Behind the Scenes: What It’s Really Like to Work in a Restaurant Kitchen
Cooking at home can get boring quickly, if you think about it. Anyone can follow a recipe, anyone can feel comfortable in their own house. You know exactly where everything is and have all the time in the world. If you fuck up and over-cook something or over-season something, or your guests are circling you like vultures because you said 6 o’clock and it’s now 7 and the thing in the oven isn’t anywhere near done yet… nothing really happens. You suffer no real life consequences. You’ll still eat it. Your vulture friends will still eat it. They’ll probably, most likely, still enjoy it. Short of setting off some octogenarian relative’s peanut allergy and watching them croak in your living room in front of your whole family, the worst thing that will happen at your next dinner party is your fat friend will give you shit on their way to get another beer. To me, that was getting dull. Where is the consequence? The sense of danger? I got pretty unhappy for a time, bored, standing in that galley kitchen in my house, staring at the same dumb stove again. I’d buy new cookbooks like a junkie to fill my collection every week, only to have them collect dust and fill my kitchen with their obvious metaphor: the motivation had left me, or I it. For a moment there, Cooking and I were seeing other people.
But I had heard rumors…
Rumors of a magical scary place where every cut was absolute, and every pan-sear a measured performance. Where abuse was tolerated and pain was guaranteed. I heard of people who voluntarily, compulsorily forfeited every birthday, party, friend’s wedding, every family reunion, bar mitzvah, loan meeting, hospital visit and funeral – in order to abuse mind and body for a minimum wage paycheck. People who subjected themselves to mental and physical endurance examinations every day in front of a live audience, on little or sometimes no sleep. A soigne symphony, performed by inked men and women with bad backs, bruised knees, substance abuse issues, who never took vacations or sick days. I am talking of course about restaurant kitchens and the lunatics that practically live in them.
The men and women of this industry are not familiar with buffers. Forty hour work weeks do not exist. If the restaurant is open, they’re there, and they stay there till it closes, every day. Twelve, fifteen, eighteen hour days, six sometimes seven days a week. If they close at 11 p.m., they’re not just high-fiving eachother at the bar twenty minutes later. Every single prepped and organized piece of food, every perishable and nonperishable item is reorganized, relabelled and put away, every burner, fryer and flat top degreased and scrubbed cleaned, every pot and pan scoured, every plate dried, every glass polished, every piece of silver buffed clean, every wall and floor wiped and mopped, every inch of every prep surface sanitized… Every single freaking night, restaurant kitchens are destroyed and then subsequently rebuilt at the hands of animals. All in the name of profit margins that barely pay the rent for the building they operate in and for the homes of the people who work there.
I so wanted a piece of that.
Let’s make one thing incredibly clear: I never “worked” in a restaurant. No, I feel it would be better described as “allowed to dick around” in a restaurant. I got what the culinary world may consider a joke of a paid internship with an unbelievably lenient schedule. I already have a career (a nice one! with benefits!) and the arrangement I was given allowed me to basically choose my own evening and weekend schedule, however often I could be there, while still guaranteeing myself a nice comfy buffer that I could fill with necessary housework, timely bill payments, healthy social relationships and life-giving sleep. There’s also the time factor; I was there a total of four months. Some chefs would prefer that such a paltry tenure of one of their restaurant’s cooks not even be reported on a resume, much less written about in a self-aggrandizing blog post five months after they left. So I hope you’ll appreciate how much I stress that my experience, however transformative and a hell of a good time it was, in no measurable way compares to the experience of actual cooks.
In my mind, Chef Jose Salazar looked like a human being, talked like a human being, laughed and conversed like a human being, but Chef Jose Salazar was not a human being. He was a machine. Having worked for Jean-Georges and Thomas (Fucking) Keller, having transformed a four-star hotel’s restaurant into a dining mecca, and now was opening his own place to great local anticipation, I was convinced that he was, in fact, a decepticon. His Food & Wine nominations for Best New Chef in both 2011 and 2012 weren’t proof that he was human; it just meant he had successfully fooled newspapers and editors alike into thinking he was human, due to his advanced programming. That’s it. There was no other possible explanation. This man-mimicking imposter had to have been built in South America, assimilated himself into human culture in New York City, and took a woman and small child hostage and called them his family and moved to Cincinnati. Any contact would mean my doom. For me to call and speak words to him would be to put my name on this space-borg’s death list, and razor-wire tentacles would travel through the phone’s earpiece and tear my skull apart from the inside.
I was only slightly off.
What was actually happening in my head was the fear of ruining something. This person was building a restaurant empire; the last thing I wanted to do was fuck with his livelihood. Nevertheless, through many late-night drunk texts with a mutual friend (and one really serendipitous night out) this nationally-recognized chef who was shoring up staff had my number and knew I would be calling. What the actual fuck?! Just dialing the number was terrifying. He answered the phone – a very human-like move. I had caught him while he was making cookies… cookies! This isn’t fair, I thought. He had… personality, and… humor. He was… nice. We proceeded, through our casual introductions, shooting a little shit like people would do… but as the topic moved to restaurants, and as I cautiously imagined out loud a reality in which I would be working at his restaurant, I am pretty certain I could hear an arc reactor spin up on the other end of the line. I think the phone started to steam and glow red. I grimaced in anticipation of the inevitable energy beam that would be sent to my exact location and splatter me against the wall. But after a few seconds my organs remained – surprisingly – internal. He asked me about my intentions, offering some tasty insight on topics from culinary school to the industry as a whole. He deflected my humble brag, and offered me a three-day stage. “Let’s just see what happens,” he said.
Briefly, the restaurant industry doesn’t really work on resumes and interviews. You may have worked in Michelin restaurants and sport an expensive CIA degree, but chances are you’d still have to stage. A stage is an unpaid, day-long or several-day-long examination. Do you know enough shit? Can you handle shit? When you’re in the shit, do you work like shit? The only secret of that world I can illuminate for you is this: chefs don’t care so much if your technique is flawless. They care if you can help them crank out the most perfect fucking version of the food they want to put out.
Still, I was greener than green. Supergreen. I had no experience; zero. I didn’t know the lingo, the slang. I didn’t know the colloquial names of the various kitchen equipment and tools. I didn’t know I needed a knife bag or better shoes. I had never worked a line, never seen tickets, never heard an order fired much less knew what that meant. I knew I was the stupid kid who ate too much pork and read too much Bourdain and thought “hey guys, lemme do what you do!”, and I hated it. I knew I didn’t belong, and that I couldn’t possibly do it forever, but that I wanted every opportunity to try it.
My first day was on a Saturday, and they were getting ready for their soft opening two days later. I got there way too early — as in, the first one there — and it was raining. I didn’t want to walk back to my car a few blocks away, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I just stood there by the side door, getting rained on, until Chef arrived. At that point, it was actually my first time in the building, so I was given the fifty cent tour. The building has two levels: the dining room and kitchen occupy the main level, while the lower basement level consists of the prep, dishwashing and storage spaces, and the walk-in. The restaurant seats about 40 between a combination of cozy tables and booths, and another 10 fit at the full length granite bar. The galley-style kitchen (partially open to the dining room) has three stations: a fryer/cold-buffet/grill for garde manger; a flat top la plancha; and sauté. And barely enough room for the three people to run it. Narrow stairs behind the kitchen lead to the dungeon below; two small prep areas, a freezer, two sets of open shelves, and a tabletop oven, all smashed behind the dish pit. It’s an old building, so everything is cramped, low, or otherwise tight, which was delightful for my six-foot-four frame.
Shortly after, the sous Jared arrived, and I was handed off to start working. I have to say as someone who has never been in a restaurant kitchen, the first experience putting on whites — your restaurant jacket and apron — is really awkward. As a home cook, it made the whole experience stuffy. I’d put too many doughs together and made too many brines at midnight in my gym shorts at home to start dressing up to cut mirepoix. Nevertheless, Jared quickly showed me around the staff area and then assigned me my first task: mopping the bathroom. It was the universe’s answer to my anticipation. But being the ambitious noob I was, I mopped the shit out of that bathroom. As in way too long. As in Jared came and checked on me. From then on it was a busy blur, and a lot of shit happened that day. I know I did a lot of running around, trying to be as assistive as possible. I’m pretty certain I cleaned some clams, grated some cheese. There was just too much for my stupid brain to process, which I’m pretty sure means I didn’t process any of it.
During the next two evening shifts, I became very familiar with the end of the night rituals. In terms of sheer volume of work, cleaning is as hard as prep. It’s one thing to turn a long list of vegetables in your work area, but at the end of the night there are still four walls and a floor to scrub. I remember being flat out shocked at the ceaseless flow of dishes and used pans and full trash bins. Yeah, I know it’s a restaurant, but you really must see it to fully grasp it. As the FNG, my prep lists were shorter, so when I finished I would check on the kitchen to see what they needed. At that point they were in the throes of service, and they prepped well and rarely needed anything, which put me in a weird spot. I was enamored watching the busy line so closely for the first time, and was encouraged to do so by Chef and the guys. But I was still nervous just standing there for even a second, watching flames hit the pans, hearing the flat top sizzle and orders get rushed to servers, and myself simply watching and doing nothing. The solitary, nubile source of anxiety in a sea of seasoned veterans. For them it was just another shift. For me it was adventures in babysitting, and I was the baby. When everyone’s so busy, I’d sooner skip being just a witness. So those first few days I resorted to what I knew how to do and what needed to be done: dishes. I killed those stairs, dispatching hot dirty pans and returning with clean ones, yelling “corner” like a lunatic, weaving out of each cooks’ way, until they told me to do otherwise. At the end of the night, when they walked me through the tear-down process, I made the trips to get the cleaning stuff, not waiting to be asked. And I made sure to stay until the place closed all three nights and they themselves were leaving, even though I didn’t have to. Basic initiative was my first lesson learned.
I’m still kicking myself for not taking notes of those days, something I would remedy later. I unfortunately just don’t remember a lot of other specifics of my stage. I do remember vividly the feeling that hit me when I took off those whites, remembering how strange it was putting them on. There was the feeling of a hard day’s work as its own reward, and then remembering where the hell I was – the basement floor of one of the city’s best restaurants – and how I’d gotten there, there was confidence. That’s it?, I thought, I know how to do this. No knives were thrown at me, no fire department called. I had ramped myself up so much that I’d forgotten it might be possible I would manage fine. I was a little lost in life, but this felt like a natural homecoming. Driving home those nights, there was little emotion. In fact, when I’d get to my car I just sit there for the longest time, thinking about absolutely nothing. It wasn’t so much like reaching some point on some journey. It was a surreal feeling. I was just where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing.
On the third night (the first night open to the public), I finished my list, ran those pots and pans, and helped scrub the kitchen before Jose and I sat down to talk. He gave me a commis position, for as often as I could be there. As I said before, he was extremely lenient with my schedule; kind of a come-as-often-as-you-can thing. We joked about how I should quit my cushy job and just be his kitchen bitch. We were just putting each other on, but at that moment I loved what I was feeling so much that I honestly would’ve worked there for free. I had found my motivation, fueled by blissful naiveté, which would eventually drive me to a place that demanded a heartbreaking choice.
Read the second part of Nathan Penny’s experience at Salazar at his blog, Bread & Whiskey.
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