Putting It All on the Line
Please forgive the absence, but in fairness, I’ve been kinda busy. After all these years of tinkering around in my own kitchen, building the cookbook collection and even writing about the exploits on the Interwebs, I decided to put up or shut up. So I took a full-time cooking job working the line in a real restaurant (a good one), with real line cooks (that speak mostly in Spanish and just call me ‘gringo’), with real chefs screaming at me about how awful my shit looks (really awful. I still fuck up a lot). No culinary school, no previous experience, just trial by fire…very much literally.
But I knew most of that going in. What really surprised me while making the shift from my lazy 9-5 to my new, bone-crushing post was how many fellow aspiring chefs out there in Yuppieland admitted to having their own dreams about giving up their 401(k)s, social lives, mental stability, weekends and all major holidays so they can work a lot more and earn a lot less.
So I figured I’d offer a few observations about the last few months of my life and put a little unsolicited advice out there for anyone hoping to make an appearance on Top Chef 16. My own little Kitchen Confidential if you will…except without the heroin…at least for the moment anyway.
- Plan on buying very comfortable shoes. Why? Because 12 hours on your feet will be part of your routine 5-6 days a week. Eat, drink, smoke…you’ll be on your feet. There are two places to sit in my restaurant for the kitchen staff: Chef’s chair in his office and the toilet. Athletes foot is also something to be keeping an eye out for.
- For the love of God be sure to eat before service. You’d be amazed how little you get to eat despite being around food all day and during service your brain needs FOOD. Not even carbs are enough, you need to get protein in your system. If you’re already running on fumes by the 2nd or 3rd seating just go ahead and bend over because your ass is going to get fucked. Also, drink gallons of water…all day long, everyday. Your newest job requires constantly fighting off dehydration.
- Never be late. Ever, EVER. Actually, be hours early. Hours. Paid or not, you’ve got shit to do and learn and time is never on your side. Not to mention your coworkers will never trust you if you’re rolling in late and not ready come service because you’re screwing up their mojo as well as yours. Actually, don’t worry about it, because you’ll be fired after your 2nd late arrival anyway.
- Be sure to take a few seconds to enjoy the little things that make you happy. For me it’s the look of perfectly diced zucchini, or the sizzling sound of jus when it first hits a hot pan, or the way two dozen broccolini florets look floating in still blanching water. These are the little moments you’ll get to savor.
- Don’t plan on enjoying any of these moments for more than a few seconds though. You’ve. Got. Shit. To. Do. Truth is no matter how proud you are of your lovely dice (which probably isn’t that great by chef standards anyway) there’s still a list of 15 other less charming tasks you’ve got to get done in a very, very short amount of time. Deveining shrimp, portioning cream spinach, tasting spoonful after spoonful of all sorts of nasty shit to find out if it’s gone bad. That’s part of your job too, for every delicious bite you take, plan on two more you spit out. Keep a pen and pad, make lists, be efficient.. or die. Seriously.
- Restaurant cooking is a constant, never-ending race against the clock. Every. Single. Day. At home you can feed your guests booze till dinner is ready and they’ll still love you. In a restaurant, woe to the poor fool that isn’t ready to rock at 5:30. Not only is your boss pissed, but even more terrifying is that you’ll probably be fighting to catch up the rest of the night by not starting off on the right foot…you will probably never make this mistake twice. And if you do, the dread that comes over you may move you to tears when that first ticket comes in. Oh and that whole cooking-during-dinner-service thing is a bit time-sensitive too.
Sounds pretty brutal huh? It is. I’ve never been more stressed, exhausted, terrified, or injured in my life, but at the same time, when the planets are in line and the virgin has been thrown into the volcano, it’s sheer, unfiltered joy. Knocking out a busy service with your brigade and knowing, really knowing, you have some cooking chops is simply euphoric. After 12 hours on your feet, you’ll still be walking on air if chef has complemented something you cooked.
If you’re not scared off by my little rant, you need to check out Line Cook 415. Richie, a sous chef at a damn good shop called Nopa in San Fran, has been recording his exploits and struggles as a chef for a few years now and has built one of the most invaluable, honest and often hysterical sites about the life of a cook you’ll come across.
So what say you ESer’s? Any ambitions to push yourself to your mental and physical limits? Just don’t say I didn’t warn you..