8 Things I Definitely Didn't Know About Restaurants



Hi, people! It's me! I'm alive! I know how to make pasta now! I wasn't side-eyed to death by a score of men in white uniforms my first week on the job. We haven't officially opened yet but let me tell you, this world is a new one. I have learned so incredibly much...because here's the thing: basically all of my skill and time spent cooking up till now seems a little, well, useless. I know it's not actually useless in the long run - I've got some great intuition and head-knowledge built up from years spent in the presence of cooking. But the way things are done among the pros renders the homemade way I've done it forever just wrong enough to knock me off my game and leave me feeling like a newbie. Thankfully, the people I'm working with are great teachers. They're patient. They're kind. They cuss cheerfully and swipe the third tray of macarons that hasn't baked properly into the compost and tell me it's the fault of the terrible oven, not me, and that it's getting replaced next week. I think what has stumped me most of all is less about the food we're making and more about the totally different equipment, terms, quantities and methods we're using. I wish I'd read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential before I started work here. I feel like I would've been much better prepared for the details of work in a professional kitchen. But hey - I didn't have any idea that I was going to soon be working in a fine dining restaurant, did I? This week has shown me that for those who want to learn, there is always opportunity. I do want to learn. And I have. And I will. And that's what makes me so excited for this job and this place.

All the same, I do wish I'd known more about the world I was entering - it would have saved me from so many embarrassing episodes born out of blatant ignorance. Needless to say, I've now Amazon Prime'd Anthony Bourdain's renowned book about working in restaurants. For now, I keep my mouth closed and my ears open. Read on to educate yourself - information saves pride. Haha...ha....
“Whachoo want, white boy? Burn cream? A Band-Aid? Then he raised his own enormous palms to me, brought them up real close so I could see them properly; the hideous constellation of water-filled blisters, angry red welts from grill marks, the old scars, the raw flesh where steam or hot fat had made the skin simply roll off. They looked like the claws of some monstrous science-fiction crustacean, knobby and calloused under wounds old and new. I watched, transfixed, as Tyrone - his eyes never leaving mine - reached slowly under the broiler and, with one naked hand, picked up a glowing-hot sizzle-platter, moved it over to the cutting board, and set it down in front of me. He never flinched.” 
- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential


8 Things I Definitely Didn't Know About Restaurants:


- knives -

When you begin work at a restaurant, you will likely assume (reasonably, I thought), that along with the spoons, ladles, pots, pans, half-pans, trays, strainers, spatulas, bench-scrapers, mixing bowls, kitchen scales, forks, slotted spoons, towels, aprons, ingredients, stock pots, sauciers, and pinch-bowls with which your kitchen is supplied, someone would have thought to bring in a few low-profile chopping knives. I knew that chefs and cooks often bring in their own knives - knives they prefer, knives they have a weirdly symbiotic relationship with, knives they earned in culinary school or bought with their own money. But I seriously had no clue that every knife in this kitchen would belong to someone else or that borrowing one without asking would be tantamount to stealing someone's boyfriend for a kiss. I've never felt more adulterous than I did on my first day when I mistakenly picked up one guy's knife to slice a chunk of butter into two. He kindly told me it was his knife and that I could use it if I didn't drop it. I think I'd have sooner asked to read his texts than ever touch his knife again. BRING YOUR OWN KNIFE. As soon as I get paid, I know what I'm buying. Till then, my coworkers are being incredibly gracious and letting me sleep around with borrow their knives. But I'm getting my own as soon as possible; it's stressful being a serial adulterer borrower.

- dishwashers -

In the restaurant world, a dishwasher is not the appliance that sits in most home kitchens with racks that sag under the weight of a full dinner's worth of dishes. In a professional kitchen, dishwashers are not even machines that do the business of washing dishes for you. "Around these parts," Chef said with a wry smile after I mistook a comment about a dishwasher to mean the appliance, "A machine that washes dishes is called a 'dish machine' while a 'dishwasher' is typically a Mexican." Okay...duly noted. We have neither, yet. We wash our own dishes, taking turns doing so which apparently is not the way most kitchens work. It's kind of nice, the idea that somebody else would wash all your dishes for you on command. Nice, but not as fast as seeing a spoon, wanting the spoon, washing the spoon yourself, and now having the spoon. I don't mind washing dishes by hand. It gives me a second to immerse my hands in soap suds and clean off some of the inches of flour encrusting my body.


- kitchen scales - 

Your kitchen scale will become your security blanket. From the first day when Chef rattled off a formula at me and I tried to use a community-use kitchen scale which mysteriously only measured in kilograms, I have been deeply attached to my own little pale blue $10 scale from Amazon. I use it constantly. I occasionally let other people borrow it. A kitchen scale is something I had already begun to incorporate into my cooking and baking habits. I'm so glad I did - a week at the restaurant has taught me the incomparable worth of weighing things rather than having to measure them out - far fewer dishes, far more accurate measurements, far more scale-able. The method of creating a recipe in percentages still escapes me but I've got to hand it to the formula-style of ingredients: it makes changing the size of the recipe terribly easy.


- heavy things - 

Here lies the Ghost of your Lame Upper Arm Strength. Okay, so I'm not strong yet, but I'm going to be. I'm communing with fifty pound bags of flour. I'm hefting kindergartner-sized mixer bowls full to the brim with biscuit dough off chest-high counter tops to the pastry station. I'm rolling pasta. I'm running up and down basement stairs. I'm washing heavy sauciers and stock pots and lifting them over my head to dry on hanging hooks. I find myself part of a community of individuals who are, like our petite Asian sous chef, the kind of people who see a massive industrial fridge and think, "I could lift that," or are able to effortlessly pick up a twenty-pound skillet (filled with sauteeing vegetables) and toss them like rose petals with a completely peaceful face. I'm going to get strong and I'm going to do it soon. Forget bar-bells. I've got ten gallon batches of peach jam and people to keep up with.


- cursing - 

Here's something everyone does: curse. I knew cooks swear a lot, but I didn't really account for the fact that in the restaurant world, strong language holds the same weight as adjectives. Flounder is "f---ing delicious." Pasta is "f---ing amazing." The oven is "f---ing terrible." The French top is "f---ing hot." Towel service is "f---ing expensive." So far I've been sworn at cheerfully...I'm waiting to be sworn at by someone who is massively, sizzling-hot angry. I know that if I'm not able to keep up, at some point I'll be told I'm "too f---ing slow" and I think I'd like to get that part over with. A positive of language being scattered around like Espelette, though, is that they aren't going to mean as much by it as I would; though I miss typical adjectives, if I'm told to f--- off I'm not going to take it too much to heart. I might throw a thesaurus in reply, though.


- heat -

Restaurant kitchens - like the belly of a dragon - are naturally a hot place. But I guess I didn't exactly think through how hot. It is July in Coastal Virginia. I haven't sweated this much since I worked as a landscaper, or that summer I virtually (and literally) lived outside and helped build our house from the foundation up. If rivers of perspiration are running down my spine, it's a dry day in the restaurant. It's difficult to stay hydrated, but on the upside I definitely don't need to visit a sauna for detoxifying purposes. I guzzle water constantly, wear a headband, and relish every single trip down to the basement for the moment of cool, quiet darkness it affords. Oh - the water is hot. REALLY hot. The oven is hot. REALLY hot. The pans crowding the stove are hot. REALLY hot. Everything is just generally really really hot.


- family meal - 

Family meal is the meal that the kitchen staff eats together before service begins. It can be a disgusting mash up of all the leftovers ever in the history of the world, amen, or it can be some delicious thing that puts us in a food coma. Happily for us, Chef is highly skilled at making delicious food out of almost nothing. Family meal has been one of my favorite parts. There's nothing like trotting plates out into the dusk for the bartender and the owners, then climbing into a cardboard box with a coworker to eat plates heaped with fried eggplant, prosciutto and smoky goat cheese. I love my fellow cooks so far- they are motivated, dedicated, and extremely talented in their own right. These meals are building a little work family and I love the feeling that we're beginning to belong together, not just individually.

- respect- 

Everyone in the kitchen is crazy talented. I don't think I fully appreciated just how talented professionals at this food thing actually are - and I'm not including myself in that. These people know how to do the craziest things and respond to obscure instructions to "french" a chicken leg or "cut lardons," not with a panicked stare as I would, but with suave knife skills and a respectful nod. I'm floored by people's spacial skills, their technical knowledge, the fact that they know how to temper chocolate without a thermometer and can take thirty seconds of recipe instructions rattled off in one breath and emerge with an incredible end-product without having forgotten a single piece of the itinerary. They're not only talented, but so far have also been supportive as well. I've been told not to talk down about myself; I've been told that I'll be able to perform all of those fancy tricks in no time; I've been told that dinner service won't be that tricky since we've gotten the motions down: it'll be exactly this, just faster. Everyone in this particular kitchen is ready to learn. We listen up, we work hard, we are consulted for opinions and ideas and pulled aside in passing to taste spoonfuls of sauce and jam and chocolate and marinades. I have not once been made to feel like I'm less valuable a part of the team because I've had less experience. They brought me into the family and they're patiently teaching me all I need to know. For that I'm endlessly grateful. It's a priceless thing to be treated with voluntary respect. 


“Bigfoot understood — as I came to understand — that character is far more important than skills or employment history.”
-Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

(pasta shown is pressed with marigold petals as a just-for-fun weekend project)

2 comments

  1. "These meals are building a little work family and I love the feeling that we're beginning to belong together, not just individually." Something about eating together --- especially if it's food you've contributed, rather than buying it somewhere impersonal and it just showing up in front of you --- helps bond people, I've noticed. I'm still not entirely sure /why/. But it does work.

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  2. I love this! I'm so glad that your new job is shaping up to be a challenging and rewarding experience with great people. I know from this last year that having supportive colleagues/mentors is probably one of the most important things for success. And don't worry - you'll figure those crocs out. Who knows? Maybe you'll even learn to like them. ;)

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