I’m a commis in a Chinese restaurant kitchen, this is what I do
February 20, 2017 6:40 AM   Subscribe

The dude at the chopping board has already pushed the lettuce, diced seafood, and salted fish from his side to our side of the table. We take a quick glance at the order sheet. First, we grab a medium-sized portion of rice. Then we transfer everything from our side of the table to the table directly accessible to the wok guys. We tell him, “no MSG, not too oily”. We then fetch a serving tray, six small plates, a small rice bowl, and a metal dish. The wok guy makes the fried rice, dumps it in the metal dish, then we portion the fried rice using the small rice bowl (so that every portion is in a neat little mound). This fried rice example is a very simple example involving a bit of communication between our section and the wok line.
posted by destrius (43 comments total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
I just started reading this. When I got to the first diagram I scrolled down and was disappointed that the article isn't 10,000 words longer. Perfect morning coffee reading, thanks!
posted by Room 641-A at 6:49 AM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is amazing, where can I find a restaurant like this? Most of the Chinese places around here have one or 2, maybe 3, people back in the kitchen, and the good ones have one old Chinese guy running the wok.
posted by jferg at 7:08 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is amazing, where can I find a restaurant like this?

The author works in a restaurant in Singapore. Pretty sure the kitchen layout is the same as what you'd find in Hong Kong, and other places with Cantonese chefs. So, anywhere with a large Chinese restaurant. I know Vancouver has several.
posted by destrius at 7:21 AM on February 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

I love this kind of behind-the-scenes look at different kinds of work. So fascinating!

My job is coordinating the Lean activities at a factory. The best examples of Lean manufacturing are found at well-run restaurants, or basically what is written here. Mise-en-place is 5S , their queuing system is production scheduling / load balancing, it's pretty much all just-in-time, and the list goes on and on.
posted by Fig at 7:22 AM on February 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

So, anywhere with a large Chinese restaurant.

Large being the key word here. This isn't your corner take-out, this is a big fancy banquet-style joint.

This article was fascinating, thank you for sharing!
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:29 AM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Metafilter: Woks 5 and/or 6 are opened when we’re descending into chaos and desperately need another wok guy to help out.

This is awesome, thank you.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:40 AM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

"no, dis your problem”
posted by Room 641-A at 7:43 AM on February 20, 2017 [14 favorites]

Yeah, a big restaurant. The author doesn't say which one she's working at, but my guess is that it's one of the Imperial Treasures or Crystal Jades in Orchard Road. So something like this.
posted by destrius at 7:46 AM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's really interesting to see how hierarchy works in the writer's world. For example, the highest ranking person in the kitchen is wok guy #1, whose duties are not really cooking any more but political - but he's really ultimately responsible for product.

But dispatch and scheduling are what's standing between his product and customer perception. And that stuff appears to either not be assigned or kinda sorta handled by the junior employees at the writer's level.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 7:59 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

MSG is awesome, though.
posted by My Dad at 8:00 AM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

Ah, unfortunately I don't think those kind of Chinese restaurants exist in Kansas City.
posted by jferg at 8:01 AM on February 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Great find destrius! I'm hungry for a 10 course ;p
posted by infini at 8:11 AM on February 20, 2017

This is where I work, between the knives and the fire.

Sounds simply lovely.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:27 AM on February 20, 2017 [13 favorites]

Korkor’s Organised Queue of Incoming Orders.

Would that be a Conjuring or a Transmutation spell? Or possibly Divination?
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:35 AM on February 20, 2017 [15 favorites]

Sooo hungry now...
posted by dazed_one at 9:53 AM on February 20, 2017

Very interesting article about a subject I've been wanting to know a lot more about!
posted by gyc at 9:56 AM on February 20, 2017

That was completely fascinating. Thanks!
posted by rtha at 10:24 AM on February 20, 2017

Great link. Thanks!
posted by notyou at 10:55 AM on February 20, 2017

Direct link to author's blog post.

Thanks for that. Knowing that it's written by an ED survivor deepens my appreciation of a post about the logistics of a bustling kitchen churning out food.
posted by zamboni at 11:40 AM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

... I had never heard of XO sauce and I think I need some now. That sounds like it would be so good in stir fries and fried rice.
posted by tavella at 11:54 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

This sounds so intense. Especially this:
Stacking is inevitable because if we went item by item, according to time, we would literally die.
posted by gt2 at 1:25 PM on February 20, 2017

Stacking is inevitable because if we went item by item, according to time, we would literally die.

( I like to read menus, OK? ) The Crystal Jade Golden Palace menu runs 25 pages
posted by mikelieman at 1:40 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


Makes me proud to live in a former British colony.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:03 PM on February 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

posted by brokkr at 2:53 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

Fascinating! I think I would have a panic attack within 5 minutes working in any kitchen (actually, I was a line cook once and managed to last two weeks before being fired), but reading about the workflow is super interesting. I'd actually like to know more about the "little things" she mentions at the end there -- like where do you find the time to refill oil twice a day, or to separate eggs, in between everything else going on?

Anyway, huge respect for anyone who works in a kitchen.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:03 PM on February 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

"please forgive incompetence"

I've worked in a restaurant. Nothing could be further from the truth.
posted by prepmonkey at 4:25 PM on February 20, 2017

You can actually buy jars of XO sauce. Amazon sells them too I think.
posted by destrius at 4:46 PM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

XO sauce is a standard condiment in Singaporean kitchens. I mean you expect it made from scratch in an upmarket kitchen like stock is, but you buy a bottle and use it for cooking. It's like a drunker richer version of oyster sauce.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:00 PM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Great post. I'd chip in for a GoFundme if she'd strap a GoPro to a helmet and bring us inside that kitchen. That's some action I'd pay to see. Iron Chef is all well and good, but an experienced wok jockey (or short order griddle artiste) is a joy to witness.
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:13 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

This was a really great article about the controlled chaos of a large kitchen. Reminded me a little of Kitchen Confidential only with less swearing and burning yourself to prove a point.

Also I am totally hungry for dim sum now. Dammit.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 6:20 PM on February 20, 2017

I mostly want to know more about stir-fried carrot cake.
posted by lollusc at 7:08 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm transitioning back to kitchen work (thank god), and yeah, I'm pretty happy about it because it's work. There isn't a lot of downtime where you probably should do something else, but could easily spend that time on, say, Metafilter (why yes, I'm at my non-kitchen job, how did you know?). There are tasks that need to get done, or the kitchen can't function, and not a lot of time to get them done. I've been lucky in both the job I'm heading into (pizza) and the last kitchen job I had (bbq) that I'm one of the prep people. For me, that means I sometimes I get two whole hours to myself, alone in the kitchen, followed by another two hours before we open. It's not like I can slack off, though, because there is a set list of things I need to accomplish before anyone else comes in. At the kitchen I'm heading to, the amount of work required is almost exactly the amount of work doable in the time I have before we open. To me, this is the sign of a well-run kitchen, in that, if there is more work, more people are scheduled so that it can get done well. Previously, it didn't matter how long the list was, or how few people were scheduled, it was all expected to get done, and that was not a well run kitchen (seriously, prepping brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, and whole chickens, but also needing to prep the salad station, make the mac and cheese, cole slaw, and potato salad because the schedule has you working alone from 11-4, and you open at 5 is pretty stupid).

I loved this article, because it does capture the insanity of the kitchen, but also the sheer responsibility of it. The romanticized "cooks are irresponsible maniacs" trope is not only tiresome, but it means you get irresponsible maniacs thinking that cooking is the field for them. A good kitchen is a well-oiled machine, with all of the parts moving in and out of each other's way carefully and quickly. It's fun, but it's also deadly serious at times, and I doubt I'd trade it for anything, aside from lying on the beach of a tropical island because somehow working in a kitchen made me fantastically rich, and I need never work again.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:23 PM on February 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

I mostly want to know more about stir-fried carrot cake.

Radish cake (chai tow kway) is more accurate. I don't know why they call it 'carrot cake' in Singapore - maybe because it uses the carrot-shaped mooli radish rather than the smaller salad radish.

That said, a carrot/ gajar halwa in South Asian food, when made with semolina, is basically a carrot cake that has been fried instead of baked.
posted by tavegyl at 7:30 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

Carrot cake is not carrot cake, the baked western cake. It is fried grated radish and deeply deeply unhealthy for the amount of oil used. It is a staple for eating when you are depressed, don't care about calories, have a beer, are sharing with friends, are celebrating, are super hungry, or crave it. Basically it's the hawker center equivalent of french fries. A guide to carrot cake in Singapore. My kids love it. I find it way too greasy, but have to admit it's really great with a beer late at night the very few times I've ever had it.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:27 PM on February 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't know why they call it 'carrot cake' in Singapore

I think the etymology is because the base component is called luo bo gao (萝卜糕). 萝卜 in this context refers to daikon radish, and gao means cake. However, carrots are also called luo bo, specifically hong luo bo (红萝卜) where hong means red (since carrots are orangey-red). So when the name got translated a long time ago, luo bo ended up becoming carrot instead of radish/daikon.

One thing I found particularly interesting about this article is contrasting the way the kitchen works compared to the western kitchens we see depicted quite often on TV. For example the chef doesn't seem to man the pass, and instead the people who do the final plating and sending off of the dishes are actually the most junior staff.

I also wanted to try to add some more links to other articles describing Chinese kitchens, but interestingly I couldn't find any on Google! I wonder how say Szechuanese or Shanghainese kitchens work, for example; maybe they're a bit less wok-heavy compared to Cantonese and so the layout is different?
posted by destrius at 10:05 PM on February 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

Slices of pan-fried oily radish cake with bits of bbq pork in them are literally the best food ever and I will fight anybody who says otherwise.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:29 PM on February 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, and a bit more information about "carrot cake": The cake is made by shredding daikon, and then mixing it with rice flour and water to form a paste, which is then steamed. The end result is a springy white block that doesn't have too much flavour on its own. You might have seen this before in dim sum restaurants where they pan-fry the cake; Wikipedia's entry on it has a photo of that.

The chai tao kuay* that dorothyisunderwood describes is a particular way of cooking carrot cake; the cake is cut into cubes, and then fried in a huge griddle along with eggs, spring onions, and diced chye poh. Chye poh is a dried and salted form of daikon (I think, it might be another kind of turnip or radish), and gives a sweet/salty/umami explosion of crunchy flavour each time you bite into it. This is the "white" version of the dish; for the "black" version they add sweet soy sauce (similar to kecap manis) as well. Chai tao kuay is quintessential Singaporean street food.

The stir-fried carrot cake in the article, though, is likely the upmarket version that they sell in restaurants. Almost the same, except they use better quality carrot cake (the ones in the hawker centres tend to contain more rice flour than daikon) and they add XO sauce. Here's what it looks like.

* More etymology: "chai tao" is cai tou (菜头) in Mandarin, and is the Hokkien/Teochew term for daikon. "kuay" would be Hokkien/Teochew for gao or cake.
posted by destrius at 10:29 PM on February 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

My go to is black char kway teow instead of carrot cake but my dad loves it, so I've often had to clean up his leftovers when mum comes back to find him with it - he has a heart problem and on a stricter diet than he likes.

I'm homesick and hungry.
posted by infini at 1:06 AM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

We have a large Chinese place in my town that is always busy, but irrespective of how busy it is, you can walk in there and ask for a table and the maitre d' will somehow create a table for you, and you sit down, and ten seconds later you have water and menus, and then they are back in two minutes to take your order from an enormous menu, and then it arrives and somehow it all works and it's fatty and salty and yum and the minuscule lady behind the till when you pay is all crankypants and it's magnificent.

I love reading this kind of thing. It almost makes me want to go back to working in a kitchen.
posted by michaelhoney at 2:03 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you folks for explaining about the carrot cake. Cross-cultural influence being what it is, I absolutely believed that she was describing a treatment of the Western spice cake with carrots in it. I had to look up bee foon and ee fu but I just let that slide right by.

This looks like a magical place. I wish I could go, but distance aside, dim sum is tough on a vegetarian.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:03 AM on February 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Setting aside the Oriental theme, if you liked this I very much encourage you to go read Micheal Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef."
posted by hearthpig at 10:49 AM on February 21, 2017

Please don't use the word Oriental unless you're a British colonist. Asian will do.
posted by yueliang at 1:14 AM on February 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

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