Chefs, Food

Never ever become a chef: advice from a chef

Recently a 13-year-old kitchen dish hand (dish pig, dish bitch whichever you fancy) told me that he aspired to be an architect, something that brought a smile to my face – Ahhh to be young. I asked him what burning desire drove him to this conclusion, assuming he would say perhaps “I am passionate about drawing and design” or “my spacial skills are quite good, and I like challenges” or even “I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetic nature of a building”. however the response was slightly less convivial  “architects earn 6.3 million dollars annually”… after informing him that perhaps if he were Renzo Piano he may indeed earn that annually, however financial gain is possibly not the best incentive (particularly considering the average median salary for an exiting masters graduate employed full-time in Australia as an architect is 45K for a male, and 41K for a female). He then asked me an odd assortment of questions including:

“Should I not go to University?”

“Should I learn a trade/join the mining industry?”

“Why are you a chef?”

Astounded by the daunting stereotype of a generation who no longer follows passion but monetary gain, I hoped that perhaps one day, someone as bright as this young man could channel the same amount of passion he has in his future career as he does in his current endeavours (which I can only assume if he’s anything like I was, would have been: masturbation, anything involving the opposite sex and/or trying to procure alcoholic beverages). But the last was the biggest catalyst of the series. “Why are you a Chef?” What led me here, what keeps me here? After sharing a few stories with him about where I found my passion for food, he asked me what its like being a chef? So I thought i’d share some revelations, and insights. Ideally if this could reach anyone, its kids, teens, tweens and the like who aspire to be chefs, like I did many a year ago. This is a compilation of all the reasons you shouldn’t be a chef:

You will miss important life occasions

Birthdays; Public Holidays; Occasional Weddings; Parties; Christenings; Weekends.

Its unrealistic in this industry to assume that you’ll ever have these off. The rest of the world plays whilst you toil, weekends are almost a taboo – and this will generally eliminate most parties and birthdays as the rest of the world will want to do this on Their weekends. it is possibly the biggest killer of potential chef careers. It can be a very lonesome and frustrating life to those who aren’t willing to make the sacrifice. Regularly I will forgo a friend’s birthday even though I had booked the time off 4 months prior to that occasion (to whom I still have to apologise to regularly) In most industries you can “pick up the workload” on another day if you are unable to work. a kitchen however is more delicate. they have exactly the right amount of staff one person missing can halt the entire functionality of a restaurant. which brings me to my next point.

There is no such thing as sick

If you are not on life support, then you are fine. Cut your finger off? put a band-aid on…or better yet cauterise it on the stove both fast and effective. you have the flu? no you don’t it’s a cold, and even if it were the flu – put a mask on and get your arse to work. In my career, closely drawing a decade now, I’ve had two sick days: both times I was in hospital. If your feet can carry you, you can work…and you will work, nay not even from obligation, but from an odd combination of fear, guilt and compassion. Fear that your family will fail without you, fear that you will return having let them down.

introduction into alcoholism and drug abuse will be very high

It’s no secret that this industry is rife with illicit substances and drunks. We are already sourced from the fringes of society, people who often fit in nowhere else. Some use recreational drugs, some use hard drugs and are completely addicted. Often you will find a waitress or chef racking up lines on a pizza tray at the end of the day before heading out to a night club, looking for escapism. Addiction is high (pardon the pun) among all people in our industry, and your ability to cope, stay away from, or fall into it – is completely up to the individual. You will see some of the highlights of human injustice, and bear witness  to (and possibly be a part of) a plethora, and cocktail of drug (ranging from weed to smack) and alcohol abuse.

Relationships will be difficult

Unless your partner is understanding you will have a string of unfortunate relationships. Another common misconception when someone goes into a relationship with a chef is that we will cook for you constantly. Though we are passionate about food, generally we will be working when you want to be fed. I’m one of the only chefs in my circle of peers who still cooks “properly” at home on a regular basis; most survive on a diet composed of instant meals, take out and dregs of half eaten chip packets. One must not fail to mention that most chefs are courteous and sociable on seldom occasions generally, and they are worse post a shift; only further propelling this relationship over the proverbial waterfall..this babies going over!! Bail overboard whilst you still can!! Time however is probably the biggest killer of relationships in our industry. It is difficult for most (not all, there’s still hope kiddies) to be with someone who is consistently never there, someone who (it seems) is more dedicated to his or her profession than the potential love of his/her life. Time will always be an instigator of hardships when it comes to chefs. which progresses to the next point:

Your hours are fucked

though many people will regularly complain about an 8 hour day (inclusive of 2 to 3 breaks) or even god forbid a 10 hour day, you will savor the rare occasion you get an 8 hour shift with no break whatsoever. The average shift for a chef is around the 12 hour mark (according to a recent census) though I personally and quite regularly work more. You will stand on your feet all day, sweat, and toil. Your entire working career will be an endurance marathon for both your body and mind. cuts, burrs, burns they are all part of the process.

You’re a piece of shit

or at least the majority of your superiors will inform you of this. Where as in the real world verbal bullying is now room for a class action lawsuit, in our domain it is second nature. “You fucking little shit, what is wrong with you?” could roughly translate as “wow, you have made quite a mistake young sir, I’m amazed at how you’ve made such an error” or perhaps “what’s wrong mate? too busy thinking about sucking dicks on your days off to do your fucking job” could easily be interpreted as “excuse me, is something the matter? you seem to have lost concentration and I can see it’s affecting your work”. On occasion it gets multi-lingual “which fuckwit touched my fucking Mise en? are you fucking retarded” which of course means “someone seems to have rifled through my preparation as it is now disorganised, and now I’m in disarray.” Not to mention a lot of this toiling will be for a very minimal pay until you eventually secure a respectable position. Also unlike the majority of things in this modern-day and age you are never “given” anything in this industry – because contrary to the ribbon you get for participating in a school running carnival (coming 4th last) you, like everyone else, start at the very bottom.  you must earn it, you must climb the hierarchy slowly and arduously. No rewards are given for “trying”  either you do your job, or you don’t.. and get fired -simple. Peeling 100kg of potato, picking 1kg of individual thyme leaves (don’t you dare cheat and just strip the stalks, I will throw that shit back in your face) these are all jobs that will challenge your very essence to overcome the sheer boredom, inanity and pain of it, as all of the chefs before you have done. But this is the process, you will start learning, you will always be learning.

But perhaps you are someone like myself, who even after reading this says “who cares” or “I’m better” or even “I’m going to be the best chef who has ever lived” then congratulations, you have the only tool that you’ll ever need to surpass any adversity, to conquer any fear, any challenge and emerge victorious. You have something that people in this day and age lack, something our 13-year-old kitchen hand will one day hopefully learn, something that has driven me to a succesful career. That driving force is passion, passion is not listening to those who doubt you and doing what you’re heart desires, ignoring the nay sayers and becoming what you are capable of. If you so choose to immerse yourself with confidence and dedication, your ends are limitless. If in any profession you are lucky enough to not only be enamoured and passionate about what you do, but also earn a living from it, then nothing will stop you. If per chance this does fall into the hands of a young mind wanting to be moulded I urge you take this wisdom.

Be relentless in your willingness to learn

Never steal, and try not to lie

Be resilient to all adversity; It’s one of the greatest weapons you can use (and there will be many more problems than i have listed here)

You’re never too good, you’re never too old and you’re never too unintelligent to achieve if you so desire

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The Shit Fight

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The war is over. Though many lay bloodied, scarred or on the edge of a pshycotic breakdown; the “christmas period” of the kitchen is at an end. Christmas parties, new years parties, functions, holidaying families, tourists, dates whatever flavour of consumer you are to our industry, you have come…you have decimated, yet you have not (completely) destroyed. The busy period, or the shit fight as we more commonly refer to it, It is the cooking equivalent of an endurance marathon. where after each service you look at yourself and your fellow comrades in a breath of relief, disbelief and utter exhaustion expressing a barely audible phrase, fought through groans and fatigue “thank fuck…that is over” (chefs don’t thank god…we all think we are god).

but what is it exactly you ask that is so stressful, so spirit breaking that we contemplate driving our heads into a concrete wall in an effort to beat the days hardships out of our still searing (chef pun intended) minds? instead of trying to explain to you the entire period; I’ve instead decided to elude you to “a day in the shit fight” start to finish.

08:04

My alarm clock is almost reminiscent of the docket printer…making me think I’ve woken up in service. After having received around 5 hours sleep, last nights six after work beers have left a very slight tinge on my usually perky rise, yet none the less the hangover: version lite 0.1 is far more acceptable and approachable than finishing yesterdays shit fight sober. Thoughts on my mind include – coffee, what mise en place do i need to do, did i put in the order last night? Seriously I need coffee, I should pee, wait…did i put the fucking order in?! after scrolling through my phone and confirming, yes the butcher will indeed be arriving this morning with my meat I’m gifted with the first (and possibly one of the last) wins for the day.

08:52 
I am up, and stirring – showered and dressed (in casual clothes, only cowboys wear there uniform outside of work) all in the space of about 12 minutes. the other time missing was essentially contemplating whether getting out of bed was worth it. Enough procrastinating now…I really need coffee, local cafe pit stop and then on my way to work.

09:22
I arrive at work and check the bookings for the day…oh balls, we’ve picked up 14 more people a la carte, on top of the downstairs 23 cover degustation function tonight we are rapidly becoming an almost overflowing restaurant.. again… I quickly get changed and check mise en levels. fruit and veg is already here, second win. I can prep the garnish for the lamb dish, the function downstairs, the beef dish, the fish dish and all the sides: all before the meat even arrives because today after all is “meat day”. 10kg of lamb backstrap to remove all sinew, portion to specific weight, shape, roll and store for service. 6 pork belly’s are coming in, i need to confit 5 of them but only 4 will fit in the oven…shit. and that will take up the oven space for at least five hours. double shit. then I have to roll three “dicks” of beef… some call it eye fillet, though I’m pretty sure its phallic enough to be a dick. and where the fuck are my Poussin I rolled from last night? WHO TOUCHED MY MISE EN PLACE?!! after accusing everyone of stitching me up, I eventually remember I had sous vide them last night and put them in the cool room. as I work away prepping the garnishes and side dishes I receive a text saying “sorry bro, running late” which as most know: shits me, not because they are late but because as soon as you have wronged me I am no longer “bro” I am “chef”.

10:30
The kitchen is bustling, preps getting done. the mood is still somehow positive. jokes are told, music is sung, arses are slapped (hit the showers) this is the quiet before the storm.

11:00
Front of house arrives to a parade of chefs saying “COFFEE!!!” fiending for our fix, like a junkie cruising the streets of the Kings Cross at unseemly hours of the morning. we continue with the prep rapidly noticing that the clock is drawing ever so close to 12. and we have the majority of our customers arriving at the same time. talk and music fall to a hush the only sounds are the heel of blades on chopping boards, and the searing and clanking of pans.

11:45
A table of six has come early. “WHAT…IS… WRONG WITH YOU!!” is your life that unimportant you cant last till 12 to eat, can you not see the sign that says we open at 12, or that that’s the time you booked. The front of house will seat you regardless, because they are doing their jobs… you wankers. Now you’ve made me harbor rage toward my team. Great. You stitch up bastards. now i have to stop all the prep (which is now all unfinished) clean down the counter top, sweep the floor set up the pass, my pass cloths to polish plates with, every container of salt, every portion of butter to finish dishes, all oils, all bottles, fresh chopping boards, any prep that can come out, the breads for service, the specialty equipment, my spoons for tasting and plating need to be in canisters of hot water, and there needs to be separate canisters of hot water for my dirty spoons, napkins for easy access, wet salt made, ovens and equipment calibrated I want to taste and check all the mise en place before people arrive to ensure quality. I am in a foul mood and am now behind on what needs to be done, all of which has occurred because you have no concept of the value of time. you sir, and your cohort…are cocks.

12:00
As normal people start to arrive we are already firing the entree’s for the early table. My rage starts to increase further as a waitress queries me things i do not want to hear “excuse me chef”..”yes” i reply sternly.
“there’s a woman on table 5..” she replies
“yes?” i ask
“and she wants a vegetarian meal” I pause as if not to come across stupid
“yeah… no worries..there’s the foraged pine mushroom gnocchi or the Heirloom Vegetable garden” she pauses “yeah she doesn’t want those…what else can we do?” “…what else can we do? WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE WEASELS!!…how about a big bowl of piss off elsewhere if you don’t want the fucking food, tell her that’s what she can have”. The waitress leaves for a few minutes and returns “so she can have the fish…but she wants the lamb garnish” i stare incredulously at the young waitress “what the fuck is wrong with everyone…what kind of a vegetarian eats fish and then decides which garnishes she can have with it.. you know what… no. she can have the fish with the fish garnish..its not subway you cant design your own meal”. My rage increasing as we start to heave. the kitchen turns into a blur, bodies moving, pans clattering, garnishes and plates building. the only verse spoken are timings – “2 minutes till pass” and a chorus of “OUI CHEF!!”

13:something-ish
“Chef?” a Solemn faced waiter stares at me “I’m really sorry”
“what?” i reply
“the hag on 42 didn’t realise her duck was perfectly cooked and blushing pink and wants a tough, rubbery piece of shit instead. Can you cook it all the way through for her?”
most expect me to blow my top but in actual fact the pleasant manner i was just told this
was actually quite mood enhancing for me. “Oui dat. Re-fire on duck, well fucked and as rubbery as possible please”. the rest of lunch service carries out in similar fashion. the continuous struggle and battle continues. though We will not fail, it is not an option. we will be victorious. as the last tables desserts are sent out we stare up at the clock again whilst cleaning down the chaos of the busy lunch service. shit its 3 already. and we have 5 hours worth of prep to do before 6. I’m no mathematician… but i think we’re up shit creek.

15:00
Re-prioritising Mise en place after the lunch rush is our first port of call. we can do without the second belly, didn’t sell any pork, we’ll do it tomorrow. Poussins ok? yep. what about venison? yeah we’re on the edge…but we’ll run the gauntlet. she’ll be right… After redrawing the new systematic prep list we start tackling the prep. we move swiftly concentrating on multiple jobs at the same time. the chauffante is blanching vegetables for three different garnishes, the oven is low temperature cooking and dehydrating our olives at the same time. meats are being portioned, trimmed, and someone get me some more butter. butter on everything, you can never have too much butter.

16:22
One of the chefs has knicked his finger on the mandolin slicing radishes. its not too bad, but enough for him to slow in prep. also no one has staff meals sorted (which need to be on the pass at 5) alright
someone make it asap…”you had tomato scraps from the tomato dice bro?”
“yip” the reply fires
“garlic chili en place?”
“oui chef”
“alright someone grab the lardons from the freezer down stairs get the pasta on the crackle.
How many for staff dinner mate?” i yell across the restaurant
“Four” he yells back.
“Seven staffies all up oui dat, oui dat.”

17:00
the majority of prep is done, with only small jobs to be done. pasta Matriciana sits steaming on the pass we sit down and relax and shovel food into our mouths for fifteen minutes. for the chefs this will be the only time we sit down for the day and for some their only meal. This occasion, though seemingly rushed, is savored

17:18
we get back into the kitchen and continue to complete the final bits of preperation “lets not get fucked by early tables boys, clean down at 5:35?”
“oui dat chef!!” the chorus sings the ballet begins, burly, sweaty men pirouhette around each other the eb and flow of them needing little to no communication, aside from the occasional “behind” signifying ones position in the kitchen. The symphony of pans and oven doors being closed with feet, and the scene is set for a good service.

17:59
doors open. game on bitches.

18:00
instantly the 23 cover downstairs function starts to arrive I’m elated they’re on time. “Get the canapes and amuse ready boys, lets bang out this big table before we get raped” we start pre empting for the large functions food. small tables of 2 dribble in through the doors as we dictate the rhythm, and it feels good. it feels damn good.

I am chef, hear me roar.

18:45
slowly, gradually we have accumulated a full docket rail. we are now serving over 50 customers out of a small kitchen. timing is imperative. with many more courses to come. 50 people in a fine dining setting can have as many as 350 separate plates, dependent on how they choose to dine.

19:00
the restaurant is full.

19:30
as the downstairs function is served its mains. desserts for the 6 o’clock tables are moving out the door. the night is about to get very hairy. firing pans on a relatively small stove, with a relatively small team can prove difficult at times. luckily the restaurant seems to be wanker free tonight – no well done, no ridiculous requests. just happy diners a gentle raping…the best kind of rape. a waiter walks into the kitchen with a steak cut open my heart drops…how the fuck was that supposed to be cooked…was that the medium rare?
“excuse me chef, this woman asked for her steak medium rare..but she wants it with no blood” the waitress asks
“you mean medium?” i retort
“No, like medium rare..but no blood” i just stare at the waitress as another chef steps in
“thats called meidum love”
“oh, she just said someone cooked her a medium rare steak with no blood”
“THAT’S FUCKING MEDIUM” we repeat in chorus. we don’t have time for these conversations put the steak back in the oven. lets go lets go lets go. table 50, 31 and 32 we can group together then we’ll start on pre desserts for downstairs “oui dat”

20:00
the 13 year old dishy that started at 5pm tells me his legs are sore. fuck off.

22:35
The last of the meals start dripping out of the kitchen. as we start cleaning down we create prep lists for the day tomorrow. pork can go in overnight at 80 degrees
“what needs ordering?” someone calls
“Dry goods” but they dont come on saturdays…
“no worries someone do a shop run in the morning for almond meal”. As we pack down the kitchen, clean out the fridges, the benches and the floors the front of house polishes the cutlery and resets the tables for tomorrow the diary looks quite similar tomorrow, going to be another big day.

23:15
We phone and email through the orders to our suppliers and finish writing the mise en place lists for tomorrow. We get changed into our casual clothes. someone cracks a beer and we cheers in unison the joyous bubbly beverage invigorating our souls and reminding us that life is worth living. Someone suggests a pit stop at the pub, though tempting, is quickly declined. In my earlier years i would have been the last man standing at the boozer, but we have to be back at 8:30 to get started again for tomorrow.

01:30
I’m home, showered and on my third beer. I’m Ready to fall asleep though my mind wont switch off what needs to be done tomorrow? Did i forget anything? perhaps some light entertainment or pornography would help. ahh fuck it to tired to even try. ill just fall asleep with beer in hand as per usual.

02:30

finish my beer and slowly drift all the meanwhile the inane chatter in my head, planning, solving my day tomorrow.

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