To some it may be a job, a means to an end. Yes, there are those who work in kitchens simply to pay the bills. This is not true of the people who I strove to work with and hired for the kitchens that I was privileged to work in.
When you stop to think about it, there is something truly magical about working in a professional kitchen. I have often said that most serious cooks are frustrated artists – individuals who have this innate artistic ability that is simply looking for a vehicle of expression. Some are writers, painters, sculptors, bloggers, musicians or even poets. Few are outgoing enough to have an interest in the live performing arts, so their goal is to find a place where they can be expressive behind closed doors. Ah…the kitchen, what a perfect place.
Once they find their way into that cross between the cleanliness of a surgical room and intensity and heat of Dante’s Inferno, they are hooked. Just think of the advantages for the artist: an environment where every day you get to paint on your canvas (the plate), use a plethora of exciting raw materials, appeal to every human sense simultaneously, earn a paycheck, work with other driven artists, learn from a teacher (the chef), and receive instant feedback for your work (although many cooks could care less as long as they feel that the work is an expression of who they are).
What I have enjoyed the most, is working with such a unique cadre of characters over the years. Every employee has a story, every kitchen employee has some type of issue, every kitchen employee will put their coworkers up against anyone they know and support them no matter what, every kitchen employee understands that as talented as they might be personally, it is the team that allows the whole thing to work.
Of course I know there are exceptions, but we usually weed them out.
I love the diversity of the kitchen. I have been honored to work with every ethnic background, every religious belief, small, tall, young, old, novice, seasoned professional, humble cook and egotistical pain in the butt, white, yellow and black, straight and gay, republican and democrat,male and female and it all works. Sure we banter back and forth about those issues that are in the American mindset, but we all come to agreement on food and how important the team is.
The days are long, the heat can be unbearable at times, the pressure of timing the food can create a frenzy, the disappointment of a returned steak can ruin a night, the temporary friction between front and back of the house can certainly be trying, and in the end the pay never seems to meet our expectations, but I would not trade it for anything.
I love the people of restaurants, I am most at home in a kitchen, I relish working with local farmers and producers, I get excited when that shipment of extraordinary fish comes through the door. The smell of onions, garlic, veal stock, roasts in the oven and fresh baked bread will truly make my day. The 12 cups of half-consumed coffee strewn about the kitchen is comical, but necessary.
As a chef, it is inspiring when that new menu comes together after soliciting the ideas from enthusiastic cooks. Sitting down for 10 minutes before service to a staff meal is a place and a time like no other – even if it takes place standing at the pass on the line. When those first tickets start coming in, the feeling is always exciting, a bit tense, and a call to arms but once the rhythm begins, it is like an orchestra hitting that perfect balance of notes in a score.
In the end, we exist to express ourselves, learn and work together as a team, produce some amazing art that people in the dining room will eat, smell and enjoy. We can make their day if the formula is right and cause them to want to return as soon as possible. What could any artist want more.
I, for one, appreciate what I do in the kitchen. I look forward to every day of learning, thinking about food, teaching, training and occasionally cooking for others. I am humbled by what we do.
I think it was Charlie Trotter who said: “A career in food is not something you choose, it chooses you.” For all who want “in”, this is what chargers our batteries and keeps life in the kitchen exciting.
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