It’s 7 a.m. as the chef walks into the kitchen. He grabs a cup of freshly brewed coffee even before opening the door to the office. Nodding to the breakfast cook who has been there since 5, the chef enters the office and pulls a crisp, starched chef coat from the closet, buttons the front, folds up the sleeves, inserts a thermometer and black sharpie in the breast pocket, adjusts his hat and grabs the coffee mug on his first walk-around of the day. The aroma of the coffee is quickly replaced with the smell of bacon being pulled from the oven, breakfast pastries drawn from the decks in the bakeshop and a mirepoix caramelizing on the back stove for today’s stocks. The day has begun.
Reviewing the banquet orders for the day, the chef notes that there are two small luncheons and a recognition dinner for 175 that evening. In two days, the restaurant will present a semi-annual wine dinner for 100 foodaholics; seven courses, each with a complementary wine. It will be a heavy prep day on top of normal a ‘la carte business. The time the chef had hoped to work on next season’s restaurant menus would need to wait, he will need to give the prep crew a hand.
The chef continues to touch base with cooks in each department, refills his coffee mug, washes his hands and sets up a cutting board for the work ahead. He grabs his knife kit from the office and proceeds to draw the blades of his French knife, boning knife, and bird’s beak tourne over a wet stone. He always enjoys the feeling and the sound of carbon steel as it makes contact with the stone. There is a spiritual connection between the stone and the steel that can be sensed. The two belong together. Once the chef is confident that the edge is honed, a few draws down his steel to remove any burrs, a quick wash and sanitize of the blade, and he is ready.
Over the next three hours, the kitchen is filled with a cacophony of sound: the chopping sound of blades on the cutting boards, the clanging of pots and pans, sizzle of meats being seared in a hot pan, constant hum of the exhaust fans and the roar of the conveyor dish machine have become the music the chef and his cooks seem to enjoy.
Throughout the shift, the chef responds to clues that are passed his way through the smells, sounds, sights, textures and tastes of the kitchen. His highly acute, educated senses can tell if a piece of chicken or beef is being properly seared by the sounds of a pan, hot enough to create that Maillard reaction resulting in a beautiful caramel color and the browning of sugars to enhance flavor. “Your pan is not hot enough. Wait before you place the meat in the pan and do NOT overcrowd the pan. Sear it, don’t steam it!” His nose can identify that pan of sliced almonds on the verge of burning, the fish that is too far passed it’s useful life or the bread that is ready to come out of the oven without even seeing or touching it. A tap on the bottom of the loaf to catch that hollow sound is the final signal of a loaf ready for the cooling shelf. Every cook, as the day goes on, will bring samples of their work to the chef for final adjustments or approval of the taste profile expected. They may all have great “buds”, but it is the chef’s palate that has earned the right of final approval.
Working in a kitchen is so incredibly unique. There is no other profession that not only allows, but; requires employees to turn on and tune in all of their senses, every minute. Those who are most successful in the kitchen are cooks with well-defined olfactory senses and firmly developed taste buds. What is even more important is the “flavor memory” that each cook owns. This memory is a database of sensual experiences that over time, allows the cook to know; this is what the product should look, sound, smell, feel and taste like.
From the moment the chef or cook arrives, there are opportunities to charge up the senses. Smelling those cantaloupes when they arrive from the vendor to determine if they are ripe enough for refrigeration or if they need a day or two in dry storage to mature; or snapping the green beans allowing the cook to establish if they are from a fresh harvest or cold storage. A bakers gentle touch of a dough during bowl proof will define whether it is time to punch down the dough and form it into individual loaves. A simple press of the fingers on a steak being grilled will send a message to a line cooks memory as to the degree of doneness. All of these, and so many more sensual opportunities exist in a kitchen, every day.
By the end of a shift, cooks all suffer from sensual overload. Yes, the job is very physical, stressful and even emotional, but what many do not realize (unless you live the life of a cook) is that cooking can leave your senses in a state of shock. Each day, cooks need to wake those senses up again and exercise them like an athlete in training.
The color of a beautiful glass of Pinot Noir can help an educated chef determine the quality of the drinking experience. That perfect caramelization of a diver scallop in clarified butter will awaken the memory of how it should taste. The smell of a rustic loaf of sour dough bread pulled from the oven or the enticing aroma of the garlic, onions and tomatoes in a well-prepared marinara are triggers that allow good cooks to become great chefs.
Those who wonder what it is like to work in a professional kitchen, day in and day out, must know that it truly is a sensual experience. Beyond the intensity of the work, beyond the barking of chefs and servers, way past the demands of the guest and owner, cooking is sensual. This is really what brings us back time and again. It all starts each day with the smell of rich coffee, bacon, onions and pastries hot from the oven. You have to love it. Cooking is the best job on the planet.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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