COOKS AND THE BEAST OF SUMMER

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Americans have always seemed to live for summer. This is the season of fun, engaging with the great outdoors, tanned skin, beaches and water, convertibles and rock and roll. Everyone seems to agree with this except one segment of the population that suffers from mixed feelings about the grand days of summer. Cooks are not as inclined to wave the flag for summer as other groups.

Without time in the trenches most people will have little understanding of why anyone might think ill of clear skies, loads of sun, little need for extra clothing, and the smiles that come from this most appreciated season. Summer, in all its glory, brings aches and pains, maximum business, and heat stacked on top of heat. Here is just a sampling of what a cook experiences from June to September:

[]         INESCAPABLE HEAT

Picture it – ranges, ovens, char-broilers, steam kettles, dish machines, compressors, and steam tables all cranking out their version of heat intensity and steam. The ambient heat in the kitchen may be pushing 100 degrees and even more standing over a battery of ranges, but the added humidity can make a kitchen feel like a tropical rainforest on the amazon. The only saving grace is an escape to the walk-in cooler or freezer for a short respite.

[]         SO MUCH SWEAT

Heat and humidity create sweat. It is not uncommon for a line cook to lose a couple pounds on any given shift. By the end of service chef whites are soaked and head covers need to be ringed out. Shirts stick to a cook’s back creating a very uncomfortable environment for work.

[]         SWOLLEN ANKLES AND HANDS

If a cook’s diet is a bit high in sodium – the combination of heat and constant standing on his or her feet for 10 to 12 hour shifts will cause significant swelling of feet, ankles, and hands. Every cook I know relishes soaking hands in ice water and feet in a hot bath of Johnson’s Foot Soap at the end of service. Many cooks bring along extra pairs of sock and shoes to change during and after a shift.

[]         YEP – LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT HEAT AGAIN

Can’t get away from the heat issue. In the summer it is hot outside when you arrive at work, hotter still throughout your 10-12 hour shift, and still hot when you walk out the back door at midnight or so. It is very rare to find an air conditioned kitchen even though building code now requires make-up air in professional kitchens (the air is being replaced with hot air from outside), and on most cooks salaries many cannot afford the relief of air conditioning at home.

[]         UNRELENTING BUSINESS

There is little time in the summer to even complain or feel sorry for your heat predicament in the kitchen. This is peak season for most restaurants (except in the deep southern states). The POS printer has no mercy as it begins to spit out dupes starting one minute after opening until the last party is sat maybe after 10 p.m. Cooks must maintain peak energy and work through the adverse summer conditions because that’s what they do.

[]         BURNS SEEM EVEN WORSE IN THE SUMMER

Some articles on kitchen life joke about burns and cuts in the kitchen stating that those who complain simply are not tough enough. This makes good media copy, but let’s be honest – if you burn yourself – especially in the summer and have to continue to work in an extremely hot kitchen with steam and open flames – it can only be described as agonizing. The heat laden environment reminds the cook about the burn every second on the line.

[]         TRYING TO STAY AHEAD OF THE HYDRATION GAME

The general rule of thumb is to hydrate. Your body may not warn you that you are becoming dehydrated until it is too late. The problem is that under these conditions a cook will sweat out that hydration as fast as he or she can kick back a bottle of Smart Water. It is easy to forget in the peak of business and God-forbid that a cook would need to leave the line to pee – so we under-hydrate out of necessity.

[]         THE ABSENCE OF TAN = OCASSIONAL BURN

If you need an indicator of whom in your world might be a line cook just look for the person with the lightest skin. Tans take time and consistent exposure to the sun with adequate sunscreen protection. Cooks do not possess any of these luxuries thus they are either pale or burned.

[]         AN IMPATIENT AUDIENCE THAT THINKS THEY’RE HOT

Trust me – this is not a complaint session, but rather a statement of reality. As cooks we know the reality of summer in the kitchen and we accept it, even though we will never appreciate it. The restaurant guest – on the other hand has no clue about the challenges of summer kitchen work, nor should they care. Cooks simply roll their eyes when they hear a guest complain about the heat and less than adequate air conditioning in the dining room.

[]         TEMPERS ON EDGE

When you are uncomfortable it is very difficult to ignore it. I have never conducted a scientific study but would guess that tempers in the kitchen are on edge far more often in the summer than any other time of the year.

[]         TENUOUS COOLERS

Mainly due to the stress of heat and humidity on compressors, but without a doubt compounded by cooks opening cooler doors to stick their heads in for a quick refresher – coolers in the kitchen are always stressed from June to September and tend to kick as a result – always at the worst possible time. This only adds to the stress of the kitchen.

[]         FRUSTRATION WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD

Most of the year good line cooks accept their fate hoping that with patience and hard work they will be able to reach their professional goals, make great food, take on the helm of a kitchen, and who knows – even own a piece of the pie some day. The heat of summer can sometimes add to any latent impatience and set the stage for despondent lament. Know that it is the heat and humidity talking. A few extra pats on the back, a nice dinner, maybe a summer bonus, and a fresh box of cornstarch can save the day.

IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT OF THE KITCHEN THEN SET-UP A MILK CRATE IN THE WALK-IN.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Appreciate the literal blood, sweat, and tears that cooks give up every shift.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Restaurant Consulting and Training

****PHOTO – The hard working team at Hen of the Woods in Burlington, Vermont.

 

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