I thought that I would re-post an old series that was presented through Harvest America Cues a few years back. As I continue to marvel at the focused life of line cooks I was compelled to introduce this story (one that happens every day, in every kitchen across the country) as a tribute to kitchen warriors everywhere.
This is part one of a mini series of posts on the life of a line cook. The intent is to present the reader with a better understanding of the sub-culture that is a professional kitchen, the unique traits of people who make line work, in particular, their calling and to pay homage to those unique and sometimes troubled individuals who make up the kitchen brigade. This is NOT designed to be another “portrayal of the underbelly” of restaurant kitchens, but rather a study into the drivers that make some of my favorite people who they are. Throughout the series I will tell a story using fictitious names and operations to best define the environment and those who work in that environment.
It is noon on a Friday in November and John (Jake as his friends call him) is just waking up. His shift at “Plate Restaurant” doesn’t start for another two hours, but he keeps trying to live up to a commitment that he made in early January. “I need to start taking better care of myself, so I will begin to exercise every day, quit smoking, get a good night’s sleep, cut back on drinking and look for a relationship”. As Jake moved his feet to the floor he immediately reached for a cigarette, stumbled to the kitchen/living room in his two-room apartment and turned on the TV. He turned on his Keurig and inserted a K-cup for his first of many coffee’s for the day. As was the case every morning (or afternoon when he woke up) he gave thanks for the invention of the K-cup. As he smoked and drank his coffee while half watching the news, he pushed the whole exercise concept out of his mind and turned to a mental review of his prep work for the day at “Plate”.
After a long shower and haphazard attempt at shaving, Jake made another cup of coffee and decided he might as well go right to work since he had nothing else to do anyway. Fortunately, the restaurant was only 12 blocks away and he could walk (his only exercise for the day), since he had lost his driver’s license a few months back for a DUI. It really didn’t matter anyway since he couldn’t afford to keep a car in the city on his current salary.
The fresh air helped to clear the cobwebs from his brain, the residual effects of a few too many after work beers from the night before. As he walked he was beginning to form a clearer picture of the work ahead. It was Friday, so tonight would be quite busy. He vaguely remembered checking the reservation book before he left last night and there were already 120 on the books.
Jake’s station was sauté, typically the busiest in the restaurant and the most complex. He knew that he had to be sharp for tonight so even though the walk was just a few minutes long, he stopped at a Starbuck’s for a double espresso on the way. By the time he walked through the doors of “Plate” he was wide-awake, a little buzzed from the espresso, and ready to hit the ground running. Jake was once again grateful that the restaurant, as is the case with most, provided clean, pressed uniforms; he never had to worry much about doing laundry since the majority of his life was spent in cooks whites. He pulled on the hounds tooth cooks pants and crisp cooks coat, tucked his hair under the black skull cap that the restaurant provided, tied on a fresh apron and double-checked the polish on his Birkenstock’s (one of the few luxuries that he allowed himself). As a line cook your feet are by far your most important body parts.
As he walked through the kitchen offering a few fist bumps and high-fives, Jake said good morning to the chef (who had already been there since 7:30 that morning), and went immediately for the coffee machine. Another double espresso and Jake was ready to go. It was now 1:15 and Jake had 3 ½ hours to prepare for tonight’s onslaught of orders (hopefully balanced between stations – but he knew deep down that it would be all him on a Friday night).
Jake was now in his element. The kitchen is where he felt whole again, he had purpose, people depended on him, this is where he met up each day with his only friends, this is where he was meant to be. Slowly the cobwebs from this morning turned to a subtle smile and a sense of focus and contentment. Jake pulled down his mise en place clipboard, dampened a towel to keep his cutting board from sliding, removed his trusted knives from his own tool drawer, drew each blade across a water stone and steel and set out for the cooler. Today was going to be great!
Friday’s are always big fish nights so, as per notations from the chef, he immediately went to the ice bins and pulled out (3) 8-pound Pacific Salmon. Over the years (this was Jake’s 3rd year at Plate and his 8th working in professional kitchens) he had been able to master the process for filleting fish. Young apprentices who would come and go in this kitchen would always marvel at Jake’s speed and accuracy with any round or flat fish. His treasured knives would pass through the fish like butter, leaving only small traces of meat on the bone. If it was white fish like halibut or bass, the bones would be saved for fish fumet, if it were salmon – well they had not figured out any way to use the bones from this oily fish – yet. Within 20 minutes Jake had removed the heads, filleted the three sizeable salmon, tactfully pulled out the pin bones with tweezers and cut them into identical 6-ounce portions. The portioned fillets were neatly organized on silicon paper in hotel pans and returned to their ice caddy’s- ready for the line. Jake followed the same procedure with Red Snapper and Black Cod as well as tonight’s feature of Barramundi. He ended with removing the “boots” from (2) 8 pound tins of U-10 Diver Scallops, scrubbed down and sanitized his table, passed his fish cutting board on to the dishwasher and gently cared for his knives. It was 2:15 and all of his fish work was done.
Now it was time to move on to meats and poultry. The current “Plate” menu would require Jake to trim and portion venison tenders, Wagu beef tenders, Pheasant breasts and pre-braised lamb shanks ready for finishing. Once again, he prepped his table for a new cutting board, cleaned up the edges of his knives and went to work. Time was ticking and the anxiety of being ready for those first tickets was beginning to creep up.
More “Digging Deep” continued later this week.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC