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First Night On The Line aka The Culinary Wonderment thread

kwilkinson

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Hello folks. Warning: very long post coming up. Proceed with caution and a handy Powell meme by your side.

As some of you may know, I am currently in culinary school. I've been trying very hard to find a job to be able to gain some experience. Sending in resumes, replying to Craigslist things, etc. Well about 7 weeks ago, I sent my resume in to a really nice restaurant in Chicago. It's a AAA 4 diamond place. Very nice. It's won a lot of awards, including James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Midwest, R&I's Ivy award, and others. So it was a pretty long shot for me to get in at all. I was replying to an ad for a line cook. I sent the chef a letter, explaining that my resume was lacking a lot, and I realized this, but if he'd let me come in and show him what I can do and how passionate I am and how hard I'm willing to work, he'd let me stay. Well he didn't call back after all this time, so I lost hope. On Thursday night, I got a voicemail from the restaurant asking me to come in on Monday and do a stage. For those who don't know, a stage (stagiareship) is an unpaid internship in a restaurant. They can range from one night to a year, depending on you and the chef.

Well, I came back to Chicago yesterday, pumped up for my stage. I went into the restaurant at noon and met with the chef. He was a nice guy. A very large, intimidating black man, who seemed to have a heart of gold. Very likable person. Anyway, we went downstairs and talked about my stage and my experience and my schooling so far. Then he handed me over to his sous chef to get ready. They got me a chef's jacket and towels and I got out my tools. We went upstairs from the office to where the kitchen is, and we had to prep everything for the night's service. Blanching vegetables, shocking vegetables, cutting proteins, making sauces, etc etc. It was a lot of work to do. First let me explain the setup of the kitchen. There were only a few people there. There was a garde manger cook, who did all the salads and amuse bouches. She was the bottom of the totem pole, although for the night I took her place as kitchen bitch. Then, heading up through the line and also importance, they had a fry cook, who did deep frying (which only consisted of fries with truffle cream) and some light cooking. He was also in charge of the stocks. Then, there was a saute cook, who was in charge of the soups and the warm apps. Next in line was the poissonier/saucier. He was in charge of all the fish cookery and taking care of the sauces. The restaurant has a lot of seafood offerings, so he was a busy fellow. Then, at the top of the food chain was the sous chef, who ran the grill station. I was his helper. He was in charge of the grill and all the meats that weren't seafood, although we did do grilled salmon. Obviously, the executive chef was the head of the kitchen, but he didn't do any prep or any kitchen work until service began.

So I was there working my little tail off. At first, they just had me doing menial things like picking through parsley and other herbs and chopping them. At one point, the sous chef told me I was moving too slowly and needed to pick up the pace with the parsley. So, I started doing it much faster. He came back a minute later and yelled at me for picking the stems carelessly and not just getting the leaves. I told him that I was just trying to get it done fast, like he told me to do. He then told me that I had to do it fast, yes, but I also had to do it right. There was no choice. You don't get to pick to either do it fast or do it right. You have to do it fast and do it right, or get the hell out.

Then, I kind of gained myself a little bit of power. The saucier chef was making beurre monte for the night's service. This beurre monte was made with butter and with bacon fat, though, to get some bacon flavor into it. Well, he kept breaking the sauce. He broke it 3-4 times before he got really pissed and was asking people for help. I told him that he should try chilling the bacon fat first because cold fat emulsifies better. Now, he, and everybody else in that kitchen knew that already, but it was a bit of a "DOH! Why hadn't I thought of that?" moment and it made them more comfortable with letting me do a bit of real work. They set me to work making a lemon confit. I did it wrong at first. I was supposed to slice 15 lemons, put them in a mixture of 3 parts salt, 1 part sugar, and boil them in water, drain them off, and repeat that process 3 times. Well the first time I did it, I let them boil too hard and they became mush. I got yelled at by the chef and told to redo it, this time taking them off the second they came to a boil instead of letting them sit there and boil. I did this; success was mine.

Then, I had to make meatloaf for the staff meal for the next couple of days. In the middle of making the meatloaf, I was called back upstairs to do something for stocks. I got out a cutting board and my tools and started prepping all the vegetables. When I was done prepping them, I went back downstairs to finish the meatloaf. Well, this didn't please Chef very well. He yelled for me to come upstairs and was obviously upset. He started yelling at me about not finishing my job before moving on to the next one. He then asked me if I just stood up from the toilet after taking a shit and went about my day without wiping my ass. I told him of course not, and he then explained, in a loud and scary way, that if I want to succeed in his kitchen, I had better use that same part of my brain with regards to each task. A little embarassed, and undoubtedly red in the cheek, I said "Yes, Chef," put my head down, and walked away.

Now let me explain this: I enjoyed getting yelled at. It made me feel good. It made me feel like I was actually a part of the kitchen. When you get yelled at in the kitchen, it's not like if you were getting yelled at somewhere else. Nobody pays attention. Nobody laughs at you. Because they all know that at some point in the night, they're going to get the exact same treatment. So everybody puts their head down and works, look at the chef when they get yelled at, and continue working when the chef is yelling at someone else. I liked getting yelled at because it wasn't personal. Nothing he said was a personal attack on me. It was an attack on the quality of work I was doing. That made me appreciate this opportunity even more. To realize that a very small mistake, like leaving your station dirty for 5 minutes while you do something else, would upset the chef that much made me realize how perfect we were expected to be. And it made me happy. We were expected to be perfect. Not because of some dumb ideal like wanting to be looked at as perfect. We were expected to be perfect because that was just the standard that was set. Perfection was the only option. If you can't handle that, then get out.

Then, service began. Service was an absolute blur. A loud, fast, insane mixture of being yelled at, calling out times for food, trying to coordinate with the other line cooks, etc. I think that's the hardest part of working the line. I could get the cooking down. I can grill salmon, I can blanch vegetables, I can plate dishes. What I can't do, yet, is coordinate 4 different steaks perfectly with the guy cooking tuna and whitefish next to me so that everything comes out perfectly hot and perfectly cooked. It was hard, no doubt. Something that comes with time and repetition, I'm sure. Service came to a close, and we cleaned up. Clean-up was easy. Just clean everything until it looks better than the day it was bought. Those were the guidelines, and so they were easy enough to understand.

After service, chef asked me down to his office. He told me that he liked me. He said that I wasn't a distraction and that I actually helped out a lot, which he said was not normal for stages. He then said that he liked that his yelling at me didn't phase me. He said that usually people are intimidated, especially on their first night on the job, and let it affect them. He said he really liked that when I got yelled at, I didn't back talk or sulk, I just changed my actions to whatever I needed to. He then told me that I was lacking some basic skills that I did need to learn. I agreed with that. He said that they were skills to be learned in the kitchen and not skills that can be taught at school. He also told me that he could tell I was tenacious, and that with a nudge in the right direction, I could really do something special someday. He told me that without any experience, he obviously couldn't pay me to work, but that if I wanted, I could "hang out" in the kitchen whenever I wanted and learn the craft. I thanked him profusely for the opportunity, and now, I work at this restaurant every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until whenever I want to stop. I start Saturday. It was amazing. I got my own locker and lock at the restaurant. Also, the cool part was that the cooks were all buddy buddy with me already. "See you Saturday dude, lookin forward to working with you" was really cool to here after just one shift.

So yeah, I am fucking pumped up. Really exciting. I mean, I'm still riding that adrenaline high from the service.

Final thoughts:
1) I wish someone had stressed to me the importance of learning Spanish. People always said "yeah you should learn spanish" but nobody said to me "hey dumbass, if you want to work in this industry, you have to learn Spanish."
2)This might sound a little gay, but it really felt like a brotherhood behind that stove. Even though I was an outsider and didn't know any of these people, when I put on that Chef's jacket and got out my knife, I felt like I belonged there. There was this really cool vibe between us all. Like, even though this guy and this guy might be fighting today and be pissed off w/ each other, nobody else better dare talk shit about him because we're all in this together.
3)I felt really natural there. I felt at home. The rush, the lulls, the getting yelled at, I loved every minute, which was really cool.
4)I'm really glad I lost so much weight in the last year. I couldn't imagine carrying 50 pounds more on myself while tryin to do a shift. My legs were already dead, I honestly don't think I could have made it if I were still really heavy.
5)The line is absolutely fucking nuts. It is loud, hot, confusing, intimidating, scary, and so many other things. At the same time, it is freaking beautiful. Like watching a well-oiled machine. It's so well orchestrated. These guys were all so in tune with what each other was doing and what they needed to do to match that. It was awesome.
6)Time flies. I worked for 12 hours, standing the entire time, and it went by so quickly. There was just so much work to be done. When the shift was over, I realized I'd had to pee for like 4 hours.
7)It felt freaking great for the chef at one of the nicest restaurants in one of the best food cities in the world to tell me that he thought I was something special.

Anyway, sorry for the very long post. If you're still reading, you deserve a candy bar or something.
 

Thomas

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I'll skip the Powell part, and commence with the
and the
 

dropbeats

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Originally Posted by kwilkinson
He told me that without any experience, he obviously couldn't pay me to work, but that if I wanted, I could "hang out" in the kitchen whenever I wanted and learn the craft. I thanked him profusely for the opportunity, and now, I work at this restaurant every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until whenever I want to stop. I start Saturday.

what the hell you dont get paid is this normal??? sounds like hes using you I dont know show me the money
 

kwilkinson

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Thanks T-Bone!
Originally Posted by dropbeats
what the hell you dont get paid is this normal??? sounds like hes using you I dont know show me the money

Very normal. In nicer kitchens, it's almost a necessity these days. Besides, he may be using me, but I'm using him just as much, if not more. I gain a lot more from having his restaurant on my resume than he does from letting some kid cut onions for free.
 

KenN

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My parents own a (small) restaurant, and I fully agree with #5. The coordination is mesmerizing.
 

KenN

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Originally Posted by kwilkinson
Thanks T-Bone!


Very normal. In nicer kitchens, it's almost a necessity these days. Besides, he may be using me, but I'm using him just as much, if not more. I gain a lot more from having his restaurant on my resume than he does from letting some kid cut onions for free.


And you get free food.
 

PandArts

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Congrats! What a great story! What a great Opportunity! Another
for you!
 

Xiaogou

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That's awesome, congratulations.


for the Manton length post!!
 

VKK3450

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Congrats Kwilk!! I look forward to eating in your restaurant one day.

Does this mean I need to source my own bearnaise in London??

K
 

sygyzy

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First of all, great story and writing. I am very itnerested in the business and I like your insight.

Second of all, I assume you haven't read Kitchen Confidential in which Bourdain stresses the learning Spanish point. How many ways do you need to be told?
 

sonick

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Awesome stuff, congrats! Read all of it, no Colin Powell necessary.

Is the kitchen really like they show in cooking/reality shows? More or less intense?
 

Joffrey

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Great read. Congratulations on your opportunity, if I were in your position I would've been sobbing half the time.

So what are you doing Sunday through Wednesday?
 

Bhowie

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Awsome Kwilk. C-C-C-C-C-C-Combo Breaker
Sounds like a ton of fun.
 

foodguy

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great job. i can't tell you how many of these types of things I've read, but yours was really good. i've spent a LOT of time in kitchens and a good kitchen on a busy night ... the only thing i can compare it to is a fast-break basketball game where everything is crazy hectic but absolutely working in a perfect pattern ... even if that pattern isn't obvious to an outsider. there's also that locker-room type cameraderie afterward that is really cool (just stay away from some of the bad habits that can go with it).

as for working for free--that's absolutely how good kitchens operate these days. the sad truth is that cooking schools are pumping out graduates at a far faster rate than the job market can absorb them. just getting an in is the big thing. put in a month or two and you'll be in the right spot when an opening comes up.
 

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