I had written this post a very long time ago, and debated publishing it. I can't begin to claim that I know what it's like to work in a professional kitchen. But I did have the privilege of working in one of the best in DC for a day and wanted to share my experience.
Let's rewind to the end of October 2010: I was consumed by the fact that I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. More people were reading my blog, I was doing cooler (at least in my opinion) things with it, but I found myself requesting brochures and applications from culinary schools, daydreaming about being able to chop with such astounding speed and precision without losing a finger, crafting dishes that would melt the hearts and stomaches of even the coldest critics.
So before I decided to throw down 45 grand and nine months to two years of my time, I decided it would be a good idea to try working in a professional kitchen. For the record, I currently work in public relations/communications by day and don't exactly plan on leaving that field soon. But I'd be lying (to myself and to all of you) if I didn't say that food is my passion and I hope to someday let it take center stage in my professional life.
Before I started writing about chefs for We Love DC, I had the fortune of knowing a chef in the DC area who graciously allowed me into his kitchen to work on one of the slower shifts. I was nervous. I wanted to prove myself. I didn't want to bleed, fall or botch any dish or prep work. When we sat down to talk and he asked me if I thought I could see myself "throwing down," it suddenly hit me that I wasn't the only one going out on a limb here. Forget my personal hangups for the moment, he was taking a risk by having me there in the first place. He had no idea if I knew the difference between diced or minced, if I knew how to chiffonade sage properly, if he'd find me curled up in a ball next to the warm oven because I couldn't take the pressure of working in a real kitchen. For that I am very grateful that he decided to take a chance and let me see if being a chef someday was the right fit for me.
I arrived at the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, tempted by the nice weather to just skip it and let my slight fear take the reins, directing me back to an afternoon of some mundane errands. I asked a man in a suit for the executive chef, as if I had any authority to do so. I made it through the kitchen and in retrospect, I probably looked like a deer in headlights based on the way people were looking at me. Animals can smell fear; humans aren't much different. It's not that I thought I was going to screw up. I knew I could meet the challenge of prep work. It wasn't an audition, it wasn't going to decide my career, but then again it could very well push me in the right direction. Frankly, I felt that it was kind of an honor to be allowed into a chef's kitchen, especially a chef with an incredible reputation. I think chefs have varying degrees of territorialism, and if I were a chef, I might not jump at the opportunity to have someone I barely know (with zero professional kitchen experience) step in to prepare food that I was going to serve with my name and reputation attached to it.
I started with prepping arugula, kale, chanterelle mushrooms. I moved onto pitting plums, drying them to become prunes. I did chiffonade sage and did so properly. I juiced lemons and sliced asian pears with beautiful white, crisp centers. I sliced tiny, white turnips and was incredibly grateful when the sous chef got me a protective glove for the mandolin; yes, he wanted just as much as I did for me not to make an ass of myself. I obediently followed guys back and forth from the walk-in refrigerators. I watched--a lot. And I managed to do it without getting in anyone's way (too much, I hope) and without cutting myself in spite of the slight coffee jitters I had walked in with.
No one was here to hold my hand. If I had a question, I could ask it. But I got the impression that fewer questions were better. When the chef initially asked me if I was up to the challenge, he added, "I'm not just asking because you're a woman." I didn't take offense to it at all. It didn't and shouldn't come as a surprise that the restaurant industry is a world run mostly by men. Other than myself, there was one other woman in the kitchen that day (and yes, she was on the desserts station).After all the prep, there was an unexpected lull. Hours had already gone by, my problem child of a lower back was starting to act up and I was being told to go eat the staff meal. A quick and mostly silent meal later, every man was at his station. "You ready? You ready to go?" the chef asked around. It was almost like a general rallying the tired troops. These guys worked hard. The chef had told me he hadn't had a single day off in two months. Everyone knew it was going to be a slower night, but the pressure to perform and do it well, really exceptionally well, was certainly still there. So just like that dinner service started, the audience came in, the curtain went up, everyone took their places and the action began.
For the first part, I just watched plating at the cold station. Had it been busier, maybe I would have been allowed to plate something earlier. But I had to learn and I had to get the hang of what each ticket meant. A salad was not just a salad. Individual leaves were strategically placed. If the chef didn't like how the cook plated it, he came over and rearranged it. He had to have eyes in the back of his head, telling everyone what they needed to do, change or fix, what was right or wrong and what was good to go. I could chuckle on the inside when he made a wisecrack, asking someone if he was "fucking blind or was that order up?" That's because my ass wasn't on the line, and I was pretty much expected to be learning, slowly. And thankfully I will never ever be on a grill station, that's for sure.
An hour went by, then an hour and a half. I considered asking to leave (how many times can you watch two guys plate a pear salad?). But I was watching and learning, determined to plate something that would make it to someone's table, determined to put in a full eight hour shift. I got to taste dishes, the leftover portions that were too soggy with dressing or were going to be thrown away if they weren't used that night. I discovered that like being in your own kitchen, you can and should taste something before you serve it to ensure that it's properly seasoned. I did actually plate courses that were consumed by the paying public.
I watched the grill station in awe. Hot pans moving, being stacked up, handled carefully but incredibly quickly with towels or metal tongs. A short, stout man who did not speak English but just grinned at me came to take away the dirty pans, bring back clean ones, all without getting in the way for a split second. He dodged hot pans like a pro, ensured that the line cook had the pots and pans he needed. And it was a small, but gratifying moment, when the line cook had a spare moment, and held out a venison medallion for me to eat since it was left over. "You wanna try it?" I nodded and smiled. Maybe I had been helpful to him afterall.
At the end, I was extremely tired and my back hurt. I returned the white jacket with the restaurant's name embroidered on the sleeve. Who cares if it had snap buttons? It still felt cool wearing it, even though it was baggy on me. I was given the okay by the chef to come back and do another shift again sometime, maybe even on a busier day.
I enjoyed my time in the kitchen. I learned more than I can fit in this post. And somewhat sadly, I discovered that I don't think I'll become a chef anytime soon (not never...just not in the cards at the moment). I have a lot of respect for the men and women who work hard to give you a good meal. I'm sure most patrons of fine dining establishments or any restaurant for that matter aren't thinking about what's going on beyond the kitchen doors. But next time you order so much as a burger, think about who is working hard to make it for you. I'm happy to say that I didn't run away screaming, and that I do want to learn more about proper techniques and cooking terms, even if it's just for my own gratification. I'm the type of person who doesn't back down from a challenge, and I believe I met this one.
Thank you again to my chef friend and to the men (and woman!) who let me into the kitchen that day. I have been humbled.
Take a bite: www.bonappetitfoodie.com.