My early cooking career was peppered by two constants:  poor training, and being hazed.  They rarely overlapped one another, but thankfully the distrust that stemmed from being hazed led to me questioning the poor technique I was being taught. 

My first real hazing was at Sushi Ran.  I had been working for a catering company in the morning before school, and I was learning some good stuff--knife skills, making vinaigrettes, sauteeing and grilling.  That I was learning these skills without the stress of a dinner service was a good thing--hours of cooking that would become muscle memory...instinct.  As my skill set grew, so did my ego.  I started to challenge my instructors at school--finding ways to use their own lectures against them.  One teacher, out of either admiration or disgust for this rebellious streak set me up with a job at SR.  I was about to change to morning classes, so my job at the catering company was more or less over at this point. 

Upon showing up for my first day at work, I was given a twenty five pound bag of carrots.  The sous chef had been extolling the virutes of smoking weed while drinking espresso when I arrived--he called it the poor mans speedball.  I was simply an annoyance, so he led me to my corner, carrots in tow.  

"Small dice this bag."
"The whole bag?"
"Whats it going in?"
"Dont worry about it.  Just do it."

Twenty five pounds of brunoised carrot is going to end up being around 15-18 quarts.  If it's going in mirepoix (something rarely used in a Japanese restaurant) youre talking about almost eighteen gallons of veg.  Baffled, I started peeling and cutting.  Around the second hour of this my vision started to blur a bit, my neck tightening.  Around the third hour my knife callous started to become raw, an excruciating little jolt everytime I pushed my knife down.  I cant remember how long it ended up taking me, but by the time I was done the resturant was well into service.  The stomach area of my coat was stained orange, as were my fingers and side towel.  I felt gaunt, like I had entered the culinary equivalant of a sweat lodge.  The only difference was that instead of an epiphany, I saw only a hollow future of being this restaurants vegatable bitch.  The sous stepped off the line and ran his hands through the large mixing bowl mounded with carrots.


Then he dumped the entire bowl in the garbage.  The whole line, Chef included laughed. 

"You can go home now."

Up until this point I had never considered that I was making a mistake by choosing to cook for a living.  Now I was retracing my steps until this point, trying to figure out where I had this mental lapse that landed me here.  I went home, furious.  I mean really, throwing away a bag of carrots?  Just to humiliate me?  Even to this day, it seems excessive.  When I came back the next day I was given real tasks--plating for a cocktail party, making ponzu, and grilling burgers for family meal.  That I even came back was enough for these guys;  I was still the culinary school asshole, but at least I was persistant. 

I like to think that my brand of hazing was more creative.  The VDV crew, being the cocky alpha male jerks that we were hazed everyone.  New cooks, food runners, servers, hosts--it didnt matter.  Everyone got fucked with.  Some of our favorites: 
  • the aioli creme brulee, complete with garnish
  • wasabi filled profiteroles
  • duck fat ice cream, perfectly quenelled into a chilled glass
  • the classics:  wooden sautee pan, left handed sautee pan, spaghetti batter, chopping flour, jet wash...
The thing about hazing is it has to lead you somewhere--it cant be done just to be mean.  If youre going to be 90% poison, then your 10% of sugar has to be really, really sweet.  Hazing should be to break the ice--a twisted way of saying welcome to the family.  It has to be coupled with strong training, and it has to be done very, very carefully--the chances of it turning into bullying are far too great.  One has to think back to their own experiences with it, and remember the feelings it left them with.   

a quick guide for new cooks:

  • read everything ruhlman has written about cooking.  not just the laundry cookbook--start with the making of a chef and work your way through.  man cannot survive on bourdain alone.
  • cook on your days off.  start with breakfast, even if it's at 1 in the afternoon.  hit up a market, a produce stand, whatever.  spend all your money on food. (and a little on whiskey, beer, and wine.)  make something simple, but re-work the recipe to challenge your own technique.  if your dirty bowls, pots and pans stack up faster than you can wash them, you're probably doing it right.  invite your friends over for added stress.
  • sharpen. your. fucking. knives.
  • please, im begging you--do not try to learn recipes by watching the food network.  let's keep the molto mario watching to once a month.
  • go back and re-read soul of a chef.  yes, i know you just finished it.  you missed stuff--trust me.  also read the fourth star, the perfectionist, heat, letters to a young chef, cooking for kings, larousse gastronomique, and on food and cooking.  on second thought, read on food and cooking twice also.
  • use the internet.  it's your most important resource.

-"I like to think I put the taint in sustain(t)able"  -corey
-if you can't accept blame for your own actions, you should not cook
-salt cod.  it should be salty.
-rotating my matress got rid of the knot in my shoulder. 
-out the door imperial rolls + lunch with dan at the berkeley marina = awesome
-cooking successfully is just a never ending cycle of contradictions.  more on this later.


CHEF said...

My very first kitchen job was at a high volume barbecue place called Damon's. We sliced on average 200 # of yellow onions a day for onion rings. One of our new prep chefs was on the slicer for about 3 hours, and crying uncontrallably from the fumes. One of our line cooks told him if he put mayonnaise on his upper lip he would'nt cry. So he slathered a huge bunch of mayonnaise on his large, fluffy mustache, and continued to slice. He kept it on for about 5-10 minutes, until he realized it wasn't working, added with the fact that we were laughing our asses off on the line. You gotta love the kitchen's rites of passage.

CHEF said...

Oh Oh Oh Oh...I got one. The fryer filter brownie...complete the confectioner's sugar and raspberries.

Brilynn said...

I have to admit, I love hearing of other people's hazings but I dread my own. I guess I can't have it both ways...

Trevor said...

A curtain of tickets, balls to the walls busy and you shout at the trainee, "Run to the basement and get _____! Hurry!" We had no basement. Worked every single time.

In the foh they would tell the new bussers and hosts, "Oh crap. We forgot to take the flag down. Do you know how to fold a flag? No? Just go get it and don't let anyone see you! Hurry! And don't let it touch the ground!!"

Too funny.

Matt said...

i'm actually reading Heat right now...at the part where Buford goes to Italy to apprentice under the butcher...i also had an epiphany during the reading about halfway through..the way he describes Mario in his kitchen and in between takes makes him seem like well one of us and not this larger than life TV persona (minus the clogs and shorts)...and that really pretty much all cooks/chefs will be very similar no matter where you go as we are all part of the same subculture...great post by the way..i remember the time i was asked to go get a bacon stretcher...i was sort of kind of sure they were lying so i asked the sous and she told me "yeh...go to such and such a restaurant"...

Watchman said...

You got more self-control than i do, man. Upon seeing my carrots dumped into the trash, I imagine myself telling the chef to go fuck himself while I look for another job.

Will Olson said...

One night we sent the new dishwasher to another joint to retrieve the left handed smoke shifter we "let them borrow while their hoods were down". The best part is that they, in turn, sent him to another place, saying that they let them borrow it. He returned about 30 minutes later laughing his ass off and telling us to go fuck ourselves. Classic.

The Irish Hitman said...

Ruhlman is fucking great. He kicked my ass into gear for getting out of college and going on to culinary school with Making of a Chef. I read Heat in my freshman comp class and loved it. I was then working FOH at a very nice restaurant and all I wanted to do was get into the kitchen. On Food and Cooking is blowing my mind right now. Just started it and I never knew dairy could be so amazing.

You're absolutely right about Bourdain. I loved Kitchen Confidential because of the commiseration that I felt, even from being FOH. Medium Raw was a nice insight to the plight of the celebrity chef. It also confirmed that I never want to be a celebrity. I just want to cook.

I started working at a little independent steakhouse a few months back. It's my first time back in foodservice in 3 years. Even though it's not the greatest job, it's a start, and like your first job, I'm learning the basics. Our "initiation" consists of two godawful drinks, one with tomato juice and pepper, the other with hot sauce. The third drink is "The Tidal Wave." You don't know what's poured for you, but it's blue. And as you start to drink, the bartender sprays you with the bar-hose. A positive experience with no bad intentions. As it should be.