Missing: Cooks.

Nearing the end of culinary school, a student starts to feel the stress of finding a job. Top of class in culinary school usually means a certain aptitude towards some arbitrary classic techniques (and generally kissing up) as opposed to the actual head down-im focused and listening attitude needed to hack it on a hot line. Some students start to realize that at the end of their culinary school "fantasy camp" vacation that they are deeply in debt, and despite having made that really neat Thai consomme for their Asian Cuisine test, do not have the firm grasp on their technique. Others don't realize this at all...but more on them later.

A month before my last day of school, I started to weigh my options. I had done my time with a catering company that had fostered me through the days of barely knowing how to make vinaigrette, and had spent some nights toiling away in the Sushi Ran kitchen. I could talk a good game, but in my heart of hearts I was shitting myself. Could I hold down a sautee or grill station on a three hundred cover night? Would I be the weak link that dragged the restaurant into debt with an endless list of guest comps due to quality or bad timing? Chris Ludwick, at the catering company, had made me a smart cook. He made me think. Taught me ingredients. Taught me seasonality. Taught me to care. Sushi Ran had made me tough. Taught me humility. Taught me the poker face a cook needs to survive. Now I was on my own. Now I needed to start teaching myself.

A plan to go to New York had slipped through my grasp. I had the dreamy plan to work in Nobu, or some other high profile kitchen, but had neither saved the money to do so, nor even tried to contact any restaurants. Rossi and I decided that some mutual support through this strange time might be a good idea, so he moved to the east bay, and we set out to find work. My start was not promising. Ironically, the first place I stopped, Va De Vi, was the first place that shooed me away. The place was full of sawdust and construction workers, and I wanted desperately to be a part of an opening. The sous chef told me they weren't hiring anymore, but that they would give me a call. I ran around town and dropped off resumes, interviewed, and tried to sound smart, but not so smart as to come off like a pain in the ass. In the end, I got called back from every place I stopped at...and not just for interviews. Even my eventual call from VDV went like this: "Richie, it's Kelly, the chef at Va De Vi. Can you work tomorrow night?"

Initially I chalked all this up to my brilliantly typed resume (Helvetica neu only please) and my charm and wit in my interviews. Perhaps they could see that, yes, in me, was an amazing chef. Now I can see there was something else at work completely.

This past week saw the Chronicle put out a cover story about where all the line cooks have gone. The article more or less chalks it all up to underpaid cooks living in a very high rent city...a problem that Ginger has told me she runs into in NYC. Shuna wrote a great follow up, and the whole thing really got people talking. Some of the best comments:

  • "I think tipping should be banned."
  • "You know? The cooks could fix this very easily. Basically they need to
    extort the wait staff into tipping out. All they need to do is slow the
    line down and get the orders wrong so that the wait staff don't get
    tipped as well, and when the wait staff finally decides to tip out to
    the cooks, and the rest of the help, the line would speed back up to
    normal. The only way you will get the wait staff in line is to hit them
    in the pocket book"
  • "Bottom line.. I have decided to become a waiter intead of a cook. Hey cooks!.. if you can't stand the heat.. get out of the ..."

Either way, I think this article misses a key point, and thats asking the question of why cooks do it in the first place. Its a conversation ive had many times with my cooks, and generally goes like this:

"You need to ask yourself why you do this...and obviously you dont do it for money. You need to ask yourself what the point is...after all the burns, and missed weekends and holidays, and the yelling, and back breaking work. YOU need to know why you do it."

Cooks are in short supply...there is no doubt about it. At my work we often lose cooks in the time it takes them to go have a smoke before their stage. Kids come and go, and more and more often, they cant cook, and they can't keep their mouths shut. When Joey, Rossi, Angelo and I worked the line together, there was something else at work than just four cooks on a line. There was a collective passion, a need to be the best. Money, hours, burns, cuts, yelling, screaming...these things simply did not matter. The only thing that mattered was the food...and our guests. I have not seen a cook in the past year that thinks like this...except for Chad, who is now a co-sous with Rossi, Angelo, and myself.

A cook quits because I tell him to wear a side towel, and stop wiping his hands on his apron. Another cook quits after he spent his whole shift telling our pastry chef that he was making his truffles the wrong way. Another cook quits because thinks he's ready to be an executive chef, despite a woeful problem with being able to fry an egg.

I dont know where this industry is headed, but its comforting knowing that all these people are making me look really good.

And now, notes.

  • How did I end up on Chow.com and not know about it? And here, and here. And here. Thanks technorati.
  • Marisa. She will make you laugh.
  • Oil spill. Assholes.
  • Barry Bonds. Pwnd!
  • Dylan leaves his xbox360 here, with Call of Duty 4. I consider never working or blogging ever again.
  • Tasting menu's piece on breaking down your station after service.
  • Your cheese plate is nice...but Ideas in Foods in nicer.
  • Studio Kitchen asks for help...and the result is an eye opening conversation about hydrocolloids.
  • Chadzilla visits Bluezoo.

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1 comment:

www.stlbites.com said...


keep it up. I'm really enjoying your blog, and hopefully next time I'm in San Fran I'll be able to get one of those foie preps...if it's not to late of course...legally that is.