When your body weight decreases ten pounds in three weeks; when a full day disappears without glancing at the clock; when a never ending supply of espresso jolts you awake; when you’re so busy you forget to feed yourself; when you create delicious staff meals only to devour them cold; when you find yourself running to the grocery store in chef whites; when you show up an hour earlier than all other staff just to catch up; when you’re caught running in the kitchen – a forbidden act! – to shave off seconds to accomplish more; when your knives turn to dull spoons; when your chef ceases to brief you of the reservations as everyday is sold out; then, I assure you, you’re getting crushed!
“Less salt in the risotto”, “tighten up this sauce”, “watch the finger prints on these plates”, “how long on …”, and worst yet “is it going to be YOUR one minute or my one minute?” Though strenuous, enduring the heat experienced during service cooks will assess the situation at hand; listening to the chefs directions they familiarize themselves with new lessons along the way consciously tweaking and improving ones skills and work ethic down to the most minuet details. In these lightning speed situations within a thriving kitchen, one is presented with the opportunity to truly shine. It’s during these moments behind the line many inspirational proverbs, a few of which will appear in these pages, can often be sourced to the experiences of professionals who pushed through adversity to triumph, casting a light at the end of the grueling tunnel helping you push onward. Furthermore, knowing where you aim to be is the first step to getting there, giving you energy needed to conquer tough situations. If this invested time does not wear them thin, the aspiring chef will inevitably uncover the passion, spark, and talent needed on the journey toward chefdom.
When shining, you achieve a state of absolute control and tranquility within complete mayhem! When your adrenaline is as high as it can get, suddenly the impossible seems possible. Just when you couldn’t take on more, you do. It’s at this point when many crack; tempers flare and dreams are shattered. However, the most experienced, talented, and gifted overcome hurdles with every additional order and outlandish command. They keep things tight, organized, and perfectly on point, never missing a beat. In such an orchestrated performance, a cook’s output might triple through dinner service. Interpreting the chef’s commands is a balancing act of well-practiced seasoning, efficient habits, and advanced techniques. The artistic presentation that ends up on the plate is an homage to all the blood sweat and tears that went into every masterpiece.
Cooks manage to maintain composure with precise, almost unattended cookery as multi-tasking takes on new meaning. It looks like intense concentration from afar as small nicks and burns warrant no attention. All of the cook’s focus narrows to the task at hand while they acclimatize to the increased heat, both physically and psychologically. It’s important to remain cool through all the commotion; hot tempers are counterproductive and find no place behind the stove. Seasoned cooks rarely miss an order, forget to rest a steak, or mangle the delicate filets of fish. When pushed to the edge, cooks exert themselves. They have no time for distractions and are sure to never retrace steps. By eliminating nonessential maneuvers, a chef saves valuable seconds for the next task. The stations are methodically laid out and refined daily for optimal efficiency. Even simple things, like which utensils are kept at hand or how you store your ingredients, can be a game saver during peak times, allowing you to pivot and blindly grasp the tool you need with ease all while, adjusting seasoning, listening to chef’s commands of what to work on next, table pickups to fire and every other communication present – the buzz of a thriving kitchen. Every one of these minor details – unique to every operation – comes together in a synergy to execute said menu and can be observed and scrutinized closely while staging.
Cooking becomes easier and even thrilling when adrenalin heightens and a smooth rhythm is found as each move is perfectly timed with following ones; this is the moment you’ll begin to shine. But how, exactly, do you get there? Let me tell you about the only way I know: staging intently, repeatedly, and thoroughly throughout your career, with no stone left unturned until you find your own style, a culmination of the skills you’ve developed in each restaurant.
A good restaurant is created, while a great one evolves. Greatness never comes at the moment the doors open, it takes months and months of honing every skill in each team mate before consistency sets in and then years of tweaking every aspect of the menu until just right. Moreover once the season changes not only do your ingredients change but restaurants generally see a turnover of staff sometimes forcing them to start form scratch again. Each and every cook takes time to adapt to new surroundings; it’s human nature to feel disoriented, lost, and even nervous when new. The more accomplished – and thus competitive – the restaurant, the longer this period may last, often to the detriment of the cook’s employment. While this high adrenalin performance creates a fierce rush, that energy must be later tamed when plating, which requires a level of finesse not uncommon amongst great painters. It is during the task of plating, while ensuring the proper timing of outstanding orders, when a sense of nirvana washes over. You shine in that very moment of steady controlled actions. These monumental achievements at all stages of service separate the good from the great. Being surrounded by this energy, even if only volunteering, can have immeasurable impacts on a cook’s culinary perspective and career trajectory. Regardless of obstacles, the hard work generally pays off. Chef-life, as its come to be, is not 9-5 it is finishing in the wee hours of the morning. Sleep deprived and quite possibly hungry, walking down the dim lit ally adrenalin still pumping like leaving a really great concert – feeling a buzz, accomplished while mentally preparing to wake up and do it all again a few short hours later. When the fatigue of sleepless nights disperses – working more hours in a day then some do in three – you know you’re achieving exactly what you set out to . Shine.
“It’s not rape if you want it” is how we as chefs describe the reward found in every tough service. I find this, though viewed as harsh and controversial, to be the best explanation of why we cooks are drawn to the stove. It gives you an understanding of the excitement and challenges faced in having a full reservation book. Extremely busy services become unbearable and chaotic at times; nonetheless, conquering them is what keeps us returning, fires up competition, intrigues onlookers and sets us apart from the norm. Enduring the intense adrenaline found at the edge of your comfort zone is how you gain the most in the way of skills and culinary maturity while young and hungry.
The ability to cook great food is one thing. Being able to cook great food virtually without even looking (while accomplishing several tasks simultaneously atop and in the oven) takes expert knowledge and years of experience to obtain. It demands all the skills one possesses; the smallest imperfections are magnified in both the execution and outcome. The pressure is often devastating to the greenest of cooks. No matter how you look at it, there’s absolutely no way to embellish your skills or pretend you know how to cook during a full-blown service in the hands of a ferocious leader. When holding the reins of a crowded wood fire grill, while gently basting quails in frothy thyme scented brown butter, timed perfectly with tiny fish filets that overcook at the blink of an eye, there’s simply no time for second-guessing. And you must do all this perfectly synchronized with all the sides and sauces to each dish leaving the kitchen with expert precision, as the entire brigade must arrive on the plate at the very same time. It isn’t every day that shining sense of nirvana rushes over you, but when it does you’ll recognize it!