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We have all heard the phrase: “You can take the cook out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the cook.” While there is certainly some merit to this statement, the current isolation is pushing the envelope in that regard. Why is it so hard to take the kitchen out of the cook?

I am sure that this reality applies to other fields and trades, but I do believe that it is much more pronounced with cooks. Here is why:

Kitchen work is a way of life, similar to career military. To meet the needs of the consistently inconsistent environment of the kitchen – chefs need to apply a level of discipline and organization that rivals that of a military platoon. Because of the level of multi-tasking required and the speed with which cooks need to act and react – organization must be as structured as the checklist that a pilot walks through every time he or she enters the cockpit. And – due to the level of split second communication that takes place throughout a kitchen day – these operations develop their own language that is a cross between French, Italian, and street-smart urban English. We (cooks) look a certain way, act a certain way, talk a certain way, and interact a certain way – all for the good of the tasks at hand. Without this structure the kitchen would surely go astray.

Cooks and chefs learn to plan effectively, run through various scenarios so that planning takes all potential curve balls into consideration; they need to walk through their production check list and prioritize items based on their timing and complexity; they need to remember a thousand different steps that distinguish one product preparation from another; they must have a photographic memory of how each plate is assembled; they must be able to multi-task and make split second decisions regarding the sequence of cooking and plating; and they must do all of this with minimal steps and an acute level of concentration.

When everything gets intense during a meal rush – the cook’s adrenaline is pumping at breakneck speed while each step, in the cook’s mind, seems to slow down and become crystal clear. This is when the cook is in the zone – a special place that is driven by adequate preparation, loads of experience, and heightened awareness.

When the shift is over – a cook’s heart is still beating hard, that adrenaline is still coursing through his or her veins, the cook’s mind is still racing, and thoughts of tomorrow are already creating a package of anticipation and high anxiety. At the end of a shift – the cook cannot turn this off, this feeling of accomplishment, exhilaration, pride, and a sense for the exhaustion that is about to set in.

So, now the cook’s restaurant is closed. There are no longer any prep sheets, the requisite uniform is no longer required, no need for those knives to be sharp, no impending doom if his or her mise is not in order, no tickets ringing off the printer, no unison chants of “yes chef”, no plates to artistically assemble, and no delicious food to see, smell, and taste. There is a serious vacuum in a cook’s life, a sense of being incomplete, an absence of adrenaline highs, and a serious absence of the interplay between team members that brings that cook back to work, seeking more enjoyable punishment and impossible tasks once again. This is not a joke – this is a physical, mental, emotional, and even at some level – a spiritual letdown.

While we wrestle with all of the issues surrounding the fear of Covid-19 and the potential impact on personal health and financial stability – let’s not forget how deflated those cooks from your operation are. How lonely and despondent they probably are – lost without the discipline and logic behind the work that they normally do. Cooks need to work – they need a purpose, a purpose that the kitchen oftentimes fills.

Chefs and restaurateurs need to stay in touch with those cooks and where possible, engage them in some level of work with a deadline. This is important for the cook’s wellbeing. Is there a need to produce free meals for a local soup kitchen, an opportunity to work on recipe development in their homes, is their some long-overdue maintenance or painting work to be done in your restaurant while still practicing social distancing? At least they can feel at home in the kitchen even if there aren’t any orders to fill. This is important for a cook’s mental and emotional health.


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