Heat, Chaos, Desire & Life In The Kitchen

Standing before a large hot flattop, which bears the weight of a half dozen Flintstone-sized pots, sweat runs down my face. The cast iron radiates more heat than the already overburdened exhaust fans can handle. Every surface in the hundred-year-old kitchen seems to glisten with heat. The temperature is hovering in triple digits, yet I wear the traditional chef's uniform of double-breasted coat with long sleeves, long bib apron, black pants, and cotton toque. It's often perceived that this attire is for appearance, and while this is partially true, it's mostly practical--the full coverage of the uniform shields me against the heat, just as it has for generations. My current employment is at a private city club; the hours are reasonable--they're predominately daytime, something unheard of for a chef. The intensity of a hot à la carte line--the heart of every restaurant kitchen--is non-existent in this club; we serve mostly banquets. But it's the intensity of the hot line of restaurants that has shaped me as a cook and a chef, and it is something that will never leave me.

A person has to have a certain physical and mental makeup to endure life in the kitchen, I am convinced of this--it's not for everyone. A person has to be able to stand on their feet for long hours--full days at a time--and be able to do many, many tasks at once while under extreme pressure and in close, hot, crowded areas. They must also be able to handle criticism, because everything they do will be under scrutiny--from the local restaurant critic, to the owner of the restaurant, the customers, and even their peers. And in order for a person to live this life they must also be able to endure the heat. The weather may change outside, the restaurant may be busy one day and slow the next, but the heat is always there, especially during the humid summers of the northeast.

The heat of a professional kitchen is all encompassing; it invades every pore and crevice of your body. A cook doesn't just endure the heat; they rush and scramble around amidst it. After almost a quarter century in the kitchen the summertime heat is something that I will never get used to. It wears me down after a long and busy day.

Indeed the ability to endure the heat of the kitchen is something that has always been a prerequisite to being a professional cook or chef. It is said that one of the most famous chefs in history, August Escoffier, was a natural for enduring the heat of nineteenth century kitchens, and his predecessor, Antonin Carême, writes of the heat from his deathbed a century prior, "Twenty chefs are at their occupations, coming, going, moving with speed in this cauldron of heat...In this furnace everyone moves with tremendous speed...But it is the burning charcoal which kills us!"

Today, of course, professional kitchens are not fueled by charcoal (except for possibly a grill or pizza oven in a trendy restaurant); they are fueled by gas. But despite this, and many other modern conveniences (such as ventilation systems), the heat still remains. But it's not just the heat, it's also the chaos, because even the most meticulously run kitchens turn chaotic during the busiest parts of the day, what the French call "un coup de feu." The contrast between the serene and elegant dining room and what is happening behind the thin veneer of kitchen doors is almost beyond words.

There are plenty of books that discuss matters of the kitchen, but most are not accurate descriptions. There are two, though, that give extremely truthful images of scenes behind kitchen doors: George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris in London, and Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Both books are autobiographical; George Orwell describes what it was like to work as a plongeur (dishwasher) in a Parisian hotel in the early part of the twentieth century, and published more recently, Anthony Bourdain offers the reader a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a New York chef. The following is George Orwell's narrative of what it was like to work through the breakfast rush, and later went on to describe the hellish dinner hour: "The time between eight and half-past ten was a sort of delirium. Sometimes we were going as though we had only five minutes to live; sometimes there were sudden lulls when orders stopped and everything seemed quiet for a moment. Then we swept up the litter from the floor, threw down fresh sawdust, and swallowed gallipots of wine or coffee or water--anything, so long as it was wet. Very often we used to break off chunks of ice and suck them while we worked. The heat among the gas-fires was nauseating; we swallowed quarts of drink during the day, and after a few hours even our aprons were drenched with sweat."

The scenes depicted in these two books are strikingly similar even though they were written close to a century apart. Anthony Bourdain writes, "There were cries of 'Ordering!' and 'Pick up!' every few seconds, and 'Fire!', more food going out, more orders coming in, the squawk of an intercom as an upstairs bartender called down for food. Flames 3 feet high leaped out of pans, the broiler was crammed with a slowly moving train of steaks, veal chops, fish fillets, lobsters. Pasta was blanched and transferred in huge batches into steaming colanders, falling everywhere, the floor soon ankle-deep in spaghetti alla chitarra, linguini, garganelli, taglieri, fusilli. The heat was horrific. Sweat flowed into my eyes as I spun in place."

With today's proliferation of "TV chefs" being a chef is often perceived as glamorous. Well it's not. It's most definitely a good profession, but not glamorous, at least not for a working chef. While many of these TV performers may be or have been professional cooks outside of the studio, what they portray on television is not a chef. They are good cooks cooking on television, which may be difficult in it's own right, but what these shows depict are caricatures of chefs, something that the public wants a chef to be. Personally, because of the clownish and animated manner in which some (but not all) of these chefs act, I think these shows are generally a disservice to the foodservice industry.

Oftentimes people misunderstand what the title "chef" means. Chefs cook for a living, yes, but because one cooks does not make them a chef. The word chef is French for "chief," or loosely "boss." The full or proper phrase for a chef in French is chef de cuisine, or chief of the kitchen (it was interesting on my first trip to France to discover that the conductor of the train on which I was riding was called the "chef de train;" coworkers referred to him simply as "chef"). A chef is a manager, not just a cook. There are some chefs who are great cooks but lousy chefs, there are some cooks who are great cooks but will never be a chef, and then there are some great chefs who cannot cook.

The original TV cook, the venerable Julia Child, who despite her on-air aloofness during her earlier shows, is one of most serious (and still one of the best in my opinion). She has been quoted as saying that even though her show was originally called The French Chef, she herself is not actually a chef, that she has never been in charge of a professional kitchen. That to me says a lot.

First and foremost to be a chef one has to be able to cook well, but that's just part of it. To be a good cook is one thing, but to be a good restaurant cook--a line cook--is entirely another. An experienced line cook does not simply prepare one item at a time; they prepare many all at once. A line cook, for example, must be able to grill a half-dozen steaks while at the same time juggle 4 or 5 sauté pans, and also expedite incoming and outgoing orders, and converse with the waiter telling them the changes that have been made to one of his orders. The ability to keep a clear head and having an understanding of the economy of time and motion are important assets to line cooking.

The thing that makes it difficult of being a chef, I think, is the duties outside the realm of cooking, the things that aren't as fun (because cooking, after all, is the fun stuff). It's not just about the busy times, of the lunch and dinner hours, but more so the day-to-day necessities: staffing, labor cost, food cost, etc., and some of these can be problematic. Wholesale food prices may rise, for instance--sometimes on a daily basis--but if the menu prices are raised even a penny it has a detrimental effect on business; customers do not care how much you pay for the food. And even with the proliferation of culinary schools today the labor market is so tapped out that many chefs often have to hire the first person that applies for the job, no matter how green behind the ears they are.

Anyone who thinks that a chef spends their days fluting mushrooms, flambéing prawns, and gently caressing guinea fowl with cold-pressed olive oil is fooling themselves. Most chefs spend their days pulling their hair out because a couple of their cooks didn't show up, the owner is screaming at them because not only was inventory late the food cost is up three points this month, and after working two insane shifts that day they personally have to cook for some "VIP's" that have showed up at closing time, and at the very end of the night they may have to do some dishes and help mop the floor because they don't want to have to face the mess in the morning. And lets not forget the cuts and burns that may have ensued during the dinner hour, and the fights (I once had to actually break up a fistfight between a waiter and a cook); a chef friend of mine told me over beers one night how once, in a fit of rage, he actually put a knife to a dishwasher's throat (the thing that scared me was not the actual story, but how it was relayed to me in such detail and how he still thought the dishwasher deserved it). Chefs go to work in the morning, work hard all day, and get home late at night. And with that kind of stress and lifestyle a chef is supposed to be creative and design new menu items everyday.

Ok, ok, enough with the downside of the business. I simply wanted to illustrate that while working in a well-known restaurant has definite perks, it is hard work and anything but glamorous. So why do we do it? Surely it's not for the money. Mostly, I think, it's because chefs enjoy what they do, even with the chaos, and also there's probably not a chef alive that could ever have a job where they had to sit all day and do paper work etc. Nor do I know a chef that could ever work 9 to 5.

Even though I don't exactly agree with the stereotypical image of a temperamental and tyrannical chef, it can be somewhat accurate (and understandable). By this I mean that chefs--at least the good ones--really care about their work, and take great pride in what they do (imagine telling anyone, in any occupation, that after they've sweated and labored for 12 or 14 hours in a hot, crowded, and chaotic environment that you didn't like the work that they have done, and see if they act temperamental).

What's also great about the occupation is that one is able to be creative every day and get paid for it. Cooking is still one of my favorite things to do, even after all this time. Though the words "calming" and "therapy" may seem like extreme juxtapositions when used within the context of the craziness of a restaurant kitchen, I have always found solace in cooking. Thus, if it seems that some of the harsh, or even dismal aforementioned anecdotes insinuate my dislike for the business, it's not true--I love the restaurant business, and being a chef, otherwise I wouldn't still be doing it (I recently had someone at work say to me that it really looks like I enjoy my work. I was glad to hear this because I often feel as though I look tired and stressed, and when I asked why he thought this, he simply said, "because it shows").

Recently, while talking with a colleague, who has been executive chef at a country club for almost 25 years, I asked him his views on the restaurant business and being a chef. Interestingly, he mirrored my sentiments almost completely: the hours (especially being away from family on weekends and holidays), heat, and stress are negative aspects about being a chef, but creating and serving beautiful and delicious food makes it worthwhile. He also pointed out that working with such interesting and unique people--kitchen personnel--is a bonus, and that the friends made are friends for life. The camaraderie between cooks and chefs runs deep; everybody knows everybody in this business.

Like any profession you have to really enjoy what you do or your working days will be hell. I've never been one to consider cooking an art--it's more of an extremely creative and expressive craft, or trade--but it gets under your skin, and once you do it there is nothing else that you'd rather do. And if there is any advice I can offer those intent on entering the restaurant business it is this: Get a job as a prep cook in one of the best restaurants in town, do any grunt work they give you, then do some line cooking. Befriend the waitstaff; their job is difficult too. Be true to yourself, and don't take any shortcuts (and don't expect to be a "chef" in just a couple of years). Read, read, read, not just cookbooks, but anything; don't be a boring cook. Then, if you still think that you want to do it, take cooking classes to learn the basics from a professional. It needn't be a two or four year school; there are plenty of short and continuing education classes available locally and around the country. Remember that the simplest foods are usually the best, and above all, shut off your television; cooking is real.