This is not where I worked.
© 2012 Chris Terrell
Everyone has been to some kind of restaurant. Even a McDonalds could pass for a restaurant at 1:00am, drunk after a Judas Priest concert. And, if by chance there’s someone who has not been to a restaurant, then he’s hiding out in Pakistan somewhere—but we got that guy anyway, and I’m sure he was not reading blogs about food. But how much does the restaurant-going public really know about what goes on in the kitchen? Sure, most restaurant-goers are pretty familiar with the “front of the house,” which consists of the hostess (almost always female), the bartender, the server, the busboy, etc., etc. What about the kitchen—the “back of the house?” I suspect that few restaurant patrons—even those who have the time and money to visit La Bernadin on a regular basis—have no clue what goes on back there and, quite frankly, they wouldn't want to know.
In my younger years, I worked, for a time, at the local outpost of a national chain restaurant. I will not name the restaurant in case the parent company’s legal department actually reads this blog, but it was one of those restaurants with miscellaneous bric-a-brac hanging on the walls; at least one steak dish with some kind of bourbon glaze; and at least one Jalapeño Pepper Popper appetizer on the menu. Maybe even one of those fried onion things.
You get the picture.
I started off as a prep cook. Now why I chose to work as a prep cook is a bit of a mystery. I think it was because even at a young age, I had a latent interest in food and cooking. Perhaps another reason was a sense of adventure. A friend of mine at the time had been working at the restaurant in question as a busboy, and his stories about the kitchen were inspiring. The kitchen staff where the “bad boys” of the food world: they smoked, cursed like sailors, and spoke in a sex-infused patois that bordered on sheer poetry.
A restaurant kitchen is pretty hierarchical. This is thanks to Auguste Escoffier, who created the brigade de cuisine. Though not as complicated as it once was, the brigade de cuisine functions much like the military (Escoffier was a former French army officer). As a prep cook, I was a corporal, about a half-step above the plongeur, or dishwasher—a mere private.
I came to work around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon before the dinner rush. It was my job to make potato salad, tomato salad, cucumber salad (all for the salad bar), bake potatoes, slice tomatoes, onions and prep lettuce for the line cooks. To slice the tomatoes, I had to use a circular slicer that spun at RPMs faster than a Ferrari 430. Of course, I didn't use safety gloves. Thankfully, I still have my fingers.
And if in the fury to get everything ready for the dinner rush, a few items hit the floor, it didn't get thrown away; where do you think the three-second rule came from? In a restaurant, you waste nothing, as long as you don't get caught. We didn't even waste the whipped cream that came in those pressurized cans.
One of my jobs as prep cook was to make the desserts. This consisted of slicing pre-made pies, nuking them, slapping ice cream on the plate, and squirting whipped cream from a can. Once the cans where empty, it then became one of my unofficial tasks to yell “whip-it” to the line cooks and toss the empty can to a lucky recipient for a quick hit of NO₂. (These guys couldn't afford decent coke.) This was actually a valuable service I provided because it gave the line cook who caught the can, just enough energy to get through the returned steak that the customer wanted cremated (super-duper well done).
To me, the line cooks were gods. They were the real heart and soul of the kitchen. Without them, any kitchen would quickly devolve into chaos. These guys made the same dishes night after after night and exactly the same night after night. Absolute consistency was their hobgoblin, and that hobgoblin was damn good. They could keep track of a dozen dubs (tickets) and cook steak to the exact temperature using Buddhist mind tricks. Of course, you wouldn't want these guys teaching a Sunday school class. They dropped f-bombs like B-52s dropped real bombs on the Vietcong. And they were so sexually demented and horny, you wouldn’t want them within 20 miles of a co-ed dorm. One of the line cooks in particular was fond of taking large tubes of hamburger meat and holding it in front of his crotch so as to gleefully hump anything in sight—male or female—while yelling “look at my whale dick!” Of course, this was before we knew anything about “sexual harassment”—it was the 80s for Christ sake!
It was also my job to keep the cooks’ mise en place (or meeze) fully stocked: sliced tomatoes, onions, melted butter, and various garnishes. Once I heard “86 tomatoes” (kitchen lingo for “I’m out of f**king tomatoes and I’ve got four f**king hamburgers that need to be plated, and you better get those those f**king tomatoes up here in the next 10 seconds or I’m going to rip your balls off and donate them to Dr. Frankenstein!”) Bodily harm from a guy who is 6’4” and has 90 pounds on you and tats with Chinese characters that read “kill” is a great motivator, let me tell you. I guess I did a good job, because on a few occasions I got to watch over the fry station while one of the line cooks ran out back to take a leak by the dumpster. That was about as close as I ever got to being a line cook.
If this all sounds stressful and sometimes dangerous, well it was. But it was also exciting, if not exhilarating. Remember a few paragraphs ago, I mentioned that a former military officer came up with how kitchens should be organized? Well, like the military, working in a kitchen is one of the more meritocratic jobs in this world. If you get your shit done and get your shit done right, and don’t screw your shit up more than once (maybe twice), show up on time, and work hard, then you will be rewarded with a kind of warped fraternal camaraderie. (Hell, I even admire the guy who chased me with that hamburger “whale dick,” even though his name is long forgotten.)
I had several good friends who worked as busboys, and they eventually talked me into working the “front of the house.” They made the tips and cute hostesses sound so glamorous. (Another buddy of mine was biding his time to be a server and later manager—he really loved the restaurant business and still works in it to this day).
However, I think the guys in the kitchen saw me as something of a traitor, maybe even a little uppity. And frankly, I felt a little guilty about moving to the front of the house, even if as a lowly busboy. And when I look back on those years, my memories of the kitchen are more dear. And I think I learned a lot more. I learned how to use a knife—I mean really use a knife; I learned how to have several things going at once; that wearing an apron and having plenty of kitchen towels on hand ain’t “girly;” being on time is important; and, finally, it is a damn hard job to get food on the table for several hundred people in a three-hour period.
So, the next time your steak is not quite perfect, don’t forget how hard it is to work in the back of the house and don’t take it out on the front-of-the-house staff, because it wasn’t their fault. And, by the way, just try to forget about that three-second rule!