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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Start




I guess I’m a Cook.  I’m not a Chef...I tell people I make food Hot. I have survived five years in an industry that usually chews you up and spits you out in three months. The Food Network has convinced the whole planet that anyone can be a Gordon Ramsay , Thomas Keller or Rick Bayless. This is NOT the reality of the industry. Most end up back in school working towards their next Dream. I am starting to get to the point where I can’t even remember all the cooks I have worked with...most of which are no longer cooks. This business is not what it is portrayed to be on TV. The television doesn’t show the heartbreak and the crushing of one’s soul.
 I got into the business later in life. I was a Goldsmith (made handmade jewellery) for the Family business and decided I was not happy and needed a change. I racked my brain for the things that made me happy and I ended up applying to a two year Culinary Arts program.  I was lucky...I worked full time in a kitchen while I went to school...I could apply the things I learned instantly. More often than not I was told that what I had just learned was useless and “Do it this Way!!”.
 I got my first job because of my Pastry Arts teacher at College. He mentioned that a local restaurant needed some help on the weekend and I should go talk to the Chef right after school. So I did what any student would do...I skipped the rest of my classes and spent a few hours in the computer lab making a half assed resume. I went down to the restaurant scared shitless! I had never worked in a restaurant before (excluding a stint at McDonalds as a teen) and had only been in school for a month or so...so I just had the most basic of skills. I can remember the Chef bringing me down the stairs of the hotel to a little table (we will call it the staff room) sitting beside 80 cases of stinking empty beer bottles. He asked me if I smoked...we both sparked up..which helped to calm the nerves...then began to look at my resume. I could see in his face that he was disappointed. I knew he was in dire need of help the next day...but I also knew he was about to turn me down!! He stood up, put out and his smoke and was about to speak...I cut him off!! “I know I don’t have any experience Mr. Davidson...but I really want and need the job...I’ll tell you what..I’ll work for free for you tomorrow night..if you don’t like how I am working I will leave after the function and mention the job to a few others at school!”. All of a sudden he got a lil grin on his face...”How did you know I was looking for someone with more experience?”.  We agreed on the free help.!!
 The next afternoon I returned to the restaurant. I was slightly shaken, slightly horrified...but mostly pumped and excited. I was dressed in my school Whites...I had the nice white apron...the lil white side towels and my shiny red toolbox holding all the knives and various gadgets the school had forced us to buy from them. I walked into the kitchen and got a giggle out of everyone. I was the only one in Chef Whites...they were all wearing black. No one had an apron...there were greasy stained ripped up hotel towels everywhere...including the floor (catching mystery drips from unknown sources). No one had a tool kit...there was a knife rack hanging on the wall. Which I later learned were rented knives that got switched out once a month.  Jamie introduced me to everyone. There was Ashley the Night Sous Chef...I had seen him once at the school..but right now he just looked like a big burly unshaven logger that kinda scared the F@ck outta me. Mickey the Day Sous, who just kinda eyed me and paid me no notice...and a kid half my age who was a dishwasher/prepper...who just looked thankful someone else was there to help.
 Jamie then proceeded to walk me down the creepy lil set of steps again. Again to the little table in the stinking  fire exit room. We had a smoke as he discussed the upcoming function. I didn’t actually grasp or understand a word he said! I was just scared. He then brought me down another set of stairs to the laundry room slash fridges. The hotel had no elevator to the kitchen...as if!!! He threw a 50lb bag of potatoes at me and said “Bring these upstairs and ask Ash to set you up at the Salad Station”. I hauled the spuds up the four flights of stairs...the spuds being half my actual weight! I set my station up as I would at school...wet rag underneath my cutting board to prevent it from moving around...grabbed a deli tray and set up my tool in it. Jamie returned and said “Peel that bag!”. So I went to work with my handy dandy lil red peeler  the school had been so kind to charge me triple price for. 20mins later Jamie returned and looked at the twenty or so oxidized brownish potatoes I had so kindly peeled for him. “First of all...Potatoes turn F@ckin BROWN when you don’t keep em in water...second of all throw that F@ckin peeler in the garbage...grab yourself a turning knife and I will show you how to peel a potato!!”. Ok I was thoroughly crushed!!! Too Stupid to Peel a Potato. “I don’t care what school taught you about yields and cost savings...I would rather you waste a bit of the potato by using a knife...and save me the time and labour cost of watching you take three hours to peel a bag!!” My first piece of real life knowledge! It was much faster with the knife...and you didn’t really lose that much...half of the peelings ended up becoming  Baked Potato Skins for us all to munch on while prepping.
 So once I had that glorious job done....he sent me to work on getting the Salad Station prepped up...and the Function Salad Mise done. This time I got a lesson on how to chop Romaine lettuce. I am one of those Type A personalities that doesn’t really like NOT knowing something...and being taught how to cut a head of Lettuce maked me feel more than a little bit “special”.
 So over the course of the next few hours I got to joke around and become a little more at ease with the four of them. Jamie would come out every few minutes just to check I wasn’t making any monumental errors. The Boys filled me in on some of the horror stories they knew would freak me out...especially Jamie and Ash. I was getting faster and the prep was almost done.
 Then Ash brought me into the tiny kitchen and said after I had made all the salads for the function I would be helping to make the banquet veg for the dinner. Oh God...more Peeling!! To this day I think of my Father (he was a trained chef...that didn’t last long in the industry) telling me about having to turn normal Carrots into Baby Carrots by turning them ...ALL DAY LONG. Banquet Veg consisted of Carrots cut on the bia’s, small pieces  of Broccoli, julienne Red Onion, Zucchini cut on the Bias and floret’s of Cauliflour.  It took an hour...which I thought was quick...I doubt they did.
 Jamie set up some tables in the hallway outside the kitchen...a hallway full of hotel patrons going to their rooms...all staring at me wondering why a cook was setting up a hundred plates in a space meant for them. Then he made a sample plate. Which was a plate of how my salad’s should look. Now this seemed like such an easy task...his was Pretty even!  I then went to work at making 100 that looked just like his...or so I thought. Twenty mins later he came out and made me redo every one of the plates...apparently salad is supposed to be tall and have height...mine didn’t.  There is actually a way of packing the greens in your hand to attain this height...it’s kinda like making a snowball without the fun outcome. I did however garnish them all correctly...I was like a proud Father...they would have the vinaigrette put on them just before they were served.
 Now was the scariest part of the day...entering the kitchen for the first time. The kitchen was about 16ft long and ten feet wide. In this space was crammed three Gas Stoves with three ovens below them..one of which didn’t work...so that was the plate warmer because it held a bit of the heat from the oven beside it, two microwaves(which I didn’t understand), a dual fryer, a couple Coke Fridges(u know the kind with the sliding glass doors) full of about what seemed like a billion mystery items, a meat slicer, a couple of sinks, a big Hobart mixer and 4(now 5) cooks that don’t really fit. Ash and Jamie explained I had to pan the  and Onion...while blanching the Carrots..then Broc and Cauliflour..Butter then season and mix it all. Now we had a function for a hundred...but the restaurant was also in full swing..All the burners had stuff cooking on them. Where was I suppose to fit my Pans??? After a few choice words...all of which were directed in my general area..they made some room and got to work. Everyone corrected the odd thing but I got the job done. As soon as I was done I ran out and finished the salads...let the servers know that they were ready...then ran back to the Hell Hole!
 Thus began the most cramped plating I had ever seen...Five guys side by side trying to make 100 beautiful plates of Prime Rib...while also cooking and plating restaurant food. Not a pretty picture...trust me. I was used to the surgically clean kitchen of the school labs.....this was Not school!! Numerous times I was yelled at during plating...fix this...move that...your doing that wrong. Three quarters of the way thru plating Jamie yelled for me to go out to the Salad station and make three Spinach Salads, a Garden, and a Caesar...all of which I had no clue how to make...and no one to show me. I poked my head into the fridge under the counter only to be horrified again...I discovered prep from multiple days...some of which had come to life...Big buckets of unknown sauces...and I am pretty sure someone suck a lil stick of TNT into a head of Iceburg and blew it off in the fridge for shits and giggles. I practiced my snowball salad technique and tasted all the mystery sauces to make sure I didn’t put the wrong dressing on the wrong salad. Then realized I saw Jamie’s head coming towards me...Ekkkkk. He eyed my work...patted me on the back and said “Good Job!!”. I was actually proud of myself....it was just a salad...but I was proud. He then brought me back into the kitchen and told me I had done an excellent job. Excellent job...I was slow...I don’t know what I am doing...I literally have blisters on my right hand from chopping so much...and I burned the shit out my hand at least a dozen times. Not to mention it looks like I jumped into the dumpster  just to occupy some time. He was being serious though. He then said “Your hired...and your being paid for your time tonight...experience or no experience..if you can handle a night with this crew you will be a Chef someday!”
 This was the start to the Adventure I have led for the past five years...In those five years I have been belittled, shaken, hurt, burned, hospitalized and broken...but I just keep getting back up. There are times when you just go into the freezer and beat frozen bread boxes you are so frustrated and mad...and times where you just cant stop tears from rolling down your face(as ashamed as u are as its occurring). I admit my faults and expect others to do the same...you only learn by making mistakes...if you don’t learn from them F@ck off (even a Chef can learn from a dishwasher)...you don’t belong. Your probably not going to own your own restaurant..and your never going to be Gordon Ramsay. Suck it up...Move on ... and keep making the best food you can!!

10 comments:

  1. so true buddy with the soul crushing and heart breaking that this industry can do to us. i feel that for sure and the nervousness when i started as a big greenhorn at grandview when i started there i thought it was the pinnacle of cookin, but i know now the pinnacle is far from in huntsville haha......... Love BOBO

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  2. Good read Ken..keep up the good work buddy...I worked in a kitchen for about 10 minutes when I was in highschool...and all i can say is, your tougher than me..cause I hated it!!...but it seems you have found what most people never do, and that's a job you enjoy..good for you...keep it up!

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  3. Oh, how right you are. Though we can all share some horror stories, its not that bad all the time. Those of us who do it and do it well stay with it because we love it chaos and all. Takes a special kind of person, and by special I might even mean a little crazy.

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  4. I think I remember your first day...look'n at
    you wondering what was with the "get up"... so WHITE and CLEAN. Kinda like...One of these things is not like the others,
    One of these things just doesn't belong...but before long you became a part of our lil Inn on the Bay family. They lost someone special when you moved on.

    Love and stuff :o)

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  5. Well now Ken, I guess I have more reading coming to me...Pretty cool stuff buddy!

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  6. Bowie,

    i'm pretty sure you just took the words out of every cooks heads! there is no normal cook anywhere , if anyone finds them fire them they wont make it ! it doesnt get any better the more you go up , more bullshit , stress and chaos ,what everyone strives for in this industry! you have now inspired me to do my own blog cause do ihave my own oppinion ofthis industry thats for damm sure ! great set upKen keep on striving to be the best cause when if you do you will beat them all out no matter how much or little experience you have thats for sure !

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  7. OMG ken you just wrote about my first ite at Delta!! haha wel soem names r changed but its pritty similar. you got it to a tee and your last paragraph is precise. When i started i was teh only girl, i ended up beeing the only girl to last under said Chef. and this is why both you and I will make it!! we love it too much to leave

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  8. Hey Ken...

    This blog is great... and painfully true, hope u and Bard are well.. best of luck buddy

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  9. This is your father speaking!!! Good effort so far. If you haven't read 'Garlic and Sapphires' yet, don't buy it. It's something you cooking people will enjoy but I can't send it up until Dave, my doctor and his receptionist read it. Sometimes it seems everyone is turning into a ravening foodie. Hugs to you and Christina.

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  10. So I am supposed to wait a few years to read it haha...Nothing wrong with a world full of Foodies!! xo

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