LIV – A Cook’s Life

I’ve mentioned before that occasionally, I’ll find inspiration for a post while perusing Facebook or someplace else online. There’s a group I follow on Facebook that is made up of people who work in kitchens. I saw something shared by someone that talks about things that people who’ve never worked in a kitchen would never understand. Some things are true universally, others in specific settings. I’m going to make my own list, and expound on the points a little. If you work in a kitchen, you’ll get it completely. If you don’t, you’ll understand things just a little bit better.

To start with, many kitchens use ungodly amounts of butter and salt/pepper. I work in two places: Cracker Barrel and Golden Corral. Very different, but in some ways the same. Cracker Barrel uses gallons of liquid margarine in their various recipes. Golden Corral uses lots and lots of butter. In fact, Golden Corral receives large boxes of butter—individually wrapped, one-pound blocks of butter (or is it margarine, also🤔? I really never looked. I just know they’re blocks of fat). Not to mention all the different spices and seasonings used in some foods.

When visiting a restaurant, usually the server receives a gratuity from the customer. The cooks generally don’t receive anything tip-wise. Sure, cooks make more per hour on their paychecks, but adding in the tips servers make, many of them receive far more money per pay period than cooks do.

Holidays? What are those? Most people are ecstatic with the impending weekend. You know, that TGIF bullshit? Working in a kitchen, there’s no such thing as a weekend. Cooks almost always work on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Many cooks have no social life for this reason.

Some people think that because we work in a kitchen, it shouldn’t be that hard. Oh, you’re just cooking my food. No we’re not. We’re usually cooking food for several people, many times all at once. Many jobs are either physically or mentally demanding. Kitchen work is draining both physically and mentally. All the thinking, planning out when to start one thing, and another so the whole meal comes out at one time, all the reaching, bending, stooping, moving and sweating can take a huge toll on you. By the end of a particularly busy shift, all we want to do is go home and die.

Along with the aforementioned lack of holidays, cooks are basically expected to work and perform at their best, even when sick, upset or hung over. Unless you’re on your death bed, locked up or actually in the ER. Even then, some managers will be like “hey, I know you were just in a severe car accident, but can you find someone to cover your shift?” Or, like recently happened to me, I know you’ve only had one day off in like a month, could you possibly come in and cover someone that day?

Working in a kitchen not only can kill what little soul you might have, but it can also leave you somewhat disfigured physically. Cuts from knives, burns from a hot grill or fryer oil, maybe something badly balanced in the walk-in falls and lands squarely on your noggin. Maybe the floor is so littered with crap that, even with slip-resistant shoes, you end up slipping and eating shit. Besides the hot grill and fryer, there are the insanely hot pans you sometimes have to grab. Yeah, some cooks end up losing all feeling in their fingertips. It’s called “cook hands” and it’s part of the job.

Communication is an extremely vital part of kitchen work. You can’t be a ninja or sneaky. That can get someone hurt, or worse. You always hear cooks saying “behind” or “hot”, or some other such phrase. Otherwise, you’re gonna get bumped into, and possibly drop whatever you’re carrying or they’ve got in their hands. Maybe it’ll spill all over someone. And when you do need to be over-communicative, you have to say it loudly. Soft-spoken people are a danger in a kitchen. Again, possible spills or cuts. No bueno.

In my experience, many servers will take some time to have a break, sit down, relax and enjoy a meal (some don’t, but many do, religiously). Most cooks don’t get such a luxury. There’s usually 4 or 5 servers for every cook on duty. The cooks don’t have the time to sit, relax and eat. Some cooks are on their feet nonstop for many hours. Some cooks never get a chance to eat, unless they’re eating on the run. Take a bite, go do something, take another bite, resume activity, repeat. I’ve even heard of cooks who would scarf something down while hunched over a trash can.

Along with the constantly on their feet, sometimes you’re carrying a huge, heavy box of food from the freezer or your glasses fog up coming out of the walk-in. While bringing the crap from the freezer, you’re trying to restock shit because you’re running out of product on the line in the middle of cooking tickets.

When you’re not busy with orders, in the precious downtime of the kitchen, there’s always something to do. You don’t have time to stop and relax and hang out. There’s always something to clean or stock. A common phrase heard is “if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean”. Ideally, you’re to remain busy, busy, busy. If you’re not doing something productive, you’re many times considered a slacker.

All restaurants, from fast food to buffets to the finest dining, has hours of prep work to be done. In fact, most places have someone constantly doing prep work. Most everything is prepared ahead-of-time. Some things are cooked to order, but most things are prepped and portioned earlier. And trying to modify something pre-portioned is either impossible (because of the way things are mixed together) or it puts a huge monkey wrench in the flow of things. At the Cracker Barrel I work at, we used to sell a Reuben sandwich. The sauerkraut and corned beef were portioned together. Occasionally someone would try to order a Reuben without the sauerkraut. That’s a case where it was a no-go. Even if we tried to pick it out, you’d still get bits of kraut on your sandwich.

Remember the physically exhausting I mentioned? Well imagine the number your legs go through walking on sloped floors all day. Most kitchens have floor drains located throughout. Because of these drains, the floors are slightly angled. It is hell to walk with your ankles at an angle for hours a day.

Kitchen work is definitely not conducive to personal space. If you get offended by getting bumped into, don’t ever work in a kitchen. Though unintended, someone at some time is going to touch your ass or your crotch, or grind against you. Again, it’s not intended, and usually you hear an apology afterward, or someone will touch your back, to let you know they’re there. Too many bodies in too small a space. Claustrophobics beware.

Want to piss off a cook (or anyone for that matter)? Show up right before close. Worse yet, don’t expect the best food. Things have been sitting for a while, and we’re about to throw everything away. Besides, people want to go home, and you’re keeping that from happening. The other night, some smart-ass old fart couple went into Cracker Barrel at 21:58 (and we close at 22:00), and pointing to their watch, snidely said “You’re not closed yet”, then proceeded to take their sweet-ass time ordering. Meanwhile, we’re twiddling our thumbs waiting for these fuckers to make up their minds. It was like a quarter after close when they finally made up their goddamned minds🙄. Had I been told a minute later these people were there, they would’ve been out of luck, because I was almost pouring cleaners on the grill.

Another thing along this line: if you have a group coming in, have the freaking decency to call ahead of time! Give the restaurant a heads-up. Maybe your large party won’t be able to sit in one place, all together. Maybe you all want the same damned plate, and you’re gonna run us out, and someone is gonna get pissed. Call ahead so the restaurant can prepare. Everyone will thank you in the end.

Some people gripe at the prices on the menu. They’re like why am I paying $30 for a steak? Well, it’s not $30 just for a steak. Some customers don’t realize all the expenses there are. You’re paying for the electricity and gas to cook that steak. The person doing the cooking needs to be paid. You have wear and tear on equipment, the cost of climate control, the slave server bringing everything to you, and so on.

Just a couple more things before ending this. Have you ever tried washing a spoon? Ever sprayed water into a spoon? Well, don’t do it (well not straight on anyway), unless you like the idea of taking a bath in dishwater, or tasting it.

Ever wonder why some cooks are cranky asses? Probably because, even if the A/C is working properly, it still feels like the Midwest during a summer heatwave in the kitchen. You know, 90° with 95% humidity. The kind of heat where you sweat from head to toe. The kind of heat where you’re dripping sweat. Some cooks wear frozen towels to keep cool. Some visit the freezer for a minute for relief. You’ve got hot grills, fryers, sometimes ovens and then the steam from the dishroom. All of it together equals what many cooks refer to as “swamp ass”, where the heat is so oppressive that even their butt crack is soaked. Hell, sometimes a sauna at the gym seems like a reasonable alternative🥵😵.

That’s a little glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes. Being a cook is not an easy job, but it can be rewarding. The right combination of people can be like a little family, and they’re willing to give the shirt off their back to help each other. Most professional cooks are clean, and prepare dishes to bring you back. Try not to let a few bad apples ruin your dining experience. Not every kitchen looks or is run like the places on Kitchen Nightmares. Next time you go out to dinner and your meal is as you expected or better, send a compliment to the kitchen. Most cooks are underappreciated, and a little acknowledgement goes a long way. Thank your server, thank your cooks, be safe and be well.

2 thoughts on “LIV – A Cook’s Life

  1. Dame Ray i dont know how u are still at the SHIT HOLE C/B.. I give you big hugs it will get better it has to for you..

    1. I have my days where it sucks and I dread being there, but my need for money is stronger

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