“Plates for the table 3, ready!” “How man minutes for the table 5?” “Hurry up for the table 7!!”
Once, I worked as a kitchen chef and was really into it. I started from zero to having my own small dish in a Michelin star restaurant, and my kitchen experience became one of my life turning points.
Before becoming a chef, I had little knowledge and skills, and cooking was something beyond my reach just like any other skills about which you have no clue. After awhile, I was asked many times how I become a chef as if it was something very difficult. I felt like I was looking at myself before entering kitchen job. Cooking is such a mysterious area of work and attracts us.
Although learning how to cook needs time and practice, it’s not a rocket science, and you can learn quite a lot from zero, just like I did. And it deals not only with making delicious dishes, but also with organizing your way of thinking/doing, thus organizing life. In other words, cooking and life organizer are very much connected, and I learned many valuable life skills from cooking experience, about which I would like to share a bit in this entry.
While this post is about cooking, I will not talk about how to cook specific dish (there are already so many sites available). Also, though kitchen job became my life turning point, I will not touch upon many dramas in the kitchen either. It is rather about how cooking well relates to organizing your life. With that in mind, I would write about what cooking is, why cooking, how to become a good chef, how to organize cooking, my takeaway from kitchen experience, and how it relates to life organization.
What is cooking
By cooking, I consider a process of making food, especially with heat involved. After looking into several dictionaries, I liked the holistic definition of the following (not only about heating) : Prepare (food, a dish, or a meal) by mixing, combining, and heating the ingredients.
The article “history of cooking” shows how cooking was bone and evolved to date.
If you just grab a row carrot and eat, it is not usually considered as a cooking. However, there is different angle of cooking as shown in the video below (using heat is not necessarily good, and sometimes we need to go back to nature).
Besides survival element of cooking, it is an art and creation which inspires people with their looks (first we eat food with eyes), and it involves creativity (mixing different things to make one dish).
There are also different environment in terms of cooking: cooking at home, at school (for those who want to become a chef with certificate), at restaurant (most people know one side of it ー eating in the fancy dining floor, instead of the kitchen, which can be quite busy war-zone where everyone runs, shouts and even throw things to colleagues, yes, including myself). Among those, I will focus on cooking in the restaurant in this post, which involves the following different process
- Preparation (knowledge and skill, speediness and judgement)
- Performance time which can be a fight with uncertainty and improvisation
- Assessment and action of the stock situation for tomorrow’s prep (what to buy and do)
Again, for home cooking (yes, I did mention I would focus on restaurant, but please bear with me a bit more on other type!), it is mainly for survival and enjoying family time, although the latter is getting scarce nowadays due to more nuclear family structure where both parents work and everyone looking at the screen even sitting for a meal together, which is a phenomena of dehumanization.
Cooking also allows us human to be different from primitive apes to complex beings as our brain size is bigger than others, which need more calories, so we eat more. And for that, cooking helps us to digest better and eat efficiently. Another theory says that we cook for social bond. This video is informative to explain those.
On the other hand, for kitchen workers (you see, I came back to restaurant!), it is their job, so it is for making a living (especially for those without visa and send money to their country/families) by working sometimes with people you don’t prefer being together. It was interesting to know that many chefs usually don’t cook at home (maybe it’s part of their “work-life balance”).
It can be also for career development for those who want to step up as a chef and open her/his own restaurant (especially for those who don’t have to send money to the families, and I was one of them later in my cooking career). Also, some chefs work in the kitchen purly for fun for creating foods (I was also one). Now let’s move on to “How to become a good chef”
How to become a good chef
“What do you think is the key factor as a good chef in a kitchen?”
I want you to think about this question, regardless of your cooking experience.
In fact, this was the same question my then-head chef posed me when I just started learning how to cook menus in the restaurant.
“Making a great food?”
I said, hesitatingly, and challenging response came immediately.
“Is that it?”
“Ah, maybe cooking great foods within limited time?”
“Not enough, the good chef is someone who is always prepared for any given moment”.
To be honest, I wasn’t fully sure what it meant at the moment.
How to organize cooking
The big difference between chef in the restaurant and home cooking/cooking school is that while the latter can take time and more or less know what to cook for how many people (usually small size), the former (restaurant chef) can have a lot of costumers in any given moment, and you usually don’t know what they will order.
In other words, kitchen is full of uncertainty but you have to cook well within limited time as if you were fighiting alone in the dark spot.
One example to distinguish it from cooking school is that we once had a new staff who was recent graduate of very famous (and expensive) cooking school. Unlike our high expectation, she was unable to cook different dishes constantly in a timely fashion. She had more knowledge and technique than other staff, but was not ready to work in a busy restaurant.
In a restaurant fancy enough to serve sophisticated dishes to elegant and demanding customers, timing to serve is quite important. And once a table with several people orders different dishes, they will be prepared by different chefs. In terms of main dish (fish, stake, pasta if it’s italian as was in my case), for example, different people make dishes for one table, and you have to finish at the same time by adjusting with the dish which takes the longest (e.g. if a steak for 15 minutes should go with pasta which takes 8 minutes, pasta guy has to wait 7 minutes, you see that it can be a good math training). So you can imagine how complicated to cook several different dishes for 1 table, let alone for 10 different tables?
In addition, the number of stoves, frying pans, pots and space are usually limited, so you have to know which table to prioritize, how long each dish will take, and how much you can mix with other tables (e.g. same pasta for table 1 and 3). If you are pasta guy, it is usually more difficult than other section as you need to make full use of 6 stoves for 10 different tables with your 2 hands and 1 brain, by prioritizing what dish to prepare and finish in which timing by collaborating with other section. You really need to organize time without losing the quality of each dish, so you end up having many kitchen timers.
In addition to the time, for hot dish, the plates have to be heated up in the oven (20-30 seconds), but if you are too busy to remember taking it out (which usually happens), it gets too hot (kitchen worker have many burned scars). Your colleagues in other section may pressure you by saying theirs are ready. On top of that, head chef might throw things to you, which makes you even overwhelmed (which happened to me a couple of time). So you see how chaotic it can become. You are usually sweated in this mini-war zone.
Although it already sounds complicated, that is not enough.
Remeber the comment my head chef made?
“Good chef is someone who is always prepared for any given moment”.
Through experienciang really busy nights several times, I finaly understood what he meant.
If you only keep thinking about cooking good dishes for which table within limited time, you will run out of clean pans. Even though you had prepared for busy nights, usually your prepared stocks (precooked pasta sauce, pre-mixed vegitable for Speedy dishup, etc.) will be gone before you notice.
That’s where habit making kicks in.
For the cleaning, you need to make a habit of washing pans as soon as you finished using (when it’s hot, it is the easiest moment to wash). Also, you need to keep your environemnt clean with your twoel wheneven posible. In addition, to avoid stock from getting run out in the busiest time (which does happen and makes it nightmare), you need to make a habit of watching and refill your stock every now and then.
So for me, there are 3 main factors for good chefs (which I had to learn with real hectic experience):
- Quality : make great foods (for that, you need knowledge, right tool and practice)
- Timeliness : you really need to make a habit of speedy cooking
- Organization : this involves washing, cleaning and re-stocking to be ready in any given moment (which is the key point and usually forgotten)
For those factors, you have to constantly work, clean up and prepare for the next, as is shown in the below image.
In fact, this dynamic kitchen environment taught me so many things, which can be applicable to any other jobs and life organization. For example, when you pile up so many documents, how can you pick up what you need immediately? (clean up constantly!) If you work with quality in a timely manner with good organization, you have already core skill sets (technical part can be complemented later).
Takeaway from cooking exp
- Cooking skill : if you know how to cook, you can feed yourself and find a job anywhere you are (if you are not picky)
- Language : in my case, I learned Spanish in the kitchen, which reminds me of my cheerful Latino colleagues
- Organization skills: this might be one of the most valuable skills I learned. Clean your mess all the time.
- Multitask and timliness: rather focusing on one things quickly and do other (myself v.s. fancy school graduate ) →many timers, other sections, throwing stuff, knife cutting
- Learning skills: it was great on the job training on learning how to learn, which included several steps (curiosity→copy and digest (as nobody trains you) →practice at home →courage to ask to give you a task constantly (be ready to be rejected and be resilient )→get chance →fail →repeat →demonstrate →success)
Well, I hope this entry was informative and motivated you to learn how to cook (if you are not familiar with). Believe me, you can learn (as I started from zero) and you will not regret what you can get out of it. Food is inevitable for human and socialization, and cooking has rich history and makes human special. In that sense, food is strongly connected with life. Cooking, on the other hands, is connected with how to organize your life (clerning up the mess right after the use is universal organization skills). Thus, cooking teaches us a lot about life and the importance of organizing things.
The learning of this time
A real kitchen chef can not only cook well in a timely manner but also organize well with cleaning habit to be prepared all the time, and such skills are applicable to other areas and life organization
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