“Few things are more beautiful to me than a bunch of thuggish, heavily tattooed line cooks moving around each other like ballerinas on a busy Saturday night. Seeing two guys who’d just as soon cut each other’s throats in their off hours moving in unison with grace and ease can be as uplifting as any chemical stimulant or organized religion.” ― Anthony Bourdain
It’s hard to see a good cook leave. It’s hard to see someone with the spark, roll up their knife kit and quit. People come to the life of professional cooking for many different reasons, most will say it’s because they love being around food. They love the creative process that stems from the craft of cooking; love the adrenaline rush, enjoy the sense of camaraderie, hate the idea of working a 9 to 5 job. Others credit their interest in professional cooking to the rise in prominence of celebrity chefs and the plethora of culinary schools that glamorize the kitchen, capitalizing on the larger than life rock star personas splashed across our television screens. Culinary schools have been signing up students in droves with deceptive promises that sugar coat the harsh reality of low wages and long hours endured by line cooks.
The strain on both mind and body is incredible. The craft can be taught, but cooks, especially good cooks, need to possess a burning ambition, talent, passion and sense of timing that borders on near ruthlessness to progress upwards through a kitchen’s hierarchy. It’s a fight to the top that starts from day one as an intern and never lets up until you either quit or lose nerve. Professional kitchens are littered with cooks who’ve lost their nerve, surpassed by someone faster, better, more ruthless. The relative safety of working the same position for years – breakfast cook, grill cook, garde manger kitchen – is the best guarantee of job security in the rapidly changing dynamic of a busy kitchen.
The first thing a new hire has smashed to pieces are their ideals. A busy kitchen has no time to be sugary nice; your new station, your prep list, the cook that will be training you, are all waiting to see what you can do. Mistakes in the first few weeks are forgiven but patience wears thin rather quickly if you don’t get it. No one’s really interested in what you did in your last kitchen, how good you were, or how much you know. It’s what you do here and now that counts.
Our new short order cook was a recent graduate from the C.I.A. He had recently completed an internship with a Michelin starred restaurant in Australia. He was young, passionate, knowledgeable and full of himself. He wanted to work with Foie Gras,Truffles and Molecular Gastronomy. His plates whenever we had a “chefs table” were intricate, creative and indicative of his fine dining background. The short order station didn’t need his artistry. He stayed with us for nine months. Every day he came to work, made French onion soup, marinara sauce, cut potatoes for hand cut truffle fries and flipped hamburgers on a small grill. The prep is tedious and many nights he was still in the kitchen long after everyone else had left. The short order station is one of the busiest in our kitchen and you have to be able to cook and prep simultaneously just to keep up. It’s grueling work and for our young cook the first true test of his passion for cooking.
He was talented, it was obvious and it showed in the quality of his work. Perfect knife cuts, commitment to quality, his willingness to do more. He had the spark and if he could stick it out in five to eight years he would be a great sous chef. We were surprised when he put his resignation in. “Are you moving to another kitchen” I asked. “No, I’m going back to school to study finance.” I was saddened by his reply because he had the makings of a great chef. He’s long gone now; his last day was three weeks ago. Even though we all promised to stay in touch, I haven’t heard from him since. Someone else is working his station, his prep is gone, the combination to his locker changed. The kitchen has closed ranks and moved on, hungry diners order from the menu, servers refill water glasses and every night we put plates in the pass as the dance continues.