“Welcome to the camp, I guess we all know why we’re here.” These opening lyrics by the Who in their dramatic album “Tommy” referred to an underlying understanding of purpose. Anyone could interject numerous scenarios that point to common beliefs, direction, misunderstandings, reflections, or transitions in a persons’ life. One of those transitions is finding a career that provides purpose – a calling – what a person was meant to do with his or her life. Such is the case with many who willingly or sometimes unwillingly make the leap into kitchen life. I have always felt that more often than not, this cooking career finds the person rather than the opposite.
Sometimes (probably more frequently than we imagine) people fall into a career as a cook. To many it is initially a job that seems relatively easy to find – restaurants seem to always be in the market for entry level as well as fully developed prep and line cooks – the door swings freely as cooks come and go. So, life in the kitchen begins with a simple need for a paycheck. Maybe, no – probably, that first job was washing dishes but quickly reverts to either a firm decision to “never do this again”, or the start of a keen interest in what those line cooks were doing – much more interesting than diving for pearls.
There is the environment, the language, the banter, the confidence, fire and sharp objects, the creativity, and of course the food – everything melds together into a pretty appealing stew of opportunity. There is another aspect to kitchen life that really defines what makes the work so special – the difference is the team environment – the club. Unlike other clubs there is no need to pay dues, no need to have special connections to “get in” (although connections do occasionally help).
Those who seek membership will have to pay a non-monetary price. Entrance into this club does require an interesting orientation, questioning eyes, very little trust, and even a little bit of hope that the candidate will fail before they are accepted.
I am not sure whether or not this orientation has real value, but similar to the old “pledge” system for fraternities, sororities, or even the military – once a person makes it through they feel as if they have earned their place. If it gets out of hand, we have all seen the damage that can result, but in small doses – is there value to this system of earning acceptance? Let’s take a look at some of the tests that are often part of kitchen culture (you can add your own to the list) and judge for yourself.
 UNDERSTANDING THE LANGUAGE OF THE KITCHEN
There are two language formats in the kitchen one has a purpose and the other is part of a poorly defined culture. The language of cooking was drawn from classic terminology (primarily French) that over the decades has become accepted by most serious cooks and kitchens. The names of classic sauces, the terminology for organization, the words used to accentuate cooking methods are all second nature to professional cooks. It is thus an assumption that new employees will fully understand this language. Slang and abbreviated terms that evolved into the unique nomenclature of the kitchen are dotted between the classic terms resulting in a kitchen language that is only known to those who stand in front of a 120 degree ambient temperature range. Mise en place, sec, béchamel, demi-glace, monte au beurre, concasse, pate au choux, pot de crème, brunoise, tourne, and julienne are intertwined with the window, 86, stat, fire, all-day, and dupes or tickets are part of this special language. The other inappropriately embraced cultural language of the kitchen is laced with four-letter expletives. A young cook unaware of this language will be taken off guard and shown to the team as being naïve.
 THE TEST FOR COMMON SENSE
Either Voltaire or Mark Twain defined “Common sense is not so common” as a reality. Regardless of the author, most people would agree that the statement is true. In the kitchen – teams seem to always enjoy pointing out that unseasoned cooks are void of common sense. There are numerous erroneous requests made of new cooks like: “Get me a bucket of steam”, or “Go down to maintenance and ask them for the walk-in cooler expander”. Enjoying the pain of embarrassment, cooks will subsequently laugh while watching these eager “newbies” take off in search of the Holy Grail. Sometimes this eagerness is painful to watch as the new cook is asked to mop the freezer floor. Most cooks will eventually shake it off and earn the respect of the team for being able to take a joke. Harmless to most, harmful to some.
 CAN YOU TAKE A JOKE
A young cook’s ability to shake it off and laugh at his or her own naivety will quickly win the respect of others. This, of course, is easier said than done. Underneath it all, most people don’t care to be made the brunt of other’s jokes.
 TOLERANCE FOR PAIN
I remember part of Anthony Bourdain’s book: Kitchen Confidential, when a seasoned line cook scoffed at Bourdain’s request for burn cream. He then proceeded to grab a hot sizzle platter from the broiler with his bare hand to demonstrate a cook’s ability to withstand pain. Over the years I have found that most cooks are more concerned about showing signs of weakness when they burn or cut themselves than focusing on the wound itself. Far too many cooks have toughed it out when first aid, a few stitches, or burn cream would be in order. For some reason cooks feel that working through the pain is a sign of strength.
 HOW THE PERSON RESPONDS TO SERVANT MENTALITY
Team members will try to push a new staff members tolerance for servitude. Willing to please, new cooks tend to accept demands or directives from more seasoned employees without stopping to assess whether or not the directive is reasonable. Long-term employees will take advantage of this as long as they can. Anywhere else this would fall into the same category as middle school bullying.
One of the meanest tactics to test a new cook is when seasoned employees purposefully sabotage the new member’s work. Turning up ovens, turning off burners under a stock, allowing a pot of soup in a cooling water bath to tip over and take in water, diluting the product, and adding extra salt or pepper to a dish when the cook is not looking. This is mean, dangerous, and not funny. If caught, this is grounds for a chef to fire an employee for attempting to sabotage the work of the kitchen.
 EVERYTHING IS EVERYONE’S JOB
Sometimes new employees are unaware of the Cardinal rule in the kitchen “everything is everyone’s job”. “I was hired to cook, not wash pots” is a response that will immediately ostracize a new cook from the team and start a rapid demise of respect from everyone in the operation. Pushing this message is one of the few underground orientation tactics that has real merit.
 SCHEDULING PAIN
See how serious a young cook is by scheduling them for the worst shifts, back to back 12 hour days, closing one night and opening the next, scheduling them for every holiday, etc. Low person on the totem pole always seems to receive the brunt of the worst schedules, the ones that no one else wants to do. The new kids on the block should be willing to accept this, at least until they are firmly a part of the team.
 TESTING THE THRESHOLD OF TRUST
The most important attribute of any team member is trust. Staff members will be very leery of welcoming someone into the club until there is relative certainty that he or she can be trusted. “Will this person have my back, can I trust that he or she will do their share and do it well, can I tell this person something in confidence?” The trust factor is far more important to the team than skills. Skills can be taught; trust is something that is part of a person’s character. The team will test new recruits during this orientation period to assess their trustworthiness.
 JUST DO IT
When in the heat of battle – will this person step up to the plate and go the extra mile or will he or she crumble. The proof of this will happen pretty quickly in the heat of service.
 BOOK SMARTS VS. TIME IN THE TRENCHES
The classic friction between those individuals with the culinary degree pedigree and stripes from the school of hard knocks will always be an undercurrent in the kitchen. The graduate brings an understanding of the “why”, while the veteran brings the chops from cranking out thousands of quality meals over a period of time. The only way that there will be acceptance if each agrees that he or she can learn something from the other. The chef, manager or owner must expedite this part of orientation. It rarely happens organically.
Good, bad, or indifferent, this is a process that does happen in many kitchens here and abroad. It can be cruel at times and sometimes counter-productive. Club membership, once earned however, is membership for life. I do not condone, nor chastise the process – I believe that in small doses it can be a welcome process that helps to break the ice and discover whether or not an individual has what it takes, but left uncontrolled, it may very well turn good people away from a career in the kitchen. A chef should not encourage the process, in fact, a more formal orientation that is designed to train, acclimate, and integrate new people to the kitchen is usually more effective. If a culture of underground orientation exists it is likely due to a lack of formal orientation provided by the restaurant.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER