A Chef’s Journey: Life as a chef. Part 1

I started this blog about 2 years ago after I found sharing recipes and tips on Twitter a bit too limited for my rather overly talkative imagination. It initially was a way of sharing my recipes and tips on how to cook but I soon realised people were far more interested in the life I lead as a chef rather than the actual recipes and pretty pictures of food and cakes and dishes I prepare. I posted a few entries detailing the various tales I’ve lived through in the past 6 years as I moved from being a process engineer to becoming a fully qualified international level chef. If you haven’t read them yet browse through to “A chefs life” section on this blog. (I’ve been told my blog is set up in a funny way, my Web skills aren’t as clued up as my cooking skills but at the bottom of this page there should be links to the various sections I’ve divided my posts into).

Grilled stuffed calamari on caprese with balsamic reduction

Grilled stuffed calamari on caprese with balsamic reduction

So what is life as professional food maker like? Well, I’ve been offered a book deal to write about it so clearly there’s a fascination from people outside the industry to hear all about the madness. Do chefs really swear like Gordon Ramsay? Do we really sniff everything and bounce around the kitchen like we high on stuff? Do we really shout “yes chef!” all night long? What’s with the funny long hats? How come there’s so many men in the industry? Why aren’t women chefs as celebrated? What’s a Michelin Star and why do we always go on about them? What do we think of canned goods? What about salting my food after I’ve sent to you? Do chefs really despise ketchup? The questions I hear regularly are endless. I could write a whole book based solely on questions I get. I’ll admit before I became a chef and was still a corporate suit I too had similar questions. I would sit watching BBC Food and get all dreamy-eyed and imagine the suave and glamorous life of the chef world. Ha!

Firstly let me put it bluntly, the chef world is a tough, rough, often heartless, often painful, overly dramatic, erratic and egotistical one. Thats me putting it nicely. Yep, chef schools and academies are full of females and young girls who spend thousands on culinary diplomas and qualifications. I was one of only 5 guys in my chef class at school, the bulk of the lecturers and students were female. In the industry the opposite is true. It’s a testosterone filled world. In large kitchens the majority of chefs will tend to be male. Not because of the work load but because of the environment and the attitudes of the industry. For some reason men have this ability to swear at each other, throw pots and get physical…and then get over it an hour later and go have beers together…and go sleep for 3 hours and do it all over and again. That’s the type of place it is. Female chefs tend to lean towards the catering, private chef, boutique hotel, lodge and small establishment type places, not large hotels. Obviously I’m generalising but that’s what I have noticed over the years. The madness and craziness of a whole lot of testosterone in one hot place gets to you…and the sexism and chauvinism is always on full display.

Ok, it sounds like I’m really negative about the industry, I’m not. I would have quit a long time ago if I wasn’t happy with what I do for a living. I just don’t like the way the industry has been painted as some fancy silver and shiny MasterChef type of place where tailored spotless chef jackets are worn and we prance around sniffing and licking small things and ooohhhing and aaahhhing at every star fruit and pomegranate we find.

My daily routine is thus: 5am – wake up and go to gym (I need to maintain my health, being on your feet takes its toll…and very few chefs look after their health properly). 7am – pull stock from the store room for the day. Involves carrying large crates and containers in the walk-in fridge and freezers. 8am – unpack stock in the kitchen and wipe down and set up for the day. 8:30am – 11am – serve breakfast and prepare lunch…whilst also preparing dinner. 11am – 3pm – serve lunch and prepare dinner. 3pm – 6pm – afternoon break. 6:30pm til close – serve dinner. That’s about 11 hours a day. If I’m lucky and I have a backup sous chef I’ll take a night off now and then. Public holidays? Weekends? What are those? We work 365 days a year, holidays are actually when we work even harder. I’ve worked on Christmas day for the past 4 years. In any other environment the hours we work would be illegal but for chefs it’s the norm unless the establishment you work for is owned by a big corporate and has trade unions involved…or is making enough money to hire enough chefs. So you clearly don’t need to think too hard to figure out why chefs are grumpy creatures at the best of times and why questions like “which part for the country did this lamb chop come from?” can get you a pained and sometimes colourful response.

Are chefs all loud like in the movies and TV shows? Well, the ones who have been in the industry for longer than 5 years tend to be the ones who have given up on trying to be quiet and reserved. Yes there are all types of personalities in the chef industry but there is a common strain in personalities…we’re all slightly crazy and we have the weirdest senses of humour. To keep our minds active we tend to talk crap and nonsense all day long and love stupid practical jokes and picking on each other. I’ve seen many a student chef being asked to go count how many frozen peas are in a bag of frozen peas. The crude sexual jokes I’ve come to learn over the years are too many to even remember. Old school French style kitchens will always be silent during service though, that’s when the head chef is king and no one else talks except to respond to his orders with “yes chef”. All qualified chefs studied in that kind of environment or similar, it helps keep order and professionalism and is something ingrained in our foundation…its just not used in every kitchen anymore. I miss it sometimes, nothing gets the adrenalin going than hearing orders coming one after the other and trying to remember every one as you prepare an order you heard 5 orders ago. That leads me to the reason most angry situations happen in a kitchen. It’s usually because one chef has either misheard an order or is taking too long. It’s basically a process line. When an order is called, it’s queued up and has a number in the line. If someone messes that order up it screws the whole kitchen up. If your duty is to kick out starters, main courses can’t begin until your starters have been plated…now imagine 15 orders for different kinds of starters and 20 orders for main courses…All in a certain order and queue. One fuck up in the starters means the mains queue is also effected and then that delays desserts…and can also mean certain dishes might be overcooked as they have to stay in the oven or on the pass a little longer. That is when the swear words and descriptions about peoples sexuality and genitals come out. Don’t be shocked to see a pot or two fly threw the air. Hence complete silence is maintained in large professional kitchens during service. Its also why the kitchen is set up like an army with ranks and positions of leadership. A group of chefs is even referred to as a “brigade”. That leads me to that other question I always get asked, “why do you wear funny hats?”. Well, because ladies like it. 😛
Jokes aside. It’s all part of the classic chef brigade system. Traditionally the colour of your pants and the height of your chef hat are linked to your rank in the chef brigade. The more senior your role, the taller your chef hat. Well, that’s the theory. Very few still practice it and slowly a lot of establishments have gotten rid of the tall hats and use bandanas, head scarves, skull caps and the like. For a professional look I like wearing the necktie and tall hat when doing outside functions where I’ll be dealing with and interacting with the public but in the kitchen they are impractical. They are also another opportunity for your fellow chefs to fool around. People throw fruit through the top hole of your hat as you walk by or crumple it up as you’re about to walk out to see a guest. The chef hats we despise are those mushroom ones that cartoons and fake chef shows put on people. Those things are ugly as hell, look sincerely stupid and I honestly can’t take anyone wearing one of them seriously. Luckily I have never met a pro chef who wears them. They’re usually worn by cooks on TV masquerading as chefs or in restaurants where the owner has never been a chef.

Are chefs always thinking of food? Nope. Actually most of us are thinking about the next time we’ll get a chance to drink or sleep. We drink like fish. Well, most of the chefs I’ve worked with anyway. I won’t lie, the industry does have a substance abuse problem. It’s scary to see actually and whilst I was a a trainee chef my lecturer was blunt with us and told us the facts and how we should guard ourselves or otherwise be swallowed up by it all. I read somewhere that chefs are some of the most suicidal people in the world. The hours, the pressure, the environment, the creative mind, the isolation from the outside world…and working far from family and friends. Add it all up and it leads to mental and emotional breakdowns. It’s rare to find chefs who have been chefs for 15 years or longer, the ones who have lasted that long tend not to cook anymore and are executive chefs who set menus, do training and manage the paperwork and administration side of things. Exec chefs are also the highest paid chefs you get. At the age of 26 I was earning as an engineer the same amount an exec chef earns. Yep. Scary thought that. Also part of why so many chefs leave the industry or go attempt to open their own businesses. Salaries in this industry are a joke when you consider what we do. We literally hold people lives in our hands. If someone with a peanut allergy comes for dinner, they have to trust that we won’t kill them. We cook for presidents and celebrity types and world leaders…and we could so easily screw it up and history would be changed. The acknowledgement of what we do and for how long is sadly lacking.

Which now leads me to TV chefs. You’ll hear many of us knocking TV chefs and celeb chefs. Yes, some of them were lucky to get to where they are now, either by being in the right place or by having the smarts and looks to get an agent who got them into the right places. You also have some TV chefs who aren’t chefs at all and have never worked in a kitchen. What’s that Nigella Lawson quote, “Gordon Ramsay makes me laugh because he knows that I’m not a chef”? The rest of them we speak badly of simply and honestly because they do what we wish we were doing for a living. To do something you love with all the equipment and ingredients you’d ever need and all the plates you’d ever need without a stiff restaurant budget and then get paid for it and get famous for it and get books out of it? Heck, every chef dreams that.

Oh hell. It’s 6:55am, time to go load crates…

Part 2 to follow soon…

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