The sun rose the morning of the summer solstice at about half four and stayed within view for more than 17 hours. For me, the day started easy: I slept in. Later, after eating a full Scottish breakfast at a nearby cafe, I settled into the chair at the desk in the room I was renting, a mile or so south of the center of Edinburgh. I was to spend most of the next eight or so hours writing and occasionally gazing out my window at the green park below and the ever changing clouds above. After all, that’s why I came to Edinburgh in the first place, not to gaze but to write. The long day of sunlight somehow made the writing easier.
I was spending the month as writer-in-residence at the Edinburgh Food Studio, a restaurant and, as it says on the front window, a food research hub. The place was started by Benedict Reade (below, right) and Sashana Souza Zanella (below, left) in November 2015. I became aware of it from a Kickstarter campaign; I had previously met Ben at a conference three years before. The Kickstarter literature included a phrase that one of the programs they wanted to institute at the Studio was a writer-in-residence. So I emailed Ben: I write, I cook, and it would be convenient for me to be present during the month of June.
When I presented myself in the doorway the first Friday in June, we still had not actually decided what I would be doing. Beforehand, I was simply told to bring some chef’s whites with me. It was decided that I would work in the kitchen as a cook for the three days of the week the restaurant served food. I would spend the other two days writing about anything that came to mind and that was relevant to my time at the Studio.
Service days started at about ten in the morning with a bacon-sausage-egg roll from the sandwich shop two doors up the road from the restaurant. It ended early the next morning with a splash of Armagnac and a quiet walk back to my room. The hours in between were spent with Ben, Sashana, and another cook preparing, cooking, plating, and cleaning-up from the meals served in the restaurant. The other cook was Philipp Kolmann, an Austrian that was studying in Eindhoven. The four of us did everything in the restaurant.
The twelve essays that follow were produced during my time in Edinburgh. The doggerel that separates the essays was conceived during the same period, but written a short time later. It seemed that a little lightness was needed to divide the essays’ seriousness. The opinions expressed in the essays are my own. Whether the directors of the Edinburgh Food Studio agree with any of them has not been determined.
I have cooked the pork
and the chef is satisfied.
My glasses are greasy.
Since the concept of “buying local” was introduced in the early 1980’s, it’s been co-opted and used by various groups and individuals to advance their own political agendas or to sell their products or services. There is no official definition for the term from a government agency or an academic organization although some political groups have their own definition. It’s a concept that means different things to different people.
Local. I’m tired of hearing the word. Chefs discussing their personal philosophy seem compelled to include concepts such as sustainable, organic, seasonal, fresh, and of course, local in order to be politically correct in the world of food. Sometimes, I almost expect the chef to include the term “tasty” in their list of notions. Supermarkets identify local items with shelf markers and extend the term to cover processed or manufactured foods where the producer’s official address on the label is within some specified distance, even if the true manufacturer is located halfway across the country. If Internet sellers could claim a local status, I’m sure they would.
Local is always related to distance. At times, it is used to refer to the carbon footprint due to transportation distances of fresh products, an inadequate analysis of the total carbon footprint of all aspects of the raising the product must be taken into account for any accurate analysis. Sometimes it’s used to refer to the support of locally-owned businesses, an inaccurate implication that the number of employees that a business supports is based solely on the location of the owners.
I am not against the concept of local, but I have my own way of thinking about it. I’ve made an effort to get to know the people who sell me food. I know a number of the farmers that sell to me at my local farmers market. Some have even been to my home for dinner. I know the owners of the main stores where I buy my food. I know many of the chefs from restaurants that are my favorite restaurants. Some have even been to my home for dinner. For me, local is knowing the people who produce and sell me the food I’m cooking in my kitchen, whether for myself, my family, or guests. Local is also the meals I’m enjoying when I’m out. To me, the term means nothing more than that.
Sea campion buds
are tangled with leaves and stems.
Remove all petals.
I was twenty-four years old and had driven 3,000 miles across the United States in a rusted-out GMC van. My terminus was a supermarket parking lot in Upstate New York. In one hand I held the local newspaper folded open to the apartment want-ads. I was walking towards one of the pay phones at the edge of the lot with a pocket full of dimes when I heard someone call my name. It had been three years since I dropped out of the college I was returning to. I didn’t expect to run into anyone from my previous internment, but there I was standing in an empty parking space catching up with someone whom I couldn’t remember but who obviously remembered me. He proffered that he and his wife were moving in a week, but that I could stay in his basement until then. I could also, if the chef agreed, have his current dishwashing job. Not knowing the reality of the work, the job sounded great.
I was restarting my college career with a ten-week-long introductory course designed for third-year students transferring into my field. For me, it would be a refresher of the first two years that I mostly skipped or slept through. I had to show up for class from eight to five, Monday through Friday. The dishwashing job shifts were Friday and Saturday nights plus Sunday lunch. We agreed to meet with the chef in the next few days. The interview consisted of me being introduced to the chef and him telling me to show up the following Friday night at six.
At a few minutes before my scheduled time, I entered the rear door of the restaurant and stood just across the threshold until someone asked my reason for being there. I was told where in the basement to change my clothes. I was supposed to change into a pair of checked kitchen pants and a thin, short-sleeved white shirt with snaps instead of buttons. There was nothing in my size. The pants were too big and the shirts were too small. I would have this same size issue for the entire summer. I also donned a universal-fit, plastic, disposable apron.
When I reemerged into the kitchen, I was told to return to the basement and wash the pots that had been used earlier in the day. The pot-washing area was at the foot of the stairs. Sometimes pots came flying down from the kitchen instead being brought in a tote. Sometimes I was called upstairs to retrieve them. Along one wall of the basement was a large, three-chamber sink with a wide, flat drainage area attached at each end. That first evening, the flat areas, all three chambers, and the floor in front of the sink were stacked with pots of all sizes and what seemed like hundreds of greased-covered, bent, aluminum pie pans. I was informed that I would need to fix the sump pump below the sink before I could start washing up. I asked, “What’s a sump pump?”
My instructor was one of the younger cooks. Although his instructions were quick, and it was obvious that he needed to return to his station in the world above, I had all the information I needed. Someone had emptied a bucket with a bunch of long strings from a disintegrating mop into the sump collection area, bypassing the strainer in the sink drain. The strings were wound around the pump impeller and needed to be extracted. I managed to remove enough string with the bent screwdriver I was provided to eventually get the pump running again.
Just as I was finishing, the young cook reappeared and instructed me as to how to fill the three chambers of the sink. The left one was filled with hot soapy water, the middle one with plain, hot water, and the third with hot water tainted with a capful of sanitizer solution.
I was given a pair of heavy-duty rubber gloves to wear but they were only good for the pots near the top. If I reached too deep into the water, the gloves would fill up. I eventually found it easier to work without the gloves. My only tools to help with the cleaning was a coarse brush and occasionally a chunk of well-worn steel wool. One-by-one, the pots were scrubbed and transferred to the rinse water in the middle chamber. When that was full, its contents were dipped in the sanitizing solution and then set to drain on the draining area to the right. When the next batch was ready to be sanitized, the pots sitting in the draining area were mostly dry. I soon learned which items needed to bring upstairs to the kitchen and which, because they were too large to sit upstairs when not in use, had to be left on a rack in the pot cleaning area.
Most pots, even those with scorched bottoms, would eventually reveal a shiny surface to my efforts. The aluminum pie pans were a different story. They varied from new to being distorted into the cruelest of shapes. Each was coated with a thick layer of dried, reddish grease. The pans were used to cook fish fillets under the broiler. Just prior to cooking, each fillet was salted, sprinkled with paprika, and squirted was vegetable oil from a squeeze bottle. The fillet was slapped on an aluminum pan retrieved from a bucket sitting next to the broiler. The pan was placed under the bluish-green flames of the broiler until the fish was well colored on both sides. The used pie pan was thrown into a different bucket along the other side the broiler. When the bucket was full, the contents were dumped into whatever pots were waiting to be transferred downstairs for cleaning. It was impossible to wash more than the surface grease from the pie pans. There was a tacit agreement between the dishwashers and the cooks that a best effort was sufficient. Everyone knew that the old grease burning in the broiler wouldn’t make bad fish any worse. This was not a restaurant that people came to for great food.
When dinner service began in earnest and the dishwashing station in the kitchen became backed-up, I would be summoned to the start of the dishwashing line. When the restaurant was going full-tilt on a Saturday evening, the dishwashing duties required four workers. Two would stand at the head of the line and receive the large service trays full of the dining room detritus. The busboys dramatically charged through the swinging doors next to start of the line with the intent of banging into any dishwasher not careful enough to always stand clear of the doors. Once or twice during service, the chef would admonish the busboys for their carelessness. Since they worked the front of the house, the chef had no power over them, and they generally ignored him. Besides stacks of soiled dishes and cutlery, the trays would have baskets of uneaten rolls, tiny cups of drawn butter, and dishes of butter pats setting on their individual cardboard squares, all having been ignored by the diners. The leading edge of each tray was inserted into a slot at the edge of the counter leaving them to precariously cantilever until emptied. There was enough space for two, large, round trays set side-by-side. If the first trays didn’t get emptied before the next trays came in, the new arrivals would be balanced on the earlier trays. When the dining room was slammed, the trays would be stacked three or four high.
The first items removed from the trays were used table linens and napkins. These were placed in a cloth laundry bag that hung from a hook between the trays and stretched to the floor when full. To the right side was a large plastic bag-lined garbage can waiting to receive uneaten food and other table waste. To the front was an open shelf where the dirty dishes would be passed to the head dishwasher who stood between whoever was emptying trays and the massive machine that sucked in cold, dirty plates and glasses and exuded hot, clean ones. There was an old champagne bucket partially filled with hot water to receive the cutlery. There was also an old wine bucket where the small, stainless-steel cups of drawn butter were emptied of any that remained if the contents didn’t also contain any foreign substances. Little pats of butter on the cardboard squares were also thrown into the bucket if their cover paper was intact, and no one had extinguished their cigarette, a common occurrence, into it. The bucket contents would be heated, strained, and rescued as a new batch of drawn butter. Uneaten rolls would be recycled if they looked undamaged. Any large, boneless pieces of steak would be set on a plate for the head dishwasher’s dog.
When the garbage can was full, the two dishwashers at the head of the line would each grab one handle of the can and carry the can out to the large dumpster at the rear of the parking lot. Next to the dumpster was a shed where we would obtain a new plastic bag for the garbage can and a supply of the water-polluting dishwashing soap that was used during those last days before the world became enlightened.
The head dishwasher loaded the individual dishwasher racks. Unlike most dishwashers that I would meet during my later visits to restaurant kitchens, our head dishwasher was a bit obsessive-compulsive and organized all the dishes in the racks by shape and size.
The dishwashing machine didn’t have doors where the racks entered and left, just plastic curtains. The dishwasher would shove a filled rack into the machine, and it would automatically start its wash function. When cleaned and sanitized, the rack of dishes was automatically delivered to a landing area at the exit. That space held up to four completed racks. If the dishwasher, the man not the machine, became slammed and the discharge area became full, I would be sent to the area to empty the racks onto the stainless-steel table that separated the dishwashing area from the remainder of the kitchen. The chef, who stood at the pass, would move the hot plates across the aisle that separated us, to a shelf above the line.
When the bucket with the cutlery was full, its contents were strewn onto a flat rack. When it finished washing, I was called to the back of the line to separate the silverware into partitioned totes. The head dishwasher seemed capable of organizing dishes, but when it came to silverware that exited the dishwashing machine as hot as boiling water, he couldn’t distinguish a knife from fork.
Over the summer that I spent living my Orwellian weekends, I came to learn that myself and the head dishwasher were the only members of the clean-up crew that didn’t reside in either a halfway house for recently paroled convicts or a residential home for men with lower than normal IQs. This status allowed me the special privilege of being the only dishwasher allowed to clean the chef’s knives. I also was the only person that summer entrusted with fixing the sump pump and cleaning the grease traps.
As I’ve spent time in different kitchens in the years since, I’ve learned that there are two types of professional cooks: those who spent their formative years as dishwashers and those inconsiderate assholes that only know how to scorch pots. Professional kitchens are not havens of equality. They are built upon a traditional, Escoffier-instituted hierarchy that has worked for more than a century. No one is much in a hurry to change it. In the back of the house, the chef is king and the dishwasher is the lowest of the serfs. For most cooks, the ranked nobles of the kitchen, the dishwashers are untouchables not worth engaging in conversation. In that first, long ago dishwashing job, when I was washing pots and the chef was busy cutting meat at a nearby work table, we’d engage in conversation. If someone came within shouting distance, our conversation would cease. Upstairs in the kitchen, I was invisible unless it was my turn to be admonished for some unknown crime.
Most of the kitchens I’ve experienced through the years have a few common characteristics when it comes to their full-time, career dishwashers. Most dishwashers have been immigrants with limited local-language skills. In most restaurants, their shift starts long after the cooks have begun the evening preparations and dirtied most of the pots in the restaurant. When the cooks sit down for the evening’s family meal, the dishwasher sits apart from the others. Other than the requisite “hello” when they arrive in the kitchen for their shift, the interaction between the cooks and the dishwashers is minimal. In restaurants where the dish pit is separate from the kitchen, the contact is even less.
In some restaurants during prep and before the dishwasher arrives, when the kitchen runs short of cooking pots, the newest apprentice will be told to wash pots. They generally do a crappy job. In other places, I’ve seen the sous chef attend to the dirty pots during prep. When questioned why a member of the ruling class was washing pots, each one turned out to be a former member of the dishwashing fraternity.
In some kitchens, the facilities for washing pots is separate from the facilities for washing the serving plates and cutlery. In one French-countryside restaurant where I spent time over a series of stages, the dishwashing area was the domain of a woman from the village and the pot washing area was the realm of the cooks. This kitchen produced the fewest scorched pots of any I’ve worked in. In another much smaller kitchen, the dishwasher arrived earlier in the shift and helped with the basic prep work in between clean-up activities. Every restaurant is different and still similar.
Restaurant kitchens in high-end establishments are known for their high turnover of personnel. Both cooks and chefs are constantly playing musical chairs in this sector of the restaurant business. Initially, for cooks, this can be a way of advancing through the various cooking positions. As young cooks age, it begins to seem like a form of restlessness. By the time most are in their thirties, they are either at the helm of a restaurant or out of the kitchen. Walk into these same establishments and search for the dish pit. There you’ll most likely find a dishwasher that is one of the longest serving employees of the restaurant and possibly the oldest.
Although not as routine as an assembly line job, dishwashing has many repetitive elements that certain workers like. The job requires a native intelligence — few dishwashers are trained in their jobs and many are not fluent in the dominant language of the kitchen — of how to attack the work at hand. Every dirty pot or dish is the same and yet different. The variety of soiled dishes is the same every night, but the dishes come to the dishwasher in a different order requiring at least a little thinking as to which to wash next and how to arrange them in the racks for washing. For the dishwasher, there are a number of times during most service situations where they can achieve a certain satisfaction of having everything in their area washed, organized, and distributed. What looks like an impossible task in the form of dishes and pots piled high on the equipment and maybe even on the floor in front of the dishwashing area looks like an opportunity to the dishwasher.
Dishwashers are responsible for maintaining the equipment they use. Line cooks are not only not responsible for the kitchen working properly but are often responsible for the short life of equipment they mistreat. While cooks move rapidly and sometimes carelessly through the kitchen, dishwashers move purposely. The cook, when finished with a pot or pan, throws the item in a tote for the dishwasher to pickup. When the dishwasher returns clean dishes or cooking equipment to the kitchen, the process is performed at a slower, careful pace to prevent damage.
After the chef, the dishwasher is the most powerful person in a modern kitchen. Few restaurants have sufficient plates, glasses, or cutlery to make it completely through a single service. The same is true for the pots and pans used in the kitchen. It is the responsibility of the dishwasher to maintain a clean supply of every item required. All a dishwasher has to do to halt service is to slow his or her work or wash around a needed item. More than once, because of some private issue between two individuals, I’ve seen a dishwasher delay the washing of a needed frying pan or misplace a critical machine part to get back at a line cook during service.
Not all interpersonal issues in the dish pit are due to bad relationships between the cooks and the dishwasher. Some dishwashers seem to simply be grumpy people. Whether it is the job or life outside of the restaurant, a foul-tempered dishwasher can affect the temperament of the entire kitchen is left unchecked by the chef. These unchecked emotions are more of a problem when the dish pit is in the kitchen instead of a separate area.
The relationship between the cooks and the dishwasher is also affected by the background of the cooks. Even though some culinary schools require the students to wash their own dishes and other equipment, the graduates generally do not treat dishwashers with the same respect as cooks trained on the job, often starting in the dish pit, will.
Dishwashers may be the serfs of the kitchen, serving the king and the nobles, but uprisings do occur. The domain is always most peaceful and functions best when the serfs are well-treated and happy. If a noble, I mean a cook, quits, the kitchen continues to produce food. If the serf quits, the kingdom is unable to function until a replacement is found.
cook tops are really touchy
The kitchen stays cool.
Angry people frighten me. It’s a condition probably related my realization as a youngster that when my mother got angry with me, one side or the other of my face would soon feel a sharp sting.
Every time I see a chef on television angrily yelling at the cooks in his kitchen, I feel a little of the same tension I felt near my mother. Luckily, the chefs I’ve staged with were rarely loud or angry in the kitchen. Some would become frustrated and yell at the line cooks to work faster and better when appropriate. There was definitely times when “the fur flew” in the kitchen. There was never a time when unbridled anger was directed at specific individual or part of the staff.
Other cooks have told me about chefs that did shout a lot in the kitchen, but most have said that the yelling was mostly ineffective. Most books on leadership will tell you angry rhetoric is not an effective leadership tool. Having not been in the military, I have no idea why or how anger is effective in training, but leadership by volume, if not anger, seems to work in this situation. When teaching in a jail kitchen, I’ve found that fake anger and yelling is an effective way of getting the attention of the inmates, but for the actual instruction or admonishment, a quiet voice is most effective.
I once asked the chef I was stage-ing with in Riquewihr about his two apprentices. One he yelled at constantly, the other he more or less ignored. He said the one he yelled at was interested in becoming a cook, and that he tried really hard and had potential. The one he didn’t interact with was counting the days until his apprenticeship was over. He had no interest in making a career of cooking so the chef saw no reason to expend any energy on him. As I watched these interactions take place each day, I wondered if the interested apprentice would have learned more with a quieter approach, and if the disinterested apprentice could have been inspired by the proper, quiet attention.
Maybe anger in the kitchen isn’t always what it seems. Maybe it is really a form of frustration. In looking back at the few incidences of anger I have witnessed in restaurant kitchens, what expressed itself as anger could have just been frustration. Frustration is a combination of anger and annoyance, but in my experience, the anger is less vitriolic than at other times.
And then there are the times that I personally have felt angry in a restaurant kitchen. When the kitchen staff is racist, antisemitic, or homophobic, I can feel the anger rising up in me like quickly rising flood waters. The anger is combined with the knowledge that when I have tried to interrupt similar language or actions, I’m seen as not being part of the team. I even feel frustrated at times with kitchen comments about pescatarians, vegetarians, vegans, and other with food aversions or allergies. I feel that those truly dealing with food allergies should be respected.
Those with lifestyles that I personally cannot support need not be ridiculed, and at times, the sarcasm in the kitchen has really pissed me off. At the same time, the diner should not attempt to proselytize the staff into adopting their lifestyle choice.
Maybe the television chefs that do the yell and throw things are doing so for ratings. Is the audience watching this type of cooking show just to see the star chef have a tantrum? Does the same audience watch the cooking competitions not to see the winner, but to see who fucks up and how badly? This audience must really love it when the same competitor then explodes in anger.
Maybe when my mother hit me long ago, she wasn’t angry. Maybe she was just frustrated. Maybe not even with me. Whichever, my face still hurt.
The bread rose as planned.
The crumb is nicely spongy.
The starter is fine.
Inside most restaurant kitchens is a partition that is both physical and symbolic. The pass is the division between the front of the house and the back of the house. The pass is the point where the prepared dishes are transferred from the cooking staff to the waitstaff. It is a wall that neither group is supposed to cross. It is often the point of conflict between the two groups, which often report to two separate managers. Although the rules for both groups are well established, during service when tension is high, there are often perceived infractions that insult or offend one group or the other. There may be a gatekeeper at the pass, usually the chef or an expediter, who monitors the prepared food going to the diners and the dirty dishes that are returned.
Physically, the pass can be a high shelf or simply a table. Some restaurants have a separate pass for cold dishes and another for warm dishes. The warm-dish pass will have heat lamps or some other means of keeping food warm. If the kitchen has a separate pastry kitchen, that area may have its own pass.
When a cook completes a dish and it’s ready to go to a diner, the plate is placed on the pass. The plate sits there until all the plates for the table are completed. The chef or a surrogate will inspect the dishes for uniformity and completeness. He or she will also remove any drips or other offensive marks on the dishes. Lastly, if the cook didn’t place each dish on the pass in the proper orientation, the person at the pass will rotate the dish so the server or runner will pick up the plate at the right point on its edge so the plate won’t need rotation when set in front of the diner.
Before taking a completed plate from the pass, the server or runner is supposed to check that the contents are per design and that any modifications requested by the guest are properly included. Good ones will also check for any drips that can be removed before serving the dish. The server has to also pick up the dishes from the pass in the reverse order they are being served at the table, and do so in a way that allows the server to place the dish in front of the diner in the intended orientation without having to rotate the plate. If the restaurant uses cloches to keep the food warm during transport, the orientation of the plates will often be indicated by the design of the cover, which also needs to be accounted for.
In most restaurants, the pass is out of the sight of the diners. The pass is a political divide, and the guests neither wonder or care about the politics of the kitchen. It’s both a physical and psychological divide that separates two groups in the restaurant that are often at odds. Servers complain when the cooks fail to get the food out quick enough or fail to serve it up in the right order or fail to cook it properly or perform some other slight. Cooks complain when servers fail to make special orders clear or when they fail to pick up food promptly or when they fail to deliver the dishes intact or they perform some other slight. Since the chef is standing at the pass during the most stressful times, he or she often becomes the arbiter of the night’s conflicts.
A few restaurants have eliminated, or reduced, the effect of the pass. The most straight forward method is to have all service conducted by the same people that do the cooking. This can be disruptive to kitchen efficiency, but dishes get delivered in the proper condition to the diners. The quality or constancy of the service may suffer, but in my experience, the diners don’t seem to mind.
Another method of modifying the pass that I’ve seen is to have sufficient staff so that on one day, half cooks and half serves. On another day, the roles reverse. This method forces shy cooks to interact with the diners, and no one working in the restaurant is strictly part of the waitstaff. Those particular positions no longer exist in this arrangement. The customers benefit from servers that have an intimate knowledge of the food being presented.
The third method is more limited. Each night, one or two of the cooks is assigned to serve certain dishes. The concept is to make the cooks more aware of the issues facing the waitstaff each evening. This method doesn’t eliminate other issues of the pass, but it does make the cooks more sympathetic of the servers.
Some form of the pass has probably been around since footmen delivered the output of castle and palace kitchens to those assembled in the banqueting halls. Likewise, there has probably been issues since then between those who work on each side of the pass. Until our meals are both cooked and served by robots, the issues of the pass will continue to exist.
The menu is planned
and mise en place has commenced.
The menu just changed.
Food waste is a topic de jour. Like other political terms relating to food, the definition of food waste is personal. The United Nations, the European Union, and the United States each defines food loss and food waste differently, although all agree that food waste is a subset of food loss, and they are working on a harmonized protocol for measuring both. On the opposite front, non-governmental organizations and private individuals often include more sources of food loss into their definitions of food waste. For now, I’m only interested in one sector of food loss and food waste: restaurants.
One of the first concepts I learned when I started stage-ing in high-end restaurants in France was that virtually nothing edible is wasted in the kitchen. Vegetable or meat refuse that was tossed in the bin was more likely the result of carelessness than intention. Even though only one of these restaurants maintained a stockpot that was filled during the day with scraps and then fired-up overnight, most of the kitchens saved all scraps for producing stocks. The outer leaves of certain vegetables that couldn’t be cleaned were tossed.
The one source of food waste that was more difficult to recycle was that created by letting produce rot in the walk-in refrigerator. Planning the exact amount of food needed for everyday dining was difficult for dining rooms that were not completely full each night. Nonetheless, one person, often the sous chef, was responsible to rotate the stock of produce to make sure that the oldest was always used first. When that person screwed up, there was trouble in paradise. For me, it often meant an opportunity to create something out of the waste. A case of what appears to be rotten fruits or vegetables can often be culled and trimmed to create half of a case of usable product. This culled material was usually not suited for the dishes it was purchased for, but the item was still suitable for staff meals or for me to be creative with.
Restaurants that have to buy from commercial distributors instead of farmers presenting only their best products, have to accept a certain amount of rotten vegetables through their back doors. For example, in America, two percent of strawberries can be rotten, and the case is still considered acceptable if the restaurant is purchasing USDA-graded fruit. Different fruits and vegetables have different amounts of acceptable rot.
Depending on a restaurant’s locale, it may be charged by its trash removal company for any compostable materials discarded. Some trash-hauling entities charge by weight or bag. This compostable trash collection will usually be cheaper than ordinary trash, but still an expense. Likewise, some restaurants are even charged to have their recycling picked up, but that too is less expensive than ordinary trash.
Like all spent food products, the process to further convert the waste into something edible and tasty may involve more resources and the addition of other foodstuffs, and therefore more waste. In all conversions of waste into by-product, there is an additional cost of labor, added foodstuffs, and customer acceptance. Much edible vegetable waste can be dried, ground, and used in bread making and other processes, but the goal of zero waste may unreasonably use other resources.
I haven’t seen any statistics for the issue, but my own impression going back to my dishwashing days and reinforced now, each night in the kitchen, is that the diners create more waste than the kitchen. It is impossible for the kitchen to predict the perfect amount of food for each client, and there are many that could never be perfectly pleased. Each night, there are diners that ask for more bread and then never eat it. Each night, diners order more food than they can comfortably consume. Each night, diners are served a dish that is not totally to their liking. Until all diners are forced to eat everything placed in front of them, this type of waste will remain a problem, and since my mother is no longer around to enforce this ridiculous rule, it will never come to pass. Unlike waste produced within the bounds of the kitchen, customer-produced waste cannot be reused. It must be disposed of. Even if restaurant kitchens succeed in producing zero waste, there will still be significant waste sent out the back door due to the inability to control the habits of the restaurant’s customers.
Service has started.
The plates are being made up.
The menu just changed.
It is the rare restaurant kitchen that is as large as it should be. Most are not as compact as a ship galley, but they still manage to impose a situation where cooks need to jockey for a place to work. One of the first things young cooks learn is that free movement in a restaurant kitchen requires letting other workers know where you intend to go and what you are carrying. You never walk up behind another cook without letting that cook know you are there and if you are carrying something hot or sharp.
Working in such close quarters also means that workers must learn a different level of cooperation than in other professions. Even those who are naturally competitive, which most cooks are, need to visibly support a high level of cooperation. This also means that each person in the kitchen must, to some extent, leave whatever mood they arrive with outside. It is difficult to work in a restaurant kitchen if you’re in a solitary mood. You need to always be communicating with others in the kitchen. It’s difficult to work in an angry mood. You won’t be accepted if you’re pissed off for whatever reason. If you’re in a highly talkative mood, you’ll need to shut up. If you’re in a quiet mood, you’ll need to open up a bit. If you’re feeling sick, you’ll need to hide any effects of your illness. If you’re feeling sensitive, get over it. Nothing said in a kitchen should be taken personally. Likewise, nothing should be believed unless the chef says it is so. If you are skeptical, keep your skepticism to yourself.
Although it’s not okay for you to be moody, the chef operates under a different code of conduct. Usually, the chef is also the boss, and if the boss wants to be in a funk, so be it. If the boss wants to be pissed off at the world, so be it. If the chef wants to be gay and happy, so be it. It probably won’t last, especially if you fuck up.
Cooking schools never teach their students about moods in the kitchen. They never train their students that besides showing up on time, quickly doing what you’re told without questioning, and acting responsibly, it is necessary to maintain a slightly more than neutral mood in the kitchen. Even when things are rapidly spiraling downward and no matter what you do, you’re headed for deep shit, it’s important to not let what’s happening to you affect others in the kitchen.
The work day started
at ten yesterday morning.
It’s time to go home.
Restaurants use lots of storage containers, more than the average person can imagine. Restaurants that produce food in large quantity use mostly large containers. Restaurants that produce food in more restrained quantities use mostly smaller containers. Just like restaurants have a style when it comes to the food they serve, they also have a style when it comes to the storage containers they use. High-end restaurants may have a crappy container style whereas their coffee shop counterparts may have a good container style. I have experience with at least three distinct styles.
The first type is the restaurant that hasn’t learned that special storage containers exist. This type of establishment has an excess of stainless steel bowls and hotel pans so that every conceivable food item, whether solid or liquid, raw or cooked, or hot or cold, is placed in a sufficiently large bowl or pan and covered with cling film or a steam-table cover.
The second type is the restaurant that spends significant money to purchase rectangular or round, polycarbonate or styrene, clear or translucent containers with color-coded lids. These containers come in almost any conceivable size. They are designed to be stacked in the storeroom or walk-in refrigerator. This type of container has the drawback that, in some designs, the lids are not watertight, and they require a fair amount of space to store the containers when they are empty.
The third type is the restaurant that uses my mother-in-law’s method of storage: reuse any plastic container that comes into the kitchen. Plastic yogurt and ice cream tubs seem to be the most popular. Initially the idea seems valid, but in a short while lids are cracked or missing. Because there are so many odd sizes of containers, efficient storage of the empties becomes an issue. Finding the proper lid, if it still exists, for any particular container can be a time-consuming challenge. Because of their many sizes, efficient storage of filled containers in the refrigerator can also be a challenge.
Most restaurants also have some form of a vacuum-packing machine that allows food to be a anaerobically stored in heavy-duty, leak-proof, plastic bags. These are great for storage where the staff doesn’t need continual access to the contents. Most cannot be opened and then resealed. The individual bags can be relatively expensive, and they are rarely reusable. Since the bags are flat, they are not efficient containers for liquids although the largest sizes will hold about two liters as a flat, stackable package. Vacuum bags augment the other storage systems in the kitchen. On their own, they cannot handle all the storage needs of a restaurant kitchen.
Although I’ve spent time in all three types of kitchens, it seems that I’ve spent the most time in kitchens with the third type of storage. Furthermore, it seems like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time of my kitchen life trying to find the right lid for the container I’m holding.
deluged me during service.
How do I find sleep?
Most of us don’t like to dine alone in a fancy restaurant. As humans, we prefer to dine in groups of two or more people. How much we truly enjoy an evening out with friends is more a function of our relationship with those friends than the food we consumed.
When I dine with friends, whether in my home, their home, or in a restaurant, the most important aspect of the event is simply being in my company of friends. The evening may be further influenced by the food being consumed, the atmosphere of the space we are occupying, and the service being rendered, but these are of lesser importance.
Modern, high-end restaurants are social disrupters. They have a goal of disrupting one of the main reasons we dine in groups. The modern, multi-course, high-frequency method of serving where twenty or more small courses are brought rapidly to the table interferes with group fellowship. For each course, the server brings the food, interrupts the diners’ conversation to describe the dish, and possibly even provides eating instructions. The diners then eat the food and maybe have a small discussion about what they have just eaten before the empty plates are recovered from the table and the next course arrives. Even though the meal has lasted three, four, or even five hours, the diners leave with an empty feeling. The food may have been spectacular, the room inviting, and the service attentive, but the fellowship was constantly interrupted. The fancy meal may, in the end, not be as satisfying as a less pretentious meal with the same attendees in a coffee shop.
As someone who spent much of his childhood alone and then traveled for business as a solo act, I greatly value the time I spend with others. I can eat alone, but I prefer to imbibe in the company of others. Given the choice of eating my preferred cuisine alone or eating a less desirable cuisine with friends, I’ll always choose the latter. As important as food is to me (and it truly is) being with others is more important. Placed in a solo eating circumstance, I will try to locate myself close to a group of diners so I can converse with them during my meal.
In some cultures, the relationship between food and interpersonal relations is more codified. Look at images of the formal entrance rooms of traditional Chinese houses prior to the middle of the twentieth century. You’ll see two straight back chairs set side-by-side with a table in between. On the table will be some food item, usually fruit, and some tea. The fruit is rarely consumed but, the two participants that occupy the chairs could not have their meeting if some form of food wasn’t present. Look at pictures of Richard Nixon meeting with Mao Zedong in China in 1972. The chairs are now padded, but the food and tea arrangement is the same. (The addition of the spittoons is also a nice touch.)
In the west, when people meet in offices, the guest is always offered something to drink and maybe a small snack. The main difference between east and west may be that in eastern culture, drinks and snack are automatically brought, whereas in the west, they may only appear on demand.
If we look into the near past, people mostly ate in groups. Whether they were with family, fellow workers, fellow lodgers, or even the whole tribe, group dining was the norm. In many families, starting in the 1960s, the group eating evolved from a time of discussion, reflection, and commentary to a time of group television watching. Instead of giving their attention to their fellow diners, all of it was consumed by tube. In the last few years, the scene has morphed into each diner spending more time on their tablet or smartphone than interacting with the other people sitting around the table.
Although the smartphone will make an appearance during fancy meals, often to document it in some misbegotten manner, the phone will not dominate the meal or the conversation. The evening may not be as free from technology as a few years back, but the conversation will still dominate the proceedings until the server interrupts them.
I’m also encountering more and more mid-range, white-tablecloth restaurants where talking is difficult due to the ambient noise. The diners in these restaurants are also pushing the servers to speed up service so the meal can be completed in ninety minutes or less. These diners, who are often millennials, eat in groups that seem to be only slightly better off than if they were dining alone.
When I discuss the subject with a slightly older demographic, I hear general agreement to my assessment of this type of dining. There seems to be an age when true fellowship begins to become important again, where face-to-face friends become more important than Facebook friends. I’ve also noticed that this group has a harder time bringing this fellowship into their homes and spreading it to their children. But I’m hopeful. Sooner or later, we all discover that we need to be around others in order to enjoy our own humanity.
bubbles in the far corner.
Nothing cooks badly.
I had this disagreement with a chef about collaboration. I said a true collaboration was nearly impossible. He disagreed and provided a number of examples as to why I was wrong. I was wrong.
In my mind, a collaboration was the result of two different groups or individuals blending their work to the point where the individual personalities or style of the collaborators was indistinguishable. I thought that in a true collaboration, none of the collaborating groups could dominate. This is also wrong.
A collaboration is nothing more than the result that comes from of two or more individuals or groups working together. The dishes that spring forth from a restaurant kitchen may be the work of the entire white-jacketed staff and express the style of the chef, but they are collaborations, not the work of a single individual.
What bothers me about a collaboration is that there seems to always be one individual that dominates the process. It seems to me that the more each collaborator understands the thoughts, processes, and work style of the other collaborators, the more likely that the vision of one of the collaborators will not dominate. Possibly the most successful collaborative effort is a pair of singers harmonizing their voices into a single sound. Here is an instance of where I fail to see one singer dominating the other, but I can’t sing, let alone harmonize. Adding more musicians, such as with a symphony orchestra, still allows a collaboration that is simply the sum of its pieces. That is, until you realize that the conductor is one of the pieces, and the conductor dominates the collaboration. The design of major buildings requires the collaboration of architects and engineers from many specialties. In the end, when the project is completed, the final building includes the work of all those involved with the design, but the work of the principal architect dominates over all the work of the other collaborators.
It is not uncommon in the food world to have both casual and formal collaborations. In fine dining establishments, the chef and sommelier may discuss which wines go best with which dishes, but for many, the collaboration is less formal and each works to provide the best dining experience without directly interacting with each other. I’ve been in restaurant kitchens where every plate is the vision of the chef and the kitchen staff’s function was to fulfill that individual’s vision. In other kitchens, the entire staff discusses each dish. Everyone has input even though the chef eventually decides how much of the underling’s input to heed.
One of the most famous ongoing restaurant collaborations is that between Alinea, a restaurant helmed by Grant Achatz, and Crucial Detail Design Studio, founded by Martin Kastner. I have no idea how much input the designers receive from the chef and the cooks, but the end product is always more than just artwork on a canvas. Unlike many finished dishes where the arrangement of the food could be performed on a multitude of vessels with an equal effect, in the Alinea-Crucial Detail collaboration, the food is often dependent on the serving item that separates it from the table, more so than the normal plates used for restaurant service.
Unfortunately, many collaborations between chefs and other artists are not as successful. The dancer or composer or painter that interprets a dinner may produce a truly masterful work, but it may be hard for the audience to relate to both the formal artwork and the informal artwork, the food, in synchronization. Part of the problem may lie in the issue that all audience members don’t interpret food, music, dance, or artwork the same way. Part of the problem may lie in the thematic results being too much those of the individual collaborators. The dishes and food described in the Alinea-Crucial Detail collaboration can each stand alone and even be reinterpreted separately, but together they represent the same theme. Too often, the collaborations between dispirited groups never seem to settle on a common theme to interpret so the observer can never really understand the collaboration.
Part of the success of most triumphant collaborations is that the unifying theme of the collaborators is effectively transmitted to the audience, whether they live or work in the building that was designed or eat the food at the restaurant. The unified theme and its communication may be more important than the individual elements of the original collaboration.
Razor clams have necks
that are hard to hold tightly.
My knife fixes that.
After ten long days prepping food and eleven long nights of cooking, plating, and dishwashing during the last twenty-two days in a restaurant kitchen, my hands look well used. There’re the three burns from the plate warmer. There’s the chunk missing from the tip of my left thumb where a razor clam demonstrated one of the reasons for its name. There’s a half-a-dozen small puncture wounds from where the langoustines fought back as I rampaged their population and harvested their tail meat. There’re countless little cuts and cracks, all made more visible from the stain resulting from prepping artichokes. My nails seem to be permanently tinted brown near the tips and perpetually dirty at the edge of the nail bed. My cuticles are cracked and dried. My hands are worn.
The one complaint I received the most from student evaluation forms during my teaching days at a popular cookware store was that I touched the food with my bare hands. There was no getting around the accusation. I touch food. I use my hands, not tongs, when I place a piece of meat in a hot frying pan. I’ve also been known to turn the hot meat with my bare hands. My hands aren’t heatproof, but they are less sensitive than most people’s. I do more with my hands than I do with kitchen tools designed to keep my hands away from danger.
Although I can still tell if a surface is smooth or rough, hot or cold, dry or wet, I can’t tell with much precision. When I pick herbs, I can no longer feel the delicate leaves, and I rely more on my eyesight, which also has issues, than before. Luckily, my patience hasn’t deteriorated like my hands. I can still do repetitive tasks with my hands for hours at a time. If I can do these tasks sitting to rest my back, I’m only subject to the occasional nap.
Due to my body absorbing cartilage and the ends of the bones in my hands being closer together than they used to be, I’ve developed a few bone spurs. These irritate the ligaments holding the joints together and cause me to no longer be able to close either hand into a tight fist. Individual joints may swell at different times. This also increases the stiffness in my hands, but high-dosage ibuprofen seems to control the discomfort.
During various tasks in the kitchen, one or more fingers will lock straight or curved. The locked finger requires unlocking with the other hand, which hurts a little and usually causes some swelling in the joint. After a few repetitions, slight adjustments to the task at hand seem to overcome the repetitive locking.
After a fifteen-hour stint in the kitchen, my body will be tired, but my hands are ready to continue. The next day, even after a good night’s sleep, my body will be weary but my hands will be ready for another full day. I wonder which of my senses will eventfully prevent me from cooking. Somehow, I think that no matter how disfigured they look or insensitive they become, it won’t be my hands that fail me in the end.
The langoustines fight
me with their claws and tails.
They falter and die.
A menu is an interesting form of communication. In its crudest and most colorful form, chain-operated coffee shops present the diner a book-like menu with each company-prescribed dish listed in the text and illustrated in a full-color picture. It is the ideal menu for diners unable to read the language of the restaurant, and the customer can be assured that the food that is set in front of he or she will look damn close to the picture. The menu also will have a multitude of symbols so that clientele will know which dishes are free of meat or gluten or low in fat or cholesterol.
Moving towards a more general view of menus, we find fewer or no pictures but dish titles that diners may still recognize. Unfortunately, the plate brought from the kitchen may not come close to meeting the expectations created by the menu. Order a hamburger, even one where the size and source of the patty are provided, details about the bread are given, and the description includes lettuce, tomato, onions, and some sauce. The hamburger you are served may only barely resemble the hamburger you imagined when you placed your order. You’d be hard-pressed to provide a description as accurate as you could with the picture-assisted menu. Is the lettuce shredded or sliced? Is there just one thick slice of tomato or a number of small, thinner ones? What type of onions? How are they prepared? Is the patty hand-shaped or machine-formed? Is it thin and large or fat and small? All of these descriptive variations still don’t tell us how the hamburger will taste. Will it be cooked to our specification? Will it be seasoned property? You certainly expect that if the dish is called a hamburger there will be some sort of patty and condiments inserted in a bun.
With the advent of “modern” restaurants, menus have become more cryptic and a bit cynical. (If a menu references a “chive” rather than “chives,” it isn’t a typo. There probably is only one sprig of chive on the plate.) The hamburger above may be described only by its components of beef, bread, lettuce, tomato, onions, and sauce. Seeing this description, the diner knows all the components but not their assembly instructions. These are the components of a hamburger, but is that really the dish the menu describes? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask your server.
Many modern restaurants also follow the Detroit effect when describing a dish’s components. Whether because the restaurant wants to imply a farm-to-table consciousness or imply exclusively, each item will have a town or producer name inserted in front of it. (It’s called the Detroit effect since the adjective preceding the ingredient can be anything but Detroit.) Now the deconstructed hamburger becomes a dish made with wagyu beef, a brioche bun, red-leaf lettuce, a vine-ripened tomato, a red Spanish onion, and some special sauce. If that seems too generic, how about Harris Ranch Beef, Bimbo Bakery bun, Ocean Mist lettuce, Morningstar Farms tomato, Walla-Walla onion, and house-made sauce. After a while, it all becomes a marketing exercise to make the food sound inviting while at the same time communicate little about what the clientele is actually ordering.
By simply stating beef, bread, lettuce, tomato, onions, and sauce, the restaurant is also allowing last minute changes in the ingredient source and the dish’s construction. Maybe instead of being a traditional hamburger, this evening when some of the intended items are in short supply, the dish will be loosely fried ground beef with cubes of toasted bread, diced tomatoes, and diced onions served wrapped in a lettuce leaf. The sauce is served on the side in a tiny ramekin. No client would recognize the finished dish as a hamburger, no matter how tasty the combination is. The previous night, the same listing on the menu possibly produced a dish that more closely resembled what the average person would call a hamburger.
Since each menu is totally controlled by the restaurant, each chooses how much or how little to communicate about a dish to the diner. With less communicative menus, it becomes the diner’s responsibility to ask their server what the menu really actually says or implies.
I live far from here,
but I feel at home now.
It is time to leave.
I’m often accused of having zero tasting ability. I can’t disagree. I have a difficult time distinguishing individual favors. I do pretty well with the tastes of salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami. I can distinguish between bitter orange or a sweet orange. I have a vague idea as to what an elderflower looks like, but I can’t describe its flavor.
When I attend a wine tasting, I always marvel at my fellow taster’s abilities to describe whole gardens of favors and forests of aromas after a couple of sips. I can tell if a red wine is too tannic or a white has too much oak, but I can’t describe the wine’s bouquet. I know when a wine produces a sour taste in my mouth, and I’m very good at choosing wines that taste great when served with the food I cook. In other people’s homes or in restaurants, I rely on the guidance of others. (Truth be told, away from my own dining table, I prefer old-style bourbon over wine.)
Another problem I have at wine tastings is that so much wine commentary is based on the power of suggestion. I’ve watched too many pourers at wineries describe the central notes of a wine, and then seen the line of people tasting nod their heads and agree. The “expert” with the bottle could have said the wine tasted like orange-scented sewer water, and people would agree. Professional tasters have been tested in laboratory situations where the only difference between two samples of the same wine was one was red-colored and one looked like white wine; the experts described identical wines in different terms.
I’m no wine expert. I don’t claim to be a wine expert. I don’t want to be a wine expert. Maybe the reason that my cooking style consists of as few ingredients as possible, often only one or two, is that I lack the ability to taste the major components of more than the few ingredients? Maybe my style is compensation for my lack of flavor tasting ability?