by Lisa M. Brefere, Karen Eich Drummond, and Brad Barnes
"Great job, Chef! All is well!" "Thanks! Why don't you buy my staff a beer? They deserve it," I reply. I personally walk around and thank everyone for a great evening. Dishwashers first, for they are my backbone; many of them grow into prep and cook positions. Tools are sharpened and put away, ordering finished and called in, cleanup started, prep sheets put in order for tomorrow's production. The cooks are organizing, wrapping, labeling, dating, icing fish, and carefully putting away their preparations. All seems calm; I think it's time to leave. It was a great day, but tomorrow is just around the corner. "Wait, Chef," calls out Craig, my Sous Chef. "You won the pool with 142 exact. Twenty bucks is yours." From halfway down the parking lot I yell back, "Keep it, Cheshu [his nickname]! You deserve it! See you tomorrow."
This segment is probably the most fun, at least for this author—a restaurant chef for about 20 years. The level of creativity and thought applied to your cooking is challenging at every turn and drives the energy of the entire staff. You set the rules regarding style, culture, and philosophy. Of course, you need to make money, so there are plenty of business concerns for which you are also responsible. Even so, the ever-present motivator is to create and serve great cutting-edge food to your guests. You are the artist, the mad chemist behind the dishes that fill your customers with pleasure and force all other matters to the back of your mind. The stove is your workshop. Life is good when it is full and the sting of the heat hits your face.
Naturally, the romance is governed by the fact that you are here to make money, and so is everyone else employed by the restaurant. You must constantly keep in mind that if your art does not sell, the people who are your support and co-conspirators will go hungry. In this lies the challenge of being cutting-edge and meeting a need for a share of the market that ultimately must be substantial enough to support your work. All too often, this little detail is overlooked until it is too late and the ship goes down. The people who come through the door do so for many reasons and have any number of expectations; you as a chef must understand this well enough to hit the mark and drive sales through your heartfelt efforts.
You are in by 9 or 10 A.M., depending on the work and the way you organize the staff to perform your prescribed tasks and make ready for lunch service. You probably chat with the lunch sous chef and the cooks and begin to taste their work—all the sauces, marinades, dressings, and other preparations—to make sure they will represent you in a fashion you are happy with. The mise en place must be inspected, because the freshness and good condition of your groceries are paramount. Today you will work on the stove for six or seven hours, stopping to review sales reports and the day's purchases, and then glide into the blood pressure—raising rush we call service. There's not much time to waste on rest or breaks. No matter; you probably won't even know when the sun sets. You are happy to be surrounded by the group you know as "the family" and still are not sure why anyone would call this work.
Steam, hot oil, and particularly bubbling butter are very hot and will instantly create the pain with which you are all too familiar. Your knives are sharp; you wield them quickly, and even with the years of practice, sometimes a julienne goes astray and you slice a digit or two. Between the rush and the nerves, it is bound to happen over and over, especially in the early years. It is part and parcel of your job, and after a couple of hundred burns, they don't really hurt so much (or that part of your brain refuses to feel them anymore!). This is a really physical job. Your hands are in ice-cold meat for 30 minutes, then over the stove in the blazing heat; next, you yank the 40-pound stockpot off the stove and carry it to the sink, then bend too far over and strain your back. The body-wrenching positions never seem to end. This goes on day after day and year after year, until one day you realize you are not so young and invincible anymore, so you decide that maybe the young cook you are so diligently teaching should help you pick up that pot. Understanding the physical strains and urging your staff to pay attention to them are your responsibility. You probably should have gotten smart sooner, but when passion is the force behind what you do, it is easy to be blind.
The things you do stimulate all the senses in your body; your work brings pleasure to your customers and satisfaction to your staff. You are the person responsible for this business, this place where people come to nourish themselves and be part of your family for a shift. You set the tone for the staff, who work together as brothers and sisters, forgetting the occasional dispute and keeping in mind the sense of success they feel every night after service, when you, the chef, gather them all, have a cold one or a glass of wine, share some food, and thank them for their attention to the night's work. By the time you all say good night, it is late, and tomorrow will be here soon. The ability to do this type of work day in and day out is a testament to your capabilities and talents, which may take you elsewhere some day.
As in any career, you must build a balance. You have a family outside the restaurant family, and it is important that your management skills be strong enough for you to build a ship that can float without you. It is tough in a restaurant because, to varying degrees, it is built around you, your thoughts, and your abilities. If you spend time creating and teaching the culture while grooming your staff and sous chef, then you will be able to get away with minimal damage. It is ultimately necessary to focus on this aspect of your work, as the time away from the job is nearly as important as the time on it.
Please see Appendix A of the book for more information on each of the following professional organizations for culinary and foodservice professionals working in restaurants.
Read Culinary Careers in Restaurants in PDF format at Wiley.com.
This page created October 2008
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