Kitchens are great equalizers – it is the place where individual talent and exceptional intellect can be less important that dependability, organization, focus, and teamwork.  The kitchen is a place where those who are successful come to the realization that those later aptitudes are enhanced through experience – the more you do, the better you become.   Some talented people are not the best cooks and chefs and quite often the most intelligent (using commonly referred to scales of measurement) are lacking in common sense. 

As a teacher, chef, cook, and initially – dishwasher, I have been witness to those with incredible natural talent, many extraordinarily intelligent individuals, and far more “Rudi” type individuals who compensated with plain old hard work and dedication.  Some from each group have been (are) quite successful while others stumble along not quite sure what steps to take next.  In the end, from my perspective, the ones who exceed their own and other’s expectations are the ones that find strength in the school of hard knocks.  These are the people who worked their way up, failed countless times along the way, stumbled and picked themselves back up, were humble and grateful, and realized that contrary to the organization of the dictionary – work does come before success.

I was thinking the other day how we may be taking away from the opportunities that the school of hard knocks provides.  Is it possible that we have become a society determined to make everything easier – assuming that easier is better?  Have we dedicated ourselves to minimizing disappointment, push aside fear, eliminate steps that in the past helped us to grow, take away pain, and shorten the distance between a beginning and our end goals?  I may be wallowing in my own opinions and readily admit that there is no real science behind my thought process – but here it goes:

[]       IT MUST BEGIN WITH WASHING DISHES:

Every, yes, EVERY cook with a desire to become a chef someday must begin by washing dishes.  This is a must!  You will learn how important this job is, how a chef must ensure that the dishwasher is treated with respect, and how much you can learn about the kitchen through the eyes of this position.

[]       DIVE FOR PEARLS:

If it is a separate task from dishwashing – every cook, yes, EVERY cook who wants to be a chef someday must wash pots.  This will teach him or her the importance of organization, how to become a more efficient cook someday, how important clean equipment is to the chef, and the pot washer’s role in mise en place.

[]       LET ME SHOW YOU HOW TO MOP A FLOOR:

This is a skill to be learned.  Don’t think for a minute that how to mop is an innate process – you must be taught.  Sweep well, hot water with the right amount of the correct soap, change water frequently, rinse mop and in some cases dry mop afterward to avoid falls.  Make sure the mop head is clean and changed frequently.  Clean floors are happy floors.  Happy floors help to build happy cooks.

[]       THAT FIRST KNIFE MUST BE EARNED:

Something important is lost when the parents or relatives of an 18-year-old purchase a $600 set of Henkel knives for this inexperienced apprentice before he or she has earned the right to hold a high-quality knife in hand.  Ideally, that first knife is something that the young cook saves money for, learns to cherish and respect, and care for like a musician cares for a musical instrument.  This is important!

[]       PEEL 500 POUNDS OF ONIONS FIRST:

So, you want to cook?  Begin with an appreciation for the basics – practice until you are very good at the basics.  Learn to respect the foundational ingredients and the importance of repetition.  Start with onions, learn accuracy, speed, and routine.  Cry a lot – this is how the onion wants to be remembered.

[]       DICE A BAG OF CARROTS – PERFECTLY:

Practice large, medium, small, and brunoise dice.  Measure your cuts, look at your waste – improve every day until you are fast and ALWAYS accurate.

[]       TURN 300 POTATOES PERFECTLY, THEN ASK AGAIN IF YOU CAN WORK THE LINE:

Why is it important for a potato to have seven equal sides?  The potato is a

 beautiful part of the meal – present it as a prized gem that cooks evenly,

 browns on the edges, and graces the plate as a competitor of the entrée for the

 diner’s attention.

[]       WHAT – YOU NEVER HAD A PAPER ROUTE?

There is something about that first job at the age of 15 – working papers in hand, bike all tuned up, rain or shine, moving from house to house making sure that morning paper hits the front door before breakfast, and taking home that weekly paycheck that sets the tone for a 50-year career ahead.  Learning to be responsible and earning what is in your pocket – the school of hard knocks.  You know how it feels to not want to get out of bed in the morning but realize that you have a responsibility to others – learn dependability and trust early on and you never forget.

[]       WASH AND IRON YOUR OWN UNIFORM:

Wash and iron, make sure that it is spotless and pressed, sharp and proud – now the uniform means something and you know that your appearance is a reflection of a profession that dates back many centuries.  When you are responsible for it then it means so much more.

[]       OF COURSE, THOSE SHOES MUST BE POLISHED:

A friend of mine used to say clean shoes, happy shoes, happy cook.  Just like in the military – polish them until you can see your reflection.  Those clean shoes mean something, and you will take extra care to make sure the floors are clean so that those shoes stay sharp.  It’s an entire ecosystem of caring.

[]       SHOWER AND SHAVE:

Simple – look the part of a professional.

[]       NO ONE IS ABOVE CLEANING:

One of the great aspects of working in a kitchen is that typically job silos don’t exist.  Everything is everyone’s job.  At the top of the list is cleaning!  Respect for fellow workers, for the safety of the guest, for the image of the operation, for pride in work, and for the traditions of the profession begin with cleaning.  The school of hard knocks will not allow prima donnas to find a home in the kitchen.

[]       ON TIME REALLY IS 15 MINUTES EARLY:

This is a chant of many chefs, and some have viewed it as an abuse of power – but the gist of this statement is that your start time in the kitchen should be when you are able to be productive immediately.  For this to happen you need to get a lay of the land, button up your uniform, determine the state of work, the breadth of responsibility on a shift, and grab that first cup of coffee before the “start” button is hit.  The school of hard knocks is all about discipline.

[]       THERE ISN’T ANY SHORT CUT TO STOCK:

I have preached the importance of stock before, but to summarize stock is the heart and soul of a soup or sauce, it is a vehicle for using core ingredients such as onion peels, carrot trimmings, and celery tops that might otherwise become waste, and it brings an aroma of commitment to doing things right in the kitchen.  Stock is as much symbolic as it is functional.  There is no shortcut when the school of hard knocks demands that we do things right.

[]       SPEND THREE DAYS ON A FARM:

When we walk a mile in a farmer’s shoes, we learn to pay adequate respect for their work and pay homage to the ingredients that cooks are privileged to use.  The school of hard knocks teaches us that those carrots and onions are more than a commodity that is tossed off the back of a delivery truck.

[]       OF COURSE, EVERY COOK MUST LEARN TO SERVE A GUEST:

The friction that is an ongoing story of life in restaurants typically exists because one department fails to understand what the other one does and the challenges that they face.  When a cook is scheduled to spend some time, in any capacity, in the front of the house where teamwork is just as important as in the kitchen and where the individual must learn to interface professionally with a guest, then understanding takes place and that friction is less likely to find a home.  The school of hard knocks requires understanding and appreciation.

[]       MASTER THAT KNIFE – EARN THE RIGHT TO A PROCESSOR:

Shortcuts are oftentimes viewed as a path to efficiency, less stress, and profitability.  This may be true, but appreciation of tools that allow this to occur is more pronounced once the individual understands how the task is done without it.  We appreciate a bike after we are relegated to walking everywhere and relish owning a car even more when our previous mode of transportation was that bike.  The school of hard knocks teaches us to crawl before we run.

[]       YOUR NAME ON A CHEF COAT MEANS SOMETHING:

Finally, let’s talk about symbols of accomplishment.  A criticism of younger generations has been that everyone expects a trophy no matter how they perform.  I’m not sure how true this is but do know that the symbol of a cook’s name on his or her chef coat has always meant that he or she has demonstrated the skill and knowledge to warrant their name embroidered on the jacket.  It may seem trivial, but it is important – a real sense of pride that should not be diminished by automatically providing that without associated accomplishment.  Give them a name tag but reserve the embroidery for a right of passage.  To a cook enrolled in the school of hard knocks, this is a certificate of accomplishment.

Whether a chef who began as a dishwasher and never pursued a formal culinary education or a college graduate with a culinary degree – that indoctrination through the school of hard knocks is the most effective manner of building skills, knowledge, pride, and trust that the individual is capable, competent, and confident.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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