"Heading to the restroom real quick guys!" I inform the line cooks closest to my station.
"Heard." comes the standard response.
I dash out of the kitchen to the bathroom. It's downstairs like the kitchen. The kitchen staff can use it, as long as there aren't restaurant customers already waiting for it. Opening the door, that was exactly the case: a well-dressed man twiddling his fingers on his phone. Having spent so many hours in the kitchen downstairs, I was oddly beginning to forget that the orders that poured in night after night were from real people like him.
I turn to go back to the kitchen in hopes of trying again later, and right at that moment the bathroom frees up. The man who has been waiting for it looks up and insists:
"After you, Chef."
I look behind me to see if there's someone else in line, when it hits me this guy is talking to me. To him, I'm by all means a "chef". At least that's what my outfit says. But what he can't see is how I'm constantly trying to fight off heavy amounts of anxiety and self-doubt. This kitchens asks and expects a lot out of me, and I'm trying not to let it get to me. I'm struggling to just be a cook.
It's improper to make a guest wait for the bathroom, but he insists until I give in. Sometimes the kitchen staff get so busy, that bathroom breaks are out of the question. So I'll take one when I can get one. Upon leaving, I utter a quick "thank you," my body already in motion, darting back to the kitchen. I feel like I've already been gone too long.
"I was just admiring your Michelin star" he remarks. I can tell he's had a few drinks by the fluidity of his words.
I stop in my tracks. Though the restaurant does have a Michelin Star, and an official plaque to match, it isn't the plaque this guy is looking at. And although I do work here, I have absolutely nothing to do with the coveted star. If anything, my presence is taking the restaurant further away from that mark. Despite my correction, his parting words are some of the only positive ones I receive while working here:
"Everyone's responsible for the Star. Great food tonight, Chef."
At the time, I'm working in the restaurant as my required 200-hour externship, the final level of my culinary school education. And by picking a small, but very well-regarded and innovative Michelin-Starred restaurant, I haven't exactly made this level easy on myself.
In fact, my time at the restaurant proves to be one of the hardest things I've ever done, stacking right up with the challenge presented by the hardest sets of my swimming career or the most insane weeks of launching products at Apple (important note: the following isn't a plea for sympathy, but rather simply a realistic explanation of the challenge).
Here are a few major areas in which I was pushed in new ways, and more importantly, how one might apply to you:
(1) The physical:
Shifts usually run from 3pm-midnight and the whole thing is standing up. Culinary school was good training for this, and I have some of the ugliest, but most comfortable shoes ever made (below), but it can still feel like a marathon at times. Early in the externship, I put my hands on my hips to rest for a brief second before Chef catches it: "I don't like the body language you're showing me." As much as I want to argue, he's right.
Also, kitchens aren't made for tall guys, there's a lot of bending over to plate dishes, so my back isn't the biggest fan. And having a job that gets off at midnight does interesting things to my sleep schedule.
(2) The mental:
In a corporate environment, the day might look like so: Arrive at the office, get some coffee, scan the news, start preparing for meetings, do some work, take a break, do some work, repeat. There's absolutely intensity and stress and deadlines, but there are lulls in the day.
Restaurants have thin margins, even fine dining establishments. And oftentimes employees are hourly. As such, a shift is 8-12 hours of focused work. There's no time to waste. By the end of the shift, I almost always caught myself making mindless mistakes because my mental horsepower had been depleted. Be it trimming microgreens, plating dishes, or scrubbing the kitchen after service, all activities in a professional kitchen are completed with intensity and intention. Often times, you're even working under the pressure of a timer:
"Kyle, I'm setting a timer for [task]. Go hard and get it done, mate."
By always being under the clock, I could measure my improvement. For example, I knew exactly how long it took me to plate many of the dishes: the canapés, the salmon, the scallops, the foie gras. And I could feel when things were taking me too long—the developing of an internal clock. Seasoned chefs have a greater respect for time than almost any other profession. In fact, they even can create time through the way they go about their work:
(3) The efficiency:
This last one has grown me the most. As someone who gets a lot of joy out of getting things done, I was pretty sure I had this whole productivity thing figured out. But working alongside talented chefs always provides a good ol' fashioned humbling. They live and breathe "mise en place" (their system of working) because they have to. As mentioned previously, chefs and cooks are always working under the clock. A restaurant that says it will open at 6 needs to open at 6. Deadlines can't be pushed back. And every item on the menu is a promise to be able to deliver that item at quality and on time at any time while the kitchen is open—this can't budge either.
So, this forces the kitchen staff to be super efficient, to a degree I've never seen before. No movement is wasted, from the way a cook uses the knife when prepping vegetables to the steps taken moving around the kitchen. My culinary school chef's analogy comparing a kitchen to a ballet finally makes sense.
I have a lot to share on this topic of efficiency/productivity/mise en place. So much so, that I'm making a separate blog called "six pan" (named after the basic organizational unit of the kitchen) and publishing my first post this week. I haven't found the perfect word to describe the subject matter, because oftentimes, words have unintentional associations. But I imagine the progression of most posts to be like:
- Underlying concept/lesson
- How it can be applied to allow us to create higher quality work/get more done/live fuller lives
I'm biased, but I can say that I've been trying to live out these concepts the last couple months, and the change has been drastic. I'd be honored if you gave it a try by subscribing below:
A few more quick life updates:
(1) I'm extending my culinary education a bit to learn about wine. My farm-to-table culinary program is almost finished, with just one final written exam and a week studying at Stone Barns remaining. Thankfully, my culinary school also has an incredible wine program, taught by 11 Master Sommeliers, so when they mentioned they had an upcoming program in which they needed an "intern" to come 30 minutes early to class and pour wine and stay 30 minutes to put away the glasses in exchange for waived tuition, I was all over that.
(2) I'm starting to interview for product manager roles with tech companies in NYC. Hopefully something in food tech. I know that between my experiences at Apple and this culinary adventure, I have a lot to add to an organization. Reach out if you think you might have a good fit for me!