I came across an article from about a year ago that outlines the rise – and fall – of the career as a chef in today’s culinary world. It is comically accurate while covering some of the truest facets of the lifestyle while not delving into too many details. I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion that being a cook, or a chef, is not an easy feat. It is in no way meant for the faint-of-heart. It is purely for the passionate. Some people might work a line cook job in high school or college as a legal means for some cash, but these are not the people to which I am referring. I’m talking about the guys and gals that cook day in and day out for years, with no intention of changing professions or any desire to not spend their days behind a hot stove.
It takes a special breed to man the line and spend enough time in a kitchen to come away with the battle scars we all wear so proudly. Any time I used to see friends in the industry I hadn’t seen for a while, we’d trade stories about the madness of our respective restaurants, our most ludicrous patrons and the level of help and/or harm our front of house staff had been residing at as of late. Among the drinks and the stories, shared injuries and the showcasing of scars was a staple. I think pastry chefs have some of the best scars. Constantly in and out of ovens with people running over to you (or into you) while doing a million things can result in quite the number of sheet tray lines up and down your forearm(s). It has nothing to do with not being careful; it has everything to do with saving the tray of fifteen apple galettes you’re pulling out of the oven while the bus boy runs over to you in need of more warm popovers for the bread station. The thing is, you have plenty of skin. You do not, however, have an hour to prep another set of tarts for service when you haven’t set up your station, the whipped cream needs to be re-whipped, the sous chef doesn’t have your soufflé count for the night, cookies are in the middle of your station because servers haven’t put them in ‘thank you’ boxes yet and service started twenty minutes ago.
Some of my favorite parts of the aforementioned article are the things most non-culinarians find terrifying and barbaric. Why would anyone willingly put themselves in a position to be maimed on a daily basis? Let me answer that question with a question: why would anyone willingly be an accountant? Or a dentist? Or a golfer? You explain yours, I’ll explain mine. Among other things, it reminds me of a time when I was in a grocery store and ran into the mother of a former classmate who I hadn’t seen in years. We made small talk and she asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was a cook and she asked if I worked a lot. “About 50 hours a week if it’s slow,” I had responded. Shock, and what seemed like legitimate concern, covered her face before she asked me, “But if you work that much, how are you going to meet anyone?” Ha. She had a point. Other than the sheer amount of time I was working, when chefs work is actually the more prohibitive part to a social life outside the industry.
After my friends and I graduated college and returned home, they would get together and ask me to join them and my response was always, “I’m working.” After quite a while of that (when they were clearly getting annoyed), someone finally decided a comment was warranted: “You’re always working when we go out!” And finally, an opening to make them understand.
“Do they serve food wherever you go when you guys go out?”
It is a common ignorance that people don’t grasp. With cooking channels and reality TV, chefs are a little more in the forefront of people’s minds, but people constantly forget there are people behind those swinging doors working to make what ended up on your plate. While it may seem like magic occasionally, there is a workforce you probably won’t understand doing what they love to provide you with good food and an enjoyable experience.
The moral of the story is, the culinary industry isn’t pretty. The byproducts may be, but what goes on in order to make that Instagram-worthy entrée certainly isn’t. The blisters and the breakdowns and the burns…not uncommon occurrences. Even though I am partial to the badge of honor I think all cooks earn after they’ve got their first set of calluses and while there are an enormous amount of words I could use to describe this business; glamour is not one of them.
Psst. You should read the article. If you know anyone who works in a kitchen and have heard them tell tales of what life is like in the biz, The Life Cycle of a Modern-Day Chef will make you chuckle. Good stuff, Richie Nakano.