Chefs Rule!

If you can't stand the sight of lopped-off digits and the smell of your own flesh burning, get out of the kitchen

Undeterred, Hamilton decided to take the plunge and try out kitchen work for six months, figuring if it was as awful as described she could always go back to the land of lawyers.

Her first few weeks were spent soaking up culinary knowledge like a mushroom cap, along with knowledge of another kind. Her fair skin and blond hair didn't give the Hispanic cooks working alongside her any clue that she spoke fluent Spanish.

"I heard things that made my skin crawl, crude things about what these guys would do to me sexually if given the chance," she recalls, laughing. "When I finally did unleash all this Spanish upon them weeks later, they were shocked and embarrassed. But I was embarrassed too, because I already knew what they thought of all my body parts."

Mark Holley says it takes about ten years before you 
know whether you'll make it as a chef.
Daniel Kramer
Mark Holley says it takes about ten years before you know whether you'll make it as a chef.

Hamilton kept on keeping on, outshining her sexually charged fellows and moving up the ladder one dime at a time. She came in early and stayed late. She volunteered to make extra batches of everything and hoarded knowledge like a ravenous squirrel who's just come upon a bag of Planters. Soon she found herself assistant pastry chef. Things didn't get any easier.

"I was working a station that usually requires two to three people by myself," she remembers. "My chef was…busy doing nothing, and I'm just getting buried."

Restaurant folk know the condition well. They call it being in the weeds.

"So I'm in the weeds working really fast and I burn my entire right arm on the rail of an oven." As she peeled her scorched skin from the metal, a giant water-filled blister began to form. "It was the most horrible pain I could possibly imagine."

Hamilton, a new mother, still stands by the statement.

"I looked at my chef, told her what just happened, and she looked at me and said, 'Laura, people burn themselves all the time in kitchens; it's not that big a deal. You need to just keep working.'

"I had to get a bus tub filled with ice water and stick my arm in it every few minutes to numb it to keep working. At the end of the night I told her, 'This really hurts. I think I'd like to go to the hospital before I pass out.' "

Chef Mother Teresa was less than understanding. Rather than sympathizing, she treated Hamilton to a lecture about workmen's comp and how it drives up costs.

"She said I'd be letting down the team if I went to the hospital." Hamilton decided to screw the team and headed to the hospital, where her arm was effectively wrapped and pain pills were dispensed. The next morning she did what she'd been told in the first interview she could never do: She called her superior to inform her she wouldn't be able to make it in for her shift.

"She went crazy and started telling me that it was no excuse."

"Sometimes throwing a sauté pan makes an effective point," Scott Tycer tells me as he holds court at a corner table ("my office," he calls it) in his highly lauded restaurant, Aries."Sometimes slamming an oven door makes an effective point," he says with a chuckle.

Once a cook with "embarrassingly low standards," Tycer is now regarded as one of America's top chefs, even named such by Food & Wine in 2003. Refreshingly honest and remarkably candid, he measures his speech with as much painstaking accuracy as he does his dishes.

He talks about chefs in California who threw entire trays of food (plates and all) into the trash if just one tiny detail was flawed. And they didn't even do it for the cameras like Fox's Hell's Kitchen puppet Gordon Ramsay. There are the typical stories of tyrannical chefs screaming demeaning sentiments at their underlings.

In fact, the No. 1 customer complaint during Tycer's tenure at Spago in Palo Alto was from folks unhappy about hearing obscenities pour forth from the open kitchen.

Big frightening, physically violent gestures are, ultimately, not a good managerial tool. You begin to develop a reputation, and soon find yourself unable to retain or attain staff. As his tiny glasses may forecast, Tycer is more interested in intellectual abuse, the head games that go on in the game of culinary chess.

"There're all these different ways in kitchens to get leverage, okay?" he schools.


"Once you figure out what someone wants out of the job, then you've got leverage over them. For instance, if someone were to walk into Spago and say, 'I want to be a sous-chef,' he or she automatically has said, 'This is what your leverage over me is.' " He pauses. "At that point the chef starts manipulating you with that. It may be true of other businesses, but it's especially brutal in the restaurant business.

"They might take you aside after a shift and say something like" -- he assumes character -- " 'You know, I'm just not sure you're able to handle this job. I might have to move you out. I might have to move someone else up.' Now that can be one of two things, depending how you look at it: abusive or motivating. For me it was the latter, because I love a direct challenge.

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