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

"Another thing is this," he continues, "…free hours. Most cooks that are serious don't worry so much about the clock as they do about being right and learning, being set up. Most will even come in early to show you they're serious. When they start doing that, you can just keep heaping more and more stuff onto them."

There is a Marine Corps tactic being used in kitchens with much regularity: the old rip down and build back up. "That's from the chef's cookbook of how to build an ideal employee," Tycer says. "You have to, first of all, show them how little they know about what you want them to do, and then show them how to get there. You recognize each success and build from there."

What may sound to the layperson like cruel kidnapper mind-molding actually makes cooks better, Tycer insists. "It's that old Nietzschean concept of 'that which does not kill us…' That's especially true in kitchens."

John Rash trained under a chef who threw spinach at 
him.
Daniel Kramer
John Rash trained under a chef who threw spinach at him.
Scott Tycer says top chefs often use intellectual 
abuse to get their way in the kitchen.
Daniel Kramer
Scott Tycer says top chefs often use intellectual abuse to get their way in the kitchen.

But pleasing a chef is only part of the game. Assimilation into the pod can be an equally daunting task. "Chances are, if you don't fit in right away, you're going to be made fun of," Tycer notes. "No one wants that, and again, it can either break you or motivate you to try harder so that it doesn't happen."

Be sure to mark "shame" on the list of effective point makers.

How can anyone put up with it all -- the heat, the pace, the yelling, the sharp knives, the mind games, the taunting chides, the Spanish shit-talking -- and come out the other side a sane human being?

"A lot don't," Tycer says matter-of-factly. "Most chefs are lying, cheating, dirty, rotten alcoholics."


Wanna be a chef? Well, says Anthony Bourdain, "If you're used to being treated with some modicum of dignity, spoken to or interacted with as a human being, seen as an equal -- a sensitive, multidimensional entity with hopes, dreams, aspirations and opinions, the sort of qualities you'd expect of most working persons -- then maybe you should reconsider what you'll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month course put this nonsense in your head to start with."

Bourdain should know. After some 25 years in the biz, he is author of the wildly successful and mercilessly succinct cook's tome Kitchen Confidential, a story about his adventures in New York restaurants. In many ways, its place of origin is irrelevant. The theme of grinding it out is universal and has instant appeal to anyone who's wanted to cut off their feet after a shift to stop the aching.

Bourdain's passages are filled with various lowlifes, denizens, drunken louts, losers and heroin addicts (him). In it, he tells stories of seeing cooks lop off digits that have been caught in an oven door just to collect union benefits, watching cooks sew up their own cuts and seeing one chef in particular bang an inebriated newlywed, wedding dress still on, by the Dumpster at her reception. It's a wild ride and a fascinating read that is the best possible way for persons who've never spent a hot minute in a kitchen to get the quick lowdown.

The book's readers -- those who haven't actually lived it -- might come away with a question. Is this really how it is or has to be? The answer is yes and no.

Restaurant kitchens, generally, yes, will break your mind and spirit in the first few years if you don't have an overwhelming desire and passion for the job. Stop dreaming. The flip side of this coin, of course, is that not everyone cooks in a restaurant, and these alternative environments do have gates able to keep the bull's horns a comfortable distance from your cheeky posterior.

Hotels, what with their huge human resources departments and staggering number of employees, have policies to ensure that you never, ever have to, say, stab an abusive cook in the knuckle with a meat fork as Bourdain did to end his harassment. It just never escalates to that level in hotel kitchens.

Speaking under agreed-upon anonymity, a chef at a downtown Houston hotel says the safety afforded cooks has its ups and downs. "They can file complaints against me, and every three months they file surveys about management," he says. "We are absolutely accountable for our actions, which is a good thing, but the paperwork is overwhelming."

The paperwork includes keeping meticulous logs on everything from overcooked food that's been sent back to minor tiffs with the help. "I can't yell at my employees, which can be hard at times -- if a cook ruins $300 worth of food for a party by overseasoning, for instance. What am I supposed to do, smile?" The cook's built-in safety valves preclude any stern disciplining, which keeps hotel chefs searching for effective ways to manage, having thrown out a huge chapter of the restaurant chef's managerial arsenal. "I end up talking to a lot of cooks like they're babies," he explains, adding mockingly, "Do you understand what you did wrong?"

Perhaps forced niceties and baby talk don't get you excited either. There's always your next option: Work for a woman. Hamilton's experience with Chef Mengele aside, most women chefs are just easier to get along with, according to Claire Smith, top toque at Shade.

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