Turns out, I didn't know much. I sat in culinary school listening to my chef instructor drone on about the seven "mother" sauces, sanitation and proper straining technique while, jacket freshly crisped, writing it all befittingly in a notebook.
Later, during demo, I practiced knife cuts casually while joking with classmates. "Your brunoise is too big," I teased as rosy, peaceful thoughts of running my own kitchen danced inside my naive pea.
I make "out of this world" chili and pretty mean barbecued chicken. Everyone says so. Couple that with the fact that there isn't enough Adderall in the world to get me through the math and science requirements of "real" school, and this is where life's path has taken me: a funny-hat, apron-adorned, baggy-pants heaven where I can go as far as my imagination will allow. Besides, I think, it takes only two years to become a full-fledged chef like Emeril! Get outta here!
Close to seven years ago, an extremely green 24-year-old youngster (read: me) strutted his first pair of no-slip rubber soles into a professional kitchen for the first of many body blows.
Kitchens then were vicious locker rooms with all the civility of a British soccer hooligan. We were slaves to the industry, sweating like R. Kelly at a Girl Scout meeting, presided over by evil men in toques and white jackets trying to break us.
Not much has changed in the years since. Kitchens remain throbbing, cruel beasts that have brought many a would-be chef to tears. No one is prepared for how ridiculously brutal it can be.
Horror stories are worn in the industry like badges of honor.
Jason Kerr, formerly a sous-chef under T'afia's Monica Pope (and current Shaken and Stirred columnist), had a jar of truffles thrown at him that ended up smashing to bits over a fryer, burning him in spots.
Daily Review Cafe head honcho John Rash had a chef who tested spinach for seasoning in a peculiar way: He threw it at him. "If it's seasoned it won't stick to you. That's how he'd check. I'd come home with green spots all over the back of my jacket."
Sambuca's former sous-chef John Dias remembers a particular randy French/ Belgian hothead he worked for in Bel Air, California. "He threw plates." At Dias? "At me, at the wall, on the floor all of it." In one episode, another sous-chef wound up with a deep cut in his arm thanks to the unfortunate ricochet of porcelain shrapnel. "He wrapped it up and kept working."
Jared Hunter had the good fortune to work under one of the nation's best: Southwestern-cuisine god Mark Miller. Sadly, he also reported to a hulking redneck of a man who would empty a trash can onto his station if he found a leaf of usable romaine among its contents. "That guy was crazy," he recalls. "He used to stop cuts from bleeding by searing himself on white-hot pans."
In his time, former Houstonian sous-chef Lance Feagan (his own restaurant, the Glass Wall, opens in the Heights early next year) has had a couple of run-ins with chefs looking to prove a point -- the most vivid being a busy weekend when his superior decided to teach him a lesson about talking back. "He'd call out, 'Three shrimp,' but need three strips. I'd put the shrimp in the window and he'd say, 'What are you doing? I don't need this!' " The scenario continued until Feagan started eyeing the tickets himself over Tricky Dick's shoulder, which is precisely when the rules of the game changed.
"He started saying everything was the wrong temperature: 'That's overdone.' 'That's underdone.' He sent everything I cooked back to me." Feagan, then all of 21, and full of piss and vinegar, started cooking steaks to perfection, and his crafty chef began accidentally dropping plates. "He must've dropped 20 plates that night just to make my life miserable. I got the picture and never back-talked a superior again."
Think of all the existing pressure, drama and stress of your job now double it and add fire and someone calling you "faggot" in Spanish. Add to that the odor of fish coating your hands, and sour armpits, and you begin to approach what it's like.
Laura Hamilton, currently pastry chef at the Rainbow Lodge after filling the same role at Vic & Anthony's, has always been fascinated by food. As with most chefs, family dinners in her household were an event of Super Bowl-sized proportions, a four-course "Thrilla in Manila" every night of the week. As a successful (yet unhappy) paralegal, Hamilton couldn't shake the thought of cooking for a living. She researched restaurants around town, picked one of critical note and headed in to tell the chef of her intentions.
What she got was a cross-examination that would've impressed her co-workers back at the law office from a chef who thought she was batshit crazy.
"He told me, flat out, 'This is ridiculous. You'd be going from making what you do as a paralegal to making minimum wage. You can't call in sick, even when you're sick.' He laid it all out there for me, gave me the whole speech and told me what to expect."
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."
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.
"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."
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.
"I came up through the business working for women chefs in vegan restaurants on the West Coast," she says. "This entire world of Kitchen Confidential abuses is very foreign to me. I've just never had a problem with any of that type of stuff."
Why are women easier to work for?
"We're better at multitasking, handling pressure and, in some ways, handling pain. I don't know, you just don't have to deal with all the machismo stuff that comes with a lot of male chefs."
Her sous-chef/breadmaker Emily Wells concurs. "It's stressful. There have been a few times where I've been getting killed on the grill or something and will just cry, but, yeah, I've never had to deal with much yelling either."
Big specialty markets such as Rice Epicurean and Whole Foods are poaching a lot of chef talent these days, what with their fancy "benefits," "competitive wages" and something called a "relaxed environment." Many of the protections that exist in hotels are present in these corporate structures as well, with the added benefit that chefs never have to prepare food in a rush. That three-bean dip you're making for the chef's case doesn't need to be finished until tomorrow.
Why aren't the owners of houndstooth pants and backless clogs breaking down the doors of jukes like this? Tycer offers an astute explanation. "In that type of corporate atmosphere, you're more of a kitchen laborer than a chef, really."
So in a word: prestige. You have to get yelled at by the best to become the best. Accept it or take your marbles to Central Market.
Mark Holley, executive chef at the high-end seafood powerhouse Pesce, has arms riddled by burn marks ("oven tattoos") after 25 years of kitchen warfare.
Working a steady job as a kitchen manager at the Mason Jar, the boisterous and always entertaining Holley began to set his sights up the culinary mountain. He knew that, like all cooks new to the industry, he'd have to take a few steps back before edging ever forward.
He did so under a bunch of meticulous and detail-oriented French hard-asses at the Meridien Hotel, a hot spot in Houston's big-oil '80s. He learned all the French cooking basics, ignoring as best he could daily questions about his ability to learn highly refined techniques that required expertise (he was, after all, a "dumb American").
The French, testing the fortitude of their newest addition, put him on 90 days' probation to see if he'd buck up or fold.
Holley found himself doing menial, bottom-scraper tasks such as ripping apart lobsters and stabbing the tails with skewers to keep them straight. He was also in charge of tourneting oodles of vegetables (creating a Titanic-era seven-sided cut) only to have them thrown away by a less-than-satisfied chef who wasn't happy with Holley's uneven edges.
Determined to make him crack, his superiors began making him eat French delicacies the young man from Columbus, Ohio, wasn't thrilled about chewing.
"I remember vividly the first time a chef made me eat raw sea urchin remember, this is 20-some-odd years ago -- there wasn't a sushi restaurant on every corner back then. Anyway, they made me eat it to, you know, test me. I put it in my mouth and looked them all straight in the eye to prove to them that I wanted this. When they walked away, I spit it out into a napkin and threw it in the trash can." (He likes sea urchins now, by the way.)
Holley's time at the Meridien was tough by all descriptions. Today his management style reflects his upbringing through the industry by those French tutors -- minus, he says, the head games. First and foremost he gives all interviewees a long list of expectations that may have escaped them when company-party compliments about their artichoke dip filled their heads with delusions of celebrity-chef grandeur.
Holley knows that the industry is being romanticized. Food Network blowhards have turned every couch potato with a paring knife into a 30 Minute Meal guru with patchy impressions about the industry, formed about as well as O.J. Simpson's search for the real killers. Because of this trend, new doe-eyed youngsters with Bobby Flay dreams and Emeril aspirations are given an even lengthier shakedown. Beat around the bush, Holley does not. "I tell them it takes about ten years of a love-hate relationship with the industry before you really know if you're going to make it."
Ten frigging years?!
"What I mean is this: Of course you love to cook, that's why most are drawn to the industry. That's the love. The hate is a lot of things. You hate the pay for at least five, possibly even eight, years. You hate the long hours. You hate working holidays and weekends. You hate a good deal of it. You've got to want it."
Any cook worth his weight in kosher salt has war stories from "back in the day" when he attempted to scoot a woefully overcooked porterhouse past the chef.
Here he is -- name over the door, sole responsibility for any criticism his place may receive -- and you're handing him a snapper fillet blanketed by a hideous, broken beurre blanc? A tongue-lashing means you got off light, friend.
You'll soon learn that keeping your mouth shut, your eyes down and your nose to the grindstone is just the bit of sugar you need to make that inevitable spoonful of disciplinary medicine go down easier. Swallowing a bit of pride will help, too. Learn it here and now, or learn it the hard way.
Like me. I've been choked by a chef for running out of Caesar dressing on a busy weekend. His frothy, panicked words -- "This is not a joke to me, motherfucker!" -- still ring in my ears at night when all goes quiet and I'm left alone in thought.
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