Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Day in the Life of a Restaurant Chef

This post was first published on November 13th 2015 in Mint Lounge's online portal, www.livemint.com

It’s 9am on a Saturday when I get a call from my sous chef Shannon, telling me he needs me at the restaurant urgently. I jump out of bed straightaway. I take a quick shower, get dressed and make myself a cup of coffee, all in a matter of minutes. Having been in similar situations in the past, I’ve perfected the routine into a fine art. Time is so crucial to every aspect of a chef’s worklife that we take that philosophy and subconsciously apply it to life outside the kitchen as well.
I enter the restaurant a few minutes before 10am to find out there are multiple fires that need to be doused. Two of our line cooks have called in sick and our butcher had to be rushed to the clinic because of a bad knife cut. We also have an impromptu corporate group of 40 people coming in, which means that it’s going to be really busy lunch.
I gather all the cooks to the pass for a quick two-minute chat. “The next few hours are going to be insane,” I tell them, “but if we push ourselves a little harder, work smart and help each other out as a team, we’ll do great.” Irrespective of the madness that ensues in the kitchen, I need to make sure the food is top-notch and the guests coming in are completely oblivious of what’s happening on the other side of the pass. Hence a little morale-boosting goes a long way. I finish with, “Oh and don’t forget to have some fun!” 
Shannon starts breaking down the various meats where the butcher left off, while I jump in and help the cooks finish the prep and set up for the afternoon lunch. It finally gets down to the wire but we manage to cover up for the missing cooks and pull off a smooth lunch service. 
By now, fatigue starts to kick in, but my day is only half complete. I move on to working on general follow-ups and making the staff duty roster for the coming week. Suddenly I get a surprise package delivered from one of our patrons, Ujaala. Being an ardent supporter of our philosophy of using obscure regional produce, she thought I’d be interested in some aromatic Gondhoraj lemons she’s brought back from Kolkata. As I start thinking of what we can do with this amazing fruit, the fatigue wanes away. It’s the perfect pick-me-up in the middle of this crazy day.
On my way back to the kitchen, our general manager Devang notices the limes and suggests we try and conceive a cocktail with it. We taste a bunch of different combinations with various spirits and extracts before narrowing in on a winner: gin, house-made orange tincture, Gondhoraj lemon juice and its fragrant zest, shaken with egg whites and topped with soda – our desi version of the classic Ramos Fizz. Since the season for these unique lemons is short, we need to act quickly. We decide to try it as a special tonight to get guest feedback before putting it on the menu tomorrow.
At 6pm, the hostess hands over the reservation sheet for dinner. We have 175 guests on the books tonight. Lunch was just the opening act for the big show: dinner service. I notice Tejal’s name on the sheet and suddenly remember her mentioning her love for lamb brains the last time she dined with us. I immediately send our storekeeper to get bheja from a nearby mutton shop in the hope of cooking up something special for her.
With less than half-an-hour left for dinner service, it hits me that I haven’t eaten all day. One of the biggest misconceptions people have about chefs is regarding their eating habits. In reality, most chefs will admit that they are terribly poor eaters. It’s ironic, but true nonetheless. Today, however, I make it a point to sit down for a proper meal. I serve myself some rice, dal and sabzi and join Suvojit, Joshua and a few other cooks who’re already half way into their early dinner. 
Suvojit has worked with me for over four years, taking into account my last restaurant stint as well. I’ve seen him rise up the ranks from a dishwasher to now being in-charge of the entrée section. Joshua, on the other hand, is a hotel management graduate who spent a few years working at R&D labs and food television shows before joining our kitchen recently. They’re usually competing with each other but today I notice a sense of camaraderie as I overhear them share fun stories of their past kitchen experiences. 
At 7pm sharp, the first guests come in for dinner and the craziness begins all over again. I get that all too familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach which I get every night. It’s not fear or dread but a certain anxiousness and anticipation of what lies ahead. The printer starts humming and a sudden silence falls upon the entire kitchen. “New order, pick up two desi tacos, one arbi tuk, one kejriwal!” I shout out. And here we go again!
As the orders start pouring in, the kitchen turns into an anthill of organized chaos. For the next five hours, hundreds of plates of food are cooked, seasoned, plated, tasted and sent out to the dining room. Tejal’s table is seated a little after 10pm. I cook up a simple bheja fry – lamb brains sautéed with cumin, green chilli, cilantro and lime juice – and send it out to her table. Barring a few orders taking longer than usual, everything goes well and the night passes by in a flash.
The feeling of ‘crushing’ a busy dinner service is incredible. It is the solidarity within the team and the adrenalin rush that keeps us going through the evening. By midnight the kitchen slows down and the last orders are taken. The cooks finally begin to relax a little. Our feet hurt from the constant movement, our bodies ache from lack of rest, and we’re practically brain dead from the multitude of orders we processed. The exhaustion has now kicked in but we somehow derive a vicarious pleasure out of it. It reminds us of who we are, what we do, and how much we love doing it. 
Just before I wrap up and leave for the night, Tejal walks up to the open kitchen pass to tell me how my little gesture made her day. She asks me if we can make the Simple Bheja Fry for her every time she comes in and I tell her we’d love to. Amidst all the madness that happens in a given day, gratification in a professional kitchen is attained in the simplest of ways. Seeing a guest smile after the first bite, figuring out how to incorporate a seasonal ingredient into the menu or watching a young cook learn a new cooking technique, are some of the many rewards that compensate for the challenges and make it all so worthwhile. 
There are so many stimuli I constantly come in contact with every day that I’m on a perpetual high while at work. I have to be able to adopt numerous personas on a daily basis to do my current role justice. Switching from playing teacher to agony aunt, from grocery shopper to food stylist, or from firefighter to mathematician often has to happen within a matter of seconds. There’s never a dull moment. Every day is a new one that brings with it its own set of challenges and rewards. Anything can happen and its that uncertainty that keeps me ticking and makes me want to come back and do it all over again. Until next time then.
Whether he’s playing agony aunt, food stylist, firefighter or mathematician, Thomas Zacharias essentially dons the clogs of executive chef at The Bombay Canteen.