Updated: Jul 20, 2021
Making Things Happen
One thing to understand is that every situation is going to be slightly different. Not even two steaks from the same animal will necessarily cook the same way, no matter how hard you try—if only because you can’t cook both of them in the exact same spot at the same time, and if you do cook them in the same spot it simply cannot be at the same time—so don’t even get hung up on how two different people might act or react to one another.
Every situation will be different, every day will be a new day, every shipment of tomatoes could be better or worse than the last. Prices will change, food supplies will be abundant or scarce; people will change, or they will come and go like the seasons. To some of them we may grow attached, but overall it’s a drifting profession, if only because most of us can’t afford school (not that any of us “believe” in that sort of thing) and the only way to get a widely-varied base knowledge of cookery is by working in numerous restaurants, with numerous chefs and brothers-in-combat.
We still believe in apprenticeship but we also know the vast majority of those we meet are only passing through, even following an extended stay, because we create our own apprenticeships (or we can) and, more often than not, we uphold our own convoluted standards before anybody else’s.
And as for those who would be considered worthy: On Saturday night when the line is short, take the initiative and kickstart double-time: Grille, set plates when Saute is getting pummeled. Saute, set plates when Grille is getting pummeled. When orders come in and everything’s on Pantry and you two are standing around with your fucking thumbs up your asses—unacceptable. One of you needs to hop over and help bust out those tickets so we can keep this ball going (likewise, when Saute and Grille are both getting slammed, and Pantry’s got nothing going on, Pantry better be able to at least try and lend a hand): Because if not, the whole ship’s going down, and that shit sinks fast.
Lesser cooks in these situations may wish to point fingers. That is only natural. But more often than not, the one who points the finger, does so as a means of denying deflecting ignoring their own involvement: If the line is a little weak, because someone has a bit less experience than you, and the tickets start piling in, does it make sense to stand by and watch your less-experienced cook(s) go down before helping them out of a bind? When you allow your colleagues to fall into the shit, you yourself will be in the shit.
Greater cooks, and perhaps any number of future and current chefs, will make it happen.
Because that is what we, as professionals, do.
We make things happen.
Very rarely do we say no. Very rarely do we arbitrarily eighty-six anything without at least trying to finagle a solution.
Very rarely, because we are yes folks.
We are soldiers on one side of a war, with the customers are on the other side of it. We rely on the customers to bring in sales and we rely on sales to continue to pay people and collectors. But we are on two sides of a shovel and we, as cooks, are subject to your customer customized whims and fancies, your sugar lows and your need for convenience or food memory re-creation.
And if we’re soldiers, we recognize that we’ve gotta get through boot camp before we might be deployed; and we need to endure any number of tours before we can reasonably expect the respect and recognition of promotion, title, and chiefdom. Because simplicity is the ultimate expression of refinement: One cannot simply begin one’s cooking career by serving salmon grilled and seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper—this does not necessarily make for a true respect for and appreciation of the ingredient(s). This, settled-for too early along the path, creates huge potential for laziness.
In addition to the managerial or cheffy aspect of balancing personality and compromising in order to keep the kitchen running smoothly, a true cook will understand the ingredients and not only how to prepare them, but also how to fix them when they are broken: A true cook will have burnt more meat, poultry, and seafood than he’s served properly prepared; will have oversalted more dishes than he cares to admit; will have over- or undercooked any number of proteins but managed to finagle a way to “get it done and out the window” anyway (if not faster).
If you take the easy route; if you settle for the salted and peppered grilled salmon and think that all of a sudden you know how to make the best salmon and never really care to learn any other method of cookery, or lie about it when it comes up;—then all you are is a hack. But if you have prepared a blackened salmon and really blackened it, to the point of being literally inedible, and if you have eaten old salmon and fresh salmon and grilled salmon and sauteed salmon and fried salmon and thusly understand the various results of the application of different methods of cooking in order to conclude that salted and peppered grilled salmon is the great ideal, and furthermore understand how to make it happen, then perhaps you’ll qualify.
Because at the end of the day it’s all about what you, the individual, take from it. Did you learn something? Did it get your adrenaline going? Are you high on the fact that you got slammed with ten steaks, seven fettuccini, five caesar salads, and ten pepperoni pizzas—while everyone was on break—but managed nevertheless to get it done? Did you help your team to succeed? Did you fail in any way, whether in the eyes of your superiors or, more importantly, in your own view or that of your colleagues? If so, how can and will you do better the next time that same failure is the immediate future looming before you? Because it’s not what you go through, it’s how you get through it. This is what defines the transition of becoming, into the state of having become.
To a large degree you will always be just a cook. The cook that you are will inform the chef you will be. More than anything, a chef is a cook who has mastered his own self through any manner of trial and tribulation. And any good cook has got to have a general understanding, at the very least, of the culinary history and tradition of not only the food in which he currently specializes, but especially all the food he had to make and that he didn’t specialize in, and all the concepts and restaurateurs he didn’t believe in; all the people he didn’t get along with, and all the relationships he couldn’t have—just as much as all those relationships he did have, whether in spite or because of it all. That very adversity, and overcoming it, is exactly what becomes the secret ingredient in every dish. Good cooks know their craft because they’ve had to do things they didn’t want to.
Cooks do tend to be temperamental. Cooks do often have strong relationships with food, sometimes with intricacies and nuances bordering on eccentric. Cooks do work long hours and strive for perfection even in spite of its unattainability in a true sense. Good cooks also keep their kitchens clean, and keep their colleagues motivated. They understand that effective schedulling is also cost-efficient, and they understand the importance of balancing the numbers and keeping in mind the average in all things. They know that so much of everything has to do with babysitting adults, and they know how to pass along their knowledge to the next generation. They know why they do food, and they know what food means to them; they understand their role in the kitchen and they embrace it. They don’t mind the long hours and they don’t mind the inappropriate side-lines and commentary because they’re probably in on the joke, too (and because many cooks are also just barely better than the best of the worst lot).
Cooks cook in pots and they smoke pot; they drink coffee and snort cocaine, they drink excessively, they do acid on their weekends; they deal drugs, they go to (or are coming from) jail or prison or halfway houses; they cheat on their girlfriends and boyfriends, they play pranks on each other, they fuck anything that moves and sometimes that’s truly literal. Cooks have tattoos, piercings, criminal records, broken homes, probations and paroles, addictive obsessive neurotic masochistic socially awkward ego-tudes and personalities, and children and families and bills and shitty transportation and cigarettes and e-cigarettes, and they chew spit swallow sip clink slap bang push taste pump it out for the greater dining public, day in and day out.
To be a cook is to be in such a state of becoming; the raw energy, above-listed or otherwise described, is that which is to be tamed (which is not to say subdued, but rather acknowledged and understood), or mastered. And his past, whatever it may be, is the very thing which allows him to better-know, and better-understand. As a cook you are going to meet some ridiculous people. You are going to have to deal with mutinous staff and fanatics, laziness and uppity fuckers insane with optimism; and you’re going to have to wrestle with and attempt to understand the emotions other people evoke in you.
And you’re going to best understand how to do that, when you understand what motivates you, especially when business is slow or if you have to prepare a menu dictated and made ridiculous by the owner’s own ignorance. You are going to have to train staff, which means you’re going to understand your kitchen, and recognize both their strengths and weaknesses. You need to know how to make a prep list, and you need to understand the importance that every role plays in the kitchen. You are going to have to foster a sense of camaraderie and promote teamwork, you are going to have to work multiple stations when it’s slow, you are going to be subject to the fact and necessity of labor-saving techniques, and you are going to have to truly embrace adversity, and understand it for its diversity. Whatever it takes, you will adapt to every new situation and you will make it happen.