“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.”
Kitchen people are a different breed.
We don’t sit well. We move, creating beautiful works of food, tasting, sampling, consulting with each other. In the end, we have something delicious to show for our efforts. Then it is gone and we do it all again.
We sometimes talk about the times we had “real jobs,” where the pay was higher, the work was dull and somebody else cleaned up. The story always ends with us coming back, thriving in a crazy, high-energy environment where the work is hard and hot, and we mop the floors before going home.
From pastry-chef to line cooks, we begin each shift by making a list of everything we need to do. In a farm-to-market restaurant, the chef makes a Farmer’s Market run. Knives are sharpened, ovens and grills are fired up and we dive in, prepping each sauce, soup, dessert, and readying every ingredient needed on the service line. Jokes get fired back and forth as items are crossed of the list. Insults, stories, even rewriting the songs on the radio are part of the work environment.
Getting high-dollar meals to the table is a choreographed art. Salmon goes on the grill when the chicken is nearly cooked, a rare steak needs to come out the same time at the medium one. Line chefs cook side dishes, sauces and hot appetizers on multiple burners over high heat, flipping shrimp and sautéed vegetables in the air while frying oysters or chicken wings. Entrees ordered with salads and soups get “fired” only after the earlier courses go out and the customers are close to ready.
A run on a certain dish may catch the kitchen off guard. Making a blackberry vinaigrette, julienning orange bell peppers or baking apple tarts slips into the routine, all while we’re plating up desserts, appetizers and entrees, never missing a beat.
Food allergies have become common. We may find ourselves reading ingredients while juggling orders, to figure out what the customer can eat. Soy sauce contains wheat. People with sesame sensitivities can’t eat traditional hummus. Soybeans are hidden in nearly all processed foods, in the forms of oils and thickeners.
Special orders are a way of life for some customers. Sauce on the side, leave off the butter, substitute the side dishes from another entree, wheat allergies, soy allergies, nuts, dairy, the list goes on. Catered parties forget to warn us there are vegetarians coming to their seated dinner, for which they chose a meat and fish menu. We create their meals on the fly. If a server picks up the wrong order, we start another.
People cuss. Plates get dropped. The oven catches on fire.
Okay, that only happened once.
Out front, customers sip wine and share appetizers. They enjoy the entrees that arrive at their table, hot and cooked to perfection, four minutes after the salad plates are picked up. They dine in comfort and good company, maybe appreciating, unaware of the magic behind their meal.
Which is exactly how it should be.
And us? We eat a quick meal then put everything away for the night. We clean the kitchen, take out the trash and go home. No need for a post-work visit to the gym. We can shower and put our feet up, guilt-free. We’ve had our workout.
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