Bittersweet: A Portrait of Professional Cooking

The kitchen end of the restaurant business is a fascinating industry to work in, if you’re fascinated with minds warped by the toll of long hours, intense stress, and hearing the same songs ooze out of grease-addled radio speakers.

Then there are the bodies attached to those cerebral cortexes – bodies beaten into submission over time, driven to require daily doses of pain pills, anti-inflammatory drugs, and – in the case of a couple of Bosnian guys I worked with – horse tranquilizers. In every cook’s toolbox or knife roll, a bottle of something nests between the tomato shark and the channel knife, especially if the cook is upwards of forty years old. He or she may likely find themselves in physical therapy, trying xi gong, having surgery, or all three.

Of course there are chef gigs that are purely administrative, but there will still be days when you find yourself back at the burners because your sous chef couldn’t make it, and tonight’s service will likely spiral out of control if you don’t step in and run the show. C’est la vie.

Do you fancy yourself a foodie, keeping up with the trendy, the unusual, or whatever recently photo-shopped ingredient excites you from brains to bowels? Do you adore playing with multifaceted colors, textures, shapes, and flavors? Gastronomically phenomenal – come and join us.  Just be warned: it may not be quite what you think it is. Kitchens worldwide are havens for burnouts and criminals – there are plenty of weeds among the flowers in the garden of Food and Beverage. I’ve seen fresh hires on day one go out for a smoke and never come back. I’ve seen room service guys offer up sexual harassment to their co-workers, regardless of gender, the likes of which cannot be uttered here.

Once I had the privilege of watching a cook from Argentina throw a knife at a busboy from Peru: the result of some sparkling insults. The knife missed the busboy and they were both promptly fired.

Another time, working at a ritzy hotel chain, I asked where the head chef had gone for vacation. I’d only been there two weeks, but hadn’t seen the chef for days (the sous chef was running the kitchen). I learned that the head chef wasn’t on vacation. This man – who had interviewed me, who I viewed as professional, who everyone addressed as “chef” – had been promptly fired and escorted off the property, after a female dishwasher complained that he had taken out his genitals and shown them to her.  I guess the ugliness of the human race can’t be stifled by the simple construct of a glamorous establishment, even with its lush fountains and marble floors.

But a big part of me loves the restaurant business, and you might too, if you’re crazy enough. Just know that hunkering down to clean out the grease-trap while you gag on the smell (the dishwasher no-called no-showed and there’s nothing to do but roll up your sleeves and do it yourself) might be a hard pill to swallow. Stomping down the overflowing trash in the dumpster because the owner of the restaurant won’t pay for an additional weekly garbage pick-up – well, it might leave a bitter taste in your mouth, one that doesn’t jive with that killer chimichurri you so enjoy making. You may not be able to cope with an old-school chef giving you a public-school ass-chewing, but hey, you probably asked for it.

It is certainly true that a wisp of satisfaction and a share in the stock of Art graces the shoulders of the chef in a spare-no-expense operation, or a high-end restaurant with its own garden out back, cheese ripening in the cellar, and cooks who are so passionate and dedicated to their craft that they are like mini-chefs themselves. This circumstance affords the chef an opportunity to touch tables, hob-knob, sponge compliments, urinate leisurely without any sting, and take more fully into consideration the feedback of the orally anal diners (or privately choose to write off their comments as trite excrement).

Other than that, my young Trotters, it’s back to a never-ending onslaught of administrative tasks mixed with cartilage-grinding labor, traditionally served with good ol’ American bureaucracy.


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