Here, in no particular order, are things I’ve learned about working in a professional kitchen. Please note that I am not specifically talking about my current kitchen, just an amalgam of stories taken from every kitchen job I’ve had thus far.
Rule No. 1
No one is coming. Count on that. If you are knee deep in tickets and you are the only one scheduled, you are going to feel as if the world is ending, and possibly in a matter of minutes. Breathe. Just feel the panic wash over you and give yourself a minute to get yourself together. If you think that minute is taking away from your ticket time, you are sadly mistaken. It will save you from having to go back and forth from the line to the rail to see what you’re supposed to have going if you know ahead of time where you are. Take two minutes if you don’t have an expo that can call out which ticket is in which priority. I know that when I’ve been in that situation, my own name has wiped itself from my memory. Taking a second to go over the entrees and their cook times before you start will help you to lean on yourself when you’re all you’ve got.
AGAIN, breathe. There’s only three and a half more hours of complete chaos left.
Rule No. 2
Be other-aware. If you don’t know what I mean, it is possible that the rest of the cooks in the brigade hate you if you’ve left the line a lot… or been an asshole to the other cooks because you didn’t work as part of a team. You put your needs above theirs and screwed them to the wall. In the end, it doesn’t matter. You won’t be there long.
Be relentless about calling “behind you,” “corner,” “coming down the line,” and always, always, always “behind you with a knife.” Break that rule and you’re most likely not going to hurt them. You’re going to draw back your knife quickly and miss them entirely unless the person is someone you wanted to shank, anyway. If your cut is bad enough, you’ll have to leave the line because you’re bleeding. That is several levels of deep shit all the way around.
You’re trying to clot your cut with super glue off the line, or you’re being rushed to the emergency room. Either way, the brigade is down a man. We’ll remember that absence forever if there’s twice the customers then usual on that particular night… because every time we tell that story about the night we got slammed, we’ll talk about your injury and how much pain we were in at not having you, as well as every gory detail about your wounds and the scale to which they were gross. We know it’s an accident, but we’ll still call you a dumbass for not being careful enough to avoid injury in the first place.
By the same token, realize when someone is ankle-deep in Ranch dressing and might need help with a cleanup at the same time there are five people waiting for their dinner and every order comes out of her station. Notice when pantry has nothing and saute has 15 orders that have to get out in the next 10 minutes and you need to bail them out. In fact, Rule No. 2 can be shortened to that one word- NOTICE.
Rule No. 3
There are no secrets from the chef. This is less about their interest in what you’re doing and more about being proactive about communication. This is particularly important when orders are dropped off in the morning. The chef may have ordered it last night, but things like making sure they know their veggies arrived are important. Don’t know what’s important and what’s not? Ask. Do not pass up a chance to say you don’t know something, because there’s only a short period of time in which the details are given. If you don’t know the layout of the kitchen, where everything is stored, how much we have in the house of every ingredient, and what arrives when, you are going to be hopelessly lost at your job.
The kitchen, as Anthony Bourdain has said “is the last meritocracy.” Don’t know the answers to too many questions after you’ve been there more than a month? You’d probably better study up before you get canned. When the chef asks you a question and you can’t answer it quickly, you will be sized up as a moron. The clock is ticking. Admit what you don’t know sooner rather than later, because not to do so would be a career limiting move.
It’s embarrassing, but tell the truth at all times. No one can help you if you don’t admit that something doesn’t look right and you don’t know how to fix it and the ticket time is already fifteen minutes. You’ve all been there. Don’t look at me like that. When you were coming up, you made bechamel and mayonnaise and broke both… in the same day. Your chef’s eyes went over the back of his forehead, and then everything you chopped was too big and now has to be re-sized to actually fit in someone’s mouth. Your chef may scream, but he/she does not have time to listen to you explain why something happened. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat (Thank you, Sweet Brown). What needs to be conveyed, even if you want to crawl into the floor, is that the bechamel, mayonnaise, and vegetables aren’t ready yet. It’s the chef’s ass on the line if you’re weeded and haven’t told him/her, and he’d rather bail you out than have the customers suffer. Be warned, though. He/she will do it, but they may take it out on you in a most unpleasant manner. No matter what happens, though, if you care about your food and your diners at all, you’ll be honest and let people help you.
Rule No. 5
Front of House and Back of House are always going to be at each other’s throats, and there’s no way around it. Do what you can to diffuse anything that crops up. Making it worse will in turn make your life miserable. It doesn’t matter whether the kitchen fucked up or the waitress left the food on the window until it got cold and asked for a re-fire. It just doesn’t. Shit happens and it’s so irritating that you might want to scream. Don’t. I repeat- don’t. The next time the wait staff sees you, you are so in for it… especially on days like Rule No. 1. Get mixed up in a fight between cooks and front of house and you are going to be in a world of gut-wrenching pain… and the horrible thing is that you knew it and you did it anyway because sometimes it feels good to take the low road.
Rule No. 6
If you are offended in any way by anything, you need to quit. Front of house, back of house, it doesn’t matter. The things you will overhear, and in time start saying, will be atrociously offensive. Your mother is never off limits. Neither are jokes about rape, pedophilia, sodomy, incest, racism… you get the picture. You think we’re idiots, and we know that we are just blowing off steam from a night that ran us over like a slow-moving 18-wheeler.
Your non-kitchen friends will be horrified, and eventually, you’ll stop hanging out with them, or you’ll quit and you won’t. They won’t understand the rhythm and patois you’ve developed, hate the fact that your newest body accessory is a five-inch scar across your arm, and are generally unfriendly to learning what you’ve been up to at work.
This is because the idea of a cook is so much different than the reality. Non-kitchen people do not care for stories about funny things that happened at work, because so much of the time it involves things you should never say in polite company, as well as a cacophony of microdetails that we’re still thinking about from the night before. You don’t care that my restaurant needs lettuce, and you for damn sure don’t want to know where the six pan of pizza sauce is in located my low boy. You judge us for jokes that to us, seem harmless because they are told to blow off unimaginable pressure.
However, we cannot help it. We’re like doctors, in a way, because even if we leave the job, the job doesn’t leave us. On our off hours, we’re still thinking about what we did and how many mistakes we’ve made. The pressure is so intense that when we try to disengage, the switch breaks.
Rule No. 7
Always fart in the walk-in. God have mercy on your soul if you don’t.