No Apologies

  1. Apologies have no place in the kitchen. Every movement is intentional, each gesture purposefully calculated. Every stroke, thrust and exploit have been prescribed as part of the cooking ritual. So, if Server Cody carelessly walks to the aft of a cook without the requisite “Behind!” bellow and gets burned, then Cody has, well, a scar to share with his friends at the next barbecue, and he has learned that cooks do not alter their paths for the sake of Cody’s peachy-white arm flesh. If Catering Coordinator Lady Sarah-the-Meanie gets barked at for doing some asinine stunt that angers a member of la familia, then she is going to get humiliated with a profanity-strewn vomitus of debilitating mental handicap that will make her feel like she will never know the love of a real man ever again. If Customer Jack samples a real dish that has been crafted with skill, patience and an unwavering commitment to quality but fails to make sense of what is masticating in his hearty jowls, then that is Jack’s fault. You cook with a heavy hand and a thunderous approach to feeding everybody’s hunger except, of course, your own. Some call it art. Or creativity. Or self-expression. Or survival instinct. Whatever it is to you, it is subjected to the scrupulous exam of the smug Philistines  on the other side of the door. But never apologize to the boob, never atone for your lifework. “Don’t waste time trying to be something you’re not.”1 Social time gets put on hold, almost always indefinitely. Family is betrayed. But you never apologize. To think like a cook is to question the process of doing whatever it takes to make the most out each movement. To think like a cook is to be practical in all aspects of the day, to conserve precious energy, money, fortitude. There are no apologies for doing what you do.

    Every thought has been stewed. It isn’t just about the dance in and around the kitchen or about systems. It is about guessing what people like, what will keep the restaurant open, what makes you feel good. The owner of the restaurant wants the kitchen to run harmoniously, with as little guttural  bellows as possible; the less squeaking, the less oil. Oil costs money. Do what needs to be done, don’t tap the cash-drawer and the owner is happy. The servers rely on you to protect their gratuity and nothing else; they are soulless animals that suckle at the teet of the 18% Gratuity Goddess. Protect their lord and they will be justly appeased. Feed the customers. They aren’t guests, by the way, unless you invited them and they are not paying for their meals. They are customers and should be treated thusly. Make them food that they want and heaven will be yours in the end. They, quite honestly, do not want to be educated, transmogrofied*. No apologies to Alinea, El Bulli or Per Se. Those Temples of Higher Culinary Education do/did their thing and customers expect dazzling food that sparkles with innovation and technological breakthroughs. On a Friday night, though, in most restaurants, Avery and Brenna want their humbly prepared steaks, adeptly cooked salmon, and nachos that are the topic of conversation the next day. Cook to satiate. Cook to fulfill the essential need. Do it without killing the person that is paying the bill. Do it well. Ask most chefs and cooks what they like to eat and the usual response will be something along the lines of sushi, a burger, a good sandwich, some cheese and fruit, or some version of street food. We only heft our culinary armor when trying to outdo each other; we dribble the provenance of each ingredient in some overly fussy dish that turns out to be fried chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes. Or we draw first blood with Twittering, Yelping, Instagramming, Zagaters whose opinion will only be based on whether the the three bills they dropped on dinner closed the deal with their hotty dinner companion or not, or if the cute server gave a little wink, flashed a little extra cleavage when bending to refold a napkin or the blood-alcohol content of the diner exceeded their ability to accurately recollect what, exactly, they ordered. They just know they had a good time. Give them that good time in food. Give them what they want.

    Make the food you like and would order. It shouldn’t be the bobo nonsense that gets pumped out of corporate cafeterias in the name of uber-conservative food cost nor should it be an amalgam of Organic Armpit Farms Left Hoofed Holstein 1988 AssGas Vineyard Sauvignon Braised Chuck on Brioche. It’s Sloppy Joe, however you paint it. Do not apologize for doing honest food. Food prepared with integrity, good energy and what the customers want. It doesn’t mean watered-down food or “comfort food.” Hell, all food is comfort food if it tastes good and makes you smile out loud.  It means making kick-ass soft pretzels with beer-cheese sauce for the Sunday football menu. Or delicious buttermilk fried chicken and malted waffles. And, by the grace of god, amazing nachos under molten cheese, shredded chicken and pico de gallo made with goodness and a too-large dollop of sour cream. And heart. Don’t try to be something you’re not and do not apologize for speaking honestly with ingredients.

    The team in the kitchen understands this. They are not apologists. Build a crew so good in the kitchen, they are like, ‘Damn, what’s next? Let’s, like, freaking roast a giraffe or something!’ They share your erect taste buds when discussing menu ideas. They get good food and get confused with silly food. The do not apologize for crab fries. They know that you are never really alright! They appreciate cheesy grits and walk away from Truffled-everything with Extra Virgin-nonsense.  It is perfectly acceptable, even recommended, to have selective people skills when part of a kitchen. Tolerate little and swing towards the fence. And do not apologize for beating the crap out of the occasional neophyte that gets between you and lumpy mashed potatoes.
    1 - Dave Matthews, Snow Outside, (C) 2012 - ASCAP
    * - Transmogrified: a made-up word, borrowed from Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes fame. To mean: changed from one form to another. Transmogrifying a customer from, say, a raw-fish hater to one that craves sashimi is unlikely. And, if it does happen, it will probably take time and, inevitably, cost you a few meals. Better to cook their tuna to their preference rather than cajole them into rare, only to have it come back for an up-cook, lose the cost of the dish, waste valuable time remaking a dish, throwing the harmony of the line out of sync and pissing off the manager that now has to talk to the table. Save the cooking lesson for Bob and Betsy’s dinner party in the Hamptons.

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  1. jim berman
    @theculinarykid - Thank you for your comment. Enjoy the adventures in your kitchens; take lots of notes, keep your ears open (mouth shut!), taste everything, work clean, be safe. And, always try to enjoy what you do! Think like a cook.
  2. theculinarykid
    Love this! I cant wait to get into my first kitchen!  
  3. jim berman
    @ChefWD- thank you for reading the column and taking the time to post a comment. I was wondering if anybody was going to give me grief about that particular section of the piece. I am glad I have an allied force in the guest versus customer battle. Thanks, again!
  4. chefwd
    This is right on... love the part about them being customers and not guests... I am old enough to remember when those words were first being used and I always questioned it and detest it to this day. You are absolutely correct, they are customers, not guests.
  5. jim berman
    @Luis J - Thank you! I am glad you liked it. I appreciate your encouragement. -Jim
  6. jim berman
    @durangojo - Thank you! I don't know what's in my cereal bowl either, and often can't find it when I need it. No apologies and take no prisoners!
  7. luis j
    Awesome write, thanks for sharing!
  8. durangojo
    Wow! Whats in your cereal bowl? I want some!!!! So spot on...thanks for explaining just why i don't have to feel guilty anymore even when it's not the kitchens fault but i ultimately take the shame blame...no apologies...i love it.

    joey