The Restaurant is your station when you're the Chef
Every professional requires certain physical items within their industry in order to execute responsibilities throughout their work day. There are many obvious examples of these professions and tools that come to mind: A plumbers' monkey-wrench, the police officers handcuffs, a gardeners hand-spade, the masons trowel. Anyone who truly knows a professional chef is aware of the intimate bond and affection they have for their tools. We can be obsessive about details that would seem irrelevant to others. One immediately gravitates towards the thought of a chef and his knives - the constant maintenance and pride held in a well-weathered Japanese Style Blade made from Swedish steel with a Bubinga wood handle is a testament to the extravagance associated with a chef and his equipment.
This isn’t about that.
Although a chef and his knife are unavoidable in a discussion of tools, the consideration put into what a chef actually has on his or her person is rarely highlighted but is arguably just as important. Think of a General practitioner in their practice or hospital moving among a number of observation rooms throughout the day. The Doctor may be performing a number of different tasks requiring different tools unique to each scenario but generally must take one measurement first. That instrument of measurement he or she needs happens to be on their person - the stethoscope.
As a line cook you have your bain marie of tools which normally includes a number of spoons, a rubber spatula, peltex, microplane, tongs or tweezers (if you’re into that sort of thing), and maybe a pair of scissors. Tie your apron, fold some side towels and grab your pepper mill. You set up a cutting board with any assortment of knives and proceed in preparing your mise en place for service. This is pretty straightforward. One cook, one station, one area, everything you need in terms of tools in order to execute your responsibilities close by.
For a chef it is not that simple.
Service, which will inevitably present challenges of its own, is only one aspect of a chefs time at work. Accepting deliveries, training prep cooks, wrangling dishwashers, plumbing, tripped breakers, broken equipment, refrigeration, inventories, menu descriptions, flatware, point of sales and all things garbage related are just a very small sample of items on the menu of “Shit that can and will go wrong at any moment.” Any number of issues could bring you to any corner of the restaurant at any time of the day. What we need on our person at any of these moments is wildly unpredictable. There is no bain marie of tools for a chef when his or her station is the entire restaurant.
If you are the type of chef that is capable of only spending his time between the office and service kitchen I applaud your delegating skills and ability to manage labor cost effectively.
For the rest of us - we need to dig in and be in the trenches with the rest of the squad.
And no-one is digging deeper into the trenches than I am. I prefer to be the most intimate with the least desirable areas of all the restaurants I manage. As one server once noted, “you have definitely been the furthest up the asshole of this restaurant than anyone here.”
But I digress..
This is a list of the things I need and always have on my body throughout my day and why:
Sharpie: of course. 22 quart cambro’s don’t just label themselves. However, the regular neuroticism of chefs doesn’t actually apply for me here. It goes much further.
1. My sharpie must be new.
I take a new one out of a box everyday I put on my whites and sometimes if I have a lot of labelling to do during prep I’ll take another freshie out just for service. New sharpies are important for many reasons but mostly because of legibility needed during service. During busy services at multiple restaurants within our group the expediter condenses the pickups onto a dupe pad. The pickup is organized by station for the cooks so the inside cooks eyes have less work to do while getting buried by orders. This condensed pickup is also stapled to the carbon copy duplicate tickets that the expediter has on the other side. Its a system with a fail safe built in on many levels but doesn’t work UNLESS MY SHARPIE IS FUCKING SHARP!
2. You must have a sharpie.
I don’t care how fine the point is on your Sharpie, but you must have one as well which means that if you don’t, guess what? You just got a certified pre-owned Sharpie with extremely low mileage. The only things I’ve probably given away more often than Sharpies are dirty looks to verbose servers.
3. If you don’t have a sharpie, there should be one close by.
In the service and prep kitchens we have sharpie caps taped to poles and tied to strings which are tied to pipes so that anyone needing to label something doesn’t have an excuse. I once was plunging a clogged toilet in the employee bathroom and after some serious effort I found the obstruction to be none other than a Sharpie. I was strangely aroused by it.
Pen and Dupe Pad: Its easy to forget things. My struggle begins with trying to know everything. Whether its how much of every product is in the restaurant to who is actually scheduled to work at that moment, its easy to get distracted.
Being told by a porter that they ran out of a certain dish chemical and instead of attempting to describe exactly where you know that item is in a language you do not speak fluently - you go to get it yourself. On your way to get that item a million things could happen. What once started as a simple trip to get some glass cleaner turned into a voyage that included straining a sauce, changing a lightbulb, signing for a seafood delivery, and breaking up an argument. Thirty minutes later when you return to the service kitchen and your porter is buried under a mountain of stemware you say to yourself “FUCK”.
Instead of instantly jumping at a problem that can wait, now I write the thing down on my dupe pad, normally in my breast pocket and give it another ten or fifteen minutes. Chances are that another handful of items are going to come across your plate in that amount of time and you’ll have a nice mini prep list to cross off.
As a line and prep cook there was nothing more satisfying than crossing off items on a list that were accomplished. So satisfying that I would actually write things down that I had just completed in order to cross them off. As a chef I can go through twenty small pieces of paper on a dupe pad in a day, easily. Save your moleskin for recipes.
Dry Erase Marker: This somewhat falls in line with the theory behind the Pen and Dupe Pad. Write shit down that you are likely to forget. Be sure that if you are likely to forget it that if you are expecting someone else to remember something they sure as hell are going to forget.
The dry erase marker is great because you can write things on walls, tables, containers, foreheads - really anywhere that responds well to soap and water. When I give a cook a new pick-up I go over to where they are prepping their station for the day and will write a pick list on the wall in front of them. When I need a dishwasher to spend the next two hours of his life over a few prep sinks washing things I’ll write down what exactly to wash and in what order:
- Mixed Head lettuces
Sometimes I wonder if it would be out of line for me to write down HANDS in between each item.
Dry erase markers are also great for the idiot who thinks they’re accomplishing the same thing by writing something on the wall but do it in Sharpie. Scribbling over it with a dry erase marker and then wiping it down will lift the permanence of the Sharpie right off the wall. You may remember the Sous Chef in NYC who used this tactic on a subway Graffiti’d with anti Semitic slurs written all over the walls of the subway car. I remember it, because as I was reading it I realized that Sous Chef in NYC was someone who I trained for the actual position he was in at the time of the article.
See article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/nyregion/swastika-nyc-subways.html
Pocket Knife: Just a small blade, indispensable. When I put it down and leave it somewhere I’m pissed. My prep guys are all aware whose it is when they find it and always return it. I need it.
I started this by saying its hard to separate a chef from his knives but that this would not be about Chef Knives. It still isn’t. But I need a blade.
Opening boxes, cutting tape labels, popping the top of a bottle of mineral water, an impromptu screwdriver, the possibilities are endless. Having something sharp and clipped into my back pocket is absolutely necessary at all times. Im lost without it.
I once had a dishwasher get slashed in the arm after going to reach under a prep cook cleaning beef bones with a cleaver. It was messy, there was a lot of blood and the gash was on the top part of his arm near his shoulder. It was December and cold outside but I couldn’t get the wound to stop bleeding long enough to get his damn jacket over his shoulder for the walk to the hospital.
Almost without thinking my hand went to the back pocket, grabbed my SHARP pocket knife, sliced a couple notches into a clean side towel and started ripping it into strips. Although this may have not been the first tourniquet I had tied in my life it was definitely the craftiest and most necessary. My prep cooks looked at me like I had been a field surgeon with years of battle experience.
Baby Kunz Spoon: You may disagree with how sanitary this is but I can assure everyone I wash it almost as much as I use it. A small kunz spoon in my back pocket is always there. I use it to eat my family meal. Wash, return. I use it to taste your sauces. Wash, return. I use it, normally to the pastry chefs chagrin, to eat all of her ice cream throughout the day. Wash, return. I use it to hold open doors that would normally lock behind me. I use it as a spatula when covering the grill cook taking a bathroom break. I use to to quenelle creams when no-one is working pastry between lunch and dinner service. I use it to hit food runners hands who are eating too many fried shallots I need for my lamb shank garnish. It hurts.
Theres a number of other things that may or may not make an appearance on my person throughout my work day. Cake tester or a Bic lighter, sometimes even a rubber band or two. All of these things have their place in repertoire. When I’m at work I’m on the move. My day is extremely unpredictable but if I can at least control how I respond to the unpredictability with the items I have on me then I believe I have a leg up on getting the job done efficiently.
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