“I just want to be a normal person, hell, screw normal people, I really just want to be a cook.”
“Out of the Fire and into the Pan” Travel Channel
Being a cook is truly a unique lifestyle. The lifestyle Anthony talks about in his book Kitchen Confidential is one full of alcohol, drugs and hard living. His almost comic descriptions of the lifestyle do represent some of the lives encountered while working in a professional kitchen.
Last week one of my students asked me how it felt to be the only lady of the bunch, referring to the all male faculty where I teach culinary school. My response was, “It has always been that way, I really don’t think of myself as the only female, but as part of a team.” Culinary folks are a tight bunch; competitive, but close to their teammates.
Tony describes the drinking games and goading between so-called rival kitchens that take place in the wee hours of the morning. Certainly these must contribute to some kind of bonding between workers. Cooking is a tough job, you feel it through your bones, your entire being gets caught up in the work of serious cooking. If that doesn’t happen for you while you cook, you are not in the right place.
It becomes like a dance between cooks, reaching, passing, plating, presenting; you know what your neighboring cook is going to do next by movements and you’ve seen each dish played out a thousand times. You know how to move in a hot, noisy, very busy kitchen, observation tells you most of what you need to know while you listen carefully for the next “Order In! or “Pick Up!” call to see if it is for your station or not. Cooking like this is a bonding experience all in itself. The line-cook cowboys.
The fire, the steam, the sizzle, the splatter, the heat, the aromas all become addicting. Like every other addiction, it can also destroy you. Obesity, alcoholism, drug addictions, divorce, gambling. . .wicked vices you have to be aware of and smarter than in order to survive.
People can talk about how good a chef/cook they are but in reality it is about what you can do. Male or female. Females are at a disadvantage , always have been. A female really needs to know what she is doing and be strong enough to carry it through. There will always be male pigs around, the industry attracts them like flies. So as a female, you learn real fast how to take care of yourself. And how be really, really good at what you do, not to whine or cry or get tired. At least in front of them.
Because of the lack of “bar bonding” with the crews I worked with, present co-workers included, there is a parameter where our relationships end. That for me is once I am in the car, I am on my own time and do not need to prove myself at any “thirsty Thursday” events.
My bones can feel the work, the long hours on concrete floors over hot ranges and ovens. Being a line cook is for younger people. It is great fun for a while, but not forever. The food industry has so many other things you can do and still play with food. You just don’t have to sweat as much or work at a constant break-neck speed. I did that once and do not have to prove my ability anymore. Frankly, I’m too old for that. As I mentioned earlier, line cooking is for the younger generation, that cowboy/pirate breed with good knife skills.
I see so many young kids come into my office and say “I want to be a chef” and be so timid, shy and unsure of themselves. There is not a chance in hell they will ever make it in any kitchen. Not all of them have the capability of becoming a chef. Some are only cut out to be cooks at best. But who am I to squash a dream?
So I train them, test them and send them out into the world armed with the safe knowledge and experiences from culinary school. Some have been part of a competition team or competed on their own. They get overblown egos from those kind of experiences. The world eats them alive once the get out there and then again, some survive. And a few end up doing very well.
A cooks life is not for everyone. To survive, you need to be aware of and stronger than the temptations and vices laid out before you in irresistible ways. Food is a temptation, it is seductive, it is addicting. You have to know that going in and perhaps most of all this is what draws us to food in the first place. The temptations, the seductiveness and the addictions; the challenge is far from being a normal person.