Tag: cooks

SHORT ORDER COOKS WERE MY HEROS

I can still remember that day in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was 10 years old and on a shopping trip downtown with my mother as we came upon that restaurant with a full picture window framing in the vision of a short order cook preparing lunch for a growing crowd. His movements were synchronized as he easily moved from the remaining breakfast items on the grill to sandwiches, fries, blue plate specials, and appropriate side dishes. No movement was wasted as he pivoted, grabbed plates, flipped burgers and rolled omelets in pans. Waitresses were lined up and did not seem to marvel at the poetic motion of a man in control of the situation – I guess they were simply accustomed to this daily routine. I was mesmerized.

Five years later I had my first job (working papers in hand) as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant in the Central Park section of the city. It was the summer, so without the pressures of school I was free to work and rub elbows with the cook. She was about the same age as my mother, maybe a few years older, and had recently lost her husband who was a real chef. When it became busy she would ask me to help by buttering danish to be grilled, toasting bread, cracking eggs and setting up burger garnishes. I watched as construction workers came in early to order coffee and danish or grilled hard rolls (apparently a big thing in Buffalo at the time). I marveled at how the cook was able to keep track of everything, still smile and carry on conversations with those sitting at the counter. Servers would call out: “2 scrambled, eggs over easy, 3 cakes with syrup, another grilled danish,1 western omelet, and as it approached lunch time – various sandwiches including the house burger”. This was the original “fast food” restaurant concept and my hero was at the helm. By the end of the summer she let me take over the grill during slower times so that she could prep for the next day.

I wanted to be a rock drummer (didn’t everyone), but my parents were smarter than me and strongly urged me to go to college. What should I do? My only other love was that job working the grill, so when I heard about colleges that taught hotel management and cooking, I knew that this would be choice #2.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself working in kitchens that were a bit more sophisticated than my first experiences at the short-order grill, yet it was that early training that allowed me to apply organizational skills and personality to working on the line. My responsibilities were to prepare items from the dinner menu in a 1,200 room hotel for an audience willing to wait a little longer and spend quite a bit more. This was invigorating, yet I still would marvel at watching our breakfast cook prepare food at the same speed and with the same grace as that first cook in the window of a downtown Buffalo storefront. I always had respect for the breakfast cook.

Throughout my career as a chef, a sign of stability in the kitchen was finding a breakfast cook who had the same passion, speed, grace and organizational skills as that guy in the window. Whenever I found myself without that stable force in the kitchen, things just didn’t seem to work well. First of all, I might need to arrive before 5 a.m. to cook breakfast which unless your body is in that cycle can be torture; and second, as you age it becomes much more difficult to wrap your head around the speed with which breakfast orders come in and fly into the “window” for pick-up. Still, there is nothing more rewarding than smelling bacon come out of the oven at 6 a.m., home fries on the grill, fresh brewed coffee long before most reasonable people are awake, and the crack of egg shells with one eye still closed. This is the time of day when even the restaurant kitchen is struggling to wake up.

After four decades of a food service career, I still remember that cook in the window and marvel at his skill. I don’t know his name but would love to thank him, if he is still with us, for introducing me to a business and starting the wheels in motion for a 10 year old without a clue what he wanted to do with his life.

Short order cooks rock!

The picture in this article was taken by Harold Feinstein, a professional photographer able to capture the spirit of people on film.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COOK AND A CHEF

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COOK AND A CHEF

A few years back I read of an interview with a prominent chef who was asked: “what is the difference between a chef and the millions of cooks throughout America.” The response, to me, was a perfect definition: “Most reasonably intelligent people can follow a recipe with mixed results, a chef can be given a basket of ingredients and is able to create something wonderful.” Although this is an over-simplification, there is a real element of truth to this statement. A chef is certainly a manager and a leader, a cost accountant and a marketer, a social scientist and an organizational guru; but above all, a chef is a passionate and accomplished cook.

The ability to “create something wonderful”, stems from a persons ability to draw from his/her flavor memory. A serious cook must be a person who has experienced a full array of flavors, taste combinations, foods at their peak of maturity, seasonings, and texture combinations. Without this “data bank” it would be nearly impossible to create magic with food. To go even further, chefs have life experiences that are filled with an understanding of history and various cultures. It would be difficult to cook wonderful Spanish foods without understanding the culture of Spain, it would be challenging to understand classical French food without studying Ferdinand Point, Larousse, Escoffier, Careme, Bocuse, Robuchon and Verge. To cook French you must feel like you are French, to cook Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, or Thai, you must understand the culture of those countries and most importantly have cooked with those who were born into those cultures.

“A recipe has no soul…..” was a quote from Thomas Keller, truly one of America’s great chef’s of the past few decades. This should not be viewed as an endorsement for kitchens without structure; just the contrary. I am sure that Keller has his own version of the standardized recipe, however what he and most accomplished chefs know is that a recipe does not create a cook. The recipe is a reference, but the cook must draw from his/her flavor memory and understanding of culture to build the recipe into a great dish. There are just far too many variables that come into play (seasonality, maturity, size, terroir, brand, shipping, storage, etc.) to rely on a recipe as the consummate guide in cooking. Some of the best cookbooks that I have used such as: “Le Repertoire de la Cuisine”, only list the ingredients in a dish without procedure or amounts. The ingredient list is a reminder for the chef who knows, though experience, what a dish should look and taste like, and the method of cooking that is appropriate for the outcome of that dish.

Those who have a desire to become great cooks and chefs must live the following: taste everything, experience as many different cooks work as possible, travel and experience cultures, read about the history of food, learn from the best, taste again and record your experiences. Keep recipes as a guide but cook with your soul.

Kudos to Thomas Keller for getting it right.

PROFESSIONAL COOKING IS A TEAM SPORT

The cadence of orders in a busy kitchen seems unrelenting. A staccato clicking from the point of sale printer sends out a drum roll of orders while the expeditor calmly, yet seriously calls out tickets in kitchen lingo to the battery of cooks on the line. They in turn signal back receipt of the order by either repeating it or simply saying “yes chef”. Ordering, fire, picking up, re-fire, I need an “all-day”, is part of the script that every professional cook understands and responds to with surgical precision. Orders are pre-fired and finished, plated as per the accepted design, edges wiped, placed in the window, inspected and finished by the chef/expeditor and passed on to servers in a seamless stream of syncopated and rehearsed activity.

To watch this interplay is truly amazing. The orchestration by the chef/expeditor is possible because everyone on the line is in sync. To allow this magic to occur every cook must be on their game. They must have impeccable mise en place (prep and organization), must know not just the details of their station but that of every other station, they must have the desired flavor profile of each dish embedded in their flavor memory, and must approach each single plate as if it were their personal work of art that makes a statement about their abilities and passion for food. Each cook must accept their role and understand how important their role is to the whole. They must respect the chain of command and never question directives from the chef, and must at all costs maintain the desired quality of their work. They must support those who are “in the weeds” and be comfortable asking for help when they see the same issue creeping into their station.

When it works, the busy kitchen is a beautiful thing. WHY? Because this group of cooks has become a team, not unlike any other professional body with a focused mission. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, the military, or for that matter any driven business adheres to the same “call to arms”: Understanding, acceptance, discipline, preparedness, practice, respect, passion and common goals = TEAM. TEAM = SUCCESS.

Contrary to what you see on these very un-realistic television “reality cooking shows”, kitchens cannot work when there is a lack of any one of the aforementioned components. Chefs who yell and belittle do not inspire great cooking. In fact, this will do just the opposite. This type of chef (and I use the term loosely here) will create an environment of winners and losers and survival of the fittest. The result will almost always be chaos, back stabbing, inconsistent food, and unhappy guests.

Effective chefs can learn from those leaders in any business who aspire to create a team environment. To do so will lead to a cohesive group of committed, proud, supportive and successful cooks. These individuals will relish the opportunity to work in such an environment and treasure their employment as a result. Great teams = longevity among a restaurants cooking staff.

Given the chance, every diner would benefit from touring the kitchen of a restaurant they choose to dine in. If the operation is clean, if the cooks seem focused, if they are able to occasionally smile and if the chef works like a coach whose job it is to support, encourage and orchestrated, then I can assure you that the food will be great.

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