Progress is important and as we all know, sometimes progress cannot be stopped – it has an energy and mind of its own. In my lifetime the amount of change described as “progress” has been and continues to be staggering. I believe that it was Julia Child who stated (and I am paraphrasing): “Every significant…
Many years ago, at an ACF Conference in Phoenix, Andre Soltner (in my mind one of the greatest chefs in recent history) spoke to an audience of enthusiastic members. He began by trying to downplay the hype that was building around the term “chef” by removing his glasses and looking at the audience directly and…
The average worker spends 40 hours per week on the job, that’s 90,000 hours over a 45-year career. A professional cook who becomes a chef may spend 50-75% more time than that. In some cases that’s more time than a cook will spend with family and friends and sleep combined. This type of dedication seems…
There are certainly some negative aspects to life in the kitchen; however, those who have enlisted in the cause of great cooking will typically demonstrate a true passion for their choice of careers. Some may reflect on the physical demands, the required emotional conditioning, the military approach towards organization, the fickle restaurant guest, the social…
I often times give thought to the significance of cooking. Although I may invest the majority of time on a portrayal of professional cooks and the kitchen environment of restaurants, cooking is far more important than simply referencing the dining out experience. More than likely, many of those who now consider cooking their life profession…
To a serious cook, the prize is to reach the pinnacle of his or her career – reaching for the position of chef in a property. Becoming the person with the embroidered jacket, the office with a nameplate, the business card that proclaims “executive chef”, the one who claims ownership for the menu, is the…
Today, August 16, is National Chef Appreciation Day, a perfect time to reflect on the importance of cooks and chefs to everyone. If you are a chef or cook, then hug your coworkers today, if you are not, then find a cook or chef to hug or at least thank. Here is why we are…
It’s 7 a.m. as the chef walks into the kitchen. He grabs a cup of freshly brewed coffee even before opening the door to the office. Nodding to the breakfast cook who has been there since 5, the chef enters the office and pulls a crisp, starched chef coat from the closet, buttons the front,…
It takes many years for a good cook to become a great cook, to become a chef. There is an enormous amount of experience that leads to the ability to lead a kitchen, to create a vision and set the tone for consistently excellent performance. Aside from a strong understanding of foundational cooking technique, the chef must have accumulated an understanding of purchasing, menu planning, human resource management, inventory management, cost control, artistic presentations of food, sanitation and safety, public relations, wine, as well as communication and brand building. Yes, this position is a culmination of a lifetime of skill and aptitude development, however, chefs must never lose sight of the role that line cooks play in the daily successful operation of a kitchen.
Line cooks are the lifeblood of any professional kitchen operation. It is, after all, the line cook who has the responsibility to prepare, develop flavors and consistently execute the menu under what outsiders would consider – inhumane conditions. The chef may be in the driver’s seat, but the line cook is the engine. A driver without a well running engine would not get too far.
I am currently finishing another terrific, accurate book on “a day in the life of a kitchen” that truly depicts the intensity, challenges and incredible skill that a line cook must possess. In this portrayal (Sous Chef, by: Michael Gibney); the author, while living the role of the second in command pays true homage to the line cooks who make his success possible. From experience there are a few realities that drive me to acknowledge the significance of the young, upwardly mobile and sometimes satisfied to stay where they are, pirates of the line.
1. Let’s face it being a line cook is more often than not a younger person’s sport. The physical demands of working the line are only surpassed by the mental acuity that is required as line cooks attempt to keep track of multiple a’ la minute preparations, timings, plating’s and interconnections with other cooks on the line. In my last position as a chef I knew that I could work as hard and longer than most of the cooks in the restaurant (I paid for it with aches and pains that rarely went away), but the older I got the harder it was to process the rapid fire mental activity that is the routine of a line cook. Bending over hundreds of times, 120 degree heat, burns, cuts, clanging of pans, and the speed with which a line cook must act and react is way too challenging for most over the age of 40.
2. Each station on the line is a private entrepreneurship. The set-up, calculated mise en place, position of each ingredient from sliced garlic to clarified butter, from minced shallots to pour bottles of white wine and olive oil and from tongs (a line cooks most important tool) to neatly folded side towels is uniquely that cooks. True, the chef may initially train a cook how to set-up a station, but once they have grown into the position they will inevitably treat that area as if it were their own business. This “seasoning” as a line cook is absolutely critical for the efficient operation of a kitchen and once it is set, it needs to be that way – always.
3. Although a good portion of the pre-work for the line may be done by an earlier prep shift (stocks, mother sauces [where they are still relevant], peeled shallots and garlic, braised meats, fabrication of steaks and chops, filleting of fish, trimming and blanching of vegetables, etc.), it is the line cook who must know how to cook as completely as he or she knows how to breathe. He or she must know how to cook a perfect steak, when to turn a fish on the plancha, the right time to add a splash of wine, how to season items in a pan by holding that salt and pepper above the dish and allowing it to evenly forecast, how much time is left in the cooking process so that the plating of a table’s order can be orchestrated and most importantly; how to taste (a great line cook MUST have a well define palate). The line cook needs to have an eye for plate presentation even though the layout may have originated from the chef and must know how important it is to take a few extra seconds to show the finesse to place each item at its perfect spot on the plate. Maintaining the discipline for all of this to take place is hard to imagine.
4. The chef will undoubtedly know how all of this is done and he or she probably taught the cook early on how to manage these steps, but most chefs, once they reach that position would find it very difficult to step in and do the job as well as a line cook.
5. Finally, the line cook, as I pointed out in a previous article (Life Lessons from a Line Cook) https://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/11/life-lessons-from-a-line-cook/ must be a consummate communicator and in most cases “listener”. The chef, on a busy night sets the cadence for the line and is the sole voice in the kitchen. Service staff will use the chef/expeditor as the portal for communication with cooks, but line personnel know that it is that voice that they must tune into. When a directive or question is posed, the line cook must zero in on the command, acknowledge it and then network with other stations as they execute the directive. Sometimes this networking is handled with simple eye contact and a nod, other times it will be succinct words like “fire, plate, garnish, sauce, hot, pick-up, hold, etc.”. All of this takes time to develop, but once it is there, the line can hum on all cylinders like each station entrepreneur is electrically connected to each other station and the chef/expeditor. This invaluable relationship is magical and goes way beyond the importance of the chef as an individual.
The dining room may be full of people who have heard of, know about, met or would like to meet – the chef. They may, in fact, have come to the restaurant to try the “chef’s food”, but rarely do they truly understand that the chef was probably never involved in the actual cooking of the dish. The chef is in the limelight and he or she has earned that position through many years of extremely hard work, but the chef could never function without the efforts of the team of line cooks who stay behind those swinging doors. The chef knows this all too well and although he or she may not thank the line enough until there is a gap in staffing, this knowledge that they are where they are because of the dedication and seasoned entrepreneurial spirit of the hourly paid line cook is always present in a chef’s subconscious.
It may seem that I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about cooks, even more than chefs, it is because having experienced a return to a great and reasonably busy chefs position in the later part of my career I learned very quickly how much I depended on these crucial members of the team.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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Nearly everyone in the restaurant business that I know cringes when anyone mentions one of the “reality food shows” on various networks. Inaccurate would not go far enough to describe the environment that is portrayed. Some may clarify and say, well this is really entertainment, but to a professional chef or cook, this “entertainment” does insurmountable harm to a great profession and paints a picture far from reality.
Way too many young people choose to attend culinary school as a result of over-exposure to shows that infer that cooks can wear what they want, chefs can say what they want, everything they prepare is judged by a panel of critics, that whatever piece of equipment they would like to see in a kitchen is available, cost is no object, and everything evolves around the spontaneity of developing a menu on the fly with obscure ingredients. This is not the kitchen of today, nor is it the kitchen that most professionals are used to or would accept. So let’s take a minute to define what it is really like.
The kitchens of Gordon Ramsey with red vs. blue teams, constant screaming (in full view of the guest), belittling of cooks by the chef and everyone looking out for themselves is so far from real that I am not sure where to begin. This is not to say that tempers never rise or that chefs never raise their voice, but the environment portrayed on TV would easily fall under the heading of: hostile work environment, a situation that can bring the department of labor or even lawsuits hovering at the back door of a restaurant. It just cannot happen like this any more. Most of the cooks that I know, if they were attacked in the way that Chef Ramsey is portrayed would either walk out the back door or pin him up against a cooler wall. Professional kitchens today stress the importance of team work, define success in terms of how everyone carries themselves on the job, how the chef attempts to manage calm in the kitchen that could easily melt due to the physical nature of the tasks involved and the pressure surrounding the timing and complexity of preparation.
As much as every chef and cook would love to have $100,000 Bonnet ranges in their operation, beautiful copper pots or Cuisinart cookware, that is rarely the case. Typically we work on ranges that have survived past their useful life and are kept alive through magical maintenance repair work and aluminum pans that are seasoned through heat and salt polishing and are bowed from constant exposure to open flames. The only copper is sitting in the chef’s office and brought out for decoration on dining room buffets. Cooks have been known to hide pots and pans in their lockers to ensure that they have something to work with on their shift (especially breakfast cooks who claim their egg pans are private property never to be touched by any other food except eggs).
Although cooks and chefs today may have a heavy dose of body tattoos, their uniforms are likely to be conservative white jackets, houndstooth pants, skull caps, side towels, white or blue aprons and supportive black shoes. Professional kitchens take pride in the tradition around the uniform and enforce the need for cooks to respect this.
It is very rare that a chef or cook is required to make a spontaneous menu out of silly ingredients that have no business in the same dish. Menus and recipes are developed painstakingly over a period of time with input from cooks, dining room staff and management. Recipes are tested, plate presentations are wrestled with and what appears on a menu is well thought out, researched and executed. Some restaurants are able to offer menus that change daily, but even in those cases – items are drawn from a chefs repertoire or expanded from dishes and techniques previously developed. Chefs take menu development very seriously, even daily features that might be drawn from available ingredient inventory or an occasional item that is driven by an unusual seasonal ingredient.
Iron Chef and Top Chef are sometimes fun to watch, but you may note that basic business acumen rarely comes into play. No one ever worries about the cost of ingredients, the limitless availability of equipment, or what a restaurant would need to charge for the items produced. I have seen dishes with excessive amounts of shaved truffle (probably $25-30 worth of cost on a plate which would equate to $75 or so in additional selling price), foie gras used as if it were the same price as chicken liver, items sautéed in expensive extra virgin olive oil and 25 year old balsamic vinegar drizzled on tomatoes at 10 times the price of a more standard balsamic product. Chefs are responsible for operating a restaurant as a financially successful business and to portray the position as being oblivious to this is terribly misleading.
If the networks want to portray accurate life in the kitchen, then they could find thousands of examples that are exciting, realistic and focused on painting a picture that could be easily digested by those in the industry, those who love to dine out and young people contemplating a career in a professional kitchen. Demonstrate the total commitment to cleanliness, sanitation and food safety. Show a typical day in a chef’s life from menu building, to working with purveyors, training cooks and ensuring that standards are followed, setting up the line for service, pre-meal with the service staff, keeping dishwashers happy, taking the time to build great plate presentations, keeping the rhythm of the line such that cooks don’t crash and burn half way though a busy night, and the challenges of adjusting to food allergies and unique food preferences. Show how a chef sweats the details of cost control: portioning, price shopping with various vendors, waste management, cross-utilization of ingredients, and inventory management. This is a daily challenge that consumes much of a chef’s day.
The restaurant business is very difficult and those who can adapt to the kitchen, understand their role, work well as a member of the team, remain focused on the foundations of cooking and be consistent in their approach to food preparation are a unique, proud breed who needs to be portrayed accurately: MY two cents.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting, Training and Coaching