Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What it is really like being a chef or working at a restaurant

I saw this online and it only started to bring back memories:

 From the time that I was 16 years old, I started to work at a restaurant. When I think back to this place, from seeing and dining in so many other restaurants, it really didn't seem like a true restaurant, but it was.  I did so because it was easy work and fun when your friends worked there as well.  My older brother worked there and as such it helped me get my job there.  I didn't think of it at the time, but it helped light the fuse for my love of food and cooking.  I tried to avoid the kitchen as best as I could because I was young and 16 and didn't want to do anything back there that pulled me away from my friends and the windows looking upon the outside world.  There were a couple of times that my brother was pulled into the back to help and when he came out at the end of the day, he looked drained and smelled like a trashcan.  I just didn't want that and I did try really hard to avoid it, and did so at that location.  What happened when I was about 18, was that while school was one thing and I had friends there, my friends did not live by me and work with me.  The friends I had acquired at this one location, in Shrewsbury, were the friends I would go out and party with on summer nights, weekends and vacations.  That was my social network, it was Facebook and Myspace before those sites were even invented.  I don't try to sound old and ancient, but before there was the internet and even cell phones that did anything other than make and receive calls, there was a physical meeting of people at locations. 

My friends were all together and we were making friends with managers and then all of a sudden, they moved my favorite manager.  They transfer managers and move them around like chess pieces. (Wait, maybe not because that implies that the district supervisors who manage whole city's worth of restaurant locations would be capable of any intelligent thought.)  But my favorite manager was sent to another location, on Manchester Road, in West County and I was still stuck here in Shrewsbury.

I begged to be moved there and when I was, I noticed that things seemed different and there, I did volunteer my services to the kitchen when they had a cook call in sick.  I thought it was really cool that 2 guys would run the cook's line and maybe 3 on a busy day and there would be as much as 10-15 in the front of the house just working on the products of those on the cook's line.  So one day I was working and the cook called in sick.  There was a certified trainer back there and they needed someone to go back and I took the chance.  I slapped a hairnet on, a cap, a thick apron and went to the cook's line.  I worked there in what seemed like perfect harmony with the other cook.  He was on the ovens and I had steamer and fryer.  I was having trouble keeping up with the food taking and when the manager, probably in a drunken stupor came before me and pulled me over away from the cook's line.

"John," he says. "Recipes are just instructions.  If you can read, just do what they say and everything will be fine."

That is all it takes and that thought, that saying, coming from an a-hole such as he was, was the most remarkable thing I ever heard about cooking food.  That and my co-worker that night, Terrell, told me that cooking was "just having fun."

The rest is history but I can tell you this; the restaurant I worked for, Old County Buffet, was an all-you-can-eat restaurant.  People would pay as much as $10 for dinner and eat $100 worth of food.  I was frying 4 chickens at once in one fryer and about a pound of french fries in the other, while mixing 4 pounds of mashed potatoes in a large stand mixer.  My steamer was filled with 10 pound trays of corn, green beans and carrots and that was the tough part.  On a busy Friday or Saturday night, the line servers were taking food out of the Sham faster than I could cook it. 

The feeling and thoughts and memories, all came back when reading that article.  So, let's look at my favorites from that site:

[It gets really hot]- At the locations where I cooked, and at the restaurant itself, they did not have AC in the back of the house.  So, whether you were working on the oven and the grill or getting a burning facial with the fryers and steamers, there was no saving your body from the heat.  What we did, was use the meat freezer.  About 10 feet from the oven side, against a wall, was the meat freezer.  All of the meat was there, frozen, along with boxes of other stuff like vegetables to be steamed and so forth.  Let me tell you this: working for 8 hours on steamer side and then walking into a freezer is amazing.  It is so cold that the sweat on your hands actually starts to turn into frost after a few seconds and it feels wonderful.  It was a great pick me up during those hot summer days on the line.

[No matter how hot it is, don't drop it]- What a great piece of advice.  I have dropped a large sheet pan full of baked chicken before.  It was so hot, out of the oven, that I burned myself on one of the doors on the side of my arm.  I dropped one side of the sheet pan and it fell down, as hot, molten, chicken fat and juices ran all down my apron and my leg and on my shoe.  While that sounds like I could have been saved, I wasn't.  The lava was so hot that I besides the food costs I wasted, I had to run around the corner, get my arm fixed up and take my shoe off to make sure and stop everything from burning my foot and leg.  What a day.

[Even in scratch kitchens, 98% of everything is prepared ahead of time]- Every night, before we closed and locked up, the cooks would prep for the next day's crew and shifts.  On steamer side, you had to get about 2 boxes of frozen vegetables and get them into some quarter pans to prep for the next day.  The oven side cook would get his chicken laid out and on pans for the freezer to be ready for the next morning.

[You must over-communicate]- My line, which was the cooks I worked with whether I was scheduled to cook or if I was sent back to help as kitchen supervisor, always spoke clearly and loud.  I had my guys yell when coming around a corner.  When you have dishwashers placing cleaned pans on a rack that is the same rack where my cooks were going to get food going, and having guys with grease and food stuff on the bottoms of their shoes walking into a wet and soapy area, it makes a huge difference between being quiet and yelling "coming around!"  When you had something hot, you yelled "hot coming around!" And when my team or myself opened a steamer or oven, customers in the dining room could hear us.  For good purpose because my team, had a flawless injury streak.

Also, a good one on here for people who are in this line of work or thinking about it: Don't date outside of your house.   This just means that if you are on the cook's line or dishwasher (back of the house), don't try dating someone who is in the front of the house, like a cashier, line server, or server.  It will make it very difficult to communicate and keep appointments.


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