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The Serial That Takes You to Dinner
by Chef Bob Munnich
Back of the House is a real chef's fictional story about running a restaurant and the politics behind the scenes that diners rarely see.
Michelle was 20 years old. She had worked in fast food and diners since she was 16. While most of the girls in her high school class were waitresses, Michelle liked to cook. She learned the fryer station at Burger King and was promoted to Shift Supervisor after only a few weeks. She left Burger King for Ralph's Diner where she learned to work the line. She loved cooking the weekend breakfast shift. All the regular cooks came in at nine, so she had the kitchen to herself from six to nine every Saturday and Sunday morning.
After she graduated high school she was accepted by the Culinary Institute of America. She was so proud. Finally she could learn more about cooking and dedicate most of her time to something she loved. She did real well through the first sections, and managed to arrange an externship at a fine new up and coming restaurant: Tuttopronto.
Chef Al was a talented, if not temperamental (but aren't they all) chef. He was self-taught; but had worked in some of the finest restaurants in the United States as well as abroad. He was fortunate enough to have very wealthy backers. This afforded him the ability to open a restaurant with a beautiful atmosphere and a beautiful kitchen.
After a "working" interview, Michelle was offered a position as "Tournante". In her interview, she showed her organizational experience and ability to work most production positions. As a matter of fact, her ability really impressed Chef Al.
She started on a slow Tuesday afternoon. She was assigned to the "Garde Manger" or pantry station. She only had three salads and two cold appetizers to plate. Most of her work was knife work: cutting herbs, peeling and dicing tomatoes and cutting vegetables. She was busy. The kitchen was quiet; everyone working diligently while the chef was present.
The first week proceeded pretty much the same. She washed, sliced, diced and peeled everything in site. She loved the professionalism in the kitchen. It was hard work; but a pleasure to work with professionals. She was the only woman in the kitchen, but she felt like one of the guys. No one treated her any differently than anyone else.
The second week started a little differently. She reported to work to find that Chef Al was out on a publicity appearance and the Sous Chef, Dave, was in charge. The kitchen had a slightly less professional feel when Chef Al wasn't around.
For one, all the guys were talking. This wasn't abnormal; but instead of talking food and restaurants, as was the norm, they were reliving their weekends in graphic detail. Jim the saucier was going on and on about his "experience" on Sunday night with one of the waitresses. He couldn't believe that after two dates she wouldn't "put out". Michelle just ignored the conversation. She was a little uncomfortable; but knew that this was a male dominated field and she should expect a little insensitivity.
The next day, the chef still away on the publicity trip, was more of the same. Chef Dave was good; but didn't command the respect that Chef Al did. This time it was Ernie the Grill Man. He was cleaning duck and was making suggestive comments about the appearance of the duck. Michelle was getting a little more uncomfortable; but ignored it. She decided to say something to the chef when he returned. This behavior was a little un-called for.
The Chef returned to find the kitchen clean; no reports of any problems with service and all the staff clean and attentive. Michelle asked if she could speak to him when he had a minute. He agreed and told her that now would be fine.
They went into his office, a small cubicle in the corner of the kitchen. She told him about the behavior of some of the guys. He looked concerned; but she couldn't tell if he was serious or not. He could tell, so he decided to validate her concerns by addressing the problem immediately. Sexual harassment is a serious issue and he thought it should be treated as such.
As soon as they were done, he called the sous chef in to discuss the problem with him. Michelle could see Dave biting back a grin while the chef was speaking. He nodded and returned to the kitchen. Michelle watched while he casually whispered something to Ernie and Jim. They all giggled and carried on with their work. Michelle was very upset.
It seemed that as long as Chef Al was present, the kitchen was professional and organized. Whenever Dave was in charge, the demeanor was more relaxed and the structure was much looser. Michelle loved working with Chef Al; but when he was not there she dreaded coming to work. She wanted to say something again but was afraid of being a tattletale. Ignoring her impulse, she just went on with her work.
What do you think? Did Chef Al do enough by just "talking" to the sous chef? He didn't even mention it to the other staff members. Should Michelle say something about the general state of the kitchen when Al is not there? What do you think will happen if she does? What if she doesn't?
Copyright © 1996, 1997 Bob Munnich. All Rights Reserved.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
Copyright © 2008, Forkmedia LLC. All Rights Reserved.