There is Chaos and then there is CHAOS

Some years ago I attended culinary school in the hope of revitalizing a long career in cooking that I no longer loved. I hoped at the time that the joy of cooking would return. It did, but more despite culinary school than because of it. I had thought that going into culinary school with some cooking experience would have prepared me to cope with cooking as a class of twenty-something and perhaps it did in certain ways.
I knew what much of the equipment is and even a good share of the sanitation and safety rules that accompany food. However, the chaos of cooking at a culinary institute in no way resembled the chaos of professional cooking that I had experienced. Mind you, it is still cooking and it takes skill, a lot of practice and hard work. We only had to produce one plate of food per person, but, the utter exhaustion caused by the type of culinary chaos -present in the school classroom caused me to wonder if I would survive the experience. Obviously I did.
For instance, the chance of receiving a hip-check as you try to maneuver a place at the stove is fairly good in cooking school. I have seen people nearly strangled on the electrical cord of a neighbor’s electric burner. I have inhaled a cloud of cayenne pepper smoke from a neighbor’s burning pork chop and was brought to my knees. In fact people went home with bruises and burns –battle scars won as they defended their sauce and simmering ‘what have you’s’ during the battle that Chef called: “Production du jour.”. On the other hand, cooking professionally resembles more of a complicated dance -part of the object of that dance being not colliding or competing for equipment and space. For food to be made quickly there has to be some sense of placement or there is no production at all. It is not quite a ballet but it certainly was not like the ‘pin balls bouncing off each other’ that happened during class, but more like the chaos of an iron works.
In cooking school we did productions that include the main course and accompanying dishes, where as in a restaurant kitchen, you might find yourself only cooking eggs or only cooking meats and starches, or perhaps, you might be responsible for anything that is housed in the steam table, or responsible for salads and cold sandwiches, .No one is responsible to cook everything all at once. To do that would result in the wrong type of kitchen chaos. That would be the type of chaos that would end in fist fights and Band-Aids -with little production to show for it.
I do not know how a culinary school could attempt to replicate or teach how to cope with that level or type of chaos, so necessary to produce the food needed for a rush. There were hints of chaos in the confusion of everyone wondering what tools to get out, which pots and pans were needed for the day and ‘what the heck is Pommes Dauphine?’ There was the chaos of ‘whoops I missed an ingredient’ and the continual ‘excuse me, pardon me’ and the ruder ‘look out will you?’ and ‘Hot Pan coming through!’ There weren’t any fist fights, although it was close a couple of times and there were lots of Band-Aids. I recognized that as chaos. But, it is not the sublime chaos, the terrible, wonderful, awful CHAOS of a kitchen rush.
The right type of chaos in a kitchen involves, roaring fans, beeping microwaves, popping toasters, the sound of metals food turners scraping on the surface of the grill, the bellowing of the wheel cook as he calls and recalls the orders, sound of cold food hitting hot grills, the slamming of cooler and reach-in doors, the hiss of food cooking in the deep fryer. In the back ground there are crashing dishes being washed and assembled into orderly stacks. All of this sound layer upon layer of noise that is the chaos -the cacophony of sounds, which orchestrate a breakfast rush on a Sunday morning.
In counterpoint to all this sound are the smells of hot grease, potatoes, bacon frying, odors of soups and sauces rolling up on clouds of steam from the steam table and over it all the smell of burnt toast so thick it could choke you after a few hours. The line cooks dance to this chaotic music as if the narrow line shelf in front of them was a bar in a dance studio. The reach up on their toes for a platter or a plate then side step, side step turn and spin and turn back again –plates flying back and forth between them like peas in a con man’s shell game.
Out front the waitresses limber up for their counterpoint to the terrible dance of food that will be coming to them –at them with a vengeance, through the window, as fast as the grills will allow, until so much food has passed over the grills that all the heat is sucked out of them. Then there is a mad round of restocking the line, the slamming down of glasses of juice and cola while the grills build their fierce heat once again and the dance goes on until time is measured in seconds- not minutes –not hours. Time stops. And when it begins again six hours are gone, the restaurant is half empty and everyone except the customers are in shell shock. Now that is a form of Chaos no cooking school could ever prepare a student for.

Category: Cooking
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6 Responses
  1. I loved this. I was never a cook in a restaurant, but I was a server for several years. A damned good one. That type of chaos you identified gets in your bones and becomes a rhythm of its own. I worked once in a tiny restaurant run by this wonderful Albanian couple. They hired one of my best friends to work in the kitchen (I think of you two meeting and how you would adore each other). I loved serving when she was in the kitchen because it was like a dance. No one quite knew how the dance step would fall, but when it did it seemed inevitable. There are as many forms of chaos as there are of beauty.

    Reading this makes me miss you all the more (and realize I never asked you to read my Tarot as we’d discussed prior the Uncon.)

    Best and love to you!

    • Gretchen Riddle says:

      Thanks for stopping by Tonia! I wish I could meet you and your friend for a nice long chat. Kitchen work is a large part of why I am the person I am. It does leave its mark doesn’t it? Come again!

  2. Soni says:

    Love the description of the sounds as music. Started my work life at thirteen at the Copper Penny, the first of many restaurants where I would serve tables. Always admired the kitchen staff…when I wasn’t cursing them. Our dance, front and back of the house, has always been complicated. Great post. 🙂

    • Gretchen Riddle says:

      Thanks for stopping by Soni. I love to hear about restaurant experiences. I think those who have worked in cafes etc have a bond with each other.

  3. Marta says:

    This was interesting. I hate to cook, sorry to say, but my dad was a professional cook. He cooked for about 50 years in the hospital in my hometown. He was self-taught too. Learned on the job when he was a kid (back when it was easier to do things like that). Sometimes, after school I would have to hang out in the hospital kitchen, and so I some, not much, but some of what his work life was like. He never ever talked about it at home though. He’d come home with cuts and burns, but wouldn’t mention how he’d gotten his injuries. This gave me a little glimpse into what it must have been like. (Though cooking industrial style is no doubt different still from cooking school and restaurants. Dad did from time to time talk about the demands of the surgeons in the cafeteria versus some of the other hospital staff.)

  4. Gretchen Riddle says:

    Marta I worked in a hospital for a year or so. It takes tremendous talent and a deep repertoire to field all of the many dietary restrictions involved. Your dad was a trooper!

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