More difficult than you may have thought, more chaotic than you might expect, more poetic than you realize, and more fulfilling than you would understand: this, to me, describes the environment of the professional kitchen that few customers are able to view or experience. It is this dichotomy of experiences that draws people into a career behind the range and keeps them there for decades. This is a behind the scenes look at the place and the people that bring a plate of food to the guest’s table.
TEN THINGS YOU DIDN”T KNOW ABOUT A RESTAURANT
- An organizational structure that attempts to keep things under control
There is a long history of how kitchens and restaurants are structured. Although executed at different levels – this structure is something that all those whom work in restaurants can depend and lean on. It is our comfort zone – a place and an organizational structure that makes sense and attempts to keep a lid on a long list of independent work before and during service.
In the kitchen – work responsibilities are divided into oversight and action positions – the number depending on the scope of the restaurant menu and the size of the operation, but basically there are chefs, cooks, and support staff. Each have specific duties and all have some shared responsibility. The chef will likely be the most experienced culinarian with responsibility for the financial operation of the kitchen, menu planning, ordering and inventory control, training, and quality control. He or she may not spend as much time cooking as a typical guest might think. The cook is the action person – this is the individual who actually brings ingredients together, responds to customer requests, and prepares your plate of food. The support staff members include those dishwashers, and cleaners who keep the ship afloat during the chaos of prep and assembly.
The front of the house is typically separated into those who interface with guests directly and walk them through the ordering process to those who set the stage and support the work of the primary server. This includes back waiters, bus personnel, and bartenders. The strict alignment to table stations, training, development of a wine list that complements the food menu, and the smooth oversight of intense chaos so that it seems to be controlled rests on the shoulders of the dining room or restaurant manager.
Regardless of the restaurant type – this is a standard structure that anyone working in the business can expect and adapt to.
- Independence in a manufacturing model that defies logic
To walk through a kitchen prior to service you will see a number of cooks and support staff going about their respective work with seemingly little connection to a master plan. Each will have their own list of prep that relates to either a station or event and with rare exception they are allowed autonomy in how they approach the work. Underneath the façade of independence lies a system that keeps all of this personal activity integrated into a bigger picture. This may never become apparent until these same cooks are setting up their stations for finish work once the dining room doors open to the public.
- A cluster of artists accepting control
Every seasoned cook struggles with controlling a desire to flex his or her artistic muscle and modify a dish to suit his or her style. At the same time, each cook is fully aware that consistency and adherence to the standards of excellence that defines the restaurant must win in the long run. A smart chef will provide opportunities for creative expression through nightly features and a cook’s input on the next wave of menus. Any long-term attempt to keep artistic expression under wraps will result in constant replacement of cooks after frustrated ones leave for an operation with more freedom.
- Chaos that leads to symphonic orchestration
There are two different kitchens, two different restaurants that might be observed by an interested guest. The kitchen before service is alive with independent, sometimes stressful work scattered throughout the space. Each cook is struggling against the clock to get his or her prep in order before setting a station for service. Once service begins there will not be any time to take care of prep that was not completed in advance. To view this, one would certainly use the word: chaos.
Once each line station is set for service, the mise en place is well appointed, the side towels are folded, pans stacked in the ready, menu reviewed, and ingredients are in place; once the orders start to tick off the printer and the expeditor raises his or her baton to signify the start of the nightly score – the chaos turns into a beautiful piece of music. Cooks pivot and turn, pans ring as they hit the stove top, tongs click in rhythm, plates clang in unison as they are set in the pass for pick up, and cooks chime in with yes chef when directives are given by the expeditor. You can put music to this dance that is very poetic and fluid.
- Improvisation that is kept in check
Although cooks will have a chance to express themselves through nightly features and an occasional pitch of an item for the next menu – when the restaurant doors are open on any given night – their job is to make sure that each dish is prepared consistently, looks and tastes the same, and follows the established design that the chef has put his or her stamp on. There can be no deviation from the established norm. Cooks know that “buy-in” to this game plan is essential if they hope to keep customers coming back time and again.
- The chef who rarely cooks your food
This may be a shock to many guests, but the chef in your favorite restaurant is probably not the person who cooks your meal. As previously mentioned each person has specific responsibilities and the chef’s are at a different level than those who finish the food you order. It is, however, the chef who is responsible to train those cooks how to prepare the dishes that the restaurant puts its signature on.
- A culture of family that defies logic
All of the typical highs and lows of being part of a family exist in a kitchen. Team members know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and compensate accordingly. They may be highly critical of each other, but don’t ever assume that someone outside of the “family” has the right to do the same. When in trouble – the team will help a member of their group – without question. There is a brotherhood or sisterhood that is just as real as if there was a biological connection between them.
- Service staff that have other careers
The majority of those restaurant servers that a guest connects with have other jobs – sometimes jobs that are their chosen careers – they just don’t pay enough, or they don’t provide the challenges and stressful excitement that comes from being a pleasant server, psychologist, counselor, and menu expert for those who fill dining room tables.
- A gathering place for castoffs and square pegs
The dynamic of the restaurant employee (especially in the kitchen) is flush with those who don’t fit in, are not inspired by typical 40 hour work weeks, find comfort in chaos, never flinch at cuts and burns, and do what they do out of a love for the art they produce and challenges that uncertainty brings every day. Restaurant employees are part of a culture that doesn’t fit anywhere else.
- Adrenaline junkies who are gluttons for punishment
When you step back and watch all of this, when you discover that cooks in particular live on the edge of disaster on any given day, when you see how they kick into gear when the job becomes impossible, and when you see them return the next day for a repeat of the same punishment, then you will begin to understand that the heat, the stress, the uncertainty, and the shear craziness of kitchen life is driven by the adrenaline rush. Unless you have been there and felt it, you can’t understand.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
**Check in to CAFÉ Talks Podcast this Wednesday – November 18 for an interview with Chef Jeremiah Tower.