What Chefs Would Tell You – If You Asked
Chef’s aren’t like other people, they’re just not. How could they be? They work in a hot and humid climate all day long, and most of the night too.
People appreciate what they do, but they almost never get the satisfaction of hearing that applause or even a direct compliment. As for the tips their talents generate? They almost never see a red cent of it.
What they do get is to experience intense pressure, have their work held to high standards and have to do this over and over again. They are only ever as good as their last meal.
They could work like heroes all week, but if they even mess up one dish, on one table suddenly they’re excoriated and shunned, if only till things blow over. That’s the job of a chef, that’s their life but it doesn’t stop them having opinions about you! About how easy you have it and about their lack of patience with your gripes and complaints. Here’s what they’re thinking and…here’s what they’ll tell you if you ask them, or, and don’t do this please, provoke them.
1. Keep Your Nails Clipped
We’ll get this disgusting one over and done with early. Chefs, good ones (and you need to be good) must be immaculate about hygiene, so long fingernails are out, out, out! They also spend all day, and often all of the night too, on their feet so apart from being fetishtic about wearing quality, non slip, footwear (footwear being second only to knives in the chef’s pantheon of fetishes) they keep their toenails short.
When you’re on your feet all the time you can’t risk the agony of a nail “growing in.” There’s no footstools in kitchens. Look after your feet. The only people to take as much care of their feet as chefs are professional footballers and, let’s be honest, compared to chefs, professional footballers are lousy role models.
Bonus Insight1: Chef’s don’t hang around with people with dirty fingernails, fact! When was the last time you saw a chef hanging out with a mechanic?
Bonus Insight2: I said chefs fetishise knives, didn’t I? It’s true. They fetishize them so much that I can confidently predict that at least 70% of chefs can tell straight away the country of origin of the knife above. And a disturbingly high number of them can tell you the foundry from which it comes.
2. Don’t Wait For Orders Anticipate Predictable Work and just Do It
Chef’s have a concept for this and a name too, it’s called “mise en place.” This is work they need to do and “put in it’s place.” There’s no waiting around, they just do it. For chefs it’s the work they have to get done before the work begins. Here’s an analogy for office workers: it’s the equivalent of making sure that the photocopier is fully loaded at the start of the day, It’s having a template for everything, for absolutely everything.
If a chef were to transfer to doing office work and found themselves having to write the same letters or emails more than once, they’d create templates for it and use text placeholders for the customisable bits. In the kitchen there’s no room for inefficiency and, if only they knew, Chefs would be bewildered by how slovenly you are in your work habits. That, my friends is the meaning of “mise en place.”
3. Work like your livelihood depends on it
Chefs work in a highly labour intensive business, a business with wafer thin profit margins (despite what you might think) and are responsible adding lots of value to already expensive perishables. If they haven’t already had that miserable experience of showing up for work one day to find the place mysteriously locked up and the owner gone missing, then they’ve had friends who’ve had. They don’t take their jobs for granted and if you asked them they’d tell you not to either.
4. Don’t Fake It Till You Make It, Know Stuff!
Faking it in kitchens is fatal, or near fatal. Chefs spend entirely unreasonable amounts of their own hard earned money on learning materials, especially books. They don’t wait around and wonder when their employer is going to provide them with a special training program or seminar, they study…all their lives. Being good at their work matters to them, it really matters, and they take charge of getting good at what they do because they know it’s their job, no one else’s.
You on the other hand expect knowledge and training to be served up to you on a plate. Chefs despise this passive sense of entitlement non chefs, like you, take for granted.
5. Chefs Know How To “Make Do”
Whining and complaining gets you nowhere fast in the world of professional kitchens and if, let’s say, the Kitchen Aid Mixer breaks down there’s no way on earth that’s going to change what’s on the menu. Which means Chefs make do. If there’s egg whites to be beaten to snow white peaks, for meringue, Chefs’ grab a bowl and a whisk and beat the living daylights out of it until it’s all snowy peaks and their arms ache. If there’s bread to be made they, quite literally, roll up their sleeves and get kneading. They “make do,” get the job done and so should you.
6. Develop A Thick Skin
Kitchens are the most deadline intensive pieces of real estate in the world. The pressure is explosive and that leads to people saying (shouting) things in the heat of the moment, things that aren’t complimentary or designed to boost your self esteem. Chefs are humans too, the’ve feelings and they can get hurt just like everyone else.
What they don’t do is sulk and demand “interventions,” they dust themselves down and don’t take things personally. Neither should you, you’re a pro, right? Had a rough day at the office? Go tell you dog about it because it’ll cut no impression on a Chef.
7. Make Sure Your Work Passes The Taste Test
There are two places spoofers and chancers can’t survive, at least not for very long: The world of professional sport, and kitchens. There are no hiding places for chefs who don’t get the work done or who produce bad work. Do bad work and, in professional kitchens, you get destroyed, on the spot! Do it regularly and then you’re beyond redemption, beyond even our help.
8. Learn About Obligations, Not Just Rights
Rights are great, we all love them, I know I do. Obligations? Not so much. Chefs live in a world of obligations. Chefs know that if they’re “heavy of head” in the morning calling in a “sickie” isn’t an option. Why? Because unlike other jobs nothing can be deferred and everything must be done right here and done right now.
And who’s going to have to do the work if they don’t show up? Simple, their work mates who are also their friends, maybe their best friends, the very people who help them out when their back is to the wall, when their “station” is getting hammered. If a chef decides to “call in one” he’s (or she’s) not “sticking it to the man” he’s sticking to to his friends, his friends who, on top of their own heavy work burden, now have to shoulder sleepy head’s work too, so it simply doesn’t happen. Or it happens very rarely, a kitchen is a very lonely place without friends.
9. Admit Your Ignorance, Ask For Knowledge, Share Your Knowledge
Kitchens are the ultimate collaborative working environment, a kitchen fails unless it’s greater than the sum of all it’s parts working in symphonic coordination. It’s not the right place for selfish people, but it is the one place in the world where knowledge is always freely exchanged. The penalties for mistakes are severe, so chefs, at least the smart ones, never, never, pretend knowledge they don’t have. They know it’s better to fess up their ignorance, and learn, than mess up and get run over.
10. Learn to Relish, Truly Relish Your Free Time
I was chatting to a chef yesterday who’s delighted with his new job, totally thrilled. You know why? Because “It’s only a 30 minute commute and he “only” works 9-10 hours per day.” He’s overjoyed. He say’s he finally has time for his family! Would you be “overjoyed” at a 9-10 work day? Probably not. To a lot of chefs it’s almost as good as a half day, not quite, but it’s getting there. So however hard you think you have it, and perhaps your life isn’t a bed of roses, unless you’re a chef, or a Navy Seal, chances are your life affords you plenty of leisure time. Enjoy, make the most of it, and most of all spare a thought for those who get a lot less of it.
Update: This article has caused a lot of controversy on Facebook and elsewhere because we implied that Chefs are not civilians. While we didn’t intend, or expect, that people would take this so seriously let me state that we know Chefs are in fact civilians themselves. However a few words in our defense we made the distinction because kitchens, like the military, are often run on the basis of unquestioning discipline “Yes Chef” replacing the “Yes Sir” expected in the army and also because the very language within kitchens often has a military hue to it. For example who hasn’t heard kitchen staff being referred to as either, 1. The Kitchen Crew (Naval rather than military, I admit) or 2. The Kitchen Brigade. In any case we are sorry if we upset anyone but in appropriating the terms we did we intended them to be analogous rather than literal.
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