Into the inferno: Coming from a place of 'yes, chef!'
August 25th, 2011
03:30 PM ET
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My first order of business: get rid of the manicure. The very last impression I wanted to leave was my “Belle of the Ball” nail polish chipping into someone’s orzo.

For the next 48 hours, I was venturing straight into Escoffier’s inferno at a Michelin-starred kitchen in New York City as a stagiaire or kitchen apprentice.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “A woman is like a teabag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” Well, I was about to find out if I was a subtle Chai or full-bodied Pekoe.

Except for a few one-off knife skills classes, cooking demonstrations and late night benders with the texts of Michel Bras, Julia Child, and Thomas Keller, my “professional” kitchen experience involved an underground catering business I ran out of my college apartment - and feeding a table full of hungry Southerners, who just happen to be blood-related, every holiday season.

It was high time to put my money - and pride - where my mouth and journalistic beat were.

Going in, I knew I couldn’t offer expertise on working a Cryovac machine or how to fix a grainy terrine, but I could offer a hunger to learn, a thick skin, a respect for the kitchen hierarchy and a deep-seated passion for food.

Prior to my first day in the back-of-the-house, I had asked a few friends in the industry for words of wisdom. I learned a cry of “Asses and elbows!” or “Behind!” meant someone was about to walk behind you, most likely with something that could sear off at least your first layer of skin. You better tuck your derriere and funny bone if you want to keep them unmaimed. In fact, staying out of the way seemed to be the most popular piece of advice.

I was to answer to everyone with “chef” out of respect, in the same way you might say “sir” or “ma’am” to your elders. “Yes, chef! No, chef! Where’s the first aid kit, chef?”

And I was to clean as I go, keep my head down and ask questions instead of assume that’s how the chef would like it. Also? Bring a Sharpie.

Since my culinary résumé was less than prestigious, my duties at the restaurant were mostly relegated to garde manger, or cold item preparation.

Most of the afternoon was, as one line cook put it, the “hurry around and wait syndrome” until the dinner rush. You spent the afternoon elbow deep in a hotel pan skinning roasted red peppers, picking individual chervil leaves to garnish 200-plus plates of ravioli, cleaning and destemming dozens of bundles of watercress or peeling 100 soft-boiled eggs. When dinner customers started rolling in around 6, you’d know – and it’d be full throttle until around 10 pm.

After 14 hours straight on my feet the first day, there was good news and bad news.

The bad news: I rode the train home sporting Quasimodo’s posture, my feet were the size of a pregnant lady’s in July and I fell into bed like a fainting goat.

The good news: I survived. I also learned that you can bruise fava beans while shelling them, and to avoid doing so you open the shell at the dimple, where the germ is located and peel from there. That pushing pounds of ricotta through a sieve is great for toning your biceps. That no matter how careful you are, you’re going to break at least one soft-boiled egg while trying to peel it.

Kitchen towels are as valued as a Spotify invite, and prep work is everything. Mise en place, a French term that means having everything in its place, also has a rougher translation of “you’d better have everything prepped or your place will be in the weeds.”

I picked up a few other bits of wisdom along the way:

– Drink water out of 32-ounce plastic cylindrical containers as often as you can or you and dehydration will become quick friends.

– The plating process can border on obsessive. A smear of fonduta, lay down the mushrooms, top with a few sprigs of mache and a sprinkle of hazelnuts. A smear of fonduta, lay down the mushrooms...

– If you’re a customer who asks for grilled bread with nothing on it or a well-done steak, there will be a few jokes made on your behalf at the pass.

– If you’re a female, you will be outnumbered.

– And most importantly, I don’t look good in a bandana.

At the end of the day, I had become part of a big, dysfunctional family. Occasionally, there was name-calling and yelling, but we were in it together - and we got through it together.

On Sunday morning, I got up at 8 a.m. and did it all over again.

“In some way or another, we’re all adrenaline junkies and masochists,” the chef de cuisine said to me at the end of my final shift.

After walking in their Dansko clogs for a weekend, I couldn’t disagree. It’s a labor of love if there ever was one - and come Monday, I had never been happier to plop down in a chair for a sedentary day at work.



soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Bullet Tooth Tony

    There's more to life than sweating away in an isolated kitchen (or sometimes just a basement) for 16 hours a day and being bullied and yelled at by insecure males. And get out of my face with that 'no two days are the same, it's much more exciting than working in an office' bullshit that you always hear. There's just as much routine in a kicthen as anywhere else unless you are actually the chef-owner of a restaurant. People work in kitchens becuase they don't have a choice, not because it's so nice. I don't see why anyone would find it appealing. You don't even eat the food you cook. Isn't that ironic? Working in a professional kitchen is on the same level as slaving away in a garment factory in Bangladesh or India, except for a few European countries where you are actually treated as a human being, not as an animal. For example: Denmark and all the Nordic coountries, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and maybe a handful of others. In those countries you get paid well, you work normal hours and you can maintain a relatively healthy work-life balance.

    May 29, 2013 at 6:08 am |
  2. Karl Erich Martell

    Fun article – thanks!

    September 2, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  3. ChefEd

    Sarah,
    Although I've been a bit rough, I'd like to extend an olive branch... Feel free to drag your Chapel Hill carcass over to my restaurant and I'll stage ya and provide an example of another UVa. success story. Feature story material no? Or perhaps maybe spend a day with my Columbia grad / CIA grad French/British wife as she writes for a website that is a bit more serious than any Johnny-come-lately site that provides really really fluffy material about day-long stages. A bit harsh? Perhaps. So take me up on my offer then....

    August 31, 2011 at 2:45 am |
  4. Anonymous

    As someone who enjoys my steak well done, I am reminded of a bit of wisdom I heard recently: "I look down on people who look down on people."

    August 28, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • diana

      touchy. haha.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:16 am |
  5. Chef Bland

    Great, but short, article. If anything, this should be a series depicting the time, effort and dedication food service requires so that customers can appreciate what has gone into preparing their meals.

    August 28, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • RichardHead@Chef Bland

      No problem...Git your fat ass in here at 4:30 a.m and unload the truck full of ice,followed by the Fish delivery,then meat delivery is next, and don't forget condiments,napkins and Chef Whites from the Laundry. After that,produce a menu for the day and put out that cigarette,it's time for the lunch time menu. Oh,wait,here comes the Produce truck due yesterday... Your turn fat ass.

      August 28, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
      • Daisy

        Why are you being such a jackass? Chef Bland was making the same point you are - that there's a huge amount of work involved in running a restaurant - but in a much less jackassy way.

        August 28, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
      • RichardHead@Daisy

        You are correct, I am being a Jackass! My apologies to you and the Chef... I hate to see someone like Sarah work her butt off without any recognition. I took the Chefs comments in the wrong way and for that I can say "I am sorry Chef". Thank You Daisy.

        August 28, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  6. KeithTexas

    I loved this!! I have two friends who own restaurants; both are the Chefs of their own places. I get to work in their Kitchens whenever the mood strikes me and when they need some time off I get to Chef for them.

    I may be a better Chef than either of them but I know I can not work as hard as they have to work every day. I do difficult physical work every day so it isn't like I am leaving an office job to try to work in a Kitchen. I really do know what hard work is and I can testify that Cooking is more difficult and the hours are longer.

    I am really fortunate that I get to test my skills in a professional kitchen occasionally and I am so lucky to have two such great friends that let me learn in their kitchens.

    August 27, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Ruderalis

      I bet you make some good BBQ coming out of Texas.... mmm...

      August 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  7. brokenteeth

    I worked in a small restaraunt for 6 years and its no picnic . Its stressful , messy , you become OCD and if you don't share the tips , everyone becomes your enemy.

    August 27, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  8. Janet

    Stop bitching! The food industry is as hard as hell. Sometimes you think you are in hell. I have been in this business for 33yrs. Would not trade it for the world. Its in my blood. Love it or get out, because it is a devotion and will be the only lifestyle you know,respect, and look forward to each day. As far as co-workers in the kitchen, I would trust them before some of my friends.

    August 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  9. Jeff - Digital Nomad Journey

    A professional kitchen is grueling hard work, did it for 10 years with some of the best TV personalities and overseas for Michelin starred places. If you don't value your free time, by all means go ahead and be a chef. There are special moments to be had throughout the day, but good luck with your spouse sticking around. Best to get with another person in the industry, at any hopes for a normal life.
    http://www.digitalnomadjourney.com

    August 27, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  10. ChefEd

    Wow. Where did you get the inspiration for this article? One of the 30-or-so similar articles over the past ten years? Amazing piece of groundbreaking journalism. BTW, lemmee guess. A Voce Columbus Circle?

    August 26, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Rikers Island cell #7@ ChefEd

      Shut up Bitch,I got your lunch swingin' with special sauce just for you.

      August 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Big Hairy@ChefEd

      The only Columbus circle he remembers is the circle jerk in front of the Prison guards. Faggot!!

      August 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  11. Chris

    Yes, work is tough and in most cases underpaid. But there is something special that happens in the kitchens around the world that should be happening all over – we are a community! We are like soldiers who have each others backs. One of us fail and there are 10 hands helping us to recover. The ones who trully love the role give ourselves daily just to hear that someone else had a great experience! How many of the people behind desks all day long discussing numbers or how to grow their empire can say the same?

    August 26, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  12. mommawombat

    Very well-written article! I have worked in food service of some shape, form, or fashion for all of my adult life. It doesn't matter if you are in a 5 star establishment, fast food, or, like I am now, institutional food service, the attitudes are the same and you build the camadrie. It definitely takes a certain kind of person to work in a kitchen, and not everyone can hack it. I applaud the author for at least attempting the kitchen-which is something very few people would do.

    August 26, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  13. bday55

    Great Article, no not for the weak of heart. I can't imagine the stress & worry of opening your own restaurant. Sadly most fail for a variety of reasons. Serving the public can also be a real test of your patience.

    August 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  14. Bop

    its nice to see stories like this! i started in this busines as a kid with grandma and gramps and have done it all it is defiantly a passion but also tough hopefully people will realize what us chefs go through to make everything as perfect as we can!

    August 26, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  15. Chef North

    @Shari: high failure rate and low net income...couldn't think of any better way to make a living?

    Not to mention the blazing rise in price of your basic materials (ie. FOOD!).

    Good luck to you! :)

    August 25, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  16. Shari

    As someone that just open a restaurant two months ago....I loved it!

    August 25, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  17. Sylvia

    Interesting article, Sarah. I never really read anything about behind the scenes in a restaurant. I only know what I saw on Hell's kitchen and a few glimpses of so called reality shows. I hope you give a followup someday.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  18. Chef North

    My written-in-stone advice to anyone who wants to become a cook: Don't.

    One of the lowest paying, highest stress jobs around.
    North American society does NOT value food or the food industry - from farmer to cook.

    If you feel that you absolutely MUST be a cook, make your way to either Europe or Australia.
    You will have much more respect and an even bigger pay cheque.

    The one thing I will say about professional kitchens, they offer a source of true camaraderie found in exceptionally few other vocations.

    August 25, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Carrie

      Amen to that! I was a chef for 10 years and recently retired....I also cooked in both the States and Australia.....I decided that there was more to life then 14 hour days in a kitchen....one day I may go back....but for now, I'm cool! Although there is something to be said for the family of chef friends around the world I have!

      August 26, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  19. Jasmine

    This is in eatocracy. It doesn't need to be breaking news. It's human interest. Go back to the homepage for news.
    I loved reading this. I can't see myself working in a kitchen for a dinner rush but it was fun to get a taste (pun intended?) of what it was like. Thank you!

    August 25, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  20. Randominterwebsdude

    And this is news...how?

    August 25, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • RichardHead@Randominterwebsdude

      1. She achieved a goal of something she always wanted to do.
      2. She put up with BS from assholes like you.
      3. Did I mention she did an excellent job? Go troll on Fox News.

      August 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Daisy

      Why does some jerk always have to ask that question? It's not supposed to be news. It's a feature article, not a news article. Almost all news web sites, newspapers and news magazines run feature articles in addition to news. We get it; this is beneath you. If you don't think these articles are up to your high standards of time-worthy material, please feel free to just jump right over them.

      August 25, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
      • MikeyNYC

        Its not his fault that his parents are brother and sister, Daisy. Don't pity him, though, since its not everyone that can call his parents both "mommy and daddy" and "auntie and uncle" at the same time!

        August 26, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
      • ChefEd

        Daisy,
        Feature articles should at least strive to bring something new to the lexicon of human interest stories. This is a dime-a-dozen retread of a thousand articles that have covered the foodie double-oughts.... why should we applaud it? Are we sheep? Or should we demand better?

        August 31, 2011 at 2:32 am |
      • Markus@ChefEd

        We should demand better manners from people like you. What the fu ck happened to your civility?

        September 2, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • KayBeeStew

      It's news because you read it.

      August 25, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      I see that you are new to reading the news.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Habib Bullard

      The premise of the article has been done countless times over the last 15 years. Working in a kitchen is hard....the people that cook the food you eat are people that you would not normally hang out with. As a person that has worked his way through the food service industry for the last 17 years....this is not the place for weekend warriors or civilians. Working in the restaurant is hard, but if you love it; it becomes all that you can do. If you are thinking about starting out in kitchen forget about living a "normal life" if you can put up with A holes like me, feel free.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  21. Kelly

    Nice article, the only thing is...don't make fun of people who order steak well done. I LOVE my stake med-rare, but when I was pregnant I ordered it well done for safety reasons.

    August 25, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Tati

      You sure have thin skin. In my country we like our meat cooked to a leather state – and that is how I like it. Whoever wants can laugh at me all day – won't make me eat med rare steak. My loss, I guess.

      August 25, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Levi

      They make jokes because if you order a steak well done it takes FOREVER to cook it and it screws up ticket time.

      August 25, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
      • jennay

        They make jokes because people that tend to eat well cooled steaks also tend to tip terribly.....and you're basically ruining a perfectly good cut of beef.

        August 25, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • oops

      Steak.

      August 25, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • DesertMom

      By safety reasons, I take it you're referring to E-coli. What folks need to understand is that E-coli lives on the surface of the meat – it does not penetrate it. Grind a piece of beef up into hamburger, and it disperses the pathogen into the whole thing. With steak, you can sear it on the outside (>165 degrees F) and the pathogen dies. That's why you can eat a rare steak with little worry, but a rare hamburger, you may want to rethink that, especially when you're preggers.

      August 26, 2011 at 1:36 am |
    • MrCapsaicin

      I'm reading one of Anthony Bourdain's books and they don't just make jokes about well done orders. Those orders get the crappiest pieces of meat they have in the kitchen. Meat they won't serve to other customers that they would otherwise throw in the trash. In his words "these suckers are paying to eat their trash"(paraphrase) Just thought everyone should know this before they order.

      August 26, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  22. BRBSanDiego

    Well explained for me to visualize your day.

    August 25, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  23. Small town Chef

    Nice article. If you liked it, again read the epic kitchen tail, Kitchen Confidential. Even small fry cooks have to go through the wringer. Way to keep up.

    August 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  24. Mark Larezzo

    Great article. Kind of upset you didnt include a picture of yourself in your work outfit, complete with bandana :)

    August 25, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  25. RichardHead

    Great article Sarah !! I don't think I could handle it. Job well done.

    August 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  26. Amayda

    That sounds exciting! I would love to work in a professional kitchen, just once. Or for a few days so I can feel what it is like once you get the hang of it. That would be an awesome experience. Great article!

    August 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
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