This Could Be Your First Day
So, you are now working your first job or internship. In some aspect, you are finally on the inside. This could mean you are the new prep cook, dishwasher, line cook, anything really. The kitchen doors open up and you see so much more than the cursory glance afforded to those customers sitting at the tables close enough to the kitchen.
Someone gives you a short tour of the different stations and those who are working them. They point out the Head Chef or Chef de Cuisine. As they rush you past because it’s obviously a bad time for formal introductions, the Chef is calling out a new ticket while tossing vegetables in a sauté pan. Without skipping a beat, the chef starts calling for finished plates to hit the pass for the lead check to be sold.
Your tour guide moves along in a hurry while pointing out the grill station, the fry station, the sauté station where the chef is quickly tossing more ingredients into the pans. You notice that every burner is occupied by a pan and there are still more on a shelf over the stove top range. Recognizing the stations from school or books you have read, they seem a little different than the ones you learned about. Instead of having a chef for every station, there are only two cooks on the line.
The girl working the grill plates two steaks and a salmon as the chef slides in to ladle sauces next to the meats with a fancy check mark motion. The girl doesn’t wait. She already is back from the grill, this time with two burgers that she slides onto their respective buns. She then spins around in a complete circle without stopping. At some point, halfway through this move, she grabbed a fry basket, dumped the contents into a bowl, and now seasons french fries to accompany the burgers. The chef yells someone’s name, turns to a narrow refrigerator and pulls out two small game birds on metal platters. He rips off plastic wrap, adds a ladle of what looks like chicken stock and slides both to the back of the oven. He rises, kicking the oven door shut and tossing two sauté pans with pasta and vegetables simultaneously.
The person whose name was called enters the kitchen. They take one look at the pass and tell the chef a pasta dish is missing. He calls over his shoulder, “30 seconds!”, and the waiter begins picking up the dishes, carrying 4 plates at once,(with no serving tray!). You see the grill and fryer, which a second ago had both been empty, now hold fresh steaks, burgers, and fries. But the girl is gone. The chef slides a large dinner bowl of pasta across the pass and the tour guide beckons you to keep up as they turn the corner.
As you round the corner, the missing girl has already set up a long row of side salads and is in the middle of adding fresh berries to a slice of key lime pie. She looks up, “You must be the newbie we ordered last month. Better late than never.” She then looks at your guide, “Show him the coffee pot, the pisser, where we smoke, and then give him to Lou.” She nods towards over your shoulder as she says, Lou. You see Lou is the dishwasher and when you turn back she has already vanished back to the hot line.
Don’t Freak Out. . . Yet
By now you are realizing a few things. One, you have just read online and in books to know how to do a hell of a lot more than wash dishes. Maybe you even just got finished with a few years of culinary school. Why are you being thrown into a dish pit? Two, where in the world is everybody? You might have thought you were going to be the assistant to the assistant of the Poissonnier ( fish cook ) or working under the pastry chef.
The truth is, there are a few kitchens where the classic brigade system is in place with bodies to fill all of those positions. Most kitchens, the many stations are divided among a few cooks. The executive/head chef actually works on the line during the rushes and has to squeeze administrative duties between lunch and dinner. You don’t just grill. You grill, fry, sauté, and plate everything for every order. No one is there to tag you out if you get tired when the tickets don’t stop printing. That’s why there’s lots of coffee. And, there’s this dish washing thing.
That dishwasher can peel and devein 5 pounds of shrimp faster than you take care of 1 pound. No matter how many tables are turned, his sinks stay low and he can bounce over to help with the salads and desserts in a heavy rush. When you have one of those days when everyone ordered a sandwich for dinner, the dishwasher has 3 extra buckets of french fries cut, 2 extra pans of lettuce set-ups for burgers, and pickle spears already cut.
You are going to learn while you are working. It is not easy for the chef or sous chef to explain to you the different ingredients for the many menu items while trying to put out a full dining room of orders. This is where you cut your teeth. Lou is going to show you where to find the back-ups when the sous chef calls for more fries, more pressed burgers, or more shrimp for the chef’s station. You are going to note where everything else is when in the walk-in. Next time they ask for more salmon fillets, you can run for them and you won’t need Lou to show you. You’re always looking for the next step before you get there.
Keep Looking Up
Yes, I do mean for you to keep a positive attitude. I also mean to keep looking up the ladder. Remember that the dishwasher is right across the room from the salad station and the dessert table. It won’t take long to remember how to make the side salads. Hundreds are made in a single night. Keep an eye out for specialty salads. Learn what the next station is doing before you even get there. This will give you a head start when asked to work the salad station your second week there.
When working that salad station, work as fast as you can. If you get caught up, watch what the fry station is doing. Maybe you notice that every salmon gets plated with two potato croquets. The sous chef asks you to watch the fryer because a long run of steak and pasta dishes are about to be sold. You notice there is a mixing bowl with asparagus tossed in oil, salt and pepper. Every filet mignon is getting grilled asparagus. As you hold down the fryer, you might also get more asparagus seasoned and oiled so it’s ready for the sous chef.
Every chance you get to learn something by simply observing will give you an advantage later on. Keep looking up the line.
Speed in All the Right Places
No one was able to make perfect knife cuts as fast as the head chef on their first day. That chef could cut a whole pot of onions for french onion soup before you get the skins off of yours. Don’t worry about this. It’s like shooting foul shots in basketball. The more you do it, the easier and more accurate you get. This type of speed will come with time.
If you lack the speed and precision in some areas, make up for it in others. So it takes you a couple of extra seconds to butterfly the chicken, or chiffonade the herbs. When you have to get those herbs from the walk-in, make up those seconds by moving your feet faster. If you take longer decorating the plates, get the finished meats from the grill to the plate a little faster. Don’t walk anywhere. Don’t turn your body slowly. If you can speed up any movements in between the times when you need a little more finesse, do it. Eventually you will be able pick up speed in knife skills and plating techniques. For now, speed up everything in between.
You’re not alone. We all started with an impossible task in a similar situation. Keep pushing forward one day at a time and pretty soon you’ll be giving this advice to the next newbie.
Feel free to leave any questions or comments below. I always have good suggestions for inspirational reading that reminds us that there are superstar chefs out there that were once in our shoes.