Friday, August 21, 2015

What you learn in the heat of the kitchen


As restaurant-goers, few of us get to see where all the real action is – the kitchen. I’ve walked through a few in my time, but it’s only recently, while curating a special menu for a hotel chain, that I actually felt its heat, not to mention the chilli powder that lands in your eye as spatulas fly over sizzling handis.
It’s an atmosphere far removed from the elegance of starched table linen, sparkling glasses and smooth service. Here, all is noise, heat and chaos, or seemingly so. Of course, there’s method in this madness, or no food would make it to the table. And those who’ve mastered it are the kitchen staff – chefs, sous chefs, line cooks – a group of people unlike any you’ll encounter elsewhere.
In the days I spent in this particular kitchen, I observed that, like any workplace, this team is made up of ‘types’. There’s the natural born leader, who, whether he’s head chef or not, conducts the kitchen orchestra with remarkable assuredness, a pat here, a kick there, and ensuring food reaches ‘pick-up’ in the quickest time. There’s the cook who’s put in 20 years and yet lost none of his passion, moving between prep area, cold storage and blazing fire with a grace that comes with time. There’s the angry young man, with a permanent snarl, and another who chops, stirs, tastes and serves with Zen-like calm.
They were all so different, sometimes clashing and hurling abuse at each other, sometimes bonding long enough to share a loud and risqué joke and, at others, closing ranks against the serving staff screaming for their orders. With all their peculiarities, amidst the heightened emotions and the high drama, I came to understand that every member of this kitchen team was completely devoted to his task, that of putting out the best food possible. They were so palpably driven by the confidence that they are, indeed, the beating heart of a restaurant.
There’s a description in Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential that pins down this unique quality of kitchen staff:  ‘We're too busy, and too close, and we spend too much time together as an extended, dysfunctional family to care about sex, gender preference, race or national origin. After level of skills, it's how sensitive you are to criticism and perceived insult - and how well you can give it right back - that determines your place in the food chain.’

I guess the best kitchen teams are made up of people who might be considered misfits elsewhere. Despite their differences in age, language or background, they have the remarkable ability to come together and function as a team, fulfilling those KOTs meal service after meal service. Sure, cooking skills count, but restaurateurs would also do well to look for that unique ability and a definite love for the heat of the kitchen when hiring staff.

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