Damn It Feels Good To Be A Chef

(First, a slight tangent: I still can’t listen to “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta” without imagining the printer destruction scene from Office Space in my head. Is that just me?)

On Friday, I got a call from the executive chef – my new boss – to get my schedule for my first day. “Come in on Monday bright and early at 8am,” he said. “Bring your knives but leave your tweezers at home.” I kept my composure until we hung up, but as soon as the call was over, I just about died laughing. It was the perfect complement to the shit-talking I got from a few fine dining peers about my switch to a more casual restaurant. Apparently the chefs on this side like to take jabs at the tweezer-wielding fine dining chefs too.

So yesterday was my first day at the new gig. The first hour or two was spent meeting with the Training Director to do the formal, corporate-y “onboarding” type stuff. They also gave me some cool company swag, including black t-shirts and fancy denim aprons for my uniform (only managers get black shirts and denim aprons, so I feel pretty legit!). I got an overview of what my job will look like for the first few months: five weeks training BOH here, three weeks training FOH at another location, and then finally permanently working at the location I’d originally wanted to work at (since it’s only 2 miles from home!). Woot! The training manual was very thorough, and as they explained it, since I am getting “fast tracked” into a manager position, I’ll be cycling through every position in the restaurant to get an in-depth understanding of the entire operation.

So I started at the very beginning — I spent the first hour in the kitchen learning the ins and outs of the dish pit. Everyone was really friendly, especially after they found out I speak Spanish. It came in handy when Chef pulled me to work on prep with a woman who spoke very little English. She was thrilled that we were still able to converse, even though I had to enlist the help of others who were more bilingual to help me translate things from time to time. For example, a favorite question of these friendly older ladies is “Tienes novio o esposo?” (do you have a boyfriend or husband?) to which I had to ask my dishwasher buddy, “Como se dice ‘engaged’?” (it’s comprometida, in case you were wondering).

Break time is weird here because we don’t have family meal. You’re entitled to a meal during your shift, so you just order from the cashier and it’s on the house. We also get a large table in the dining room set aside for employees to sit and hang out. No separate employee cafeteria? No sitting on plastic crates in the back alley?? I felt so weird sitting in the same dining room as the guests during my break. I think the feeling will pass eventually as I get used to it.

Sous Chef K was coming in for her closing shift as I came back from break, so I got to help her with prepping the dinner special — agnolotti. Glad to see some of my pasta making experience at the ol’ gastropub put to good use. Chef let me head out early around 4 and I was thrilled to be driving home from work at the same time that I used to be driving TO work to start my shifts at my last job.

This morning I came in again, bright and early at 8am, and Chef was nowhere to be found. I hate standing around idle (especially in the kitchen, where there’s ALWAYS something to do), so I asked one of the prep guys if he needed a hand. He seemed reluctant to accept help, but 50 pounds of carrots and 2 cases of brussels sprouts argued otherwise. I was happy to get my day started with simple, mindless work — it’s pretty meditative. Finally Chef came in around 9 and announced that he’s “not worried about [my] BOH skills” and that he wants me to start training on the FOH positions immediately. I appreciated the vote of confidence… I was less excited about the prospect of having to interface with customers on only my second day on the job. Ha! Smiling? Being polite? Not cursing? I’ve been working as a rogue kitchen pirate for too long.

Luckily we had about an hour before the store opened for me to get briefed by a girl who had been working on the Ordering station for over a year. She’s well versed on our menu and common customer inquiries, and she’s lightning speed on the POS system. She’s also a great teacher so I felt confident that I’d be able to learn the ropes from her.

At 10:45am we all gathered for the pre-shift meeting. I guess we were in the weeds with prep yesterday so we had to skip it. Today, Chef introduced me as “Chef [Matcha Bunny]” and I was pretty stoked. He went over menu changes (we’re transitioning from winter vegetables to spring ones this week!) and daily specials, and his eyes seemed to glimmer at the prospect of getting cool new produce in now that the seasons are changing. We had to wrap up quickly, though, as it soon turned 11am and customers were already waiting outside to be the first to place their orders.

As I took my place behind the POS, I felt nervous, especially after seeing how fast my trainer was, but I hit the ground running. Entering modifications is the worst part, though explaining our (admittedly complicated) menu for the umpteenth time is a close second. Right at noon, though, the line wove out the door and around the corner so I switched back with her so she could dig us out of the weeds. I was reassured that it wasn’t because of my speed but rather because a large rush of people arrived all at once. I took over again once she cleared the line like a beast and worked until about 1:30 when I finally got my lunch break. Nope — still not used to sitting out in the dining room and eating alongside customers.

When I came back, Chef grabbed me and had me work with him on the components for the daily special. I was relieved to be back in my comfort zone, behind a cutting board focusing on food. I found that he likes to rattle off ingredients without mentioning quantities unless asked. That was a bit peculiar. I mean, sure I can go get you shallots… but what are you using them for and how large of a batch are you making? Or just simply, how many do you need? Thankfully he doesn’t seem to be bothered by questions, so I was able to eventually get clarification and start the vinegar reduction that he wanted for a sauce. Meanwhile I got on some knife cuts alongside Sous Chef K. Apparently she used to play on a rugby team in college and we bonded over both having been yelled at by angry British men. I completely lost track of time and before I knew it, it was almost 5 o’clock (my shift ended at 4:30). Still, when I got out I was thrilled to see the sun barely setting. Less thrilled about sharing the evening commute with countless 9-5’ers in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Can’t win them all, I guess.

Oh, the best news so far? I’m working M-F, so Honey Bunny and I will actually get to spend a real, normal weekend together! WOOOOOOO!

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