Super Sad True Chef Story
August 16, 2019 10:34 AM   Subscribe

What It's Like To Stage In A Michelin-Starred Restaurant In France: The French brigade system and the ritual of staging has defined what it means to train as a fine dining chef for more than a century — and it broke me after a week.

The thing is, French food didn’t become synonymous with fine dining because it was inherently more delicious. It was in large part because the training system that created French cooks was far more rigorous, standardized, and effective than any other in the West. The real legacy of la gastronomie française around the world is not a collection of recipes or an abstract culinary ethos of respecting technique and terroir, but a highly militarized system of training chefs and managing kitchens. Even though kids may not learn cooking at their mother’s apron strings anymore, reports of the death of French cooking have been grossly exaggerated precisely because that training system hasn’t gone anywhere. It has simply begun — grudgingly, haltingly, and inexorably — to evolve.

posted by poffin boffin (67 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
The answer is simple - as the myth of abusive workplaces producing quality product is shown to be a myth, the newer generation is, unsurprisingly, choosing to NOPE out of it. And systems that refuse to acknowledge this, like French cooking, are finding themselves looking at the dustbin of history.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:43 AM on August 16, 2019 [50 favorites]


(pronounced “stodge”)

eh, non

long a, soft g. No 'o', no stops.
posted by bonehead at 10:48 AM on August 16, 2019 [23 favorites]


For another take on this from an American woman's perspective, Amy Glazes' chef stories are amazing. I linked to her time at Guy Savoy, but there's earlier stories from cooking school and later stories from Le Bernadin as well. It sounds awful but she chooses to put a brave face on it in her writing, it's interesting.

I like to think as NoxAeternum says that a lot of chefs just nope out of the abusive work environment. I'd like to think American doctors will get their eventually too.
posted by Nelson at 10:58 AM on August 16, 2019 [11 favorites]


J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, of Food Lab fame, recently started a restaurant. He discussed how chefs don't have to be monsters on Slate's Man Up podcast with Aymann Ismail.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:09 AM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


I, too, sure hope we are all getting to evolve our workplaces into healthier places to be.

For a glimmer of that hopeful perspective, there was a great post six months ago, When the chefs of Joe Beef in Montreal gave up alcohol, their whole restaurant changed - the story linked from that FPP has some great stuff:
My language changed from being self-centered in my alcoholism to being a better boss, a better friend who actually enjoyed people. I got to know people again through tea and coffee with people. I don’t waste so many man hours talking about wine like I did before, like weed guys talk about weed. Now I actually care what you did this weekend. Now I actually care what your next move is when you leave Joe Beef. Now I actually care about the happiness of these people I’ve been working with for 15 years.
It's worth reading to the end.

Stories like that and things like the No Asshole Rule are great. They're not enough, but they offer examples of a way forward, and provide those essential glimmers of hope.
posted by kristi at 11:13 AM on August 16, 2019 [26 favorites]


After reading this, the otherwise moronic reality TV show Hell's Kitchen seems like a documentary.
posted by meowzilla at 11:18 AM on August 16, 2019


It isn't really shocking that given those environments, working in a restaurant puts you in the top 20 professions (at least in this CDC study) for suicide risk. This the dark side (er, one of) of us moving towards a 'service economy;' lots of people aren't built well for that kind of work.

Also, small business (which, is almost every independent restaurant ever, and most chains since they're franchises) don't have the same kind of labor protections that others do. Federal FMLA only covers 100+ employee situations...some states are better, but most restaurants still fall under that mark.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:32 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


I love cooking, but have never worked in a restaurant kitchen. It makes me sad that fine dining is built on toxic foundations.
I've always fantasized about becoming a cook, and maybe working as one will quickly and empirically disabuse me of of the feeling that it is an option that I might really want.
posted by polymodus at 11:46 AM on August 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


There's a decent chunk on the Joe Beef episode of the David Chang podcast on how traumatic kitchen work can be, and how the industry will handle these stresses finally being brought to light and shown as unacceptable is a recurrent theme on the show. It's an interesting listen and I've cone away with a much better impression of Chang than I'd had previously.

Also the Joe Beef guys are just great.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:49 AM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


When chefs screamed or threw crockery, it was dismissed — or even celebrated — as “passion,” and casual nastiness and degradation were thought to be “part of the job.” Abusers weren’t just protected; they were given TV shows.

Oh man, this. I know a guy who went to culinary school in the US and worked his way up into a really good gig working for a James Beard award winning former White House chef. He left that job when he won a spot at some place in France where he worked essentially without pay for nine months in exchange for this training in the French system.

When he came back home he was a completely different person, a perpetually drunk and abusive rageaholic. A bunch of people who knew him ignored the problem with bogus "but I've seen Gordon Ramsay on teevee" justifications. He eventually burned out of three high profile jobs in a row and decided to go work a job at a tree planting operation in the Canadian forestry industry to get his head straight again.
posted by peeedro at 12:03 PM on August 16, 2019 [21 favorites]


I've always fantasized about becoming a cook, and maybe working as one will quickly and empirically disabuse me of of the feeling that it is an option that I might really want.

it's one of those situations where if cooking a thing you enjoy doing casually as a Youth and people say "oh you should do it for a living when you grow up" you should immediately punch that person right in the face because they know nothing of real life and give bad advice.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:12 PM on August 16, 2019 [64 favorites]


And as in ballet, running a restaurant requires an enormous amount of work and training to make it look effortless, since while we dine we do not want to think about the throbbing back of the prep cook who peeled a giant bag of Yukon Golds any more than we want to think about the bloody, mangled toes of the ballerina as she flits across the stage.
And as in ballet, the sexual harassment is so common you don't always notice it even if it's happening to you at the time.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:16 PM on August 16, 2019 [37 favorites]


... and people say "oh you should do it for a living when you grow up" you should immediately punch that person right in the face because they know nothing of real life and give bad advice.

Absolutely this. It's always struck me as a weird thing to say. Just because I like cooking food for people I care about, that has absolutely nothing to do with a passion for cooking the exact same things the exact same way, over and over and over, night after night after night, for people I'll never even meet. I get that that seems to be a fulfilling goal for some people, but most of those people don't seem to come from the group of "people who enjoy cooking a variety of dishes from a variety of cuisines at home".
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:28 PM on August 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


"I like building sandcastles when I'm at the beach. I should totally become an architect and build skyscrapers and apartment blocks and hospitals!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:29 PM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


As in ballet I'd prefer if no one had a throbbing back and bloody toes, we only have one life and none of this bullshit is worth the extent that we punish people just for wanting to do it.
posted by bleep at 12:29 PM on August 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


Insofar as high-end fine dining restaurant kitchens are concerned, the abusive "shout in your face" style has largely ceased to be a thing in the United States. This may have been explored previously in other threads, but it's a seller's market for staff with the training and expertise to work in these kitchens nowadays, and it's pretty easy to move on to a different kitchen if the one you're in is an abusive shitshow. Kitchens in places like Per Se and Le Bernadin are surprisingly quiet and even-tempered.
posted by slkinsey at 12:40 PM on August 16, 2019 [8 favorites]


I've always fantasized about becoming a cook

It's seemed to me for a while that being a cook or chef isn't about making someone a delicious meal. It's about making 100 almost-as-good meals very quickly and ruthlessly to a budget (even if sometimes a high budget), and a lot of the skills you'd need to learn to be a cook or chef aren't about "delicious" nearly as much as they're about "quickly" and "on budget."
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:02 PM on August 16, 2019 [15 favorites]


It's about making 100 almost-as-good meals very quickly and ruthlessly to a budget

And all exactly the same.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:06 PM on August 16, 2019 [14 favorites]


I was listening to a Ben Fold's interview and he quoted someone else as saying the amateur or hobbyist might be more talented the professional, but the pro can perform every night at 5pm with the same level of energy. You can be an awesome home cook, but it's a different thing entirely. Personally I love cooking at home, but what I love doing I can't imagine would translate to a professional environment and I'd rather maintain something I enjoy doing than ruin it by trying to make money off of it.
posted by Carillon at 1:31 PM on August 16, 2019 [27 favorites]


The sameness factor is what kills me. If I'm cooking at home and something isn't right I can fix it. Add this. Add that. Back and forth until it works. It may not be the same as last time but in the end I can eat it and it'll taste good. Which is all I care about. Working in a professional kitchen if it isn't perfect it's shit. Taking the same ingredients and extruding out the same product over and over isn't cooking as I know it. There isn't any back and forth. You're just executing a function.
posted by downtohisturtles at 1:34 PM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


My father, a German immigrant to Norway, worked in a Norwegian hotel kitchen in the 80s, under an Austrian chef. The Germans and Austrians were famous back then for taking the rigidity of the brigade system extremely seriously. Apparently, it was common (as in happening multiple times per day for the chef to physically hit the workers, mostly a hard open-handed slap to the back of the head, but occasionally also slaps to the face or even fists. This was considered normal, and probably didn't improve the massive stress from the long shifts.

My father eventually retrained to become a process engineer at a chemical plant. He was a raging alcoholic throughout his kitchen career and only had it marginally more under control at his industrial job, but according to him, the industrial job was both much easier, less stressful, and better paid.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:39 PM on August 16, 2019 [8 favorites]


It was many years ago and I was only 16 years young, but I had the rare privilege for a few months in 1986 of being backstage working at a 2-star restaurant in Antibes, France.

How I got there is a long story for another day, but the tldr version is through family connections. The restaurant was called La Bonne Auberge and run by Jo Rostang. In 1980, Jo, after a literal lifetime of work (he was born into a family of chefs) was awarded 3 stars, which he held onto for four years before it was removed in 1984.

So when I entered the picture, two years after that fateful day, the restaurant was fighting to get its third star back. Spoiler alert: it never did.

My role was decidedly minor a.) I was not in the kitchen, ( I assisted the sommeliers) and b.) I was not judged by the same standards as the others. What I did witness was the ferocious amount of work it takes to maintain this level of quality.

Here’s the conundrum, everything being said about the tough working conditions and authoritarian system is absolutely true. Jo Rostang could definitely explode with anger in the kitchen and when he truly went off, the entire restaurant could hear it. It was not an act.

The article made a point about the Michelin rating seeking perfection and this is also true. So here’s a weird analogy, when I saw Free Solo, the doc about Alex Hannold who climbed to the top of El Capitan without ropes, there’s a final scene where (another spoiler alert) he reaches the top. He reached the summit at an emotional cost to a number of people in his life. This I think, is clear to many who watch the film.

Despite this knowledge, when he makes it to the top, I felt my heart swell with pride for the human race. But it was a complicated pride, if such a thing exists.

There were echoes of this at La Bonne Auberge. There were staff dinners in the afternoon before service would start. The chefs would make many of the same dishes on the menu so everyone knew how to talk about them. One day I had a serving of Gratin Dauphinoise that I will never forget for the rest of my life. Simply stated: it was perfection.

Was there another way to get that perfect gratin without the emotional cost? I think so, but I don’t think it’s easy. Another way to look at is: can anyone attain “perfection” without incurring these emotional costs? Again, I think so, but this is so much harder to do. The easiest path to perfection, almost by definition, involves a focus and ruthlessness that excludes others.

I guess what I’m saying is “perfect” is in our vocabulary, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
posted by jeremias at 1:47 PM on August 16, 2019 [45 favorites]


I worked with a chef I respect a hell of a lot as a person, and as a cook. He offered me a job when my attempts at running a restaurant with my wife finally gave out, and it was a difficult period for me. For one thing, I’d never really worked in someone else’s restaurant, and our places had been small enough to be a two person operation (though I’ve realized since, that was utterly unsustainable).

I’d come in from running my own place, and all of the brutal realizations of the necessity for economy, in motion, in spending, in everything, and I was put into a position that honestly had a lot that could be improved. Poorly trained floor staff with interesting ideas on what their jobs were, a ridiculous kitchen setup that required constantly pulling containers with 2kg of food from a lowboy (sort of an ergonomic hell with a simple solution), a manager (who I love dearly as a friend now, and is a much better place both in life and work) but would often disappear to talk to his girlfriend on the phone, leaving us to work short handed, leading to wonderful moments when his wife would show up with their kids.

And it was busy as hell. And it was my first time really working with others, as part of what the head chef really wanted to be a brigade style kitchen, filled with rejects and assholes. When I started, I was thrilled about the job, essentially being gifted the one real bbq pitmaster job in Tokyo, which should’ve been a dream job.

After the first month, I knew I was in the wrong place. Aside from a largely toxic company culture (nearly all of the full time and management staff from when I was there three years ago is gone), there was a macho bullshit culture that taught me a very important lesson. When you have a suggestion that might improve the workplace, and your manager says “that’s a great idea, you should do that” but never adjusts your duties so you can, or replies the same way every time, they are basically telling you to shut up and go away.

When I quit, the chef (again, who I respect) told me that he thought I just wasn’t cut out for brigade work, and should stick to one man operations, and I don’t think he’s entirely wrong, but after a lot of thinking, one thing really stuck with me.

Both the chef and I had probably really decided to get into cooking because of Kitchen Confidential. As much as I dearly loved Anthony Bourdain, the myth of the fuckup who’s burned through all of his chances always being able to find work in a kitchen is one of the bigger problems I’ve encountered in my time trying to make a go of being a cook. The romantic bullshit that the kitchen is supposed to be full of fuckups and drinks and we need to make allowances for them, in an industry built on the idea of getting things done, as a team, the right way, every time, under high stress conditions, is poison.

And that’s not even getting into the owners and managers that hire people with zero experience and aptitude because they pay so little that those are the only ones that will take the job (at the low end) or restaurants that demand free labor (like in the article) at the high end, and gratitude for the opportunity.

At its height, when there order rail is so full you’re using magnets to clip new orders to the shelf next to the rail, and the restaurant is at capacity, with more waiting, but you’re working with a team where everyone on the team knows how to do the job, and everyone knows that everyone else will help out the station that’s hit the worst if there’s a chance, it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing, but even then, it’s always only a case of how can we make do with the little we have and the shortcomings of the kitchen, and the corner cutting dictated by management. At its best, it’s still an exhausting, brutal job, made worse by the glorification of assholes.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:55 PM on August 16, 2019 [43 favorites]


I frequently get the suggestion that I should work in restaurants. And, okay, I have done things like fancy dinners for 300 people and the like. But, seriously, no way. Once I explain that it would represent a doubling of work hours, a halving of income, and many years of hard/boring work before I could even think of being the boss of the kitchen, they usually shut up.
posted by slkinsey at 1:59 PM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


Both the chef and I had probably really decided to get into cooking because of Kitchen Confidential. . . . At its best, it’s still an exhausting, brutal job, made worse by the glorification of assholes.

Case in point: AB himself. I know he had his good points to his friends, but if ever there were a glorified asshole...
posted by slkinsey at 2:04 PM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


On a different note, I love the idea that you could order a dish in any restaurant and know what to expect. I really do not love the trend of restaurants fussing with food - and not warning you on the menu - so you can order something you've had dozens of times elsewhere and it comes out completely unrecognizeable. "Thanks, I hate it."
posted by jzb at 2:15 PM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think, though, for doing haute cuisine the appeal for people like myself is the artistry and the performance (i.e. the execution when I cook something well) and also the hands-on process resulting in something concrete and real. I can't just eat at expensive restaurants as enjoyable as they are, I wanna make the damn things, because when I finally make a dish that vibrates it's a special feeling. There's a disconnect between producing and consuming which is really capitalism's inability to leverage people's passions into industry without also exploiting them.
posted by polymodus at 2:16 PM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


My husband is a culinary arts college professor and does not take advantage of the opportunity to try and break this cycle and it really disappoints me.
posted by obfuscation at 2:50 PM on August 16, 2019 [10 favorites]


I am reminded of stories of Georges Perrier, of Philadelphia's fabled Le Bec-Fin. It was said that the kitchen was often a cacophony of profanity, mostly from Perrier himself: that is shit, this is shit, everything here is shit, the kitchen is in the shit!

And it was... well, not ignored, but understood. This was his method of breaking the tension he felt trying to keep everything running as it should.

But if he was swearing in French? Hide all of the knives and breakables. Because no one really _means_ swearing unless it's in their native language.
posted by delfin at 2:56 PM on August 16, 2019 [8 favorites]


as the myth of abusive workplaces producing quality product is shown to be a myth

I've started to wonder if the utility of abusive systems isn't that they produce superior quality, it's that they scale, and can thus be industrialized. Like to scale anything involving training people you have to start treating people like things, and that is when abuse starts. So I wonder.

And then I despair a little.
posted by schadenfrau at 2:58 PM on August 16, 2019 [22 favorites]


MetaFilter: Thanks, I hate it.

I am not even a home cook - like I make dinners and there are a couple of things I make well, but I cook so I don’t starve rather than taking any great joy out of it. But I watch a lot of cookery shows, especially cooking competitions, and I’m just endlessly awed at how gruelling it is working in a professional kitchen. The hours, the physicality, the heat, the pressure of orders coming in and people shouting and spills and burning yourself...I know for a fact I would last approximately 7 minutes into a service before stabbing myself or someone else in the eye with a paring knife. The idea that people have to cope with that at the same time as some asshole shouting in their face under the guise of “you’re executing my vision so you cease to have importance as a human being beyond that” is so horrendous. I have no idea why anyone would want to do that for a living, but at least if someone wants to spend their career literally helping feed people they shouldn’t have to put up with crap that turns them to alcohol just so they can get through the day.
posted by billiebee at 3:15 PM on August 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


Both the chef and I had probably really decided to get into cooking because of Kitchen Confidential.

Interesting; I had already gotten into cooking (at home) when I read that book, and it convinced me that I had absolutely zero desire to get into restaurant work. I continue to enjoy reading books about the industry for some reason, but only as an interested observer rather than as an aspiring participant.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:23 PM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


Same here...Kitchen Confidential totally disabused me of the idea of working in a restaurant. I've grown friendly with some people in Industry and it is fun to occasionally cook for them. The idea of doing what they do day in, day out would drive me bonkers.

Someone upthread mentioned that really good kitchens are quiet. I've had the pleasure of eating at the chef's counter in some nice places. Invariably, the better the place, the more quiet and boring the kitchen looked. Everyone knew their stuff and it felt like everyone was moving in slow motion. The less well run places had raised voices and an occasional dressing down.
posted by mmascolino at 4:06 PM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


it convinced me that I had absolutely zero desire to get into restaurant work

I can totally understand that. For me, though, it had the opposite effect, and was probably a solid part of the final decision to go ahead and start a restaurant. As much as I’ve said about how terrible the jobs I’ve had have been, on the nights when everything clicks, when the people you’re working with know their job, and everyone is working together like a well oiled machine, and the orders won’t stop coming, but you know you can handle it, no matter what? And the exhaustion at the end, it’s got to be as close to the concept of beat as a holy exhaustion as I’ve ever come.

I’ve never enjoyed any work I’ve ever done as much as that.

But, those nights were rare, the pay is crap, the job itself is terribly isolating, in that if you have friends outside of your coworkers, you won’t be seeing them, and it does slowly break you down.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:56 PM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


There's an older article on Eater by Corey Mintz, also on stagiaires: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Get by With a Lot of Unpaid Labor.
posted by emeiji at 5:33 PM on August 16, 2019


The writer of this article was a miffed at being relegated to the most simple repetitive tasks. As if they should have been on the line around Day 3. The reason you give that person the job of shelling beans for hours is so they can't fuck up a paying customer dish. Being a server and bartender means nothing in a kitchen, it means you know how to get free food in exchange for drinkies. It's hypocritical that they complain about the boredom when they want to make a guest appearance.
Kitchens that are chaotic are that way because the chef runs it that way, the way a business is run by owners and managers. The brigade system was created as an organizational hierarchy so everyone would know their responsibilities, but they have to be enforced (and the chef must delegate and trust their subordinates). If you run out of prep during service, it's because you're a lousy organizer (super busy exceptions of course, but still-- you know when it's Valentines Day and you've got 240 on the books). Just like other business systems, the abuse is rampant when you've got gross inequality of culture.
Michelin is about the customer experience, the food service atmosphere, it has nothing to do with how the food gets there. It'd be nice to think that beauty and grace and elegance in the FOH is echoed in the back, but ha haaaahahahaaaa sorry what?! George Orwell is laughing his ass off.

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a very good article way back in 1997 about why young classically trained French chefs were not going the Michelin route. It's from his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, the article is called Hauts Bistros. My mouth waters at the descriptions of the dishes.

I have talked many a younger person out of "becoming a chef" by telling them to go work in a real restaurant for the summer. It's nothing like cooking shows, or cooking for a big party. But as Ghidorah said, it's such intense satisfaction to do this ballet well, and to know how rare that is. I miss it, but my hands don't.
posted by twentyfeetof tacos at 5:36 PM on August 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


on the nights when everything clicks, when the people you’re working with know their job, and everyone is working together like a well oiled machine

I can see that. I imagine it's something like being a member of a large orchestra supporting the music in relative anonymity, vs. improvising solos in a small jazz group. Both are valid undertakings but very different from each other. You can probably guess which one I prefer... :)
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:36 PM on August 16, 2019


I started working in kitchens at 14. At 16 I started prep cooking. At 17 I worked my first line. At 19 I went to school for engineering. Fast forward to 9/11 - I've landed the dream engineering job. I'm decent at it, but - there are structural challenges with being a PhD's whipping boy. I had issues with my then-fiance at the time, or well - she had a flared eating disorder that came as close to killing her as possible without actually doing so. So there I was, tired of engineering, not wanting to do IT work, with a new war starting out of hate because we refused to understand a different culture - because we refused to break bread together. All of the imperialist behaviors of the US had come home to roost, and here was everything that makes your mid-20s agnsty. So, I liquidated my 401K, paid off my car, broke up with my fiance, and went to Culinary School because no restaurant in Boston would hire me with an engineering degree. Appearing to have options in a restaurant environment can be a liability - it means you are a risk for washing out... Which, given that I eventually left it for family stability - I did.

But why did I go to the restaurant? Because restaurants run one of two ways: orderly, organized and ready - or like a pirate ship. Either way, it was going to give me something that I needed - direction: either forward, or down. Culinary school wasn't about the recipes or learning to cook. Watch enough TV, muck around in a kitchen enough, and you'll be able to produce some pretty amazing dishes. I would lie to you every time about how your food is amazing, and grandma's recipe was cooked with love and culture and how I couldn't make something that could compare because of the significance that your recipe held in your heart. And yes, I would even purposefully sabotage my own food just so that I can rub your ego and make sure that you think that you are a talented cook chef - even though you probably don't deserve that title.

Because to make it as a chef - a real chef - and yes - there are real chefs - is a grueling process that will remind you of how hard it is to get ahead. Ratatouille (the mouse movie) said it best - anyone can cook - a chef can come from anywhere... but then again - Anyone can be a CEO of a fortune 5 company, or become an astronaut too. The problem with - or the wonderful thing about - cooking, is that for most people - they can't tell the difference between a Michelin chef or a celebrity chef. Most people can't tell the difference between seasoning and over seasoning. Most people can't tell the age of a scallop by how it takes the butter. And most people think that making a great meal makes them have potential to be a great chef. All of those things put someone with a little culinary skill and a palate with potential in an equivalent position as 'mail room' with respect of the CEO of a fortune 5. Yes, somebody may make it to the top, or near the top, but for every person who does - there's a stack of fuckups they've made, and a whole host of people that failed to get to where they are. But unlike the CEO of a fortune 5, *everybody* thinks they can cook. (Hell, even CEOs think they can cook.) So what does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China?

Think about a restaurant. This is seemingly low skilled work, handling something that everyone handles every day (You may not know what taro root is, but you probably know how to peel a potato). So people from every walk of life, and every skill level comes to your door - more than likely grossly overestimating their ability as well as underestimating the amount of work it takes to be successful with a restaurant. One of the biggest things that stuck with me in culinary school is this: 54% of all restaurants fail at the 3 year mark. First year you burn through your money. Second year you burn through the banks money. Third year you burn through your family's money.

You burn through your money because everyone underestimates how hard it is to run a restaurant. In a restaurant, every week is a greenbelt project - where you struggle to make sure that costing is optimized. You lose money when someone mishandles your food. You lose money when someone throws away too much usable product. You lose money when someone doesn't rotate properly. You lose money when someone accidentally burns your protien. You lose money when a server drops a plate. You lose money when a cook doesn't put up their plate at the same time as the rest of your line. You lose money when someone seasons the salad wrong. You lose money when someone is taking nips from the cooking sherry. You lose money when there is a seat that isn't filled. You lose money when there is too long a wait. You lose money when your menu stagnates. You lose money when one of your chefs gets stabbed by the dishwasher. Everywhere you look - you can lose money. And nobody - nobody wants to bail you out.

So now, which gives you some measures of quality control and standards, a formal brigade kept in order, or a pirate ship? If you are going to be a successful chef, you are going to go through some staff. Some of your staff is going to quit and open up their own restaurant in direct competition. Some of your staff is going to steal from you. Some of your staff is going to cause undue drama... And your job - is to keep on top of it - and to make sure that the people you put in charge of certain parts of it keep your business functional.

Yes, almost any suburban college graduate with passable cooking skill can make a 2 man taco truck with their best friend be successful - you have no scale - but you can be successful at least for a mid-term goal of surviving 3 years. You can even change your food fast enough that you can likely outrun food trends.

So a Michelin star? That isn't the same as a supplier of the year trophy. It isn't the same as an MVP superbowl win... If anything, its sort of like Johnny Damon being forced to leave the Red Sox post 2004 because even though he was loved by the fans, he was totally priced out / the Red Sox wouldn't pay him what he wanted... And even though the 'curse was reversed' it still took another 3 years for another star and it took an entirely different team to do that. Everything fell apart in order to do that.

And a chef has to stay with it through those 3 tumultuous years post being recognized. Now - not only that but you have to defend your star... You can't let it get it yanked because you aren't providing quality anymore. You can't keep your prices the same - which means you are going to lose some of your clientele. Some of the folks that come are just going to show up and fair weather friend your new success... There is such a limited window which will close very quickly.

And yes, people will come and stage for free (that is Stahj). Some of them will be good and some of them will be ineffective. Some can't be trained. Some can't stop drinking. Some just don't want to be there and are waiting for their life to magically work out. Some are waiting on job interviews. Some can't stop the drama in their lives. Some can't cook, can't count, can't remember, can't keep time, can't function. A brigade gives clear training and an order for success: If you can't master picking thyme - I don't want you touching the protein that costs me.

Blargh.

I dunno. Restaurants are grueling because they have to be. People get upset when you waste their money at work... people are surprised that Gordon Ramsay yells when someone ruins his food? I mean... FFS people... Beef Wellington was served in every year in Hell's Kitchen... If you haven't watched a prior season and watched exactly what he expects for service - I just don't know what to say.

As for women in a kitchen? Christ... I've worked for a bunch. I've worked with far fewer. Low skilled labor (i.e. starting positions in restaurants) definitely attract people with lower educational backgrounds and less exposure to politically correct language... and it turns the whole thing into a powder keg of sexual tension, repression, things that need #metoo responses, scorecards, and other ... just fucking awful things.


I dunno. I think... trying to stage for a week and thinking 'why aren't I captain wonderful with everyone swooning over me?' is such... such a lack of graciousness from the author. Nobody cares about your opinion? Kitchens aren't corporate town hall meetings. And even if you open your mouth during one of those - the CEO doesn't want to hear you open your trap anyway - even if they pay you lip service... A Chef just doesn't have the time for you to prattle on with being a special snowflake... Christ... your mom should have told you the truth.

I guess... where I am really going is: there is no room for wasting time, money or food in a restaurant. Especially if said restaurant is in pursuit of a Michelin star.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:53 PM on August 16, 2019 [27 favorites]


I too worked in Boston area kitchens as a young man, winding my way up from prep to assistant chef. I also worked for six months mostly as a line desert cook at the London Hard Rock Cafe, where I made literally thousands of fucking cheesecakes. Each one the same.

I grew to hate cheesecake.

All that was 30 years ago now. It took years before I liked cooking again, and years more before I loved it. I just took two cheesecakes out of the oven ten minutes ago. And they’re perfect. And delicious with wild blueberries reduced in maple syrup.
posted by spitbull at 7:03 PM on August 16, 2019 [8 favorites]


Also I trained under an elightened chef, a taciturn Texan who insisted on country music in the kitchen (which was our bond, I went on to move to Texas and become a country musician!) and never raised his voice at the mostly Haitian staff (he liked me especially because I spoke enough French to improve the working conditions for everyone by improving communications over problems). Those Haitian guys were incredible — one was a dentist, another an engineer, and the dishwasher was a poet, and all worked harder than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. It was a crazy place but when it was working right it was exhilarating too, as several folks described above.

I later realized how lucky I was to work under this guy, whose predecessor was a classic asshole bully who despised vegetarians (to the point of sabotaging vegetarian dishes that were featured on the menu) and his Haitian crew.
posted by spitbull at 7:09 PM on August 16, 2019 [13 favorites]


After reading this, the otherwise moronic reality TV show Hell's Kitchen seems like a documentary.

Gordon Ramsay plays it up for American audiences because we like angry British man yelling about things. If you watch some of his British documentaries or shows, he comes across as pretty thoughtful, if kind of a blokey doofus, and on Masterchef Junior he can be very sweet and gentle with the kids. It’s an act.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:30 PM on August 16, 2019 [12 favorites]


Yeah, complaining one week in means you really shouldn’t be there. You learn by mastering each step, so that you can do it again and again, perfectly every time. Being excited about getting the last squid cleaned in the time required, it doesn’t mean you’re finished. The squid still need cleaning every day, and you’ve managed basic competence once. All that means is you keep doing it until you do it well, and until there’s someone else who can take over. Then you learn another basic task. Once you’ve mastered basic tasks, maybe you can tackle the simplest station. The last kitchen I worked in meant you went from dishes to the fryer section, and if you couldn’t master the fry section and the prep required, you didn’t move on to anything that required higher level ability, and we had people that never got past that.

The act of cutting vegetables for prep can be incredibly boring for some, but it still needs to get done, and get done correctly, every damn day. (I’m lucky, I absolutely loved cutting veg for prep) The writer needs to understand that everyone not standing where he is, cleaning squid, peeling potatoes, has not only mastered the tasks he feels he’s too good for, they’ve also mastered every task between there and where they’re now standing.

In my dream kitchen, I’m working with a kitchen full of people that not only know their own station, but are capable of working every other station as well. When it happens, it’s a beautiful thing, but at least in my experience, it happens all too rarely.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:44 PM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


It broke him, because the author was not used to actual physical labor. My husband, despite his very fancy British university degrees, succeeded in the restaurant business because he knew how to work hard and smart.
I am very tired of first-person narratives by writers (?) dipping their toes into world beyond their ken.
Christwhatanasshole.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:05 PM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


I've always fantasized about becoming a cook

I've had a fantasy for over 20 years to open a restaurant that is run like a nightclub. Like nightclubs have DJ nights, sometimes every Friday, every other Sunday, first Thursday of the month...that kind of thing, this restaurant would have different chefs every night, so your friend who is a great cook can have a night once a month or whatever to run a small menu (or larger). They'd have to source their own ingredients and whatnot, but maybe the restaurant could help with that, maybe supplying support chefs and servers, but definitely the kitchen and table stuff.
posted by rhizome at 9:29 PM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


People get upset when you waste their money at work... people are surprised that Gordon Ramsay yells when someone ruins his food? I mean... FFS people...

I've worked on cases where as much as a billion and a half dollars were at stake. I'm not going to say I never raised my voice or uttered an unkind word, but I am going to say it was never justified and I still feel bad about it.
posted by praemunire at 10:20 PM on August 16, 2019 [12 favorites]


Gordon Ramsay plays it up for American audiences because we like angry British man yelling about things.

J. Kenji López-Alt, who staged in Ramsay's restaurants, would disagree with you.
posted by asterix at 10:44 PM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yeah, whether Gordon Ramsay is terrible or not, his persona is toxic and it perpetuates the toxic environment. He should do better.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:51 PM on August 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


Gordon Ramsay's TV persona has definitely calmed down over the years in his UK stuff. Even Kitchen Nightmares was a lot less furious and drama-filled than the US version ended up being, and at the moment he seems to be mainly appearing in his daughter's happy friendly CBBC children's cookery show. The appeal of the angry chef is not what it once was.
posted by Catseye at 3:15 AM on August 17, 2019


I remember a New Orleans restaurant in Virginia Beach which offered (in addition to a standard menu) a couple of chef's choice items. The customer could get a large one or a small one.

It was good food, and nice if you wanted some novelty.

This seems like a way of avoiding the some of the deadly sameness for the cooks. I bet it's also a way of using up excess ingredients.

I don't think I've seen anything like that offered elsewhere, though I suppose omakase is somewhat in the same spirit.

And I don't know whether it would be as workable now when so many more people have various sorts of food restrictions.-- this was some thirty years ago or so.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:35 AM on August 17, 2019


All of my friends who work in the kitchen are alcoholics and I can understand why.

I guess at least my friends don't pay lip service to unhealthy hierarchies of privilege while jetting off to France for a couple of weeks to play-act the role of an abused kitchen staff person in a Michelin star restaurant.
posted by dmh at 5:08 AM on August 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


I've started to wonder if the utility of abusive systems isn't that they produce superior quality, it's that they scale, and can thus be industrialized.
Yes. Abusive behaviors get more consistent responses than humane ones, because there's more commonality in what people experience as threats than as encouragement.

People get upset when you waste their money at work...
This is actually not a universal truth in the sense of "upset" that covers behavior towards others. I have worked in trading and watched $120k go poof due to human error with neither meaningful consequences or raised voice. Before I started working at one firm, someone had lost ~$2m in a single incident due to pure negligence. This person was still there. I could go on, but no, it is not a universal that people get "upset" in the sense of abusive "when you waste their money at work."
posted by PMdixon at 5:15 AM on August 17, 2019 [12 favorites]


I think The Ragin' Cajun is the same restaurant-- and the link tells the story of how the restaurant was inspired by an abusive chef. However, there aren't any chef's choice items on the menu.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:11 AM on August 17, 2019


I could go on, but no, it is not a universal that people get "upset" in the sense of abusive "when you waste their money at work."

It's much more common when margins are tight and the survival of the business (and business owner's livelihood) are at stake. In high finance, that's rarely the case. $2m going poof in that office probably mattered less than a half dozen steaks going in the bin in a restaurant kitchen because someone didn't do fifo correctly, proportionally.
posted by Dysk at 7:10 AM on August 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


It's much more common when margins are tight and the survival of the business (and business owner's livelihood) are at stake. In high finance, that's rarely the case. $2m going poof in that office probably mattered less than a half dozen steaks going in the bin in a restaurant kitchen because someone didn't do fifo correctly, proportionally.

Oh yeah that is 100% correct and there are structural reasons for the difference in margins and therefore the relationship between dollar cost and level of existential risk to the business, some of which I'm deeply familiar with and others I'm completely ignorant of. But I wanted to push back hard on and shut down the idea that there is just an inevitable cause and effect relationship between being the proximate cause of avoidable wastage and being the target of abuse, and the implication that thus it ever was and thus it ever shall be and trying to make kitchens less abusive is as much a fool's errand as trying to make the sun rise in the west. Margins would be higher, for example, if there were fewer rich idiots with the ability to subsidize diners by burning money on what amount to vanity operations for much longer than a bank would continue to extend and rollover credit for the business.

(God I wish it was caused by anything as reasonable to do as fucking up fifo for inventory. In the one case it was a combination of stale market data, bad business logic, and most importantly and least forgivably the choice to write logs to disk and check risk limits on the same thread with no ability for the latter to preempt the former in the queue. In the other a trader just straight up forgot to pull their orders before an ECB announcement.)
posted by PMdixon at 7:26 AM on August 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yeah, whether Gordon Ramsay is terrible or not, his persona is toxic and it perpetuates the toxic environment. He should do better.

Yeah, no. He is what he does. And what he does is act like a terrible person. Every time I see one of these shows where Ramsay is screaming at someone or belittling them I think, "If Gordo were doing that to me, it would not go well for him." Close enough for you to yell in my face is close enough for me to break your nose. Which, yanno, is probably why I'd never be put on one of those shows in the first place.

I've worked many years in an industry where a certain amount of verbal abuse like that happens sometimes -- although nowhere to that level -- and I've been truly blessed by some lucky combination of comportment and type that no one's ever tried it with me. But I don't for a minute imagine that makes me better or fundamentally different from those who had to endure.
posted by slkinsey at 12:54 PM on August 17, 2019


15 years ago or so I read "The Making of a Chef" by Michael Ruhlman and it had me 90% convinced to drop everything (chemical engineering) and go to cooking school. The next two books, far less so, and honestly Kitchen Confidential even LESS.

I got a frisson of the same feeling years later when I read Heat by Bill Buford. Still doing the chemical engineering, though.
posted by hearthpig at 2:16 PM on August 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think most people, when they haven't been in that situation, think to themselves that they'd punch the screamer. Or get some sort of revenge. But the long term existence of the abusive systems shows very few punch back. If even a substantial minority, say 30+%, punched back then the screamers would be considerably less loud out of a sense of self-preservation.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 2:17 PM on August 17, 2019 [7 favorites]




The comments on this thread are truly the best of the web. Thanks guys!
posted by mumimor at 2:59 PM on August 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


Oh fuck Gordon fucking Ramsay. And as much as I like his writing, fuck Bourdain too, for another side of the gross toxicity that sustains some of this.

And fuck the author of this piece, who clearly has never had to do any kind of physical work and is a total whiner. If you can learn how to prep properly, to enjoy the repetitive tasks of shucking and peeling and shelling and mincing and dicing, you're ready to tackle something harder. But there's serious skill and a meditative quality to prep. Any numbnuts can crush a garlic clove - someone who knows what they're doing can mince a whole head uniformly in around a minute.

you can order something you've had dozens of times elsewhere and it comes out completely unrecognizeable
Can you/someone explain this point of view? Like, if I'm at a place that claims to be "authentic" - which I confess I often avoid - I don't expect substitutions. But pretty much anywhere else I expect the chef to have a little leeway with their interpretation, and mostly IME if it's far from the usual the menu will have a caveat to that effect. If I wanted the same thing, cooked the same way, every time, traveling would be a nightmare. Although I guess that does help explain the success of national chains, I don't quite get it in the context of fine dining.

I often find "fine dining" painfully overwrought, so maybe I'm just not the right audience.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:39 AM on August 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


I think it depends on what "a little leeway with their interpretation" means to you. "A little leeway" in making a salade frisée aux lardons, for example, could include the choice of crisped fatty pork, the addition or even substitution of some other hardy bitter green, etc. On the other hand, a fried egg with wilted spinach and strips of ham would be more than a "little" leeway and verge into the territory of "unrecognizable as salade frisée aux lardons." It might be good, but if I order a salade frisée aux lardons, I want to get a salade frisée aux lardons.

That said, this strikes me as being pretty dependent on the actual dish and culinary tradition. There are plenty of dishes, especially those originating in the United States, that don't have any particularly canonical ingredients or preparation. Shrimp and grits is a good example. Other than the fact that it has to include those two ingredients, there has always been wide variety in how the rest of the dish is executed.
posted by slkinsey at 7:53 AM on August 18, 2019


interpretive leeway is how we end up with shit like guac made from peas
posted by poffin boffin at 10:15 AM on August 18, 2019 [5 favorites]


I must add that, having hand chopped dozens gallons of garlic and and hundreds of pounds of vegetables, and thousands of squid, and broken probably tens of thousands of eggs in my chef training days, I still love the prep phase of cooking, and find knife work both satisfying and therapeutic. Albeit as a guitarist I practice it with exquisite consciousness of risk. My fingers are my life bro.

Over the last decade I’ve learned a whole new culinary skill set from working in Alaska Native whaling and subsistence hunting communities, mostly related to butchering for raw consumption and at scale. It’s been fascinating, with little carryover from my chef days, when primary butchering was already done for you. I’ve learned so much about the anatomy of meat animals, and about the properties of different meats and cuts of meat that cannot be homologated by cooking when so much of the animal is consumed in raw or cured form. The women of the communities are the expert butchers, and use Ulu knives for most of the work, which entails utterly different knife techniques than I have learned in the past. (It’s a vastly more efficient knife for butchering — a mezzaluna in european parlance, that leverages inertial energy and muscle force very differently from a straight handled knife). Eating a mostly raw meat based diet, and participating in hunts to obtain that meat, when I’m there, has also been an intense experience that has changed my relationship to all my food over time.

Knowing how to cook well is an incredible tool for encountering and engaging with other cultures. The common skills are respected everywhere, and many cultures take great pride in — and enjoy teaching — their unique skills and recipes and culinary philosophies. I’ve never regretted my training as a chef not only because I have continued to enjoy cooking for my own loved ones, but because it has given me a point of entry into other worlds of experience — and especially in my case womens’ worlds of experience.

Cooking for a living is a whole different thing. But knowing how to cook well is a glorious quality for a human being to possess if you want to make friends wherever you go, as the late Anthony Bourdain so eloquently showed us time and time again.
posted by spitbull at 1:41 PM on August 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


Im a bartender because of Kitchen Confidential.

But bartending is what is sometimes called a “Back of the house position in the front of the house”. Which means we are producing consumables, but up where the customers are watching. Which means we tend to have less abusive swearing on the job.

we have plenty of our own personnel dysfunctions. But open plan kitchens tend to be the same way; When the guests can see you doing your work, you tend not to yell “scum bag” at your coworker.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:44 PM on August 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


What convinced me that the whole system is abusive is that the French Laundry will not give you a recommendation unless you've staged for a year. One whole year of endless "internship". I will say that they do have a quiet kitchen, at least. There's so many guests streaming through for a after-meal tour, even at peak times, that any of that type of abuse must happen at other times.
posted by wnissen at 9:56 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


And fuck the author of this piece, who clearly has never had to do any kind of physical work and is a total whiner. If you can learn how to prep properly, to enjoy the repetitive tasks of shucking and peeling and shelling and mincing and dicing, you're ready to tackle something harder. But there's serious skill and a meditative quality to prep. Any numbnuts can crush a garlic clove - someone who knows what they're doing can mince a whole head uniformly in around a minute.

I'm sorry, but scut work is scut work, and no amount of transplanting some sort of metaphysical meaning to scut work will not make it be not scut work.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:26 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


You know what else is scut work? Writing.

Being text-based, Metafilter has attracted a crowd that embraces the written word, but think about convincing the average adult to learn a new language or to keep a journal or write a short story just because. It's tedious unrewarding work for most people. This article was the culmination of scut work, he was conducting research for a novel so maybe that's why his heart wasn't into it. Yet it's a cliche the extent to which writers create a metaphysical meaning to their process when asked how they work. Why should cooks be any different?

I had the same "fuck this guy" reaction to the piece as aspersioncast. This writer parachutes into a kitchen and learns how to shuck beans and process squid and seems to walk away with the idea that mastering an endless list of these mechanical tasks makes one a chef. He shows a shallow, consumerist understanding of the culinary arts as mere physical food prep. Just as being a good writer is not about making words, being a good chef is not about making food; it's about understanding the historical, bio-geographical, and chemical context of the food you make. It is every bit a vocation for creative storytelling, cultural exploration, and making human connections as being a writer.

You have to do a lot of scut work to be able to work at that level, a love for the work makes it easy for cooks to romanticize and valorize mastering these physical tasks. Just like writers, people who love to cook love the process as much as the outcome, scut work included.
posted by peeedro at 12:54 PM on August 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


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