Taking the Heat

For those of us who have worked in those trenches, kitchen work must be among the least glamorous occupations in the world.

Cooks have notoriously foul tempers (“God sends meat, and the Devil sends cooks,” wrote John Taylor (1578 – 1653), “The Water Poet,” who should have known, since as a British publican he no doubt had to deal with cooks), and small wonder; unless you’re a chef/owner who does little of the hands-on work, kitchen work is dirty and demeaning, the hours can be brutal, and the pay is abominable. In addition, the working environment is, literally, infernal. I refer the reader to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London for a literary account of the experience; though Orwell was a dishwasher—the lowest of the low—his account of the kitchen in a Parisian grand hotel is beautifully horrific.

There’s more than a grain of truth to the expression, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” because the pressures are enormous, and if you can’t deal with them, you’ll not be there long at all. You must have everything that can be ready well before hand without knowing how much you’re going to need, because more often than not you just can’t tell how busy it’s going to be. You also have to be able to cook several different things all at the same time and fast. You’re also usually working for someone who wants to make every customer happy, and you’re obliged to respond with something approaching alacrity to the demands of the wait staff, who in turn are at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who has enough money to purchase a meal. The constraints are heavy, and as a result there’s very little feeling of autonomy.

Having said that, cooking in a restaurant does hold some appeal for those with the temperament and constitution. Getting out of bed at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning to cook appeals to very few people, so brunch shifts (which are invariably what weekend morning shifts are terms at most “upscale” restaurants) are not popular among restaurant workers. But once you’re used to being up and going to work at that time of the day—and it does take some getting used to—you might find a certain sort of appeal in it.

I once worked a brunch shift in an Oxford restaurant that required me to be at the restaurant around six every Sunday morning in order to begin serving at nine. Oxford is normally a bustling little city, but very early on Sunday mornings, downtown is usually quiet and sedate (mornings after an Ole Miss homecoming game are an exception; the partying never seems to end on those weekends).

At that time, only a couple of sleepy cops near the ends of their shifts, some few street maintenance workers and maybe a jogger or two are out and about. You notice the bird songs more because there’s no traffic. I always felt as if I’d gotten the jump on everyone, that by being among the first up on that day I’d somehow established some sort of slight moral superiority over other mortals by way of observing—albeit under some degree of duress—the old “early-to-bed-early-to-rise” maxim.

After getting to the restaurant and unlocking the door to the kitchen, on come the lights. You make a pot of coffee and check the notes left by the most conscientious person on the last shift and begin “waking up the kitchen,” bringing it to life, filling it with the sounds and aromas you’re accustomed to working around.

First you turn on the vent hoods (a crucial step), then you might fill the steam table pans with hot water and light the flames beneath them. You set your oven on whatever temperature you need to hold, heat, bake or broil foods. If you have them, you fire up the deep-fat fryers, the salamanders, the grill or the griddle. Then you begin prep, chopping up vegetables, mounds of onions, bell peppers and celery, parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, making batters, cracking eggs, making biscuits, muffins and shortbreads, setting water to boil for any number of things—grits, pasta, beans, peas, potatoes—putting together a soup for the day, warming up the menu standards, checking out leftovers to see what you can use and what should be trashed, deciding on a special and making sure you have enough staples on hand to get you through the day.

You’re cooking. You’re still alone and you have all these things going. You’re in control. It can be a wonderful feeling. Sooner or later you’re joined by your compatriots in the kitchen, and you then find yourself dodging and dipping around them as they work. By the time the first servers get to the restaurant, you’re all in full swing, your steam table’s about half-full, you’re mostly through the prep for your line work and the smell of sautéing onions and baking biscuits fills the restaurant. More often than not, the first servers are going to want to eat—especially those nursing a hangover, who in my experience with waitpersons tend to be in the majority—so you might as well put them a basket of biscuits with gravy out for them. You can yell at them later, but it’s usually a good idea to at least get off on the right foot with them initially. By the time the first customers come stumbling in the door, you’re ready to serve up a beautiful meal, and soon you become lost in the peculiar, compelling rhythm of a working kitchen, which some people have compared to a ballet in its precision of flow and timing.

Granted, a working kitchen certainly doesn’t exhibit the ostensible grace a performance of Swan Lake might—especially since, in a kitchen, a lot of billingsgate gets bandied around in what might seem to the uninitiated as an alarmingly casual manner (“Hey,  you stoner #$@^%&^%#! When am I going to get some %$#@&* fettuccine on the ##$%*%$# line?”)—but in its own cacophonous, high-tension way, a coordinated kitchen in operation is a beautiful thing, especially looking upon it and thinking back to when you walked into that cold, dark kitchen all alone very early that morning. You’re the one who set the whole thing in motion, after all.

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