“The only thing worse than training an employee and losing them is to not train them and keep
them” -Zig Ziglar
We all have that one lesson we learned in a spectacular fashion. Deeply ingrained by not only the lesson, but the teacher. Good or bad, they made a lasting impression that to this day we recall every time we begin that task. Mine quite simply was an onion. Well, actually it was a 50 pound bag of the most pungent white onions you have every smelled. I was not holding my knife properly, the tips of my delicate little fingers exposed to the sharpness of my freshly purchased chef knife. Once complete, my task was poured into a rondeaux, caramelized and turned into a wonderful soup.
This was not its intended purpose, and Chef Henry (German Hen-ry, not French Ahn-RE) loudly, colorfully and painfully demonstrated why we hold a knife the way we do. The back of his chef knife only hit my fingertips once before they were firmly tucked under. Lesson learned. Now every onion, every damn one reminds me of Chef Henry, that day and those fucking onions. Yes chef, another bag completed very slowly, under the careful eye of Chef Henry and his goddamn chef’s knife.
12 years later, this is now the first item on my job description – Teach. We teach, train, mentor and motivate the next generation of chefs. These bright eyed, bushy tailed, new clog wearing little things come to us to mold and shape them. Or to run them out of an industry that will simply chew them up and spit them out. Face it. The truth hurts. If you are concerned for my feelings because I got hit with the back of a chef’s knife, then quit reading now. You will probably not like the rest of what I have to say.
Jump forward 13 years later to today, right now. Guess what. I still have all 10 fingertips. Also I still have my toes. I have no major disfigurements. No scars that prevent me from going comfortably to the beach. Both my eyes are still as functional as they ever were. I look back at the grueling nature
of the work I have chosen to pursue. I am in constant danger of permanent injury. No, I am not on a battle field, nor am I in law enforcement or running into a burning building. I would never compare the importance of my career to our first responders, soldiers, sailors or marines. For fucks sake we cook food… not saving the world one fluted mushroom at a time.
But please do not discount the dangers of professional commercial kitchens. It is hot, humid and often smoky as the ventilation cannot keep up with the work load. Their are quite literally knives everywhere. And trust me, these are not the pretty knives that you have in your home kitchen. These
are prettier in their sheer sharpness. Chefs are possessed with sharp knives. To test the sharpness of a quality chef knife, I don’t try to slice a sheet of paper. I tried to slice a fucking stack of papers. Hot oil, boiling water, slippery floors, walk in freezers and a rapid pace all combine to form a deadly ballet of sorts every service. We flow, dance, spin, twist, turn, duck and ‘behind’ each other effortlessly knowing 1 misstep could easily cost someone a limb or an eye.
So how do we prepare little Johnnie to take this environment over. Hell, it seems at times he still needs his mommy to put his undies on the correct direction. I have kids in my kitchen that probably still ask questions about how to potty or tie their damn shoes. Quite literally they are idiots. And not
just to the ways of a kitchen. That I am fine with. With our own weird hierarchy system, language that makes no sense and culture unlike any other, it is no surprise that kids are shocked when they first show up. But I am talking about regular, every day common sense.
We have to accept that today, we coddle kids. Every generation says that the next one coming up is weaker, dumber and has shite music. But come on. The sensitivity level of today’s youth is unmatched in history. I literally have seen young people break down for not getting enough ‘positive reinforcement” at work. They were not disciplined – they simply were not told how great they are enough.
Guess what. To damn bad. You want to work in a kitchen, it is my job to ensure you have the stones. Guess what. Most of today’s youth do not have it.
When you are in my kitchen there is a pecking order. You, at the beginning of your (probably short) tenure here are at the bottom of it. You will be told what to do by my porter, and you will do it. She knows more about the day to day happenings than anyone else. That’s her part of the machine. My lead line cook will make your prep list the shittiest he can. Any idea who is chopping that 50 pounds of julienne turnip root… yep. Need onion soup for 1500 people – come here newbie. Your callous will form soon enough, I promise.
I will yell at you. When I yell, I do not raise my voice. I actually get a little quieter. You are going to work to hear me. Yes, I will make you work even when disciplining you. I will probably insult you, and your work. It will look like crap and I will tell you that. And I have no time to babysit your
emotions. I really could care less about your self esteem. You see, at the very moment I am telling you that your Mise is shit, I am also fighting with the internet provider because our service is slow, the fire marshall is writing me a fine for an unknown and unpublished rule violation. The HVAC is out and the only guy on call wants $300 an hour to get in his truck – he knows I have a VIP event for 200 local dignitaries that starts in 3 hours. Also, my lead line cook just got into a fight with his wife and is missing, he has a drug habit and we really need to find him before he goes on a bender. The alcohol board needs paperwork I cannot find, my general manager is up in arms over the champagne delivery for some reason.. etc etc etc.
The song “99 problems but a bitch ain’t one…” is how I feel about feelings in the moment. As a cook you have no idea what the big picture is. You have a list. That’s it. I have a restaurant to run. Your feelings are not on any of my lists. Sorry, not sorry. Go cry in the walk-in, and take a mop with you.
Chefs, we are in a very unique position with the new generation of food workers. You see we have all the normal daily, monthly an quarterly deadlines and issues, plus the added emergencies that we know are coming. Now we have the ever present HR nightmare of having to watch our tone and language. Just yesterday a good friend and talented chef left a position over this. Seems his Dining Manager was addressing the issue of how he speaks to his staff and the language he was using. It was offensive he was told. Bullshite I say. He was speaking to them in the way a pirate captain speaks to the crew. Rough, blunt, direct and yes with four letter words.. heavy forbid. But what the DM doesn’t get – that’s how we speak to each other. I don’t ask my team to do something. Please – that is a word reserved for when I am telling the 15 year old hostess something to do nicely. Not in my kitchen.. not with this motley crew. They would laugh in my face and I would deserve it. I have no time for please and thank you. Efficiency is the name of the game and those are extra syllables. FFS.. please.
We are doing a major disservice to the up and coming chefs we are charged with mentoring. How in the hell are they supposed to cope with the entirety of running an operation if they have to find a “safe space” over a four letter word. Piss off with that. You really think the hundreds of people I am responsible to on a daily basis care about my feelings. Nope. Don’t believe me, go pay $70 for a dinner at a nice restaurant and see how many shits you give when your food is wrong. Or late. None. Not one single fuck is given about the chef’s personal life, his mental stability or his feeling of self esteem in that moment. Not one.
Chefs, train your staff for what they have to deal with – life in our industry is tough, grueling and NEEDS to chew the worthless ones out early. They will not make it. I am sorry if this is a surprise to culinary students out there. But the reality of the matter does not change. Man up and deal with it. Or get the hell out of my industry. I don’t really care either way. I have shit to do. So does my brigade. You know what is not on the prep list today… taking time to care how your self worth is doing today.
It is not fair to the dining public to expect impeccable experiences while dining, yet to hold us to the same standards as the damn DMV. Why don’t HR, managers, mothers and fathers – do us all a favor. Either stop coddling my future cooks, or steer them toward a career that has time and patience to deal with them. I do not. I will not. I will talk to my staff in a way that trains them to excel under pressure. I will make them uncomfortable. They will question their work and their worth often. This is all by design. It is part of what it takes to achieve the goals of operating a successful kitchen and restaurant. You can posture and look down on me as a ‘bully’ all you want. It is not bullying – it is training. You see I need my staff ready and able regardless of what I call on them to do. Often the directions will be random, seem contrary to normal operating or just weird. I need them to know I don’t care what they think about it. If I tell you to take your hat off, swap your left shoe to your right foot to dump the grease – I need a ‘yes chef’ and move on. If there is an explanation later on, so be it. If not, no one cares. That’s how shit gets done and the public gets fed.
So next time you go out to eat, think about how efficiently the restaurant is able to procure supplies, market itself to you, fabricate your order on the spot, deliver it to you and you consume it providing immediate feedback… say a little blessing to the poor young chefs, commis and porters that went through hell to get that to you in a timely manner and accurate.
Your thanks is not needed. Because I see it every time you come into my dining room and leave with a smile… you are welcome.
Now, back to work.
Written by Chef Adam Scott