6 Things Working in a Professional Kitchen Can Teach You

6 Things Working in a ProfessionalKitchen Can Teach You-3.png1. To Be On Time

If you’re not on time in the kitchen you will quickly lose the respect of your co-workers. Being on time is a non-negotiable, in fact, it is common to hear the phrase “15 minutes early is considered on time in the kitchen”. Follow this rule and you’re on your way to being a decent cook.

2. To listen properly

If you don’t learn to listen properly in the kitchen, you’re not going to survive. Chef’s are short on time and short in temper, so they will only tell you what to do and how to do it once. Listen carefully, to all of the instructions. I find repeating back the instructions helps me get it right. If Chef says, “Get three carrots, one daikon, three chilis. Thinly julienne carrots and daikon. Finely dice chilli.” – I will respond with “three carrot, one daikon julienne, three chilli fine dice. Yes, Chef”. This allows you to confirm with Chef that you have heard the instructions properly. It allows Chef the chance to correct you before you’ve made any mistakes. It also helps you to remember the instructions properly. I find most chefs won’t mind you doing this as an apprentice.

3. To cook

Pretty obvious, but learning how to cook is an essential life skill and there’s nothing better than learning how to do it properly. From making the perfect fried egg to the creamiest mash potato, life in the kitchen will equip you with life-long cooking skills.

4. To respect authority

The kitchen is a tough, militaristic environment. As a kid I questioned authority constantly, I think it can be a healthy thing. But in the kitchen, especially as an apprentice, the only option is to respect those above you (i.e. everyone) and to obey orders.

5. To think for yourself

Sometimes in the kitchen, you will find yourself standing at a bench, alone, wondering what the f*** to do. Everyone is busy, you don’t dare interrupt. What do you do? Any chef will tell you, the last thing you want to do is nothing. The old adage goes “if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean”. When in doubt – clean! But look for other things to do. What jobs do you know how to do and that you know need doing. Do sauce bottles need refilling? Do it. Does the cool room need cleaning? Do it. You’ll find that as you get on with these self assigned tasks, chefs will find you to do other work. Don’t worry, that’s what you want. To always be busy and to not need babysitting every second of the day.

6. To be a perfectionist

Good is not good enough. Okay is terrible. Whatever you do strive for perfection. Don’t cut corners and if you did it wrong, do it again. Work clean, work fast and never give up.

 

“The man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself” William Zinsser

William Zinsser is talking about his craft of writing, of course, but one can easily extrapolate this quote and apply it to any craft. Even to the craft of say, cooking? Absolutely!

Being an apprentice chef can be frustrating and sometimes we lack inspiration. As a new apprentice, you are learning the basics in the kitchen. You are still learning who is of authority, what the unwritten rules are and what is expected of you. You are still adapting to the long hours and the aches in your body. Sometimes you don’t know what the fuck you are doing. In the kitchen, it is natural to lack inspiration sometimes.

But this is your craft. You must push through the times you lack inspiration. The times when you want to give up. These are the times you are really learning your craft, your trade. If you love something you will do it, with a smile, even when your body and mind are screaming at you to sit down and have a beer and a cigarette.

The nice thing about the kitchen is that you know your shift will end. No matter how deep in the weeds you are, service will end, you will clean up and then you can go home and have that beer. The stress stays in the kitchen and the exhaustion at the end of the shift is a satisfying exhaustion. You pushed through and you feel amazing!

The Trouble With Ice Cream – Plating Up Desserts

Scooping ice cream seems pretty simple right?

As one of my first responsibilities in the kitchen during service, Chef has asked me to take on the responsibility of plating up desserts. Mainly we serve sticky date pudding – this consists of a moist warm date cake, with sticky butterscotch sauce and home made vanilla ice cream. It is divine. 

Serving this delightful dessert seems relatively simple. Warm the cake, warm the sauce, plate cake, drench in sauce and place delicious scoop of ice cream atop the saucy cake.

It seems that plating even a simple dessert is fraught with pitfalls. Every ice cream scoop I have brought up to the pass on my sticky date has been rejected by the head chef and redone. They are either too small, too melty, or too funny shaped. I can’t seem to get the damned thing right.

To be honest, when I scooped the ice cream, I was having an awful time of it. The desserts took more than twenty minutes to get out, the chef wasn’t pleased and I was dealing with a bad skin reaction to deseeding chilis – which I was still trying to do at that stage.

I think this says a lot about attitude and preparation. I was finding it hard to plate up these desserts for two reasons. One I hadn’t prepared properly. I didn’t have my station set up as I wasn’t aware I would be plating desserts. I think it is now important for me to confirm with Chef that this will be my responsibility of the night service. After receiving confirmation I need to set up my station, ice cream scoop in hot water, correct bowls at the ready, pan ready for sauce, oven hot enough to warm the cakes fast.

The second reason I was struggling was my attitude. Due to said skin reaction, I was distracted and losing patience fast. I was unable to recollect myself and make the rest of service work. That’s okay. I’m only human – but I can do better next time.

All of this to say, plating desserts is harder than I thought. I think the solution to this problem is clear: I’ll have to purchase some ice cream, or better yet make some ice cream, and get to scooping!

 

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Last night I became well acquainted with chilies. Chef had asked me to deseed a box full of red hot chili peppers. I threw myself enthusiastically at the task: Take pepper. Trim top and tail and take off any part that doesn’t look impeccable. Make an incision down the length of the chili and open the chili up. Take your thumb and run it down the inside of the chili removing the seeds and surrounding tissues. Repeat ad infinitum.

For a while, I was totally happy in my own little chili world. I got into a sort of trace and let my thoughts drift away from me. Occasionally I was interrupted by chef, yelling ‘Two Sticky Date. One Honeypot”, to which I would scramble around assembling desserts to the best of my ability (to be truthful rather sloppily). After dessert assemblage I would go back to my chilies. What I wasn’t aware of was my skin’s sensitivity to the chemical that makes chili delightfully hot – capsaicin. After four hours of deseeding the burning became unbearable. I ran to the sink to wash my hands under cold water every second I could. It was 10 pm, the end of service. Time to clean. This is when chef noticed something wasn’t right with me. I didn’t want to bring attention to myself but the searing burn was becoming too painful to ignore. I laughed to chef that I should’ve worn gloves. Chef said I should’ve but I don’t think he found it funny. Finally after dipping my hands into vinegar, rubbing burn cream into my hands and standing in the cool room with my hands raised in front of the air vents, I asked to go home.

I drove home and couldn’t sleep all night and ended up calling in sick this morning – a great shame in the cooking business. My hands are still sore but far from searing with pain as they were last night. I am exhausted from a night of painful, interrupted sleep.

Apprentice Lesson learned: Don’t be a dumbass, wear gloves for this task.

I have a new respect for chilies. The incredible power of the capsaicin put me out of the kitchen game through the next day. Chilies are an incredible plant and I can’t wait to get back to the kitchen to master them. I’m thinking dishes featuring chili jam, stuffed jalapeños and spicy, fermented kimchi ought to do the trick.

I’ve got my eyes on the Hot Sauce Cookbook. It’s packed with spicy, chilli delights and will certainly help me develop my palate for spicy food.

There’s only one way in the kitchen when you’ve made a mistake: pick yourself up, dust yourself off and, with new respect, come back to the ingredient that had previously gotten the best of you. Rest assured, I’ll be wearing gloves next time.

Note to reader: this article contains Amazon affiliate links. By clicking on these links and shopping in Amazon for any item, you are supporting this blog and my chefs apprenticeship. By clicking on these links, there is no additional cost to you.