A Sense of Urgency
“Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It’s like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can’t control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you.” Mike Tyson
Working in a professional kitchen is hard work. Working in a really good kitchen is even harder. I’ve moved from a good kitchen to a better one. By better, I mean cooking with a level of technical expertise that demands more than a recipe, expects more precision than flipping an omelet. Each day, I walk into the changing room with the feeling of having my back pressed against the wall. It’s show time, I can feel the tension coiling in my stomach like a spring, every day my knowledge and skill is put to the test, for me, there can be only one outcome, perfection.
Start with a mental checklist, tear my station apart.
ü Tonight’s gonna be busy, need to make sure there’s enough roasted mushrooms to make it through the night. A case of Shiitake and Honshimegi should be in the produce cooler, double check, just in case the shit hits the fan.
ü It rained last night and it’s supposed to rain tonight. Need to bring pecan wood for the grill early, maybe throw a couple logs in the oven, so they can dry out.
ü Need to get the immersion circulator up and running by 4pm, no later.
ü Strain the veal stock and cut mirepoix for the red wine sauce. Hopefully the tilt skillet will be free, so I can get the sauce rolling. It takes hours to reduce. I’ve gallons of Cabernet Sauvignon in the liquor cabinet, it’s enough.
ü My navy beans for succotash are on the way out, they didn’t feel too good last night, soak some today for tomorrow.
ü I need kitchen rags.
ü I have veal sweetbread on my cart, maybe for the third course with cappelini pasta and fresh shaved truffles.
ü Add that to the prep list, need to break the loin down and cook it sous vide in time for service.
ü I’m thinking three extra potatoes plus ten will be enough for the croquettes and whipped potatoes.
The meeting ends and I continue thinking about my prep list. There’s more, but this is what I need to do, within a three hour time frame, to have my station up and ready for service. It can be claustrophobic for the initiated. Everyone’s busy and too many questions and patience wears thin. Find what you need, get it done, push yourself, you have no friends to help. There’s no frigging shoulder to lean on, your co-workers are all busy working their ass off. The sooner you realize and accept, they don’t have time for you. Understand this, you prep, your station, is your responsibility. You can ask for help, but it comes with a price. I don’t want it, it’s a pride thing. Are you good enough to make the grade? Are you saying to the chef, “hey I’m too slow to set my station up within three hours?” It means you aren’t efficient, you were slow, you were not mentally prepared. Maybe you should start looking for another job? If you don’t quit early out, you’ll get pushed out. It’s as simple as that.
The team has to be strong. It’s the chef’s job to examine your performance, daily, he has to be sure that you won’t crack under pressure. Its called probation, can you fit in? Do you belong? If your station goes down the whole line goes down. I’ve seen it happen. I come in an hour early every day just to stay ahead of my prep, just to stay out of the dreaded weeds. I run when I should be walking. I write an itemized list of all I need to do and prioritize them. My chef expects no less and I want to make sure he stays off my back. I say yes. I have lots of things to do, meat to break down, portion and cook sous vide. Fish needs to be portioned. My wood fire grill that needs to be kindled and nurtured a full hour before service.It doesn’t matter, add the extra prep for the four top chefs tasting menu tonight. Need me to fill the requisition in the storeroom. Market list needs to be done by 4:30pm. Sous chef wants to have a fifteen minute line up to discuss service for the night. Expect it. There are clocks on every wall in my kitchen, just about; it’s a race against the clock. Race to be ready for service. Race to cook. The plates must be hot, constantly remember to keep in sync with the other line cooks and have the food in the pass in a coordinated manner. Fast. Three different tables fired at once, the chef wants it all, now! Since I’ve started working in this kitchen the hours glide by, they blur in a flurry of cutting, chopping, bending, lifting and cooking.
I’m allowed a thirty minute break; I’ve never seen a line cook take one. There’s no time to eat, but we do shoveling food into our mouth with our fingers as we pass by. A basket of French fries waiting to go out, those extra two at the back about to fall off, are mine. Cocktail shrimp in the cooler for tonight’s banquet, don’t mind if I snag one. Did you overcook that Red snapper for table 15? Don’t worry, we’ll eat it, tearing it apart like a pack of wolves, but quietly and quickly, (the chef doesn’t allow us to eat on the line).
My cell phone stays in the locker. If you need me, leave a message, I’m busy. I’ll call you back, when I’m on the train, or on my day off. I never knew I could work a solid eight hour shift, working without pause, moving from one task to the next until this kitchen. I’m paid more to do what I do, but here, I earn every single nickel and cent with sweat. Tell yourself to move faster because if you don’t someone else will. So what happens next? I ask myself this question every day. I see how my Sous chefs work. From them, the chef demands even more, the expectations are higher, the hours are longer.
I’ve always said “those who work hard work harder.” Multiply that by ten. In this kitchen, prep is more, something is always added, but the time frame remains the same. The faster you work, the more tasks you are given. Finished with your prep, go help someone else.
Clean the coolers, organize, consolidate, date, wrap, sweep. There’s no overtime in this kitchen, you must leave by 11pm. You must, break your station down, and clean and be done with it, before the clock strikes eleven. It’s a race to start and a race to finish. If you’re tired save it for the locker room. My feet hurt; my clogs are too new to be comfortable. Work through it, I’ll pay attention to their suffering when I get home. I’m a stronger cook because of this kitchen. It’s our way of training cooks to move up the ladder and endure the rigor of a sous chef life in the kitchen. Its preparation for that executive chef position. One day I’ll be in charge of my own kitchen. Ask the question, will I be better, faster stronger for working this way? Yes.