Jun 15, 2011

Working at a restaurant- Cooking confessions & humiliations

We have been talking about our food confessions. A lot of them involve snarfing down way too much food. Or hiding the good food from our family, so we can snarf it later. Hah!

Today I wanted to share a few embarrassing cooking confessions that all occurred while I was working in a restaurant many years ago. Normally in the kitchen you might start off washing dishes, and I did, but since we were short handed I only had about 20 minutes at that station before moving on to the pantry. The pantry is basically the cold line - you prepare salads and desserts. Since this restaurant was slightly upscale, there was a ton of prep work to be done for each dish.

I started each day by taking stock of what vegetables, fruits and nuts were low in stock, and prepped them. Then I made the salad dressings from scratch. Then I moved on to making the croutons, which I inevitably burned since I would forget to set a timer. After the basics were done, I made whipped butter, piped it into rosettes onto parchment paper, and got those ready for the waiters to serve with the fresh bread.

What made it quite the workout was the fact that our freezer and refrigerator were at the bottom of the building and I had to hustle my butt up and down the stairs all day long, carrying stainless steel pans full of ingredients. When the kitchen is 110+ degrees in the Summer and you are sprinting down flights of stairs, believe me, it can get to be a workout. You tend to linger a few minutes longer in the walk in refrigerator than necessary just to cool down your body.

I guess I should say a word or two about the chef. The one real positive that I can say about him is that he gave me a job when I was about 18 and had no kitchen experience other than home cooking. That was very nice of him. Other than that, he was kind of a creep. Being a chef is, I imagine, very stressful and difficult. It takes strong personalities to do the job. Unfortunately his personality was that of condescension, hotheadedness and sarcasm. He was all smiles and charm during the interview, but once I got to work, it all changed.

Basically this was my dream job, working in a 'real' kitchen (and starting at the bottom was just fine with me), and I think he knew it and very quickly started to treat me like crap because I was too nice. Being a female in a mostly male kitchen is hard. Don't let anyone tell you different on that. You have to have a thick skin to deal with all of the extra criticism, and having thick skin is something I've never been good at. I should also state that while plenty of times I deserved the criticism, there were also twice as many times that he made it a point to humiliate me, ridicule me, and generally try his best to be an awful human being.

Working in a kitchen is also physically very hard. You know how employees are supposed to be guaranteed breaks during the day? Yeah, that doesn't fly in a kitchen. You work hard for 14 hour shifts, in 100+ degree kitchen, and you consider yourself lucky if you get a single 5 minute break to catch your breath during your shift.

So that is all to say, when I messed up in front of him and the other cooks, it was humiliating. Totally mortifying. I'd try to laugh it off and focus on the task at hand, but I still have pangs of embarrassment when I think back on it. Like the time when I:
  • Threw out the hearts (the insides) of the romaine lettuce, the very best part, because I thought the 'heart' of any lettuce was bitter and not meant to be eaten. The chef stood staring down at the trash can, a whole bunch of romaine hearts looking back up at him, and he proceeded to chew me out in front of the line cooks. (Of course, he should have)
  • Took far too much time washing each strawberry by hand instead of rinsing the entire (huge) carton at once, utilizing the clear carton they came in, which has holes in the bottom, and works great as a colander. He proceeded to chew me out in front of the line cooks. (Of course, he should have)
  • While cutting up a pear for a complex salad tower (yes, a salad tower!), I sliced off the side of my thumb. Normally you would wrap it up, throw on a rubber glove, and get back to work. This cut was so bad I spent the entire night in the back of the kitchen, holding it up high above my head and applying pressure while it refused to stop bleeding. So humiliating!
  • I locked myself in the sub zero freezer at the bottom of the building, which could have killed me. This was an old hotel that the restaurant was in, and if you made the mistake of letting the HEAVY door to the sub zero close behind you, you weren't guaranteed to be able to open it to get out. I was locked in there for about 45 minutes freezing my butt off, with no phone of course. When they say sub zero, they mean it! Luckily after a while a line cook walked by the adjoining room, I banged on the door and he heard me and freed me. I never made that mistake again.
  • Finally, the straw that broke the camels back. The final incident before I quit. There was a big wedding we were catering, and I had the most boring task of rolling up a truck load of deli meat and arranging it on a giant mirrored serving dish. This thing was several feet across, and thin as a piece of mirror. It took forever to roll up all that meat, and I was hustling. Right in front of me, the chef pulled aside a line cook and loudly made fun of how long it was taking me to finish the task, then laughed at me.
    I was so pissed off, and I told myself tonight I would quit. I didn't want to let him get to me, but I'd had enough. Want to know the best part? As he and another cook were moving this giant piece of glass to the basement to refrigerate it, the weight of ALL of that deli meat broke the mirror, and it all came crashing down the stairway. Karma baby!
Looking back on it, I really wish I hadn't quit. I let a creep get under my skin and I quit a job that I really, really loved. Very shortly after I quit, so did the chef! Which makes me think he had some issues going on in his real life that perhaps he was taking out on me, but I'll never know. Since then, they have relocated and renamed the restaurant, completely reworked the menu, and I hope the environment there has chilled out a bit. When I look back on it now, as hard as it was and for all the crap I put up with, I miss it so much, and I'm thankful that I had the opportunity the take a peek into the restaurant industry.

Every night after a grueling day in the kitchen, I'd put the top down on my red convertible (this was before I was a mommy with a mommy car), put Pink Floyd in the CD player, and drive home under the bright moon and stars. I had put my entire heart and body into making it through each day, and I was so happy.

Have you ever worked in a profession kitchen before? How were your experiences in the kitchen?


  1. What a great story! I, too, have worked in a professional kitchen--one summer my sister and I catered weddings at a dude ranch (yes--that's right--Dude Ranch). Though I can't remember any embarrasing moments, I do remember one bride who spray painted tumbleweeds in silver and hung blue Christmas balls on them for centerpieces. I'll NEVER forget that.

    Hope you have a great day!
    Stephanie from Deviantly Domesticated

  2. Thank you for sharing. I've had a few jobs in small kitchen and unfortunately I never enjoyed the work. I am glad to say those days are behind me as I 'stress free' cook food in my own kitchen for my own family with no perfection or time pressure required.

  3. This is uncanny. Right before I read this (and I mean literally the second before I started reading), I was telling my husband I really wanted to share a funny story from my past on my blog but didn't know if anyone would be insterested that much in me to read it. And then I read this and was enthralled! I really dug reading about this snippet of your past, so I hope if I decide to share my story that people will be equally...well, if not enthralled at least interested. This was a great read, Ali! I've never worked in a kitchen except my own, so I had no idea stuff like this went on behind the lines. You were hard core!

  4. Wow. There's no way I could deal with that kind of stress! Stress over strawberries? No thanks you! haha It's really interesting to hear about your experience though. It's too bad they treated you like that. Even if people have things going on in their lives there's no excuse.

    I worked at a deli sandwich place for a few years when I was younger. I loved it. It had little stress and I loved working in a clean and fresh environment (if that makes sense). Obviously it's not the same as a professional kitchen, but it helped me with my knife skills. lol

  5. I owned a coffe house, lunch room for several years. I had a woman send back her lunch because the bread on her sandwhich was cold.(Mind you, she didn't ask for it to be heated -so replate!) Then she sent the plate back because the meat was cold. (She didn't know we replated, she thought, same meat, different bread) The she said her tea was watery. (It had been sitting, without her drinking it for 15 minutes) My waitress came back in and told me the woman was returning her pickle, because it was crooked. As I fumed and went to meet the woman and tell her the dining experience was over, the girls laughed and told me the pickle incident was a joke. After that difficult clients all had crooked pickles! As a cook, you are at the mercy of the public.... :)

  6. I've been in kitchens for too many years! My most memorable job was last year at a local mom-and-pop diner. I worked with a guy who'd been there for years. He was miserable and over-bearing. It was HIS kitchen. He knew I had experience when I started, and in all of his personal insecurity, he kept me in the corner of the kitchen making salads. He never let me help him, even when we were over-run with orders. He used to be a contracted musician, and he bitched about his band falling apart constantly, and gossiped about everyone. yelled at servers, the whole nine yards. But over two years' time, he developed a habit of spitting in peoples' food. I saw him stomping on raw chicken one day before deep frying it, because it was for the boss's nephew, whom he despised (he called them rich spoiled bastards) Nobody likes to be a rat, but one night this guy spit in someone's burger. I tried to convince him not to send it, but he told me to mind my own business. So I went to the dining room and took the burger back before it got served. I told the boss what happened. Boss said nothing, just sent us both home. The next shift, Boss confronts ME. Says he talked to the spitter, and that of course spitter denied it. Boss called me a liar, saying that this guy would never do such a thing, and how dare I lie about someone. He fired me on the spot. Since then, alot of the servers have called me and told me how sorry they were that I was canned. I guess no-one ever said that life was fair, but I still can't digest this one!