Sure – every person’s job can be challenging at times and the good, the bad, and the ugly is a fair way to describe nearly every career choice, but looking in from the outside rarely gives and outsider a realistic view of another person’s challenges. As a whole – restaurant work is difficult. At times restaurant work can be discouraging and heartbreaking, while other times many would agree that it’s the best job on the planet.
It is unfortunate that some people who lack an understanding of “what it takes” may view what we do with a shrug of the shoulders and even a demeaning thought, but it is even more disheartening when those who work in the field cast a word or thought of distain or even contempt for others who share similar space within the restaurants walls. Thus, I feel that it is important to paint a more accurate picture of each person’s job, the skills required, and the challenges faced.
LINE COOKS, PREP COOKS, AND PEARL DIVERS:
The kitchen hierarchy was established long ago based on the military model of rank and responsibility. The lower the rank, the lower the level of respect. A private is an entry-level person who gets his or her feet wet by doing the tasks that no one else cares to do. In the chain of command, the private is looked upon as a lower skilled individual who is an easy target for anyone with even the smallest amount of additional seniority or rank. This is the space occupied by the dishwasher in most kitchens, making he or she the brunt of nearly everyone’s poor attitudes and lack of respect. Yet, isn’t it interesting that when a dishwasher fails to show up for work – the kitchen seems to be in disarray? Here are some “walk in my shoes” reflections from a typical dishwasher:
“My job is a dirty, thankless one that places me on the bottom of the restaurant pecking order. Everyone thinks they can do my job better than I can; yet no one really wants to take it on. I work in an environment that is just as hot as working on the line with the addition of serious humidity. I work in everyone’s dumping ground and all of that talk about mise en place seems to not apply when they avoid scraping or properly stacking pots, pans and dishes. Line cooks may help each other out, but they rarely grab a stack of clean plates and move them to their home.
The incredible camaraderie of the kitchen ends when it comes to the dishpit. You never see the dishwasher invited to grab a beer after work with the team. In fact, I can usually walk into work and never hear a hello or receive a high five for a job well done. Most will never view my job as important to the guest dining experience, but try serving your beautiful food on a plate that doesn’t sparkle, or pouring that $100 bottle of wine in a glass with water spots. There isn’t (or least it doesn’t feel that way) any real respect for what I do and yet you scratch your head and wonder why there is so much turnover in the dish area of a kitchen. Keep in mind – given the opportunity, most dishwashers would enjoy learning something about food, moving into prep some day, or even building the skills necessary to work the line at breakfast or lunch and beyond. Dishwashers are your next generation of cooks waiting to be trained. Oh, and by the way – we are responsible for one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in the kitchen and one of the most valuable inventories (china, glasses, flatware).”
Prep cooks, for some reason, lack the sparkle of admiration for their work – yet, in many cases they are involved in more serious cooking than the most proficient line cook. The breadth of knowledge required to be an exceptional prep cook is nearly as expansive as that of the sous chef or chef. Prep cooks are the ones who make it possible for line cooks to shine, and as such, should be revered by the line as their best support team. Yet, far too many restaurants fail to give real credit to the prep cook and his or her skill set. Her are some “walk in my shoes” reflections from a typical prep cook:
“I show up to work each day – maybe sometime close to the arrival of the breakfast cook. I pull down my prep list clipboard and shake my head at the breadth of work, and mind-numbing quantity of mise en place. I set-up my cutting board, prepare a sani-bucket for cleaning, sharpen my knives and get to work. Sometimes I even impress myself with the knife skills that I have mastered. I challenge any line cook to beat my accuracy and speed. I look at the list and prioritize my work based on the effort and time required of each task. Browning bones and caramelizing mirepoix for stock (need to start this early on), trimming shanks and short ribs, and searing and starting the braise that will take most of the day to prepare; cutting, portioning, and trimming steaks for the line; fabricating whole fish for fillets and saving the bones from whitefish for a fumet; preparing tonight’s soup du jour, and making numerous salad dressings; trimming and blanching vegetables; turning potatoes; preparing prime ribs for roasting; making popovers and au jus for accompaniments; peeling and deveining shrimp; pushing pommes frites through the grid; and clarifying butter for the sauté cook – oh, and receiving deliveries, rotating stock, dating and labeling everything, and checking orders for quality and quantity. This is my typical day.
As a line cook you receive much of the glory – yours is the position that everyone loves to watch. You swagger in at 2:00 for your intense display of symmetry and grace, but it is my work that makes your moment of glory possible. How often do you take the time to thank us, give a thumb’s up, reflect on the skills that prep cooks have, and marvel at how much we get done? How often do you simply complain that it wasn’t enough, or you could have done it better? You probably could do our job, but it would mean that your adrenaline rush would be put aside, your swagger would be diminished, and your self-described status in the kitchen might suffer. I respect your organization, speed, fine-tuned palate, and artistic plate presentations, but know that without us, you would never shine as bright.”
Early in the afternoon, line cooks arrive. These are the visual rock stars of the kitchen – the cooks who have the opportunity to finish menu items, show their artistic skills with beautiful plate presentations, and fine tune seasoning to meet the expectations of the chef. They often times have better tools than anyone else, talk the language of the kitchen, and enjoy the dynamic of teamwork leading to victory every night. Sounds like a great gig – but what you see is not always rosy.
“Why does every guest think that the chef does the cooking? Customers are in awe of the chef in his or her pristine whites walk through the dining room, talk with tables about the menu, and offer a suggestion for a complementary wine or a great dessert. For some reason, they envision this same person putting together each plate for a bustling dining room. Hey, I’m the one who executes the chef’s ideas, I’m the one with the fine tuned palate that knows how to bring out flavor, and I’m the one who put that work on art on the plate. The chef might wipe the rim of the plate and add a fresh herb as it leaves the kitchen – but, in reality, it’s all me.
Things may seem calm in the dining room, but in the kitchen we work in a pressure cooker of time, heat, cadence, flames, sharp objects and a fragile symmetry that could go off track at any moment. The sound that the POS printer makes is like water torture with each drip driving deeper into our skull. No one else in the kitchen feels the looming fear of the unknown (which station will get pounded tonight, when will the dining room fill up and flood us with orders, how long will my mise en place last, how many orders can I keep organized before I lose it?). If something goes wrong – we get the blame – not the prep cooks, not the servers, sometimes not even the chef. All fingers point to us. Have you ever lost control of your situation – you know, that point when you become the deer in the headlights without any clear idea of where you are and what you are doing? Well, I have felt that way many times and it’s not a comfortable place to be. When it works, the job is invigorating, exciting, dynamic, and fun. When it goes sideways, this is a soul-crushing job. Walk in my shoes.”
You bet – your job is challenging and I certainly would admit that I could not do what you do, at least not at the same level, but before you point fingers and chastise my role in the dining experience – walk a mile in my shoes.
The next article will focus on service staff and restaurant management – walk a mile in their shoes.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training