the trainer.

Teaching someone how to sautee is very, very difficult.  Working quickly, flipping pans, searing fish--these are the easy parts.  Controlling your heat, working efficiently, communicating--these are the hard parts.  Strangely, as I came up as a sautee cook, none of these lessons were being taught to me.  After a summer of working the five AM pastry shift, I was being brought back to the hot line.  Being in pastry had been good for me--after curdling creme anglaise and burning profiteroles enough times, I had honed my technique down to a point where little time was wasted, and no detail was overlooked.  My chef either saw talent in me, or was desperate for new blood on the line.  He paired me with T, a 40 something journeywoman cook with a gruff demeanor and a hot temper.  Most of the other cooks showed her a good deal of respect--not just because she was older, but because she had been holding down the busiest station on the line since the restaurant opened.  Now it was my turn.

"Hold your pan like this, and you've kinda got a deep fryer."  I was watching T cook crab cakes--a huge seller on that menu.  They were gently cooked in a beautiful new all-clad pan, in grapseed oil, then warmed through in the oven.  Getting them right was hard--too much breading and they burned, too wet and they wouldnt brown, too loosely packed and they fell apart.  T was showing me shortcuts--but in her mind this was just the way it was done.

"You can sear off five orders of crab cakes at a time, then just heat them up when an order comes in."
"But chef doesn't want us to..."
"Well if you want your station to go down, then I dont give a fuck."  She stormed down the line, then back, then down to the walk-in, then back. 
"Can you help me with the scallop..."
"Get out of the way."  She shoved me aside and cooked a couple of orders, saying nothing to me.
"There, now its your turn."

Any questions about technique, or the whys of cooking were met with a short, angry response--like I was stupid for even asking.  I struggled through my shifts in the following weeks, and when the chef caught me searing off more crab cake orders than I had on fire, he went crazy. 

"Since when do we sear off more orders than we have on fire?!?"
"Um, that's the way I was trained Chef."

As soon as those words crossed my lips, I came the realization that my training up to this point had been a bit of a waste.  All of those questions I had been asking had been ignored because T didnt know the answers.  All of the short cuts came because she didnt know any other way to keep up.  Such an epiphany is great for a cook, but it doesnt get them out of the weeds in that moment.  It would mean many hard nights with my Chef literally standing over my shoulder, watching every movement, screaming at me to re-fire the second I did something wrong. (despite the yelling, at least he was telling me where I was making mistakes)  I scoured cookbooks, trying to gather as much information on technique as I could.  T glared at me every night from then on--after all, I was the culinary school punk who had outed her as a bad trainer.  Eventually she left, and not long after that I moved into her old lead cook position.

Training a cook has greater ramifications than just running a good or bad service.  You're passing on hundreds of years of culinary tradition when you teach someone.  You're leaving a part of yourself with that cook.  If you do it right, the cook will remember the lessons you taught them.  If you do it wrongly, the cook will only remember you.  As the teacher, its not enough to just show technique--you have to teach how to communicate--and how to be aware in every moment.  When you start to get good, its like time and space slow down for you.  You're no longer frantic.  You are in control.  And its your duty to pass the right lessons on.

  • out the door spring rolls are worth the extra money
  • pizzaria delfina opened on California street--a quick bike ride from my apartment.  eating there was fun--there was so much nervous energy in the room they probably couldve powered the whole block with it.  the food was exceptional (best. tripe. ever.)  so was the espresso from the e61.

  • most of you were wrong.  the correct answer was Heart.
  • when your adrenaline rush meets your caffiene rush, it will either be beautiful, or you will want to throw up.  sometimes both.
  • whats worse--mental or physical fatigue?  does one lead to the other?
  • san francisco, I love you. 


Los Gatos Girl said...

Mental fatigue is far worse. If you're physically exhausted, you can still enjoy a Testarossa pinot. Mentally fatigued and you might as well drink Thunderbird.
(and no way on the Heart)
Lara in Los Gatos

Matt said...

i think physical fatigue leads to mental. but you can power through the physical fatigue with sheer willpower if youre a total force of nature or with the help of caffeine laced superdrinks or perhaps just a coffee or espresso. but yeh ill agree with los gatos girl that mental fatigue is far worse.

marquitos said...

training... yeeees, i remember training. it's hazy, but now i remember, days spent following servers and being walked through all the details, and later becoming that obi wan for many others. being decidedly meticulous and detail-oriented (read: ocd), i was that trainer on a regular basis. hell, i even trained the beauty that would later become my wife. must not have been too bad.

but i'd kind of forgotten about training. i can't speak for the boh, but out front, training is minimal at most. it's trial by fire. either you have it, or you don't, and it becomes obvious very quickly.

something to think on in more depth... even after more than two years, i still feel like i may not have it on a pretty regular basis.

concerning heart: it was actually a really tough call, and i committed to queen with misgivings. i don't think i'd ever feel sure about the decision.

and regarding fatigue: at least with physical fatigue you end with a sense of satisfaction, that tired feeling of having done something that worked you. winding down from mental fatigue -- or hitting the threshold of collapse -- you just feel retarded. like a dying clock on the wall whose second hand just twitches and never moves ahead...

kirchartfour said...

My theory is that when training saute you have to understand the paradigms of the side towel.

Folded either in your (secondary) hand, in the apron or rolled up on your board. Never in the armpit, over the shoulder or over a rack.

Thats probably it.

Joseph Bayot said...

Thank you for these great posts. I'm surprised this blog isn't being inundated by comments 24/7. I'm sure that it will be very soon because these posts are so frank and so introspective that I feel as though I'm there, struggling or having fun with you.

I gave up trying to become a professional cook last year. Every day, I realize more and more why I made that decision. I also realize how much I respect and adore people like you, who have made the ridiculous commitment of time, hard work, and attention to detail that I could never make.

Thank you.

FGF said...

Note to self: Frequent, well executed blog posts with expertise and passion of subject matter could make for a decent book of after enough words have accumulated. Far worse has been compiled, strung together and placed between pressed cardboard covers.

The Blushing Hostess said...

off the subject here, line cook, but, I wondered if you would weigh in on kosher vs. costly sea salts of every color from everywhere as mentioned in the Bon Appetit write in column this month??? thanks!

Soniclee said...

I love the blog. You always manage to get a roll on - then you toss off the sentiment
"I love you, San Francisco"

I do, too.
Kills me.

Micah in Detroit.

Dr. Andy said...

I'm loving your blog. I'm a Chef in Canada running a line that gets slammed like you would not believe on the daily.
Mental fatigue is definitely worse. My sous chef and I have devised a tag system for those rushes that never end. We'll take as many covers as we can for 40 minutes or so, then hand the pass off to one another. We find it not only gives us a chance to refresh, but it refreshes the whole line having a different voice doing the calls.
That being said, I'll quote a line from "Remembering the Titans" that I quote to my team all the time.

"What is pain? FRENCH BREAD! What is fatigue? ARMY CLOTHES!"

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