The Belly of the Beast


In all the years that I have been cooking, I am always struck by the contrast of the serenity of the dining room versus the chaos of the kitchen. A common angry response when something is not happening as quickly or as perfect as the chef would like would be to yell out that this isn't rocket science. I believe in its own way that it is. There is no tomorrow in what we do, we cannot put off a dish because we don't believe today is the day to plate this dish. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to do a rocket scientist's job but I defy them to do ours.

Unlike NYC, we don't have the luxury of having a tournant, the extra guy who can jump into a station when the chef de partie is in the tall grass. Here we are lucky if there is someone here to wash the dishes.

I used to work in restaurants where I would have to pass through the dining room in order to reach the kitchen where I would hear classical music, listen to the sounds of guests dining, enjoy the ambient temperature and then pass through the swinging doors and feel the scorching heat and the sounds of guys on the brink. On one wildly busy night, I had a guy ask me if I could stop and hold my knife while he took a picture; I stopped, of course, while thinking I have nothing better to do. On another night, I had Jeffrey Steingarten stop in the kitchen. I was working the wood oven station and he decided to have a conversation with me about Sichuan peppercorns. This would have been fine except the chef could have cared less about my guest and kept calling out orders. I have seen the toughest guys fall apart, crying on the hot line, unable to continue. In the kitchen, if you start falling behind, lose track of the orders and allow the stress to overwhelm you, no one is going to hold your hand, you will be pushed to the side and someone who can bear the load will bear it with determination and without any compassion.

On a busy evening, every restaurant workers relationship is strained and justifiably so because they are thinking of their own survival. Cooks, servers, and busboys routinely engage in confrontational behavior. A former cook recently interviewed me for a college paper on the relationship between cooks and waitstaff. Could we ever really peacefully exist was the gist. While are goals in pleasing our guests are the same; our methods of delivering this message are often divergent.

The beauty in what we do and what I love about it most is twofold. First is that everything we did today good or bad is over. Tomorrow is really a new day, no pink elephants. Another chance to have a fresh start and to do better. Second is that if we are doing what we are trained to do well, our guests will never truly see the belly of the beast.