Over the years there have been countless survival guides covering everything from Christmas sales to Zombie attacks. Many people have indeed made successful careers from teaching others how to survive with their TV shows, there’s Ray Mears for instance who’s survival training seems to have taken place in the stock room of his local Greggs where through hard work and effort he made himself famine and drought resistant. Then you have Bear Grills who’s biggest survival tip appears to be make sure there is a decent Comfort Inn right next to the remote, desolate wilderness you are to be marooned in. In fact when Googling survial guides (fuck yeah I did my research, well just that really but still!) I saw one titled A Survival Guide to Midwifery! I would have thought that was a fairly short guide, Step 1: Wash your hands, Step 2: for fucks sake don’t drop it!
Recently I have met several people who are intent on abandoning perfectly good careers with decent money, reasonable hours and humane working conditions to become chefs. I thought for them maybe I could write this and give them the benefit of my experience on how to survive in a busy pro kitchen.
The very first piece of advice I have given them and anyone thinking of becoming a chef later in life is Don’t! Seriously don’t fucking do it, unless you spend more than half your time in your current job thinking about being or wishing you were a chef then you won’t hack it. That sounds like a very glib generalisation but it’s not. Cheffing is fucking hard, gruelling work and unless the wish to do it is almost all consuming you will crash out hard. I told someone that at my lowest point in a kitchen, when I came closest to packing it in, one of the reasons I didn’t was that if I had quit I would quite likely have never cooked again. That’s not me being melodramatic it’s the truth, I spent my entire life cooking and wanting to be a chef, telling myself I could do it, listening to others who told me I should do it and if I had failed I would have felt like a fraud. All the authority I assumed when talking about food would have seemed like complete bullshit if I couldn’t do the job. So unless you are totally driven by food and willing to take the risk that if it goes wrong your relationship and passion for food may be irrevocably changed then stick to enjoying yourself in your kitchen and impressing your family and friends.
If you are going to do it then remember these 3 key requirements, knife skills, knife skills, knife skills! They got me the job, and at times probably saved me from being fired from it. If you can prep veg at decent speed you are useful in a kitchen, if you fuck up on service you will get far less of a bollocking if you can be sent to prep something. When I did my trial shift at The Ship the head chef said he could not believe the level of my knife skills for an amateur and just seeing me hold a knife he knew I could cook. There is only one way to develop these and that’s practice , a lot. Go to your local supermarket, buy very large bags of carrots and chop them into a dice that’s roughly 1/4 the size of your baby finger nail. Do it lots, set aside an hour a couple of nights a week and do nothing else but chop carrots. Do it until your only vaguely aware that you are actually doing it, until the knife feels like an extension of your hand.
Try and take a couple of weeks off and use your holiday to work at a busy kitchen, offer to work for free, it will let you see a close up kitchen environment and see how chefs interact with each other. Some people I’ve talked to said they were going to look for mini stages on Fridays / Saturdays over a few months but to be honest this is a waste of time. You will most likely be ignored as the team will be far too pre-occupied handling busy services to pay you much time or attention. In a pro kitchen when you are starting out the best thing you can do when the shit hits the fan in a manic service is stay the fuck out of the way. In fact the first thing you have to learn in any busy kitchen is where not to be! I spent my first weeks on the pass crashing into everyone else, it’s a tight space and as anyone who has seen the brigade at The Ship will testify none of us ever met a meal we didn’t like!
You need to see a kitchen on a Tuesday morning, the weekend is over, triage has been preformed on the stocks on the Monday to make the place workable again. People are relaxed, new ingredients come in and you stand around discussing what new dishes should be created with them, or what changes to make to existing dishes. If you’re asked give your opinion but don’t get carried away, I know I did on occasion, went wading in throwing ideas for dishes about without thinking about how they would work on service or how they matched up with what the chef’s food philosophy was. The best thing you can do initially is to offer suggestions about a garnish or plating idea. That may seem a bit odd, to stifle your food creativity but you have to earn the right to get your dishes on the menu.
Earning that right isn’t easy, at some point if you are serious about staying on in this business it will become obvious to the chef at which time you will most likely be kicked around a kitchen. By now your novelty will have worn off and it will be time for them to test your mettle, it happened to me and it will at some stage happen to you. If you don’t come through it then you are never going to put your stamp on a kitchen. It will happen for 2 reasons, as I said the novelty will wear off (at least it did in my case), a head chef will be stuck with someone who has less kitchen experience than even the most junior commis but a level of food knowledge that is on a par with the more senior chefs in the kitchen and in a busy restaurant that isn’t really what he needs. Secondly and this is actually relatively a good reason, they need to know if they can trust you. If you go down on a busy service then you drag everyone else down with you. Kitchen brigades run at the speed of their weakest member, and that person can bring a whole brigade crashing down. For me, this kicking took the form of doing 124hours in 10days, I survived…….. but barely.
When you do graduate to service the biggest threat and greatest ally you have is time. Fight for it, steal it, horde it, fear it, respect it and by any means necessary accumulate it. Read ahead on tickets, get things ready for the chef to call them away, grab yourself a few seconds on every ticket and it will buy you the minutes that turn a shit service into a good one. Watch everything, see where people are and be ready with what you need to finish a table, be it a garnish, a side or one of the simpler hot dishes. Understand the terminology of the kitchen. When the chef says “check on” it doesn’t necessarily mean “cook this now”, it means “this has just been ordered”. Even if it has as starter on the ticket that you are responsible for look at the pass, if the sous and head chef are plating mains for a table of 14 and you rock up holding your starter plate, it’s going in the bin and you’re possibly going in the fryer! Wait to hear if something is “away”, like wise if the chef calls for anything that is on your section and says “I need it now” he doesn’t give a fuck if you are doing another order, some prep or Kelly Brook, stop it and get what he needs and get it fucking fast. Be selfish but don’t be a prick, offer to help but make sure you are set up yourself first, on service make sure you have all the bowls, plates, tongs and all the other crap you need on your section before letting someone take something off you. When you do offer to do jobs don’t always accept the shit ones, think about what you’re being asked to do. I was once asked to check the labels in the walk-in (that’s the fridge that’s big enough to walk into) and thought to myself “sounds like a nice, cool, relaxing break”. It was in fact an interminably fucking long time, locked inside a very fucking cold room trying to make out the scrawled writing of someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language. I swear to fuck I was in there that long I half expected to see Ben Fogle come by with some Huskies and a camera crew filming some new Arctic adventure (Bear Grills wouldn’t take the job as there isn’t a decent Premier Inn in our walk in)!
Learn from those around you. Your head chef is going to be fucking busy, don’t piss him off with constant questions and random food musings (yeah sorry about that Dave I know I drove you up the fucking wall half the time), he has a million things that actually have to be sorted before he can even begin cooking. Your sous is mostly only interested in service, he will run quite a lot of them and will inevitably do certain things differently to the head chef if for no other reason than he wants you to know it’s his pass and it’s done his way. The person you need to watch closest and the one who can teach you the most is your junior or demi sous. I was blessed in this instance at The Ship, I had Damo as my jr sous and the guy is an absolute fucking legend. He thought me more in a kitchen than anyone else, a jr sous knows what its like to be on a section, he will most likely still be on one so he can give you advice and guidance on how to make it work. For all that advice, if you find that something else works better for you and still gets what needs doing done as fast, then set it up your own way. Everyone in that kitchen knows more than you about how the place runs so listen and watch them. Go for a smoke the same time as other chefs, get to know them and what they like about food, bear in mind that you will have eaten in more restaurants and probably have far stronger views on what food you like to cook so they can learn something from you.
Along the way you will get to deal with what I call “the others”, people who are in the kitchen but you are only mostly vaguely aware off, namely agency chefs and kitchen porters. Agency chefs are easy to explain, every single one of the will tell you that he has worked with Gordon, Marco and Heston, inspired Floyd, mentored Jamie and fucking invented fire! Yet oddly enough are happy to be dispatched to the 4 corners of the capital for £8 an houe, get confused by prep lists, lost in the walk in, surprised by tickets and generally be more of a fucking hindrance than a help. These are the people you hand 60 soft boiled quails eggs too and say “do me a favour mate and peel them”. As for KPs a good one is worth their weight in vouchers for English lessons. Don’t dump crap on them, don’t treat them like skivvies, they have the hardest job in any kitchen and let’s be fucking honest you wouldn’t do their job in a million fucking years. Most chefs do treat them like crap so if you’re the one that doesn’t then when you do need them to do a job they are likely to do it right the first time.
Finally get your swagger on! When you have bust your balls, been smashed in service, worked the kind of hours that cause amnesty international to hold rallies in central London in support of you and earned the respect (even if it’s begrudging) of your senior chefs, start acting like you belong to be there. Kitchens are like the last cowboy outpost of the wild west, volatile, male orientated, testosterone filled environments where the weak are found out and mercilessly cut loose. There’s no place for you there if you don’t stand up for yourself, people need to know not to fuck with you and to treat you as an equal. You prove you can hack it and you will get the respect needed.
This may all sound a bit harsh and macho and many people will tell you that there is another way, do “lil stages”, find a genteel chef who will treat you with kid gloves, who will value your life experience and rely on your sage counsel, frankly that’s bollox, you know why because as nice as a chef may be it’s the public that will fuck you. They want food, they want it when they are hungry, they want it fast and they want it exactly the way the ordered it and when fucking loads of them turn up wanting all of that at the same time then you are going to get battered on service. Thing is, if this is what you want, if this is really for you then you will want nothing else. Everything you do in a kitchen is just crap you need to get out of the way before service. Yeah it’s fun and you have some great laughs when prepping in a relaxed kitchen, joking around and generally taking the piss out of each other but it’s service you live for. You want to get out there and smash it, knock the fucker out of the park, take on a hungry public and win. The buzz, the adrenaline, the feeling like you took a beating but came out the other side, that’s what you should do this for. You have to be wired wrong to be a chef at the best of times and to give up a perfectly good career to do it you have to be fucking nuts.
If you are that crazy, then my friend let me be the first to welcome you to the dark side and if I can help you in anyway then just let me know!