Two years ago, I worked as a Commis Chef as a breakfast chef on the breakfast and brunch station under a station chef in a West End restaurant. It was an eye-opening experience for a number of reasons. As an eighteen-year-old having just finished A levels I had no culinary experience; although I could tell Parsley from Rosemary, Shitake mushrooms from Portobello, I rarely followed recipes or took pride in my cooking.
But, in need of money and seeking a cure for boredom I signed on as a Kitchen Porter, cleaning dishes and sweeping floors, and was promoted to Commis Chef after two weeks. Auguste Gusteau from Ratatouille was right when he said that “Anyone can cook.”
It is true: anyone can follow a recipe whether you are cooking at home or in a West End restaurant. However, this is a double-edged sword. Yes, anyone can cook, but not under the intense pressure of a fast-paced kitchen when thirty orders could be coming in at once, all to be prepared within a ten-minute window. This is where multitasking and pragmatism come into play, practical skills that some people just do not possess. Anyone can cook, but certainly not everyone can cook in a restaurant kitchen.
There is something to be said about learning new skills; I made countless mistakes, particularly when it came to presentation. Most high-end restaurant chains will have a guide to presenting a dish so that the experience of eating an Eggs Benedict will be the same in all the restaurants. I made thousands of errors in my initial weeks, including sloppy presentation, sending out cold food, and even wrong orders.
But, with every dish that was sent back I learned that improving was something that just had to be done rather than mediated on. There simply was not enough time to analyse each mistake. Sometimes the best thing to do was to, in the words of Shia Labouef, “just do it”. Making those mistakes are crucial to improve; I would not be the chef I am today if I had not messed up like I did.
On a less personal note, there are some interesting things about kitchens themselves that you may find disturbing. Although chefs are advised to use implements and gloves when handling food, this very rarely happens for the simple reason that it is a time-wasting hassle to take gloves on and off when preparing food in an environment where every second counts.
Most dishes you have eaten in restaurants have been touched by at least two sets of hands, either in preparation or in placing the food onto the dish itself. But, don’t fret, we always wash our hands before and after entering the kitchen.
On the topic of food, preparation is commonplace. This usually happens the day before and consists of ingredients being chopped, garnished, to be used in service. Sauces are made, eggs are poached and stored overnight to be reheated the next day, and smoked salmon is cut and portioned (all dishes have a specified quantity of each ingredient).
Any food that is left over is served the next day, but meat and fish won’t be served a day after that because of regulation. However, I am certain that some restaurants will be unwilling to throw away food for financial reason, and may serve you meat that was cooked three days before hand.
You may be thinking that meat is one to avoid – that is up to you. Salad is certainly one I would advise you miss out, not because of health but because of the price mark-up. A basic salad will be sold at something like £14 whilst the ingredients cost about £2 collectively. In other words, you might be better off sticking to a steak if you want your money’s worth.
Before I put you off eating out, I ought to stress that the regulation in the UK is the best in the world. There are strict rules when it comes to allergies and the risk of cross contamination. Riskier foods are kept in different fridges or on separate shelves, and there is a sophisticated label system that all restaurants use to demarcate potential allergens.
All in all, there is far more to a restaurant than meets the eye. Remember that when dining you are being sold an experience that, above all else, will make you want to return. Hidden away, beneath the smiling staff and beautiful food is a hellish factory churning out meals like clockwork for your delight. Restaurant kitchens are tough environments, but working in one was an absolute joy.
Image: Unsplash via Jesús Térres