Lesson 6: What in the World is Going on in the Kitchen?

On the LineOkay students, if you want to work in a professional kitchen one day, or you are just reading this out of curiosity, then you need to know about the Kitchen Brigade.

Most of you know about the Executive Chef and the Sous Chef. The executive, as you all may have gathered, is the big nuts boy (or girl), the one running the whole show back there. If they are any good at what they do, they will be more like Chef Gordon Ramsay and less like wimpy Gomer Pyle. From my years as a Trainer, I learned that when it came to students, familiarity does indeed breed contempt. The more I'd try to befriend them, the less they would respect me. The same holds true if you are indecisive. I learned the hard way that you gotta walk in with all your peacock feathers spread out and show your confidence. It really helps to actually be confident and that comes from really knowing what you're talking about.



I have to be honest with you, I always hated that expression "Those who can't, teach" because in order to teach, you have to have every single detail of your lessons burned in your brain, you gotta be able to answer all the questions, you gotta be able to speak from experience and be the go to person. When I was a Teller Trainer, I had to attend Teller Training twice and work as a Teller for 3 weeks before I was ordained to teach the kids the ways of bank regulations and handling people's money.

This is the whole point I'm embarking on this madness of teaching myself to become a chef. If you don't know a sous chef from sushi chef, then who can respect you?

As you know, not every Restaurant Owner can afford to hire a full classical Kitchen Brigade involving a Saucier, a Grill Station Chef, a Soup Chef, Fry Chef, Pastry Chef and on and on. But most restaurant kitchens need to be organized with the bare bones basics. Luckily, I did work as a waitress for most of my teen years: Sonic was my very first job. Then I worked at Golden Corral, Holiday Inn for the breakfast shift, then I moved up to night waitress (better tips) at a nicer hotel restaurant called Derrick's, later moved to an Italian Restaurant called Sweet Basil's where I even had to know the wines we offered and how they paired with the Veal Marsala. I worked in a few more restaurants after that to supplement some of my lower income jobs as I started out in the office world. So, I'm actually quite familiar with a restaurant kitchen.

So, from my own experience I can tell you that at the bare minimum, there needs to be someone running the kitchen and someone running the dining room. In smaller establishments, one manager can run both and assign a lead to both the front and the back. The lead person in the back (who might normally be the Executive Chef in a four-star establishment) has to be a rock star back there. And I mean, the "ARE YOU READY!!" screaming into the microphone kind of rock star. It gets all out military back there. I have to laugh when I read job descriptions for an office saying that it is a "fast-paced" environment because honestly, I have never lived anything faster of an environment like the restaurant. EVERYONE gets military. In the wait staff area, on a busy busy night, your peers will bark at you "BEHIND YOU!" and that means hot food is right behind you and if you don't watch where the hell you're going, some hot filet of pork is going to burn a hole through your buttcheek or 10 glasses of water are going to fall on your head.

You gotta have thick skin. You can't take it personal. If you do, you will go home crying every night, I guarantee it.

The Executive Chef will make sure that the tickets are understood, lined up in order, that the cook's are concentrating on what needs to be prepared next. He helps expedite the plates for the waiter's tray, making sure condiments and sauces and other accouterments are included (unless there is an expediter). During the slow time (2-4pm), he/she checks inventory, orders food, makes sure that the pantry, fridge and freezers are well stocked. But mostly, he/she is delegating, delegating, delegating. Oversee, delegate and follow through. He/She is the Sargent of the Kitchen. And yes, if you don't have your stuff together, they have every right to call you out on it.

The Restaurant Manager generally handles the entire business and often spends more time in the dining room makes sure the face of the restaurant provides a consistent (and good) experience for the customers. You'll often see him/her working with the Hostess, the Bartender, and popping back to ask the Exec Chef about what's going on. He/She handles customer questions and complaints that the wait staff cannot handle. He/She often approve discounts, handles HR related issues with the staff and approve days off, schedule swaps and vacations (oftentimes calling a waiter that is already enjoying a day off to cover for someone who didn't show up). The Restaurant Manager also handles training the front dining room staff while the Exec Chef will be charged with training the kitchen staff.

I remember having to go in during times that the restaurant was closed to have meetings and watch videos about sanitation, customer service, how to serve from the left and take away from the right. The Restaurant Manager, having mastered the art of customer service, helped us understand the importance of, at the very least, acknowledging the customer to let them know we were aware they were waiting and we would be right with them. I hardly see this done and it is such a simple thing to do to keep a customer from getting totally pissed that they haven't been tended to yet.

As for the kitchen, I have pitched in with a few things such as preparing desserts (the wait staff has to prepare desserts if there is no pastry chef and oftentimes, the salads and bread baskets). I also sometimes washed dishes but I never ever cooked food. In every restaurant I worked, even the most brutal boss (who had me get on my knees and scrub slop off kitchen baseboards) never asked me to cook. So, as far as the kitchen is concerned, I have only my observations to go by with regards to frying, boiling, sauteing, roasting and broiling. And of course, the more busy I was, the less I could observe how the chefs and cooks handled it. It certainly helps to have large stoves and I can tell you that cook's would get REALLY pissed of at ME if I told them a customer didn't like the level of donneness of their steak or wanted another dish prepared again because they didn't want olives.

I remember this cook that I'm thinking of. He hated me and wanted to spit in my eyes. I could just tell he wanted to spit in my eyes. I think he wanted me to go back to my customer's tables and tell them "oh well, you're screwed," but I just couldn't. I believed in the philosophy that the customer pays and if we make them happy, they will come back and pay again and again. He didn't share this philosophy with me. I never experienced being a line cook so I couldn't understand his anger (and the unrestrained irritation of many more cooks I worked with) but it was clearly the most stressful job in the house and an extra plate to prepare generally put a kink in the well geared mechanisms of the hot cooking stations.

Then there was the salad station, always on the left side of the kitchen for some reason. I remember that at the beginning of my shift, I would have to load a 10 gallon salad dispenser over my head and into this holder. Then, throughout the night, we would just open the little door on the bottom and use our hands to grab salad and put it in a large bowl. Then we'd toss it with with dressing using tongs and serve it. People ate it. Nice, huh?

Only at the country club, did I see an actual salad station where I didn't have to prepare the salad myself. The salad chef also prepared the roll baskets and the desserts. She also often did prep work for the hot food chefs. I remember that was really nice. The hot station chefs hated it when she was off and so did we. As a waitress, your customers have to wait longer for a coffee refill if you have to stop and make a salad and prepare desserts for your other tables. 

Of all the places I worked, I never dealt with a Sous Chef. The Sous Chef does much of the work of an Executive Chef. He/She is definitely the assistant rock star: focusing quite a bit on the menu and making sure that the food is cooked, plated and presented properly. He/she is also a lead in the kitchen helps train staff and ensure good performance. Again, this position is usually created for larger restaurants and kitchens that need this type of arrangement.

That said, my dear friends. I hope this gives you a little insight to the restaurant kitchen.

With Love,
Michelle, former waitress, hostess, sometimes mgr, sometimes dishwasher and most recently seller, lunch catering and baker.

All at these fine establishments:
Sonic
Holiday Inn
Golden Corral
Mazzio's Pizza
Ponca City Country Club
Derrick's
Sweet Basil's
AJ's Seafood Restaurant & Bar
Short Hills
Gerhard's Cafe and Bakery
Michelle's Cakes  lil cake biz in my home.. :-)

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