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A pro chef’s kitchen is not for the faint of heart
The morning alarm assaults his ears like the sounds of a slaughterhouse; piercing his coma-like slumber with its screeching message that sleepy-time is over. Last night was brutal. His eyes open and the memory of that night begins to play in his mind through an “Apocalypse Now”-Martin Sheen-flashback sort of haze.
It’s Friday night and there were almost 120 covers...three 10-tops, herds of four-tops, VIPs kept rolling in and blindsiding front-of-house...we were totally slammed by 8:30 and had to 86 teres AND the bass. I was running expo through this huge exodus and killing on that soigné risotto—the one with the zucchini blossoms that goes a la minute...We were seriously crushing it until this green-ass virgin on sauté goes down two orders as we go to plate…TWO ORDERS!
Weeds start sprouting up all over the kitchen while he fires both orders on the fly, grill is bitching about missing her cigarette break and the rail is jammed. Then it got really quiet for just a minute, like that moment after you fall just before you hit the ground.
Then the sound of the printer cut right through the silence, churning out dupe after dupe...I really thought we were going to crash and burn.
Jason is working a double today and it’s Saturday, the busiest day of the week. That means he’ll get to the restaurant at 8 a.m., work all day and help close. Theoretically, he should get a two-three hour break sometime in the afternoon, but in reality he knows he’ll be lucky if he gets to huddle over a plate of food in a back booth between rushes, or sit on a stack of milk crates on the back dock to smoke a rare, unhurried cigarette. Such is the plight of a chef at a busy, popular, casual-dining restaurant. Jason wants to eventually rise to become an executive chef in a fine-dining restaurant, but for now he pays his dues and hones his skills as best he can in this turn-and-burn subculture filled with sex, drugs and home refrigerators cluttered with to-go containers of leftover cauliflower purée and Lagunitas.
“Jason” is not his real name. He decided to use a pseudonym because he broke most of his restaurant’s rules and several health-code regulations to let me hang around as he went about his normal workday. In order to secure the silence of several prep cooks, I had to resort to a bribe using the alternative currency of any restaurant kitchen: beer and cigarettes.
As we walked through the metal service door to the kitchen that morning, Jason took huge, deliberate sips from a tea glass full of coffee as if the liquid contained a cure for the herpes he got from a hostess two years ago. Sadly, it does not. But it does help him absorb the magnitude of the prep lists hanging at each station on the line. The “line” is where the cooking is done, usually set up in a horizontal line and divided into “stations” manned by chefs or line cooks. This is also where Gordon Ramsey would get punched in the throat if he screamed at any of the scarred, tattooed misfit line cooks and chefs I have ever known, including Jason’s associates that have begun to descend on the prep list like a swarm of grasscutter ants building a nest. Steaming 20-quart stock pots line the stoves and stacks of empty wooden crates begin to pile up as the chefs clean, chop, dice, brunoise and chiffonade literal piles of produce. This is done while discussing important matters such as the previous night’s inadvertent discovery that mixing wine and Heineken together is disgusting, even if you give it a cute name like “Weineken”. I also learned this pro tip while watching the chefs do their mise en place: If you are not prepared to completely abandon any shred of political correctness and every item in your catalog of offenses, then you have no business in a professional kitchen.
Line cooks are some of the hardest-working, most humble and honest people you will ever meet. Many of them also happen to be felons, alcoholics and members of just about every fringe subculture you can imagine (and some you have never imagined). They’ll work a grueling 14-hour shift after being up all night with a sick baby, then still manage to joke around and have a couple of beers with you at the end of it. The kitchen is where I learned to never judge a book by its cover, even if that cover is adorned with neck tattoos, votes Republican, or speaks a different language—we were all part of an informal and unnamed tribe.
In the best restaurants, the crew becomes like a second family, complete with all the fighting, yelling and irritation that comes with spending most waking hours together, sharing some of the most mundane and some of the most important moments of your life together. This is, in part, because line cooks virtually never get time off for normal, human things such as Thanksgiving, Christmas or birthdays.
Once the restaurant’s doors open, Jason and his fellow chefs de partie complete their transformation into a finely tuned machine. Customers do not have the courtesy to trickle in this morning. Instead, today begins with a stampede of hungry patrons.The kitchen printer immediately begins to spit out orders and continues for the next 12 hours in a merciless, metronome-like rhythm that will surely haunt my dreams. Watching this crew work was like watching a ballet performance in a blacksmith shop, a strangely beautiful interplay of both grace and grit.
Through each service, every chef is responsible for flawlessly creating a wide range of dishes over and over and over again. To reproduce a dish 50-60 times a day, from highly perishable ingredients, all while having to take into account the taste, texture, and visual appeal of each component on the plate is a big part of what makes professional cooking both an art and a craft. The art of a chef is born from techniques learned and mastered over a lifetime, utilizing a continually changing lineup of raw products, served to a capricious and demanding clientele.
Not only must each dish be executed in a timely manner and with incredible attention to detail, but each individual chef must sync his or her efforts with everyone else in the kitchen to ensure every plate gets to the table simultaneously hot, fresh and picture-perfect.
This may seem different from what you see on the Food Network, but the type of kitchen Jason and his comrades work in doesn’t make good television. It’s not a fine-dining, special-occasion restaurant where a Michelin star chef hovers over a plate of Partially Sedated Sea Monkey, Bamboo Shoot and Papaya Salad with tweezers and squirt bottles for this week’s episode of Travel Channel food porn.
It’s also not an assembly-line chain restaurant where Dane Cook-esque characters freely abuse food “product” that has been processed, fabricated and portioned so that a mouth-breathing microwave operator in a backwards snapback can get it onto a plate before the next order of poppers, skins or whatever fresh-frozen hell coaxed out of Guy Fieri’s bloated brain appears on the rail.
This is an independently owned, casual-dining restaurant that cares about the quality of food they cook and, most importantly, about the people they hire to cook it. Restaurants like these are scattered all over Chattanooga and are filled with hard-working chefs and kitchen staff that jump through enormous, stress-filled hoops simply to make sure the food being served for your awkward firstdate or rare night out with the family is delicious and memorable. Chefs live for the smile on a diner’s face just like an actor lives for the applause or a comedian for the laughter.
It takes a special kind of person to be willing to subject themselves to the particular brand of madness. As we left the kitchen just before midnight that night, Jason turned to me and said, “See, that wasn’t so bad. We’ll be home, throwing back a beer in no time.”
Like I said, it takes a special person to be a chef.