Out of the Frying Pan (College) and into the Fire (The Professional Kitchen)

Hello fellow foodies! For everyone out there who always wondered what it was like working in a professional kitchen, look no further! Over the past several years I have gotten increasingly obsessed by food and cooking. Finally capitalizing on that I decided that I wanted to get involved in the food world. In no way do I see myself in this profession as a career (especially now that I’ve seen what it’s like), but I thought it would be a rewarding experience to discover what goes on behind the scenes of a restaurant. This will be the first of a biweekly (or is that wishful thinking?) blog chronicling my adventures in the kitchen.

My culinary career started with cold emails. I knew that I wanted to be able to work a decent number of hours each week, preferably not during the week when I had class and studying. As I wanted to leave Fridays open, I started scanning lists of “Best Restaurants in Philly,” etc. and my own personal knowledge of the food scene here for interesting restaurants open Saturdays and Sundays who listed contact information on their website. After compiling such a list I sent a brief email out to each of them, almost stupidly impersonal, telling how I was a member of Penn Appetit, some nonsense about how I thought so-and-so’s cuisine was a unique blend of creative and traditional fare, and how I had zilch, zero, nada, experience cooking professionally but how I had learned to cook from my parents, was very passionate about food, and wanted to help out in the kitchen.

No more that two days later, the Chef of one of Philly’s top restaurants sent me a reply, asking if I could come in sometime that week to discuss. Two days later and I made my way nervously into the restaurant during off hours. As I step inside, an employee tells me they don’t open for another three hours and asks if I would like to see the menu. My foray into the behind-the-scenes had begun! Chef comes out from the kitchen–separated from the dining room by a glass wall extending from countertop to ceiling, so the cooks can see the diners, and vice versa–and asks me to sit down. A no more than two minute conversation leads to the facts that a) This was a totally voluntary experience with no minimum hours or shift requirements, b) When could I start? Not this weekend but the next, and c) I’d come in at 3 pm, help out in the kitchen prepping, plating, and tasting both before and during service, and stay till closing time helping clean up in the kitchen. Just like that, I had the job (unpaid, although, as I would learn, I would be heavily compensated for my time in food).

The walk-in

When I walk into the restaurant on my first day, Chef is there to greet me, and he walks me into the back and shows me where I can get an apron and white jacket. I put them on and already feel like part of the team. Then I step out into the kitchen and am greeted by a melee of action. In the hallway leading around the corner to the kitchen, Chef first brings me into the walk-in, or small room sized refrigerator, with shelves stacked full of bins of fresh fall apples, verdant shelves with boxes of lettuce and crispy cucumbers, shelves loaded with plastic quart containers filled with mysterious sauces, spiced ducks hanging by their necks in the back corner, and a tray of fresh salmon waiting to be filleted and de-boned. And it is by far the best refrigerator you’ve ever stuck your nose in. Freshness and umami seem to permeate the room, as if forgetting that wondrous smells are usually muted by the cold. After introducing me to the walk-in, Chef takes me past the dishwashing station, around the corner, and I’m greeted by the chefs. The kitchen itself is not very large, with a nice view into the kitchen through the glass wall, but the neatness of the dining room, no matter how much they try, can’t be replicated in the kitchen, where cleanliness is much less emphasized than one would hope (or imagine). Chef says I’ll be working with another cook at the garde manger station.

As I’ll later learn, there are generally just three stations working on an one night of service. Garde manger prepares cold “apps” (appetizers) and desserts, fish/saute does fish/saute, and then meats does meat and other hot plates. On Fridays and Saturdays someone also works the annex, essentially taking a few dishes from each of fish and meats to lighten the load on the busiest nights of the week.

Back to my first foray into garde-manger-ing (which is so not what it’s called), my first task is preparing an apple pomegranate salad that is a topping for the salmon crudo on the menu. Chef painstakingly shows me how to square off an apple, slice it into planes, then matchsticks, and finally cubes, then plops down five apples in front of me and has me get to work. While the vibe of many professional kitchens is harsh, stress-inducing, or even violent, I was shocked with how calm and friendly all of the chefs were and how Chef himself took the time to show me how to cube apples.

Even during my relatively short (but way too long by professional standards) time prepping the apple salad, I begin to pick up on the lingos and mannerisms of the kitchen. An audible “Behind!” is necessary whenever passing behind another cook, whether or not one is carrying a bowl full of chopped apples, a vat of bubbling fat, or is simply passing by. “Sharp!” is absolutely necessary when passing with a knife, and “Hot!” is used in the appropriateness scenarios. The people I met all have their own unique personal stories, and even over the first two weekends I was able to pick up on some of the interesting tales of who I was working with. One of the cooks grew up in Israel, used to be an elementary teacher but “burned out teaching,” and followed a cooking passion into a new career. Another cook, I surprisingly learned, will finish a five-year probation this February, after several DUIs and a jail term. Another cook tells me the cooking world used to have a cocaine problem, but now it’s “just caffeine.”

Shortly after prepping the apple salad it’s already four o’clock, which means staff meal. A hasty ten minute clean up occurs and then all cooks and front-of-house staff grab a plate of food prepped by the chefs and eats out in the dining room. In my first few days we had kugel, some sort of braised beef, a slightly deconstructed version of the chicken dish on the menu, and purple fried rice, generally always served with a salad. While not as refined as menu items, the quality of ingredients and prep methods still shone through, as did the restaurant level appreciation for salt. Staff meal is really the one chance for chefs to take a break and sit down during their shift, which insanely goes from 12 to 12.

Staff meal of latkes, rice, salad, and vegetable curry

After staff meal, prep work continues and seamlessly flows into service. In that last hour or so before service started, over my first few days I worked on projects ranging anywhere from finely chopping herbs, making Russian dressing in massive multi-quart amounts, or peeling and then grinding roasted beets that would end up in a borscht tartar dish. The details begin to run together after just four days, surely due to the sheer number of things that gets done during one hectic day in the kitchen.

After just these few days cheffing I already began to feel the aches, pains, bruises, burns, and other assorted downs of hard restaurant work. The kitchen is a hot, sweaty place, you essentially stand around for eight hours at a time, and there is always the danger of burns or cuts. I quickly learned that staying hydrated was all important–one day I ignorantly didn’t have anything to drink after staff meal, and while that mentality is perhaps fine during a normal day of classes, not drinking during service rapidly led to the pangs of a headache. Then Chef showed me the trick–fill up a massive plastic quart container with water from a tap behind the bar in the dining room. In fact, the act of getting water is a treat in and of itself. I would step out from behind the line in the kitchen, step through a swing-door, and be transported into the comparative calm of the dining room where I fill my quart from a tap behind the bar area. As I fill my quart I look around at patrons taking in their meal, always oblivious to this sweaty, inexperienced college chef with no idea what he is doing, espying on them taking in their meals. Such is the invisibility granted by the chef jacket.

What follows is an account of the mishaps I experienced in these first few days, in no particular order.

After one pre-service job of chopping excessive amounts of pickles, chili peppers, scallions (twice because I messed up the first time), parsley, and radish, I woke up the next morning with a diagonal blister running along the base of my right pointer finger, exactly where the backside of the knife pressed into the meat of my finger as I sliced again and again. Needless to say, this made scribbling furiously on my midterm that morning quite the painful (and distracting!) process.

My time in the kitchen so far has ranged from doing prep work, either saving Chef’s time that would have been spent the next day or preparing things they’ll need during service, to organizing and rearranging food, to helping work the line during service (which is the best part, I’ll get to that later). One job I was told to do was remove a large metal bin from an ankle-height rack from the oven, covered in foil such that I had no idea what was inside. As I protected my hands with towels and proceeded to remove the mystery container, it tilted slightly, and boiling beef fat came pouring out over the floor, my shoes, and pants. Somehow, I didn’t feel a thing, but my once pristine shoes certainly did. Thankfully, Chef simply smiled when he heard what I did, instead of the perhaps more expected berating I could have expected. Related to the shoe incident is the fact that the floor of the kitchen is constantly wet, especially post service during clean-up (hopefully from soap/water and not fat), such that walking around in normal sneakers is well-nigh impossible. Noticing me tottering around trying not to slip into a knife or hot oven, chefs pointed out the need for what I call chef-shoes: black clog like things with lots of grip. I’m now proud to say my first investment in the industry has been a pair of ugly, outlandish clunkers, and not, say, a beautiful chef’s knife. That’s next on the list.

A delectable and unique dessert, the bacon and egg cream, with custard, chocolate foam, bacon, and smoked syrup

As I briefly mentioned, the best parts of my short career so far has been when I’ve been on the line, meaning standing behind the counter, facing into the dining room, helping work garde manger and plating the cold apps and desserts. Over the first two weeks I learned how to plate a fruit cake (swirl a dollop of custard into a pretty shape on a plate, center cake on top of it, dollop blueberry compote around one edge, dust with confectioner’s sugar), a hazelnut tart (carefully squeeze out several blobs of grape sauce into a pretty pattern on a plate, arrange several squares of tart over sauce, top with candied nuts), and apple pie (place apple pie on plate, place quenelle of flavored whipped cream on top, flake over mint leaves). This last dessert was something I learned but wasn’t yet allowed to actually plate because of the difficult quenelle. For those who don’t know, a quenelle is the shape your ice cream comes in when you order it at fancy restaurants, a football-like sphere that can be used to present all sorts of purees, mashes, ices, and, I guess, whipped creams, in a pretty fashion. I learned the deceptively simple technique and immediately screwed up my quenelle. An apple cake is ruined, and Chef sends me into the corner to go eat it. That has been another delicious part of the job: Chef will cook up a mini version of one of the dishes on the menu and send me out of sight of the dining room to scarf it down. On the first day he even made me a set of fried fish tacos near the end of service–the sheer quality and quantity of food available to eat is inspiring, delicious, and intimidating–how to choose what to have for dinner?

Lastly, I learned to plate two cold apps, perhaps my proudest moments in the early going. One dish is a sort of mackerel dip served with lettuce leaves, designed to be folded up into lettuce cups and eaten with your hands. The plating was simple and I was allowed to plate this dish on my own after a few tries, but I can’t say every plate I sent out was perfect. On my first solo attempt, I delicately scooped the fish into the bowl, topped it with pickled beets, garnished with dill, and selected four pristine sheets of lettuce to serve as the scooping implements. I place the bowl on the expediting counter where it’s picked up by servers and brought to the table. Smooth, right? Except I forgot to crumble the gribenes (crispy chicken skin) over the top, as advertised by the menu! (Please don’t tell anyone, I still haven’t).

The second dish I plated was a more complicated Brussels sprout appetizers. When the order comes in, lots has to come together at once. I call over to meat station for an order of croutons, which are then tossed in the deep frier while I pull out the correct plate, squeeze caesar dressing over it in some geometric pattern of dots using a squeeze bottle, and pull out a mixing bowl. Into the bowl go pre-roasted sprouts, pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil, lemon juice, a sauce made from raisins rehydrated in red wine vinegar, salt to taste (and way more than you would think), and halved grape. On my first few tries, the chef I was working with would at this point taste the dish and instruct me on its seasoning. The first few times, as I expected, my salting was way too low, but after a few tries I was told that my first mixing was the best yet! I was getting the hang of it! After a few minutes the croutons would be ready, I’d grab them out of the frier, place them carefully one by one on top of each dollop of caesar, and then arrange the sprouts mixture over the croutons, making sure it didn’t look too messy. A final sprinkling of parmesan and off to the expediter it went. (I must admit that I forgot the grapes during my first solo plating–no one was watching and I got away with it–but hopefully there wasn’t some eagle-eyed diner who noticed the as advertised “Brussels sprouts-raisins, grapes, pine nuts, pumpernickel, caesar dressing” was missing the grapes. Oops. Subsequent platings went better and better, however, and when I was told to plate one just for myself (yeah, that happens pretty often in the kitchen), I whipped up the salad, gobbled it down in the back, and appreciated the deliciousnousness of my efforts.)

Brussels sprouts with raisins, grapes, pine nuts, pumpernickel, caesar dressing

Keep an eye out for an update in a few weeks!


-Chef Rednax