Monday, October 11, 2010

Introduction to the Cordon Bleu culinary textbook and reflections

The introduction is really the most easily glossed over chapter. At first I even found myself flipping through the pages thinking what can I actually take from this? The section breezed through a short, French culinary history including Boulanger and Escoffier, and broke down the kitchen's organization and hierarchy, standards of professionalism, and keys to success. After reading much of the common sense advice presented in this chapter I started thinking about some of the culinary professionals I have met thus far in my culinary career and how they fit (or don't fit) into these criteria, and how even I can be balled up and tossed around these ideas.

Standards of professionalism in list form:

Positive attitude:  The paramount attribute to success. I learned this lesson early on in the kitchen. There were times in the kitchen when I wanted to quit, most definitely; when my moral was low. There were days when the chef thought, I am sure, that I would not be coming back. But every time I did. For example, to entertain your curiosity - there was the time the dishwasher and I had an argument that lasted almost 2 weeks over laziness in the kitchen (even though I don't speak Spanish nor him English - it was kind of a blowout), and the time something fell on my head and I burst into tears - not because it hurt so bad - but mostly because stress had been building up and it was a release of tension. I ran to the bathroom and dried my eyes, snapped out of it, walked back out and continued on like nothing ever happened. There are no excuses in the kitchen and certainly not for me - the newb who felt for so long like she had something to prove. Unnecessary drama surrounding me can only work to my disadvantage, and make our small domain uncomfortable. We spend so much time in close proximity to one another and rely so heavily on our interactions during evening service that any variation away from the norm exponentially increases the stress in the kitchen across the board. If I lose my humble demeanor and my go-getter attitude then there's no longer a point to my employment. The restaurant will invest in me so long as I invest in them, and as the chef said at many of our staff meetings - this can't be just a job to anyone here, and if it is then that person should probably leave. But anyways - I should say that for the most part I have a good kitchen attitude, I definitely wouldn't put myself on a pedestal of kitchen professionalism though.

Staying power (physical/mental stamina):  It took me 6 months or more to learn to stand on my feet all day, and when I'm exhausted I struggle with it yet still. Everyone in my restaurant has lost weight noticeably since their commencement of employment. Mentally, you must become accustomed to mundane tasks, or better yet - working incredibly efficient at mundane tasks so you can move onto something else (i.e. shelling beans, cleaning chard stems). You've got to hang tough. The chef does a good job of keeping it interesting, allowing us to change positions around the line every month or so. He said he used to get bored on the same station and wants us to find work as stimulating as possible.

Ability to work with people, eagerness to learn: "There is more to learn about cooking than you will learn in a lifetime," it says in the book. I agree. There are 1000 ways to skin a cat.  You may think you know but...

A full range of skills: To be successful in this industry you need to not only be a good cook but able to run a business and manage people.  This is the part where I do the unspeakable and comment on the chef.  Where I work, the chef is limited by his ability to manage the staff; he is out of touch with the cooks who prepare the food.  Many times at the restaurant I felt like all the responsibilities he had given me were greater than the range of my ability - even when stretched.  As a result there have been many nights where I struggled to complete my prep, lagged setting up my station, or entered service with a cloudy mind (shuddering on the inside).  All the employees should feel like their tasks are surmountable, difficult fine, but surmountable.  No one should be put in a position where failure feels certain.  Just to juxtapose another scenario - before working at this restaurant I spent almost two months volunteering at another restaurant which had a daily changing menu.  Depending on who was working what station, the dishes would become harder or easier to prep and execute, tailoring the complexity of the station to the cook presumably so each cook felt able to accomplish the given tasks.  While this may not be the norm in many kitchens, I notice that in that kitchen the line cooks seem to stay at the restaurant longer on average, perhaps speaking to the sustainable kitchen environment.

Experience: "A diploma will not make you chef."  There's just no way around this, nor should there be.

Dedication to quality: "It costs no more to cook green beans properly than to overcook must want to. It is not enough to know how." To be a good cook I imagine it must be running through your veins. I've seen some of my co-workers take short cuts or try to let errors slide, errors that we've all made but will you take the energy to correct them? This, like pretty much everything, relates to attitude. If this is just a job then it will be more difficult to push through the low pay and lack of benefits, the crazy hours, and the aching back to produce quality, delectable dishes 8+ hours a day. You have to internalize it, to want it to be good apart from any external factors - just for the sake of the food. Quality control is a HUGE part of the restaurant - and the more strict it is the more consistent experiences customers will have, and the higher your reviews will be. Aside from the occasional short cuts it's easy to be inspired at work. I've seen our cooks care deeply about the end result, plating beautifully even when tired and constantly checking for freshness and seasoning. It's easy to get the plate out - but to make it fantastic every time is what it's about.  

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