to be any good you have to think about what you’re doing, and reassess you day constantly. If you fall behind, it just gets worse. Panic sets in; the phrase “in the weeds” doesn’t do it justice. The French phrase from which it’s translated better sums it up but is no child-friendly enough to put down here. If you’re doing your job right you should go home both physically and mentally exhausted.
In my mind there are three main stress factors; the chef, the customer, and my desire to be perfect. Basically, you have three people who, in all likelihood, want different things. Two of these people are paying you, and one of them is you. Or, one person who can have you fired, one who can fire you, then your brain that will remind you of the mistakes you’ve made. Despite what it sounds like there is a balance.
Anyone who has worked in the industry or knows someone in the industry knows stories about demanding chefs and stupid customers, so I will try to keep mine to a minimum. However; I would like to discuss all three.
1. The chef. This is the man or woman I have to impress, or at least seem competent to. Hopefully they have been doing this longer than I have, and hopefully they really care about these dishes. If not, well then, I am probably not going to take the job unless I really need the money (this happens to even the most ethical cook). Ideally they are perfectionists, but are still able to adapt to a fluid environment.
These are their recipes, they have put a lot of time and energy into getting them exactly how they want them, and so help you if you think that they would be better if you just…
2. The customer. These are the people that make cooking unpleasant. The front staff says things like “the customer’s always right”. The front staff also makes tips for being accommodating. I do not. Therefore, when someone orders a prime rib well done with a side of steak sauce, I get cranky. To be perfectly honest I get mad, screaming-vulgarities mad, shouldn’t be in possession of a knife-mad. The outright destruction of good food should anger anyone with a soul. Plus, I am just going to put it in the microwave for ten minutes, because that is what they deserve.
Even people with legitimate reasons to want changes made to dishes (i.e. allergies and things) get under my skin. It’s not like they chose to be a culinary cripple, it’s god’s fault, but at the time it throws off my rhythm. Then we have the people on diets… If you’re going on a diet, fine, but do the research before going to a place that specializes in frying everything in butter.
3. Myself. Generally speaking, one of the nice things about this type of work is that you can tell when you screwed up. If you happen to be a well adjusted person then you learn from your mistakes and move on. Cooks however are not always well adjusted people, at the worst they can be criminally insane, at best, just at little odd. Either way, the best ones are obsessive and excitable. Sometimes the only way to express your frustration is by hitting something with a wooden spoon; because, damn it, I just want perfection.
This is the point in which I should offer some sort of solution. Sorry; I don’t have one. If I did I would be rich. Some people can shake it all off, some can’t. Some of the best cooks are raging drug addicts, some drive really fast and listen to loud music. Some are barely functioning alcoholics. Some raise kids and garden. Me; this is what I do; try to spit it all out onto a page in a semi-organized fashion.
I also smoke too many cigarettes and watch cartoons with the same reverence that most people reserve for church.
I am not about to judge anyone on what they do outside of work, but I only really need to know so much about someones drug habit, or the day they spent potty training the kid. I have friends in both categories. I worry about the ones that need help and respect the ones that deserve it, but I couldn’t tell you which one is right.
I think that I am just trying to make a point. I am really not trying to scare anyone off of it, and I don’t want you to think I’m unhappy. I love this. I don’t mean just playing with food, but the whole thing. The heat, the sounds, the frenzy, cleaning things. I’ve thought my day out by the time I get home. Found my errors and noted what I learned, glad it’s over. The next day think the same things again on the way there, wondering what will happen next.