After writing my post about making coq au vin a while back, I realized that when I’m in the kitchen I have some advantages. I would like to help you develop a similar set of skills. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are not interested in spending your life in a kitchen. However, there are a lot of skills that you can learn at home that will serve you well, and my goal with this little series of posts is to help you learn some of them.
Your first job in a commercial kitchen is washing dishes. While you do that, you also learn to do some prep. Frequently, it involves chopping a pile of stuff into whatever size and shape the chef would like. There are lots of terms to learn, and techniques to be practiced. During one shift I cut thirty pounds of various vegetables into 3/4″ pieces for roasting. What does that do for you? Practice, practice, practice. There was plenty of time, and there was lots to do. During this time I was told things by the chef and sous chef like, “I need 2 pounds of mirepoix for stew” or “roll cut these carrots”. Essentially, you will spend a lot of time with a peeler and a knife.
This is how people have always learned to work in a kitchen. Each skill builds on the next. Going to culinary school speeds up the process some, but it still won’t give you the hours of practice with each skill that you would have working under a chef.
Once you have the hang of fabricating vegetables, you will be moved onto other tasks. Next you might be given the job of using the vegetables, and some other materials to make basic stocks. Essentially, you will be making the basic components of what is needed for lunch, dinner or a party that is being catered.
When the salad guy stops showing up you might get a promotion from dishwasher to the salad station! This is kind of how kitchens work. Each one is different, but generally the first station you do is salads or pantry. This is sometimes called Garde Manger in the brigade system used in large kitchens. As you move from station to station you learn new skills. One of the first things you will learn on the salad station is how to make salad dressings, and other things like pesto. During service (when food is being served to guests in the dining room) you will make salads, sandwiches, cold appetizers, and some hot appetizers that can be done quickly. Generally, these are very simple things to do, but you will be busy. This gives you the chance to really practice what you have learned and apply it. (Usually at high speed!)
So, the goal of this series of posts is to walk you through the things you would learn as a dishwasher or pantry cook. We’re going to do things like make a vinaigrette, make pesto, use a knife properly, cook eggs, and maybe make some candied nuts. There are probably a few other things as well. Then, I will show you how to use what you just made. These are all tasty, easy, and useful. Hopefully, this will inspire you to try some new things, and eat something great!
I guess I have mentioned that I am a cook in a restaurant. Technically, a private club, but as part of the day to day operations we are a restaurant. This puts me in a unique situation. I get to see life on both sides of the kitchen door. At work I deal with special requests, dietary restrictions, allergy issues, people who don’t know the difference between medium rare and well done when they order a steak, and so on. When I go out to eat, I am the dietary restriction. I know that in the kitchen there is a cook who is busting his ass to make the dish the way the chef/kitchen manager/corporate office tells him is the correct way every time he puts it in the window as quickly as humanly possible. I know full well how difficult his job can be, and I don’t really want to make it more difficult. I tend to go to the same places when I go out because I know that they are good at dealing with my particular issues. Neither side in this situation is really in an enviable position though.
The side we are at least theoretically familiar with is the dining room side. We do our best to communicate clearly, and effectively what our needs are, and that we are not on some fad diet. We also have to remember that everyone in the place (hopefully) does want us to have a positive experience while we are there, so that we will come back. At the same time they are working very hard, and doing a job that involves a lot of work that we may not even be aware of until somebody doesn’t pull their weight and the cracks start to show. Generally, if we are friendly and make our situation known, clearly, and without hysterics there will hopefully be no problems. Right? We are our own best advocate. Don’t be afraid to speak up if there is something wrong. I’ve emailed places in advance to ask questions so that in the crush of a lunch or dinner rush I don’t have to worry about asking the stressed out manager if they have a dedicated fryer for french fries or whatever. This is the part we have at least nominal control over.
Where things get a bit murky is in the kitchen. Again, no one is out to hurt anyone. Things happen quickly in a kitchen, and there is just not always a lot of time to think about X or Y, much less the gluten-free dish on table 27. My goal on the line is not to think. Too much time thinking leads to mistakes, and slows things down. As checks come into the kitchen via the little printer on my station I have to quickly assess what dishes I have to make, if they are substituting something/leaving off sauce/gluten-free/allergic to olive oil/no bacon/etc., temps on steaks, what I need to start first, what I already have working, what can I just add to and make a second order. I also have to know what I can wait to start, what the grill has going that will slow down a check, and if the pantry station is buried by toasted club sandwiches. But I can’t really THINK about any of this. I can glance over and see the eight checks hanging on pantry, and see a burger that just got put on the grill. While all of this is going on I am also trying to keep track of how many orders I have on my station of each particular item, and hopefully I know what I have backup of too.
Now, to compound what is probably already a daunting task to a lot of people there is the time issue. There is a lot I can be doing at once. I have eight burners that each put out more BTU(40,000/burner) than your whole stove(7,000/burner)! Two ovens that are set at 500F, and a convection oven set at 425F. Two steamers, and a salamander broiler. I do have to keep track of each item though! Everyone that placed an order wants to eat in a timely fashion. The time frame I have is 12 minutes to get an order in the window. Some things are easy to do, and other things are damn near impossible. I just can’t get a filet mignon well done in 12 minutes.
Keep in mind that you are not the only guest in the house, and that your order requires a serious break in the flow of the station. If you order a steak from me and need it to be gluten-free I need to stop what I am doing, wash my hands. Clean my cutting board, my knife, get a fresh container to season your steak in, heat a skillet for your steak, get a clean skillet for your asparagus, cut them, season them. Start your potatoes. Get clean tongs to handle your steak with. In other words, stop everything, clean everything, make your dish, and make sure to handle only your food with the tongs and spatula that I just got. If it is not that busy, no big deal. If I am already in the weeds, I’m screwed.
Its not so much that I can’t do this, don’t want to do this, or anything else. It is that my goal on the line is not to have to give even a thought to what I have to do when I get a check. If your server was less clear about your special order than they should have been and I have to ask the chef, who has to track them down to get the answer, and then come and tell me, or worse yet the server has to take the extra step to ask you at the table, this slows things down. A LOT! Now I’m thinking, and that is when I start wondering. How long has that tilapia been in the oven? Do I have everything ready to plate it? What about the noodle pot? Do I have all of the sauces ready? Did I miss anything on a check? Did I forget to pull a check that I finished? How many steaks should I have “all day”? In other words, “What am I about to fuck up?”
I’m sure you’re reading this, and wondering what my point is. It is this, because of the way that a kitchen works sometimes mistakes will be made. I couldn’t even guess the number of times I put mayo on a sandwich that was ordered without it. Not because I didn’t care, but because I’m moving as quickly as possible, and you develop habits. The habits help you work faster. When you don’t have to think about what is in a particular dish, you can just make it. A big part of this is how you would set up your station. Each item has a set of ingredients that goes into it. You want to group them together in some sort of logical order. If there is an overlap between dishes, put the overlap so that it can be part of both groups. Again, as little thought as possible when you are working.
Am I telling you to avoid eating out? No, just know that you are taking a risk, but that there is no one that wants to make you sick. Mistakes will be made, but don’t hesitate to talk to the manager when something even looks strange. I was at an Italian restaurant with a good gluten-free menu, and found a noodle that looked different. I called the manager over, and told him I had ordered gluten-free, and showed him the odd noodle I found. He apologized, pointed out that it is possible that the noodle got cut incorrectly, took my dish, and told us not to worry about the check, he would take care of it. He actually took care of both of our dinners. As it turns out, I didn’t get sick, but I was very concerned when I saw a strangely shaped noodle in my dish that should have had penne. We have to be our own advocates. Generally, as long as you are clear about what you need people will do what they can to help you. If I am unfamiliar with a restaurant I will generally call ahead, and ask to talk to a manager. This can help avoid surprises on everyones part. If you know that you really can’t eat someplace then you won’t try. If they understand the situation, and are able to take care of you most places will do that.