From the outside looking in, things always seem different than they are. This has always been one of my major concerns with young people anxiously applying to culinary school, believing only the fun and creative part of the job and avoiding an understanding of what it is like 90% of the time; or entrepreneurs unfamiliar with the restaurant business except as an avid lover of dining out, thus convincing themselves to become restaurateurs. How hard can it be – right?
Those who have read my articles in the past know how passionate and committed I am to the business and especially to those who spend countless hours preparing food for guests. As much as I love everything about being in a professional kitchen, the reality is that everything about the work is hard. Those who have the passion and understand the price to pay are the ones who succeed personally and professionally.
So, in celebration of what it is really like and in an effort to provide you with something to hand those inexperienced applicants to culinary school and wannabe restaurateurs without a clue – here it is:
THE PHYSICAL WORK:
Be prepared, your body will ache.
*Cooks and restaurateurs will be on their feet for at least 10 hours a day. There is no time to sit and no task that requires a chair. To this end, as I have mentioned in a previous article, your feet become the most important part of your body. By the end of the day your feet and ankles will be swollen, arches will have collapsed, shins will feel like a runners with shin splints, and your legs and knees will be well on their way to atrophy. If you constantly feel the need to sit as part of your work routine then stay away from kitchen work.
*You will oftentimes find job descriptions for kitchen work that lists as a requirement, “Must be able to lift 50 pounds.” It should read: “Must be able to lift a bare minimum of 50 pounds and do so repeatedly throughout a 10 plus hour shift, carry that 50 pounds from one end of the kitchen to another, oftentimes while the product is scorching hot.” If your back has been a problem in the past, then kitchen work will make you miserable. If your back has not been a problem in the past, it will be soon.
*Working in a kitchen will be torture to your hands. Seasoned cooks typically wind up with hands that are swollen, scarred, callused, burned, and stitched so many times that they feel like stumps at the end of their wrists. Blisters from the constant movement of a French knife, cuts from razor sharp blades, burns from grabbing pans from 500 degree ovens or handles that have sat idly over an open flame, will take their toll over time. If you hope to maintain manicured hands, then stay away from kitchen life.
*Biceps and triceps, if not conditioned, will become so after a few months on the job. Men and women will wind up with some pretty serious guns after a short life in the kitchen. Until they develop, you will be using excessive amounts of mineral ice to keep them working.
*Shoulders and back – well, let’s just say that a cook’s best friend is his or her chiropractor. Find a good one early on and just make a standing appointment every few weeks. If your restaurant provides a health care plan make sure that it covers chiropractic visits.
THE MENTAL WORK:
*Mental acuity is paramount for line cooks. Most chefs I know can still get behind the line and cook, but find it increasingly difficult to keep everything sorted out in their head. The older you get, the harder this becomes. Cooks need to multi-task, all of the time. During prep, they might have a half dozen items working simultaneously – some in the oven, others on the stove. When they are on the line during service, the list might explode to 15 or more items working at the same time, each with different ingredients, some with different degrees of doneness, and all ready at a critical moment.
*When you are a line cook there is no time to read recipes. Line cooks need to know everything about every dish on the menu, what ingredients to add, at what time and exactly how the dish must look and taste. Additionally, the specific plate presentation of each dish must be imbedded in a cooks’ sub-conscious.
*The cadence of line work is quite possibly the most important part of the work. Standing at the end of a busy line as an observer, you could compare it to a fine tuned orchestra executing a very complicated piece of music. If one of the musicians (cooks) is not at pace with their music, the entire orchestra fails and the music is just noise. This requires skill, but also mental focus.
*If you speak English, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin or Japanese, put all of these aside. The kitchen has its own language to learn and become fluent in. Order, order-fire, in the window, give me an all-day, re-fire, finish, reduce, sear, mid-rare, black and blue, behind, etc. etc., all mean something very specific to each cook.
*The ability to audible on the line, just like a quarterback does in football, is a skill that comes with time and confidence. Pushing tables ahead, borrowing from one order to fill another, special requests, and re-fires are events that can fluster and break a team, but when the players are trained to adapt, and when they have the mental acuity to react without losing a step, life is beautiful.
THE EMOTIONAL WORK:
Some may find it hard to understand that cooking is emotional work, but my experience is that this may be one of the most important parts to understand. Cooks may seem crusty, tough and disconnected, but in reality they are physical frames full of emotion.
*Good cooks have a connection to the art of cooking and plating and take as much pride in their work as does a painter, writer or musician.
*Good cooks put it all out there every time a plate leaves the kitchen. They are quietly saying: “Here it is, this is what I do, this is my art, what do you think.” We all want people to like our work and are crushed when they don’t. This is why many cooks constantly watch what is coming back on plates from the dining room.
*Friendships are emotionally strong in kitchens. I have never seen a stronger bond between co-workers (granted not all of them) than in a kitchen. There is always an ample dose of high fives, hugs, pats on the back, and fist bumps in every kitchen that I have worked in.
*The full gamut of emotions are typically present every day, in every kitchen. Stay tuned for anger, frustration, fear, love, happiness, sadness and the like. Kitchens are powder kegs of emotions and very difficult to manage.
THE SPIRITUAL WORK:
OK, so maybe this one seems like a stretch, however, depending on how you define spiritual, I believe that this is a core part of the kitchen environment.
*The kitchen, to those who have chosen this as their life work, is part of a higher definition of the individual. Cooking is what they do, who they do it with, why they are here on earth, and a true representation of who they are.
*Cooks are representatives of the farmer/producer, the medium through which all of the world’s previous great cooks and chefs remain relevant, the providers of sustenance and health, the givers of pleasure and reward, and the only artists whose work can be eaten.
THIS IS WHAT IT IS LIKE TO WORK IN A KITCHEN. How hard can it be?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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