Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The End of a Day in the Life of a Professional Cook

...Continued from Previous Post.

Not all Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City open their doors for dinner at 5 pm. What this means however is that on a busy Saturday night, I'll be constantly on the move for seven hours straight--chopping, sautéing, seasoning, tasting, and getting hundreds of plates in and out of the oven. On a busy Saturday night like tonight, that is.

That inner voice of mine speaks to me again. "Pace yourself Thomas, and keep your cool." That's critical to stay energized throughout the night.

As the orders start pouring in, the kitchen turns into an anthill of organized chaos, vividly resembling the inner workings of a well-oiled machine. Any loose ends or worn out pieces in this elaborate jigsaw puzzle will only render the finished product noticeably incomplete.

"Order, fire, pick up two market salad, one gazpacho, two salmon tartar, two beef carpaccio. On hold, three filet, two white tuna, one duck, one red snapper. Let's go!" "OUI, CHEF!" "New order. Pick up one bouillabaisse, two salmon, one lobster, two pappardelle. That's a direct order. I want that on the fly!" "OUI, CHEF!" "Order, fire, pick up one beet salad, one market salad! On hold, one roasted pumpkin ravioli, one spaghetti aglio olio. Busy now!" "OUI, CHEF" "Order, fire, pick up two lobster bisque, one veg. terrine, one smoked salmon..."

Chef's scruffy voice swallows the entire room; his commands are strong, clear, and efficient in discharge. His jargon is tailored to minimize chances of miscommunication and wrongly executed orders which could throw the entire kitchen into turmoil. The cooks always respond in amazingly coordinated unison and the energy in the room gets upped tenfold with every spontaneous "Oui, Chef!”

I get to working on my orders before Chef even finishes spewing them out. Every second gained keeps you staying in the game longer. Being responsible for the entree station, my orders are mostly on hold as they follow the appetizers. 

I also rely pretty heavily on my entremetier, Jen, who is responsible for all the accompaniments, sauces, and garnishes that go on every main course plate. She is right behind me in the elaborate hierarchy that forms our kitchen and therefore must prove her worth to be promoted to my position when I move up the ladder.

We get considerable time before we need to actually start picking up our orders. But they pile up very quickly. An elephant's memory and the organizational skills of an owl are needed here.

I organize the mise en place for each pick up individually onto small, oval metal trays, or hot plates as we call them. I make sure Jen is doing the same. I also pull out all the proteins from the lowboy refrigerator, season the fish, and sear the meats. The lobster claws go into the poaching liquid while the duck legs are placed in the pot with the same duck fat they were confited in.

I notice Victor, the 52 year old Dominican on the appetizer station, getting slammed out the corner of my eye. What this usually translates to is a similar state of affairs on my station when the same tables are ready for their main courses; but I don't let it affect me--I can't afford to.

More orders are called in and I continue to prepare myself for the storm. Seconds later, just as I finish placing the last duck order in the confit to reheat, and Jen and I exchange that look that says, "Are you ready for this!?", our first table is fired for pick up. 

"Pick up the order on hold-- three filet, two white tuna, one duck, one red snapper," echoes the Chef. "Oui, Chef!" Jen and I scream back. It's on!

While I place the pre-seared beef filets in the oven to come up to temperature, check on the duck, and get the pans on heat ready to sear the fish, Jen puts four baby sauce pots each carrying sauces for the different plates on the flat top, heats up the vegetables for each of the dishes, the mashed potatoes for the meats, and the rice for the snapper. 

We reheat the empty plates under the salamander till they are almost too hot to handle and then place them on the piano (that precious, six inch, stainless steel space in front of the burners and the flat tops where all the final plating is carried out.)

As Jen plates the accompaniments for each plate and I get my fish in the oven to finish cooking, more main course orders are fired for pick up. New orders are simultaneously called in. We register and start mentally preparing our next moves whilst concentrating on the current ones.

Soon, we send out the first table and start working on the next. "Ross, two pappardelle to the pass in three and a half minutes," I remind the pasta cook. "Oui, I'll be there!" he promptly confirms. Ross and I often get beers after work, head out to explore new restaurants when we have days off together, and can never stop gossiping about food. We both went to the same culinary school and started at this restaurant at around the same time. We're great buddies outside the kitchen. Inside, however, there's no time for friendships, only camaraderie.

By now, there are four tables on pick up and seven on hold. There's so much adrenalin in this tiny space right now that it could resuscitate anyone from anaphylactic shock! Every movement is calculated and supplements the perfect ergonomics that are already in place in the kitchen.

Everything until now has gone by smoothly with no hiccups. Jen and I get all the plates for each table to the pass simultaneously, hot and properly cooked and seasoned. Even though we clean as we go, our stations are still a little messy, so we tidy up quickly before taking a five minute pee break. We're both back in no time re-energized and ready for the sequel.

The first seating that lasted from 5 to 7:30 pm had only 60 covers. It was just a warm up for the second seating. There's going to be 110 hungry customers coming in between 8 and 10 pm. Just the thought of it is thrilling, part of many of the reasons I cook professionally for a living.

The next round of orders start pouring in and the kitchen is in a frenzy again. Most of us have been on our feet for about ten hours now and fatigue is starting to kick in. But the adrenaline works hard to suppress it and we don't even realize the pain.

The food leaves the kitchen beautifully presented in exquisite plates by the dozens. There always seems to be an inverse relationship between the turmoil inside the kitchen and what is finally placed in front of the guest. Even the most educated diners have no idea what goes on behind the kitchen doors and the amount of work it takes to create their dining experience. In fact, every restaurant owes part of its success to hiding that very fact, which explains the prominent 'Employees Only' sign on most doors leading to the back area of restaurants.

Then, suddenly, as if making a point that it was all too good to be true, things start to go wrong. A mushroom soup is returned because the guest "didn't like it." Another guest sends back a filet because he asked for it to be cooked medium well but still saw some pink in it. The maitre d' runs in and alerts Chef that there might be a prominent food reviewer on table 35. Another order comes in for a vegan table, meaning we have to makes sauces and garnishes from scratch with no butter or other dairy products. The lights suddenly go off in the kitchen leaving only burner flames illuminating the space, and Jen gets a pretty nasty cut while trying to use the meat slicer to slice bread. We now have seven tables on entree pickup. In a matter of four minutes, our entire worlds have been turned upside down and we have to make it right really quickly or we're going down hard.

Without hesitating, Chef yells for someone to get the lights back up, jumps into the line, directs Jen to get her finger patched up, and starts working her station. One of the most admired chefs in the city and my boss is now playing the role of my assistant just to keep his ship from sinking. I'm a little shaken but I get back into the groove as well.  After a few minutes of working in the dark, the lights come back on. We send out the re-plated filet and get to working on the vegans. I also get the mise en place for the other tables in order and help Chef with the garnishes fully aware that he may be a little rusty on the line. Jen comes running back to the station and screams, "I'm back! Let's do this!" allowing Chef to get back to what he does best.

Things start to fall back into place and in no time,  the situation is under control again. We push out most of the pending orders quickly so that we can focus on the critic's table. It's a deuce and they've ordered a black bass and a filet cooked medium with a side of risotto. While the order is still on hold, I pick the nicest looking filet of black bass, smell it once for freshness, and season it evenly with salt and white pepper on both sides. I do the same for the filet of beef, heat a pan, get the oil on, and begin searing the meat. My entire concentration is now only on these two dishes. One mistake can be fatal and having come this far, I am not going to stumble now. As soon as the meat is seared on all sides, I get it into the oven and bring it up to a medium rare. Then, I wait. I wait for chef to say the magic words.

"Fire the critic's table!" "Oui, Chef!"

Crispy Black Bass
I get the meat back in the oven and start searing the black bass. The black bass is probably the hardest fish to cook on the menu since it is served with the skin on. To have the skin still be crispy when it reaches the  table and perfectly cooked inside is hard to get right every time. I've come to master this over the months of cooking it every day but it could still go wrong. 

Jen gets the plates readied and it's now time for me to finish them. I make eye contact with Ross signalling him to plate his risotto.  I slice the beef filet and it's a perfect medium. I pull the fish out of the oven, drain excess oil, and place it on the succotash. There's no time to check it  and I rely completely on my instinct and experience. Jen hauls the plates to the pass and chef quickly scrutinizes them. Ten seconds later, he turn back at us, winks and mouths, "Perfect." Phew!

The rest of dinner service feels like a breeze in comparison to what happened during the second seating, and the entire night goes by in a flash. It's always hard to realize that was seven hours gone by.

As the kitchen slows down and the last orders are sent out, the cooks finally start to relax a little. Our bodies ache from the constant movements, feet hurt from lack of rest for several hours, and our minds are drained from all the work and stress. We can now feel our exhaustion but we somehow cherish it. It reminds us of who we are, what we do, and how much we love doing it. 

We put away our mise en place, clean up the entire kitchen, and pack up our knives and tools. I'm amongst the last to leave the kitchen and head back to the locker room. I run into chef as he leaves his office and we both stare at each other for a moment. He holds up a piece of paper to my face. It's the comment card for table 35 and I notice the message in neat handwriting at the bottom under the heading 'Other Feedback' :

"Amazing meal. Great service. Loved the crispy skin on the Black Bass."

I look back up to Chef who now has a wide smile on his face. In his scruffy voice, he says "Good job, tonight. You handled the situation well. You'll be a good chef someday." I thank him and walk away. Just as I enter the elevator, I hear him yelling, "Oh, and that was a damn good meatloaf!!!"

Gratification in a professional kitchen is attained in the simplest of ways.


  1. i can see that u really enjoy what u are doing!!!
    stay that way always son!

  2. I like the spirit! Don't let it die!

    Keep these posts coming...

  3. Mmmm .. scrumptious and entertaining indeed Thomaaa .. keep firing lad .. we 'Tomaaaas' should leave no 'doubts' at all!!!
    Luv Chittappn

  4. That was a very interesting read. Thank you for taking the time to share the behind the scenes story few of us know about. I’ll look for more on your blog.

  5. I'm glad you guys liked it. I'm working on more interesting stuff. It'll be out soon! Stay glued.

  6. Harry Potter led me here, I kid you not. I'm writing a fan-fiction and one of the characters is a cook. Well, I want to get it right hence I need insight and that's when you come in. I think that a story, be it fanmade or otherwise created should always rely on some kind of truth to be believable. Also, should I not continue my story I know I'll keep coming here, the way you write... well it just pulls me in.

    So goodbye for now, take care!


    P.S: Thanks for sharing what your passion with us all.

    1. Thank you for sharing your kind thoughts, Martin. This blog was always intended to shine light on the truth behind the life of a professional cook.