Life On The Line...

Chapter one

I jumped into cooking on a bit of a whim. With little to no hesitation. After spending many years in the art business I was looking/needing to change my life. 

It started with a class in 1998. A gift, to sit in with a local chef and watch them prepare something amazing. Then you get to taste the somethings and take home all the recipes. 

Then I learned that I could volunteer to assist the chefs. I could take the class, work along side the chefs and it was free. A win win. 

After volunteering  several times, I asked one of the chefs what it would take to become a cook. She invited me to visit her restaurant to see what I thought.

The next day I showed up excited to see the action of a real kitchen. After a few hours of me trying to stay out the way, in a very tiny space, she said, "I would ask you what you thought but you haven't stopped smiling the entire time." I hadn't. I loved it.

It looked like it would be a great deal of fun. Playing with food and getting paid. How naive.

She offered me a job. I started the next night, training on the saute station, I took to it right away, and stayed for almost 4 years.

I got lucky. She was an excellent chef on the verge of a great career. It was her first restaurant so she spent a lot of time in the kitchen. But she was a hot head. She screamed and yelled at us. Occasionally throwing things at us. Like plates of food. God help us if one of her plate wasn't what she wanted. It should be 13 inches tall and it's only 12, you had better duck. She would not hesitate to throw a full plate back at us through the window if she wasn't pleased. She was horrible, but brilliant.

Through it all I learned a great deal. It fed a passion I feel toward food. It's an art, it's creative, it's sensual. It's also very hot, horrible hours, low wages, no security or benefits, and very stressful.  Serious cuts and burns are part the daily joys.  The pressure can be over whelming. It's a running joke in every kitchen that it takes a special kind of crazy to survive in the restaurant industry. It's funny because it's true.

Kitchens are a counter culture that most never see and even fewer understand. Cooks or BOH (back of house) are a strange mix of people. Under educated, over educated, lots of drugs addicts, drug dealers, alcoholics, ex-cons, illegal aliens, witness relocation, students, drop outs, burn outs, mid life crisis, and at times the occasional killer, predator or flat out psychopaths. 

They are also a close knit group of transients. Usually accepting of everyone's quirks. You have to be. Conditions are close. The hours alone make it hard for you to have friends and sometimes family whom aren't in the industry. We work nights, holidays, weekends. Some places are never closed, 24/7, 365. Your days off are during the week. You run on a schedule that is almost the opposite of the rest of the world.  It can be great to have days off when the rest of the world is working. places are less crowded, and most things are open.

It is also very difficult to maintain any sort of normal relationship. If you're not in the industry the life style is difficult to understand.  I practically missed my child's entire life between ages of 7 and 10. It contributed to my divorce. 

It's the hours we work. Horrible, late, long. Most cooks are night people. As I write this it's 2am. 

At my current position, a Sous Chef at an international hotel chain, I work an average of 60+ hours a week. 10-12 hours a day, five days, often it's six. Often it's as many as 20 days in a row without a day off. 12pm to 12am or later. I spend the first two hours checking everything out, checking in with other sous', cooks, managers, going over the line set up, mise en place, specials, prep, banquets, special events, and the restaurant.I have to do my own line work and mise en place. The next 6-7 hours are spent on the line as the saute/grill chef. I run the line. I cover a section that is 14 feet long. The hot side is responsible for all of the entree dishes for dinner and a few items off the bar and pool menus, not to mention room service.  It's very hot. On average it runs about 85-120 degrees.  There are few breaks, sometimes none. It can be crazy busy one night and slow the next. Most night we serve about 200-300 covers a day. The last couple of hours are spent cleaning up, putting things away, going over inventory, placing orders, writing the prep list, organizing walk-ins,checking the other cooks line and cleaning, helping the dish washer clear the pit, checking in with the night cleaners and sending a nightly passdown email to all of the managers and chefs. 

Give or take...



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