THE HEAT OF THE KITCHEN

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It’s August and the latest data points to July (last month) as the hottest on record for the United States. Think about that – it has never been hotter than this since records have been kept! While others may think about those lazy summer days with toes in the beach sand; an iced tea, gin and tonic, or beer in hand; that occasional dip in the pool or the ocean, and a chance to work on a tan – cooks, chefs, and service staff in the more than 1 million U.S. restaurants are in pain.

“The thing with heat is, no matter how cold you are, no matter how much you need warmth, it always, eventually, becomes too much.” 

― Victoria AveyardGlass Sword

What is so interesting about heat is the numerous ways that it can be viewed and interpreted. Heat is both friend and foe; it is the bane of our existence and the reason for our very being as a cook. Heat is representative of everything that the restaurant industry is about. Some may simply say: “It’s going to be hot today”, but few really know what “It’s hot” really means. We might measure heat in terms of temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius, but rarely do we look at the far-reaching meanings of what heat represents to a cook.

As a nod of understanding and appreciation for my friends, prior co-workers, and everyone else who works in a restaurant – here is a more in-depth review of kitchen heat.

IT’S HOT!!

[]         AMBIENT HEAT

When it’s hot outside, it’s hot in the kitchen. Kitchens are not typically air-conditioned – so there is no relief as there might be for other professions. Cooks do not enter the kitchen to cool off – there is no positive temperature transition except when we gladly pass into a walk-in cooler to graze for ingredients. When others refer to sweltering summer heat – cooks talk in terms of the ambient temperature being “tight or still”, it’s like a vise around your body that keeps tightening.

[]         HUMIDITY

Humidity outside cannot compare to kitchen humidity. We even go out of our way to add additional humidity to the environment we work in. The dish machine, stock pots, and simmering sauce work add so much humidity to a kitchen that it feels like it might rain – inside! Cooks sweat through their uniform within minutes of entering the kitchen. We only need to worry when we stop sweating because that means that we have not hydrated sufficiently and there is nothing left in those pores.

[]         THE HEAT OF TEMPERAMENT

Some of the heat in a kitchen is not measured in degrees of temperature, but rather in nuances of temperament. When people are that hot, their nerves are on edge, and small issues can bring out the worst reactions from people. All of the effort at creating a positive work environment is forgotten as cooks and servers lash out over the smallest detail: “Who the hell moved my side towels?”

[]         THE HEAT OF STRESS

Everyone feels stress at various times in his or her lives. “Stress free” is not very realistic – in fact, a small amount of stress may actually help us to perform better and even enjoy what we do. The stress of the kitchen is ever-present and comes at cooks from every possible direction. There is the stress of being prepared for the start of service: “Is my mise en place tight enough”; the stress from the chef who expects that the quality of your cooking will meet his or her expectations; the stress from not wanting to let your teammates down (one weak link on the kitchen line can bring the entire team to their knees during service); and the relentless stress from the sound of tickets clicking off the printer, servers asking for the status of an order, the errant “order-fire” that pushes a table in front of others already in the works, and the barking of “ordering” and “fire” commands from the expeditor. This, compounded with the need to remember preparations and keep a few dozen “in progress” preparations cataloged in your brain makes the heat of stress a real monster to deal with. Sometimes that sweat on a cook’s brow is not from temperature, but rather from the mental and emotional stress of the job.

[]         THE HEAT OF THE LINE

On top of ambient heat is the raging heat of working over ranges, char-grills and ovens cranked up as high as they can go, the chef’s table billowing out steam that keeps sauces and sides hot for plating, the plate warmers glowing cherry red, and the added heat of proteins dripping their internal fat onto super hot coals or ceramics, creating lapping flames that singe eyebrows and spit out super heated dancing specks of hot oil, clarified butter, and rendered fat. It is the visual image of Dante’s Inferno.

[]         WHEN HEAT HURTS

After years of kitchen work, many cooks and chefs develop asbestos hands. It is sometimes hard to distinguish fingerprints on a cook since their fingertips and palms are shinny with the glaze of heat calluses. Most cooks’ carry dozens of burn scars that trail up their arms. As much as these appendages seem to be hammered like seasoned steel, it still hurts like hell when a cook inadvertently grabs a super heated sauté pan handle, is the recipient of a burst bubble of fat from the deep fryer, or gets in the way of a steak sizzle platter direct from a 600 degree oven.

[]         FIRE AND COOKING

When the cook is in control of heat, the results can be incredibly positive. Cooking involves, after all, the application of heat. Cooks have a love affair with fire and learn, over a period of time, how to control it to yield a certain result. A seasoned grill person knows how to control fire to properly sear a steak or a chop, impart those inspiring grill marks, and caramelize the protein resulting in exceptional flavor. The person on sauté is fully aware of the difference between gentle sauté and pan-frying and knows which dish requires which application. The person on fried foods learns to be adept at finding that right temperature point in the fat to properly brown the product while still making sure that it is cooked to perfection inside.

[]         THE HEAT OF FLAVORS

It is that caramelization or “Maillard” process that allows heat and fire to coax out the umami characteristics of a dishes flavor profile. Without understanding this and learning how to control the impact of fire and heat on a portion of food, the cook will never be able to build the necessary flavors to make a dish – great.

[]         THE HEAT OF PASSION

There is also an inevitable heat that takes place in kitchens and restaurants – it is the heat of passion. There is never a lack of short-term romances that occur in restaurants. When people work this closely, depend on each other to survive another service, interact in such a stressful and physical environment, and do so over one of the most beautiful things in life (great food), there will always be those sparks of romantic interest. This adds to the heat of the environment and can sometimes be the real demise of a kitchen team – even more so than the other types of heat that we are discussing.

[]         THE HEAT OF BUSINESS FAILURE/SUCCESS

It was Abraham Maslow who said that the first two steps on the ladder of human need are survival and security. Cooks, chefs, servers, and managers are well aware that the restaurant business is one of a fine line between success and failure. Every guest is critical in that quest for business survival and each employee can contribute to that survival. Failure to attract enough guests, who spend enough money, and who are happy enough to return, will leave every employee clamoring to find employment elsewhere. This reality hangs over everyone’s head, every day.

[]         THE HEAT OF GUEST INTERACTION

Finally, although the vast majority of restaurant guests are reasonable, nice, grateful recipients of the food you prepare, there is a percentage that are the polar opposite. Everyone in the restaurant feels the heat of his or her discontent, occasional arrogance, and biting anger. This is a heat that can leave longer lasting scars on service staff, in particular, that trickles down through the operation.

Some say: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” (Harry Truman), but I wonder how many of those folks have ever experienced a shift in a busy kitchen, in the middle of August.

To every cook suffering through this summer – keep the faith, winter is around the corner. In the meantime – hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

**Photograph compliments of Chef Curtiss Hemm – Pink Ribbon Cooking

READ ABOUT STORIES OF KITCHEN LIFE – Order your copy of Chef Paul Sorgule’s latest novel: “The Event That Changed Everything” by clicking on the following link to amazon.com:

www.amazon.com/Event-That-Changed-Everything-Relationships/dp/1491755105/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1471525501&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Event+That+Changed+Everything

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