The world spins around us, life takes us in many different directions – some exciting and rewarding, some seem to spin out of control, but in all cases we have to take it in stride. There are macro issues of society, challenges that face our country, and earth shattering chaos around the globe, yet we still need to do what we do within the parameters of our personal existence. To a cook, in some cases like with other professions, his or her world becomes much smaller the minute he or she walks through those kitchen doors. Everything else needs to go to pause when a hat and apron replace street clothes, knives are lined up for a day of work, punch lists are reviewed, and ranges are fired up in preparation for another day of cooking.
Survival is a compelling motivator and survival is a practice of choice in every kitchen from coast to coast. Living in the moment to a cook means all eyes, ears, hands, minds, and hearts must be focused on the relentless work ahead. In some respects, this is not only a job requirement it is a welcome escape from everything else that is going on outside of work. To a cook – there is little room to continue worrying about the state of the world, the country, the city where he or she lives, or even the ongoing challenges of personal or family existence – there is only the cutting board, knife, and prep list. Everything else, at least for the next 10 hours, must be put on the shelf – forgotten until the last order is plated and placed in the pass.
Jake arrived at work around noon (90 minutes before his scheduled shift was to begin) so that he could get a jump on the massive amount of prep that needed to be done. He also needed to get away from everything else on his mind. The election was over and he was scarred a bit since his preferred candidate did not win and who knows what would be in store for he and 330 million other Americans as a result. The rent for his apartment was two months past due and the landlord was threatening to evict him, his car needed brakes and new tires for which there was no money, and he was about to file for personal bankruptcy to get out from under the burden of paying off those student loans with mounting interest. Forget the fact that he has been unable to start up another relationship since the last one spun out of control: “Who wants to be with a cook with the inconsistent, demanding schedules that accompany the job?”
Now he was in his special place – the kitchen. After scrubbing and sanitizing his work table – Jake set up a cutting board on a damp side towel to prevent slipping, reset the edge on his knives, pulled down the clipboard with his prep list and began to prioritize the work ahead. It was 12:15, just a little over 4 hours to go before orders began to churn into the kitchen for tonight’s service. Some others might not show until their shift was scheduled at 1:30, but Jake was obsessed with having everything right before service. He hated the stress of last minute gaps in mise en place. If things weren’t right by 4:45 then the night would be out of control.
One thing that Jake learned over the years was that any cook worth a grain of salt was obsessive/compulsive just like he was. Everything had to be right for him to feel even slightly OK. It drove him nuts when some cooks would arrive at the last minute, joke through prep, brush off some details at their station, and take short cuts to get through the night. This was not the formula that Jake lived by. His world outside of the kitchen might be a mess, but when he stood on those rubber floor mats he knew that he had to be, and was, in complete control.
He checked his daunting list and began the work ahead. First would be those tasks that required the most time – reducing sauces, fabricating fish and cutting steaks, caramelizing shallots until they nearly melted, Frenching the bones on lamb racks, getting prime ribs in the oven as quickly as possible, and separating and trimming exactly cut vegetables for blanching and shocking. Chopping fines herbs, preparing potatoes for the line, clarifying butter, brushing down the char grill, and making maitre’d butter could wait a bit longer – first things first. Tonight (Friday) would be very busy with over 140 reservations on the books already. More than likely they would serve well over 200 tonight with walk-ins added to the mix.
When home alone in his apartment, time seemed to stand still, but in the kitchen the clock ticked at a frantic pace. Although his mind is clear of those outside distractions, his head is now filled with the pressure of dwindling time, the next five tasks along with the current ones he is working on, and that looming 5 o’clock first order that will be called off by the expeditor. He must be ready!
Cooks live in the moment. This is what is required – this is what they do. In the kitchen there is little time for chitchat, no real opportunity for discussion of politics, world order, the national debt, the stock market, or the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks. When in the kitchen – the name of the game is focus. To those of us who spent or are spending a career in the kitchen, this is our reward, our escape from the problems of the day, our opportunity to feel good about accomplishing something even if it is small in comparison to the issues that surround us. The kitchen is the one place we can control, a place where we make a difference and can show the positive fruits of our labor.
Sure, there are problems associated with the profession: the pay is meager, the benefits are even worse, the hours are long, the work is physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding, and it is rare to find a customer who thanks the folks behind the swinging doors, yet, this is our special place, a place of solitude and solidarity. The person on the line next to you is likely a good friend, the chef may not always be liked but is respected, the uniform that we wear represents something proud and real, and the product is our contribution to the art world. We gladly take the bad with the good.
It’s now 3:30 and Jake knows that this last hour or so will fly by. His sauces are ready, in the bain marie, and topped with monte au beurre. All steaks are cut and trimmed, lamb racks Frenched, whole fish scaled and cleaned for grilling, and meatier fish like sword and halibut are crosscut into steaks, and vegetables are trimmed, blanched and ready for a ‘la minute finishing. This next hour will be spent on the detail work: garnishes, maitre’d butter, clarifying butter, and setting up his station. At 4:30 the chef will walk through to check all stations, taste sauces, and drill each line cook on his or her readiness. Jake always takes pride in responding “Yes chef” when asked about his prep for service.
The other cooks arrived on time and will be a bit more frantic, but Jake will likely jump in and help to pull them through. He knows from experience that any weak link on the line will pull everyone down at some point. Cooks work together and look out for each other. He will make sure to give a few subtle jabs to those cooks who continually insist on arriving at the last minute and stumbling through the weeds before the first order ticks off the printer. They WILL be ready with his help.
It’s 4:30 and like clock work, the chef walks down the line tasting sauces, randomly checking portions, quizzing cooks about their station, inspecting stations for cleanliness, making sure that knives are sharp and sani-buckets are ready. A few adjustments are made, and that last minute push has everyone working at top efficiency. The chef moves to the dining room to review tonight’s menu with the service staff. Pre-meal is his favorite time. This is a chance to connect with the front of the house and take pride in talking about the work of his cooks. Servers fire off a few questions; take notes, return to detailing their tables, polishing glasses, and folding extra napkins before the doors open.
The chef takes his position on the opposite side of the line – the expeditor station, assembles sixth pans of garnishes on ice, gives a nod to Jake who is always on point, says: “Are we ready?” and smiles when the line responds in unison: “Yes Chef!” All of the world’s problems will still be there tomorrow, but for right now the kitchen is ready for action -bring it on!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
**Follow the kitchen adventures of Jake in Chef Sorgule’s latest novel: The Event That Changed Everything. Order your copy on amazon by clicking the link below.