Make no mistake, the most enjoyable part of working in a kitchen will always be the interesting people who man that station or cutting board next to you. Of course we have a passion for the food – this is, after all, the common denominator, the point of conversation, the pride of the work, and the quest for excellence that justifies our crazy commitment of hours and effort, but the people draw us back like a magnet; the people set the business apart from so many others; the people bring out the best and the worst of every cook.
What is it about restaurant people that is so intriguing and compelling? Surely, every profession has its unique mix of characters who bring a smile to coworkers faces or drive them absolutely crazy – so why and how are kitchen employees different? Some will agree that an unhealthy majority of coworkers have a few skeletons in their closet – things that they can’t drive from their conscious and subconscious mind, and certainly have no desire to make them public, but in the kitchen things are different. Many of those skeletons are dragons taunting the cook, festering and steaming, ready to unleash their destructive fire at any moment. It is these dragons that add that unique chemistry to a kitchen and make that same kitchen percolate with interest, creativity, and a tad bit of danger. This is what brings people back every day to Dante’s Inferno for another dose of kitchen life.
So who are those dragons and how do they add to the stew of the kitchen environment? Let’s take a quick look:
 THE DRAGON OF INSECURITY
Cooks, particularly line warriors, carry the stern façade of over-confident, sometimes ego driven, cocky and “I am always right” soldiers of the kitchen, when in fact, this is often times a “show-time” disguise for individuals who are quite insecure. The cook is, under the surface, a bit unsure of him or herself, and highly sensitive to what others think of his or her work.
 THE DRAGON OF LONELINESS
Think about it: unpredictable hours, shifts that almost always last 10-12 hours, socially isolating hours that typical begin after noon and can last well past midnight, never a weekend off, rarely a holiday off, physical and mental exhaustion after a shift leaving little time for relationship building – where is the time for cooks to build outside relationships and find someone to come how to after another night in the kitchen inferno. Aside from those after hour’s drinks with co-workers, where is the time for anything else?
 THE DRAGON OF CONFIDENCE OR LACK THERE OF
Confidence comes from years of experience, trial and error, loads of repetition, challenging situations that force a cook to become a problem solver, and a supportive boss willing to teach and train. Until that point in time is reached, most cooks are far less confident than they might appear.
 THE DRAGON OF CREATIVE GENIUS
Whether it manifests in work or not, most serious cooks have an innate desire to create, to tweak what is done in the kitchen or move in a totally different direction, a true need to be expressive, experimental, and daring with food. If this dragon is not fed, at least on occasion, then the cook becomes complacent and even negative towards his or her job.
 THE DRAGON OF LIVING ON THE EDGE
I am not sure what it is, maybe it stems from the foolish dares that inevitably come out of working in difficult situations with the addition of heat, steam, sharp knives, and 600 degree ovens, but cooks tend to be willing to push the envelope on and off the job. This dragon is what gets them in trouble far too often. When they drink – they drink too much; when they drive – they drive too fast; when they eat – they eat with excess; and when they argue their point there is a good chance that things will get out of hand.
 THE DRAGON OF WORK ETHIC
Underneath it all, good cooks are dependable and always willing to work crazy hours while performing at a level that is hard to understand. Next to farmers, cooks are the best workers that I have ever been around.
 THE DRAGON OF WANTING TO FIT
Those excessive hours in the kitchen are not just accepted because the chef needs them – cooks work because there is a desire to fit in with this group of pirates with an unquenchable thirst to see just how much they can work, how many hours they can spend on their feet, how many burns and cuts they can handle, and how many incredible dinners they can produce in the shortest period of time. Serious cooks crave the opportunity to be part of this club – admirable and crazy at the same time. This dragon is never satisfied.
 THE DRAGON OF NO PAIN, NO GAIN
Membership in the club comes with some basic understandings – one of them relates to the fact that cooks will burn themselves, accumulate numerous stitches from the emergency room, cauterize some of those cuts on a 800 degree, cheery red flat top, and tough it through heat blisters and swollen feet. The general rule of thumb is that if you can’t stand it then you don’t belong. This is, of course, absurd, but unfortunately true.
 THE OCD DRAGON
You can’t read an article about working in a kitchen without mentioning the importance of mise en place (everything has a place and everything is in it’s place). This kitchen organization is essential and something that every cook understands after that first shift that they failed to “get it” and went blank under the pressure of “being in the weeds” during a busy shift. The dragon in this case is the fact that once mise en place is ingrained at work, it must be fed in every part of a cook’s life. How he or she organizes their day, fold their clothes, maintain their home kitchen order, where they put their spices, how they line up boxes of cereal in their home cupboards, and the manner with which they stack dishes in their dishwasher must follow the dragon of mise en place. It makes sense to the cook, but drives everyone around them nuts.
 THE DRAGON OF FIRE AND SHARP OBJECTS
Fire is fascinating and fire to a cook is his or her best friend. Fire that is controlled can help the cook prepare masterful dishes, but fire without control can destroy those same dishes in an instant. Cooks love this control over something so beautiful and dangerous at the same time. The same goes for a cooks knives – a sharp knife, with the right guidance can make a cook’s work quite easy, but if not maintained, a dull one can frustrate, impede, and even cause bodily harm. Cooks are obsessed with fire and the condition of their knives. This dragon is ever-present.
 THE DRAGON OF SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Yep – as you can imagine with a head full of dragons always sitting on a cook’s shoulders, there is a need to calm them down and push them aside. More cooks than we ever want to admit, suffer from an over-dependence on alcohol and drugs to silence the dragons that would otherwise take full control of their lives.
 THE DRAGON OF SELF-CRITIQUE
A chef may yell, a customer might complain, a peer might admonish, but it is the self-loathing of serious cooks that consumes his or her psyche. Cooks will inevitably look at their own work with a critical eye and consistently view of plate of food pushed through the pass as something that could certainly be better. Even that plate that comes back to the dishwasher at the end of service and carries some trace amounts of unconsumed food is something that keeps a cook up late at night. “What was wrong with it? How could I have done it better? “ The self-critique dragon can really bring a cook down.
 THE DRAGON OF PEER ACCEPTANCE
Certainly, the cook wants to know that the chef is pleased with his or her work; certainly, it is important that the guest is more than satisfied with the food that a cook produces, but in the end it is the admiration of his or her peer cooks that is most important to a professional. “Great dish” from a peer cook is enough to make a cook’s day and bring him or her back for another taste tomorrow.
 THE DRAGON OF DISCIPLINE
Believe it or not – cooks crave discipline. They may not, and probably don’t, have a load of discipline in their lives outside of the kitchen, but when they wear the uniform and tie on that apron they are anxious to fit into a system that requires strict adherence to procedures and the comfort that comes from following the chain of command. “Yes Chef” really is welcomed by most cooks who have a desire to be part of something that works when discipline exists, and falls apart when that same discipline is ignored.
PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
*Watch for these essential reads:
“The Recipe” by: Chef Charles Carroll and John David Mann
Available in October of 2017
“The Event That Changed Everything” by: Chef Paul Sorgule