Walking into the kitchen on that first day of work, everything seems foreign; it is foreign – you’re just starting out. Becoming a better cook is in the future, but there is without a doubt an uphill battle.
Stainless steel is everywhere – lining the backsplash, the range, the reach-ins, prep stations and shelving for dry storage – The floor is a grimy, terra cotta tile topped with rubber mats. Trash cans are scattered throughout. Piles of broken down boxes are stashed in the corner next to the ice machine dropping a handful of cubes every couple of seconds.
The hood vent echoes over everything. Prep cooks make small talk, scurrying to finish the remaining needs for service. Line cooks arranging their mise en place with trips to and from the walk-in cooler, as servers fold napkins and bartenders polish wine glasses with a carafe of steaming hot water and over-sized coffee filters. Management scurries back and forth between the front of the house and the office, located in the deepest recesses of the restaurant – they seem to forget something different on every trip. A delivery driver is wheeling stuff through the back door, invoice in hand, pleading for a signature. Employees yell across the kitchen, as timers go off. Pots are sprayed down in the dish pit and the phone rings from the open-doored office – the hostess is running late, but presumably, it’s a guest looking for a last minute, Friday night reservation. 7:30? Good luck.
It smells good and it’s strange – it smells different in various parts of the restaurant. It seems wherever you walk in the kitchen, the slightest bit of bacon lingers in the air. Walking over to the line – the smell of fresh garlic and herbs perfumes the air, as sauces simmer on the back burners with a flame that is barely visible to the eye. The double convection ovens waft the aroma of fresh bread and desserts – perhaps with some cinnamon and apple or maybe some pears. If you crack open the door to the walk-in cooler, the smell of smoked meat hits your face – as if the last thing to pass through the doors were some burnt ends from a brisket leftover from lunch.
It’s fast, it’s loud – or so it seems. But wait until you’re fifteen tickets deep tonight – tickets are chirping from the printer, expo is barking, pans are clinging banging on the kitchen line as the crew talks through the tickets hanging in front of them – doing their best to stay on the same page.
You see, what starts out as something foreign and unfamiliar, at some point becomes routine – second nature. You’re no longer the new kid on the block and slowly over time, you’re becoming a better cook. Fellow employees – they become comrades – brothers and sisters. For most cooks, this is where the gold is – it’s what they look back at and smile – even the crazy nights, drowning in the weeds – these are the nights that take a bunch of individuals and turn them into a team.
These are also the nights that make you who you are as a cook. If you have enough of these nights, you can really make something for yourself.
At a certain point in your career, more than several years later, you’ve become the one in charge. Your job is no longer to move as fast as you can from the beginning of service ’til the end. You’re no longer the one asking all of the questions – you look around and see that you’re calling the shots. You’ve made it to the top.
It’s not being at the top that makes it rewarding, though. Sure, you’ll have more creative control, better hours and higher pay, but what being at the top does is – it gives you the opportunity to do things your way.
With this opportunity comes massive responsibility. You have the responsibility – we’re grooming the next generation of kitchen leaders – molding them into the individuals we expect them to become – by taking an active interest in them and their success while empowering them with confidence to perform – that’s how they get there. That’s how we got here – someone believed in you enough to give you a chance.
The results extend far beyond you or any one person in the building. You might be the captain steering the ship, but if the crew isn’t paddling in the right direction, you won’t get very far. It starts with the environment – the standards you create, allow and enforce. Every day we have an opportunity and a responsibility – to the people around us – to stand by what we know to be true and in doing so, create an environment of safety, of curiosity, of collaboration, respect, and growth.
A career in the kitchen – you might have known it was for you all along, or you might have just stumbled into it. As you look back over your career, one thing I can tell you for sure is this; when you do it right, at a certain point along the way you make the realization that it’s not just about food or cooking – in many ways that’s just scratching the surface. When it comes down to it, it’s about the people – that’s what makes a career in the kitchen meaningful – making a positive impact on someone’s life – and we have the opportunity to do that every single day – we just so happen to do it through food. Needless to say, becoming a better cook can lead you becoming a chef, however, it’s quite clear that it’s far more than just cooking
That young man or woman walking through the door of your restaurant today, next week or next month – just remember – that was you not too long ago.