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10 Tips For Surviving A Professional Kitchen

Walking into a new kitchen for the first time can be an extremely scary thing. Each professional kitchen has its own culture and way of doing things. If you take one misguided step, you risk embarrassing yourself - not to mention possibly ending up in the ER with a chef-inflicted knife wound.  To help you make a good first, and lasting impression, and to avoid costly doctor bills, here are my top ten tips for surviving a professional kitchen.

1) Always Stay Calm.

This is much easier said then done. Professional kitchens are extremely high stress environments and it takes discipline and nerves of steel not to freak out. When someone in my kitchen is nervous, it makes me nervous and it makes the chef really nervous. We can smell your fear like a pack of wild dogs tracking an injured animal. Even if you're freaking out on the inside, you need to project a calm exterior; this will show that you have confidence in yourself and your abilities. Also, it's not your job to start screaming at one of your fellow cooks or the wait staff. (Let the Sous Chef or Chef handle that one.) I know Mr. Wanna-Be-Tom-Cruise-Waiting-Tables-Until-He-Gets-His-Big-Break is a smug, arrogant prick. He wouldn't know good food if you force fed him a French Laundry tasting menu. Guess what, he's not your problem! So calm down and focus on the food before the chef kills you.

2) Move Deliberately And With Efficiency.

This point can not be over stressed. In a professional kitchen efficiency of movement is key. A dead giveaway that you're a "shoemaker" is when you start running around the kitchen like a damned chicken with its head cut off. Take a moment to collect your thoughts, gather your product for prep, and cut out any unnecessary movements. Here's a tip: anytime you have to pick something up or put it down, that's considered a step. Break your production into small steps to minimize movement and maximize speed and efficiency. I once had a sous chef that anytime he saw me working inefficiently, he would come up, put his arm around me and say, "Let me tell you the story of this guy named Henry Ford..."

3) Always Ask For Clarification.

If you're not clear on a task that has been assigned to you, ASK! Sure, if you make a habit of this, it will probably piss the chef off because it shows that you're not paying attention. However, the worst thing you can do is to be unsure about a task or technique and end up preparing the food wrong. Great kitchens are all about consistency. Trust me, you're much less likely to get smacked upside the head with a hot saute pan when asking for clarification than for screwing up the chef's food.

4) Don't Pretend You Know More Than You Do.

Don't BS people about your knowledge or experience. If anything, you need to under promise and over deliver. Professional cooks and chefs are an extremely egotistical bunch; there's a lot of pompous talk about talent and knowledge. Learn to walk-the-walk before you talk-the-talk.  Also, stop trying to impress people with French culinary terms. If they're applicable in the conversation, then use them. However, don't start throwing out some terminology to try and impress the chef. He'll be plenty impressed if you can learn the food and produce a consistent product.

5) Be Aware of Your Surroundings.

A kitchen is a crowded, hectic place. Let people know where you are at all times. Yell "corner" when walking around a corner. Say "Behind You" when walking behind someone. Say "Sharp" if you're walking by someone with a sharp knife and say "Hot" if you're walking around the kitchen with a hot pot. Not adhering to these rules is considered rude and dangerous, not to mention that it's a dead giveaway that you haven't spent much time in a professional kitchen. For a seasoned pro, these “call outs” are second nature. Chefs have been known to body check cooks into stoves when they try and walk behind them on the hotline without saying "Behind."

6) Do Your Homework.

Most restaurants have web pages complete with their menus. Read the menu and do research on any terms or dishes that you're not familiar with. Also, Google the restaurant name and the Executive Chef's name and read any article or web page to better understand what you're getting yourself into. This should be done before you even apply for the job. Make sure you're familiar with the restaurant, their food, and the chef's reputation before stepping foot into a new kitchen.

7) Shut Up And Stop Brown-Nosing!

When you first start in a new kitchen, try not to talk unless spoken to, or ask a direct question about the food or the current task at hand. Learn the cultural dynamics of the kitchen before you open your mouth and make a fool of yourself. The easiest way to alienate yourself on the first day of your new job is by being a “Chatty Cathy”.  And for God's sake, DON'T BROWN-NOSE! If you want to gain the chef's favor, keep your mouth shut, work hard, and follow the tips in this article. Trust me, the chef already knows how awesome he is, even if he really isn't.

8) Be Clean And Organized.

Always keep your station clean and organized, and be sure to put everything in its proper place before moving onto another task. Keep all your product organized around your work station, and try to keep your jacket and apron as clean as possible. You can usually identify the pecking order of any kitchen by how dirty the aprons and jackets are. The dirtier the jacket, the lower down the totem pole they usually are.

9) Limit Your Vices.

This may seem like a strange tip if you've never worked in a professional kitchen. The fact of the matter is, people who work in restaurants tend to be a hard- partying bunch. If you've spent anytime in the industry, chances are you've seen your fair share of extremely talented individuals self-destruct because of problems with alcohol and drug abuse. You'd be surprised how much of an advantage you'd have over other people in the industry if you're not constantly showing up to work hung over or drained from other forms of degenerate partying.

10) Have A Purpose.

Working in a professional kitchen requires so much time, effort, and energy that you will not last if you don't have a purpose for being there. Maybe it's to study under a great chef, or to see how the restaurant is managed. Whatever it is, make sure the restaurant you work at is moving you towards your culinary goals. You do have a goal, don't you? You better, because if you don't, you're doomed to be a miserable failure.

What Is Your Tip? Do you work in a professional kitchen. What tips do you have for surviving this crazy line of work? Click on the comment button below to let me know.

How To Fry Herb Leaves In The Microwave

Fried herb leaves are a garnish that has been around for ages. This technique, however, is lesser known than that of just throwing some herb leaves into hot oil. The problem with oil frying your leaves is that they will curl up, and usually turn brown. Using a microwave to fry your herb leaves for garnish will allow you to keep them nice and flat.
 

  • Start by picking the herb leaves that you want to fry and dipping them in canola oil. Here I'm using sage leaves, but mint and basil also work great.
  • Take an oven safe plate with a slightly raised rim and stretch a piece of plastic wrap over it so that it is nice and tight.
  • Take your herb leaves that were dipped in oil and spread them out on top of the plastic wrap.
  • Cover with another piece of plastic, wrapping it securely around the plate.
  • Poke a couple of holes in the plastic, and then microwave on high for about 3-4 minutes.
  • Carefully remove the plate from the microwave using a thick towel or an oven mitt. The plate will be extremely hot.
  • Once the plate has cooled enough to handle, carefully remove the top sheet of plastic wrap and lay the herb leaves between paper towels to dry.

The reason why this works is because of how microwaves interact with the water molecules in the herb leaves. The microwaves start knocking the water molecules around which in turn start pushing the oil molecules around. Since heat is nothing more than a measurement of molecular movement, the oil in which the herb leaves were dipped heats up and "fries" them.
 
A nice little touch is to brush the herb leaves with gold dust, especially if used for a dessert garnish.

Six Questions About Being A Professional Chef

A listener by the name of Stephen wrote me the other day with 6 questions about becoming a professional cook. Instead of writing him back directly, I figured the best way to answer his questions were in the form of a blog post so other readers could benefit as well. So here they are, 6 questions about becoming a professional cook.

What is the best part of the work?

For me, there are many things that I love about working in a professional kitchen, but if I had to choose only one, I would have to say pursuing food knowledge. I find food absolutely fascinating; how the slightest change in flavor, texture, and seasoning can be the difference between an OK dish and some of the best food ever. I also like the instant gratification you get when a customer absolutely loves your dish; I've never been a rock star, but when someone raves about my food, I sometimes feel like I am.
Also, your tasks in a professional kitchen are very structured and defined. You have set goals for prep, execution, plating, etc., on a daily basis. It gives your work an intense focus without abstractions; either you can get the job done properly or you can't. I've always found that working towards defined goals and achieving them is one of the best personal motivators in the world. In a kitchen, you get to do this on a daily basis.

What is the worst part of the work?

Although every profession has its own set of irritants, I hesitate to label anything the “worst” part of my job because there are things that I knowingly accepted as part of the struggle to achieve my culinary goals. I find that when people, especially in restaurants, label something as "the worst part of my day" or

 

"the worst part of my job" that they are instantly admitting defeat and letting that "worst thing" take over valuable time and effort, as well as their mental and physical energy.
 
Some things that will sometimes make my job more difficult are:
Spending nights and weekends away from my wife and child. Although she is extremely supportive, and she knew exactly what she was signing up for when we got married, I sometimes feel guilty that we can't have nights and weekends off together like most other married couples. However, when we do have time off together, it just makes it that much more special.
Not being able to spend Christmas and Thanksgiving with my family. I have a large extended family that I love deeply. The two days a year where almost everyone gets together are Christmas and Thanksgiving; because of the restaurant I have chosen to work for, I can no longer make these family gatherings.

How much money does a good cook expect to make?

It depends on where you work and who you work for. In the culinary industry, there is actually a reversal of salaries; the better the restaurant, the lower the pay. This is because truly passionate cooks are willing to sacrifice the lower pay to be able to put that great restaurant on their resume, and more importantly, take with them the techniques that restaurant offers to teach them. The industry average for line cook pay will range anywhere from just over $19,000 (on the low side) to $25,000 (on the high side). Hotels, union restaurants and corporate chain restaurants are known to pay more money and provide benefits, but don't expect them to teach you the newest and greatest techniques. Really, they just want you to show up and work your station. There is an old rallying cry among cooks in professional kitchens: "We came for the long hours, and stayed for the low pay." Being a cook isn't about money, it's about passion.

What would you tell someone who is wanting to become a cook?

If you’re just starting out, I have three keys to your success to being a line cook: (1) Passion, (2) Humility, and (3) Knowledge.
 
Passion. This is what is going to make all the sacrifice, low pay, and long hours worth it. You have to have a defined, passionate goal; something you want to work towards. And you need to have passion about food and someday being a professional chef. Without true passion, you will never succeed in a restaurant kitchen.
 
Humility. It doesn't matter how much you know about cooking or even being a line cook, you always have to be humble and be willing to learn new things. You can never be "too good" to clean floors, peel vegetables, and/or make stock. In fact, some of my fondest memories are when I first started out as a prep cook. They were simpler times with a world of possibilities at my feet. Enjoy it while it lasts.
 
Knowledge. If you want to be a professional cook/chef, you can never stop learning and you must have a burning desire to learn more about food and the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on, and work for the best chef who will let you step foot in their kitchen, even if you have to start out by working for free. The sacrifice and investment in time will pay huge dividends in the long run.

What is better in your opinion, morning shifts working breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner shifts, or dinner only restaurants?

This is a personal preference more than a "what is better." For me, I'm passionate about fine dining, so I prefer to work in a “dinner only” establishment because it allows me the time and focus I need to put out the best food possible. There is nothing wrong with being a breakfast or lunch cook, but each position requires different talents, passions, and goals. It's basically the difference between being a monster truck mechanic or a sports car mechanic; both have to have the same fundamental knowledge and skills, but their passion is what ultimately directs them in one direction or the other.

How do you decide in what type of restaurant you want to work?

For me, when I first started out, I decided that I wanted to work exclusively in fine dining because it opened up the most possibilities. It's really hard for someone who works at a mid-level bistro to make the jump to fine dining because most high level restaurants require years of experience before they even give you a call back on your resume. Starting out, I would recommend working for the best restaurant that you possibly can, and see where your passion leads you. It's much easier to go from fine dinning to rustic bistro than the other way around.

Fifty Fifty Beer Dinner At Stella

Last Friday we teamed up with Fifty Fifty Brewery to do a "Brew Master's Dinner." We had a lot of fun putting this menu together and Brew Master Todd Ashmen held the crowd captivated as he discussed each beer pairing.

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