I was a chef for 20 years. Well, I should say that I was a line cook, prep cook, grill cook, salad and apps cook, ran the ‘wheel,’ fry cook, assistant kitchen manager, kitchen manager, assistant chef, and head chef for 20 years. I also was a barista and managed coffee shops for eight years while still working in the restaurant industry. Now I work as a butcher for a large grocery store chain, and I finally have things like vacation time, sick pay, insurance, and retirement that don’t involve winning the lottery as a backup plan for retirement.
I love to cook. I’ve always loved to cook. When I was a kid, I baked, helped around the kitchen, and watched as my mother and grandmother cooked. My ex-stepfather cooked but could not touch what mom and grandmother could do. I was raised eating beans, rice, fresh tortilla, spaghetti, soup, baked rice with chicken, and meatloaf. While my ex-stepfather was Hispanic, and my mother and my bother and sisters were white, we still went all-in with the Mexican food when it came to cooking.
My father’s mother, Grandma Whitley, was from the south. She was Welch and Scottish and could make a pie that would bring you to tears. Grandma Whitley used pork fat or bacon fat for her crust instead of butter; oh my gods, it was amazing. She did not count calories when it came to cooking. She would make these green beans that she used rendered bacon fat that could give you a heart attack with a smile on your face while you passed on.
My Grandma Brent was born in New Mexico after my great grandmother and great grandfather escaped to the US from Mexico due to the Mexican Revolution. Grandma Brent was a simple cook who would make fried tacos for breakfast. They were unreal and so delicious. Whatever she made was simple food with complex flavors. My grandfather was a large Scottish man who worked for the railroad until his retirement. He always had a garden and pepper plants in the back. When he got home, he would peel an onion and sever cloves of garlic and eat them raw with a glass of vodka that he kept in the freezer. One thing about my Grandma and Grandpa Brent, they could not get married in the United States because my Grandmother was Mexican, and my Grandfather was white. This means something to my whole family and me. My nieces and nephews all know this, and they all remember that even though my grandparents loved one another, they could not get married in the ‘Land of the Free.’
When I started my first kitchen job in college, the bar I worked at had hired me as a bouncer. I’m about 6 foot 4 (1.93m) and still around 240 pounds (108.86g) at 51 years old. I was a much larger person when I was 22 and just finished playing college football at Arizona State University. There was not much hope in me filling the cook position; the bar I worked at served burgers, wings, pizza, and other ‘bar’ food, but the bar was not set that high. The food was good simple bar food and not much else. I excelled at the place and moved up to kitchen manager in a year. Looking back, it was not that hard to move to the kitchen manager position; I was one of two cooks that had strayed at the job for longer than a few months. I took the job seriously and enjoyed the lifestyle of working at a bar. I stayed there for another year before I was headhunted; at the time, I did not know that I was headhunted, I just talked to a kitchen manager at another bar, and he liked how I handled the job.
My job interview for the new bar was not that formal. A friend and I were drinking at the bar when Ian, the kitchen manager, asked if I would like a raise and would come and work for him. We did shots of Jägermeister to seal the deal, and I moved to the new place two weeks later. I stayed there, off and on, for eight years.
Working in a professional kitchen, regardless of what kind of restaurant, is a whole different experience than working in your kitchen. I have seen many cooks come into a restaurant where I work and tell me they want to work in a professional restaurant because they are “great cooks at home.”
Don’t get me wrong, dear reader, it’s great that you like to cook at home. You can follow a recipe, prep for an hour, turn your stove on, place your creation into the oven, sit down, drink a glass of wine or beer, and watch TV. An hour later, you have dinner served for you and your family.
A professional kitchen is not like that at all. First, take your home prepping and multiply that by 30 or 50, depending on the night. No sitting down, no relaxing time, no being lazy; it’s go, go, go. You do this over and over for eight to ten hours, working in a pressure cooker, in heat that can reach 120f degrees (48.9c), and you have to deal with a wait staff that is dealing with the general public who are a bunch of demanding fucks that want everything done for them, now.
Therefore, in most kitchens I worked in, in the back of the walk-in, there is an apple cored out with tin foil with little holes. That apple is significant because it’s the apple pipe. We would put our pot on the tin foil, light that beautiful piece of cush pot, and suck in that excellent smoke. That’s right, especially when it’s time to clean, most of the kitchen staff is stoned. Then we close the kitchen, go out to a bar, and drink.
Working in a kitchen, we have our language; I’m going to introduce you, my beloved reader, to some kitchen terms. In case you don’t know or just watched the sanitized show you see on Netflix, there is a lot of cussing and stress in most kitchens, anywhere in the world, at any given time.
“All day” is a crucial term to learn in a kitchen. “I need four pastas, all day!” That means that no matter how many tickets I have hanging on the board, my total number of pasta is four. An “All day” mostly comes after the wait staff is piling on the tickets, and the chef has eight or nine tickets hanging that he wants to get the hell out of his face, like now.
Usually, the chef will yell out ‘all days’ in order like, “Chef, I have cheese plats, seven salads, three fruit plates, six crab bisques, and four French onions.” Chef, or at least how I was taught, always start at the apps, salads, and soups first when giving an ‘all day,’ then move up the board to the mains, finally the deserts. Chef will say “chef” to get everyone’s attention, and at the end, Chef will say something like. “got it?” and we’ll all yell back, “yes, chef.”
“Fire” means start to cook that right now. Chef “Fire 2 New York’s, both mids, three filets, one rear, two mid-rear,” and so on. God help those who order a steak well done; it is a crime against humanity. Apps and sometimes salads get fired immediately unless the wait staff tells us differently. Why? Because not everyone gets apps, and not everyone wants to wait for their salad while eating their apps.
“Re-fire” is a call that no chef or kitchen crew wants to hear. This means that someone fucked up. By fuck up, I mean someone took the wrong plate to the wrong table, or the customer had no idea that mid-rear mint a pink on the inside and freaked out about it. I had to re-fire whole tables because the wait staff fucked up so bad that we ended up buying the customers the meal. It is called ‘comping the meal.’ This is also how people get fired, fuck up enough times, and you’re done.
“The Wheel,” or now is the printer is where the tickets come on and are hung waiting to be placed on the board. I worked in places where tickets were handwritten, and the wait staff would come in and stuff the tickets into the container where all the tickets yet to be called went. At that point, your ‘all day’ calls got crazy, and your pace went from fast to supersonic.
“The Board” is a thin strip of, I don’t know what to call it, but this narrow strip of metal had like little wheels inside to hold the tickets up so we can read them. When a ticket is printed out and placed on the board, the first thing any chef looks for is red ink.
“Mods” or modifications are always printed in red ink. Mods will tell us that table 4 – seat two doesn’t like mayo, so add mustard. Mods also tell you the temperature of the burgers, steaks, and other pieces of meat that we are cooking. Chicken and pork are always well done, but lamb and duck can be served rear.
Most tickets are printed or written so that the top of the key has the apps, salads, mains, and desserts at the bottom. Most restaurants have printers at every station so that the apps and salad station will get a ticket with the whole order, but their part is highlighted. In some kitchens, the printer will have one printer, but when the ticket prints out, there are several copies of the order. The chef will hand a copy of the ticket to the apps/salad station, and then the other copy will go to the grill cooks, and he/she will keep the original ticket for himself. The chef will have his board that he and the runner will constantly review.
“The runner” is usually the person that brings the food out to your table or helps the wait staff bring the food out to your table. A good runner is worth their weight in gold. Holy crap, a runner can take the pressure off the kitchen and the wait staff throughout a busy night. Bad runners do not last long and either get fired for messing up too many times or be sent to the dish pit to clean dishes. Many bad runners quit because they will catch hell from the wait staff and the kitchen. I’ve seen well-seasoned runners, both men and women, break down during a busy night a walk out of a job because of the pressure put on them by the front and back of the house.
“Front and back of the house.” This is simple, the Front of the house is what the customer sees, the dining room, bar area, bathrooms, and waiting room. Back of the house is the kitchen, the walk-in coolers and freezers, and the rest of the restaurant.
“Covers,” I know I have not said this term a lot because it is not used often outside of the kitchen. A ‘cover’ is a guest or customer’s meal. So, if a place does 500 covers a night, they did 500 meals. I worked at several high-end places were doing 200 covers a night was insane, but at a few of the mid-range bars, we would do 400-500 covers on a Friday night that doesn’t include all the apps we sent out.
“The res’es” or reservations. Every night I worked at any place that took res’es, the first thing I did when I came to work was to look at the res book. The number to res’es would give me an idea about how badly my station would get their asses kicked. Res book would also tell me when I needed to finish the prep, so I was ready for it when we got hit.
The last thing most people do not know about the restaurant business is that you’re late if you arrive on time. That’s right, on time is late, but 30 minutes early is on time. This is because you need the extra time to figure out when is happening that night, go over specials, see who is so hung over that they need help, and go over your prep list with your station partner and divide up the work.
I will finish by saying that I still love the kitchen, but I had to get out of the game. It’s a young person’s game, working in the kitchen. The kitchen will beat the hell out of you given enough time. You will get burned, cut, scraped, and tired every night. The hair on your arms below your elbows will get burned off if you work in a kitchen. Your back will hurt, your shoulders will be tired and knotted up, your legs will ache, and mostly, your will be constantly hot. The kitchen is a hostile environment; it’s hot and full of stress. I worked in kitchens in Arizona, it was about 130 degrees in August, and we would drink 5 gallons of water and never pee the whole night. My clothes were drenched in sweat.
The one savior to working in a kitchen is always a beer waiting at the end of the night.
Thank you for reading this,