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A Day in the Life of a Las Vegas casino cook's helper


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#31 jsmeeker

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Posted 28 September 2011 - 02:45 PM

I love any las vegas related story. And one revolving around food is even better.

Less than two months until my next trip out there.

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#32 ScoopKW

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Posted 28 September 2011 - 04:46 PM

> What's the average starting pay for a cook's helper?
> I would imagine that the casinos are union shops (which is ok by me)?
> Do you work eight hour shifts and are they consistently at the same time of day (i.e. always mornings)?
> Is OT available and is it strongly suggested you accept it or it is totally optional?
> Are employee meals free and are they buffets and/or all you can eat?
> What's wrong with Imperial Palace? It sounds like a Chinese buffet?


I just got home, and I'm too wiped out to do a big installment. (Who am I kidding? What's the longest I've gone? 500 words? 750?)

So I'll just answer these questions and call it a night.

1) I can't tell you exactly, because that would peg me to my property. Starting pay is more than $15 per hour. I don't know what it might be at other casinos. I imagine the union casinos all pay the same rate, but I don't know for sure. I know it sounds weird, but I'm not in this for the money. I'm sure there's a thousand jobs where I could make more money. But I don't really care about that. I don't spend much, so I don't need to make much.

2) There are SOME non-union casinos. All of the Station Casinos are non-union, and therefore very popular with conservative Las Vegan dittoheads. All the F&B workers on the strip are represented by the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226. We haven't gone on strike in forever, and working in a union shop is a really good gig.

3) I work all over the place, and I never work the same kitchen for the same hours twice. I generally get 40 hours per week, in eight-hour shifts. But who knows where or when they'll be. I'm still very low on the totem pole. And I'm working my way up to better shifts and hours. Two union rules: We can't work more than five shifts in a row. We can't have less than eight hours between shifts. If for some reason everyone calls in sick and they ask me to come in, they'll pay double or triple. (Sixth shift, less than eight hours between shifts would be triple time.) Naturally, they don't want to pay me $50 an hour, so that never happens.

4) Chefs LOATHE overtime. They are questioned each and every time they give a cook overtime. It had better be a damned good reason. So, no, I almost never get overtime. If the kitchens are slammed, we have temp workers who will happily drop everything and come to work on a moment's notice. Times are REALLY hard here in Las Vegas. The temps are just happy to have SOMETHING. I'm happy to have something more or less permanent. And the full-time cooks are really happy.

5) Employee meals are free in the employee dining room. Everyone calls it the EDR. Every casino has an EDR. And we're encouraged to eat before our shift, during our break, and even after our shift. Nobody need be hungry at a casino. Meals are served cafeteria style, and we can eat as much as we want. BUT -- the casino doesn't spend a whole lot on food. (EDIT -- They don't spend a lot on food in the EDR. It's the only money-losing kitchen on property. Every other kitchen turns a profit.) It's no different most days than dorm food in college. However, sometimes banquets or garde mange has extra sandwiches or platters, and that's usually quite good. In addition, as per union rules, our breaks are one hour, and they're paid. Mostly, I like to do "last hour" break -- work seven, then go to the EDR and have a salad and watch ESPN for an hour. Sometimes it doesn't work out like that. Chefs call the breaks. Usually, they'll give you what you want. But they can send you any time. Even as soon as you arrive. "We've got nothing to do until nine, go to break." "But chef, I just got here a couple hours ago. I'm not even hungry." "Sorry, but you still gotta go." It's happened to me ONCE.

6) There are a few "ultra budget" casinos out there for the "ultra budget" visitor (aka, tightwads). Imperial Palace, Circus Circus, and to a lesser extent the Flamingo and the Riviera. I wouldn't eat at our buffet. (Nothing unwholesome about it. Just that it's boring food.) Imagine what's going on at the buffets that are spending less than half of on food cost compared to us.

Edited by ScoopKW, 28 September 2011 - 05:04 PM.

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#33 Big Joe the Pro

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Posted 29 September 2011 - 03:43 PM

Cool, thanks for addressing my enquiries. Now, about the meaning of life...?

Seriously though, it sounds like a great gig. I've been doing my present job (for about fifteen years, not related to cooking) because I enjoy it. Money isn't the most important thing. It's good you don't have to work OT. One of the most striking facts in the chefs books I've been reading lately is the amount of hours they put it. Doesn't seem healthy to me.

It reminds me of a gig I had (a long time ago) in a hotel State-side. Nowhere near as large a scale as a Casino on the Vegas strip but a good organization and a union shop. It's nice to have the union to keep the managers from walking all over you in my opinion. The only think they care about is their share price it seems.

I miss working in the food industry sometimes and that's surely why stories like yours resonate with me and so many others. Nearly half of the US population had some sort of food-related job in their misspent youth? I don't miss coming home wiped and smelling like maple though!

Ok, I for one am waiting for more. Throw in some gratuitous sex out back by the dumpsters, gun running in the toliets, the fork-in-the-road taken while on a vodka bender and/or excessive drug use in forgotten broom closets and your audience will increase exponentially w/o a doubt, ha ha!

Edited by Big Joe the Pro, 29 September 2011 - 04:27 PM.

Maybe I would have more friends if I didn't eat so much garlic?

#34 ScoopKW

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Posted 10 October 2011 - 11:37 PM

Big news from the cook's helper front. But I just finished a double. (Hell, it was basically a triple.)

Let's just say, we're going to have to remove the word "helper" from the title. Woo hoo!
Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#35 Mjx

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 12:45 AM

Big news from the cook's helper front. But I just finished a double. (Hell, it was basically a triple.)

Let's just say, we're going to have to remove the word "helper" from the title. Woo hoo!


Congratulations! Does this come with improved access to sleep?

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#36 ScoopKW

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 12:57 AM


Big news from the cook's helper front. But I just finished a double. (Hell, it was basically a triple.)

Let's just say, we're going to have to remove the word "helper" from the title. Woo hoo!


Congratulations! Does this come with improved access to sleep?


Sadly, no. But the chef outlined his vision for my career path. Hopefully I can trade in my check pants for black within a couple years. I'm beat to crap, but I can't sleep. Too much caffeine still in my system. I'll have another beer or two, then take a couple Tylenol PMs (are they habit forming? I hope to hell not.) And try to get some sleep.
Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#37 Kouign Aman

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 07:50 AM

Congratulations, that's excellent news!
"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

#38 annabelle

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 12:20 PM

Congratulations!

#39 Genkinaonna

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 12:49 PM

Awesome news! Congrats!
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#40 Okanagancook

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 12:57 PM

Tylenol and alcohol are not good partners, especially for your liver so best give up one or try coated aspirin.

#41 gfweb

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 01:04 PM

For sleep try benedryl. Tylenol in a drinker is not great.

#42 annabelle

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 01:35 PM

Not if you like your liver. I agree on the benedryl.

#43 catdaddy

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 03:39 PM

How easy is it to get a union card in Vegas? I've never worked in a union house but am intrigued by your schedule. The more I get paid the crappier the hours.

Do you get bennies too?

#44 ScoopKW

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Posted 11 October 2011 - 10:54 PM

How easy is it to get a union card in Vegas? I've never worked in a union house but am intrigued by your schedule. The more I get paid the crappier the hours.

Do you get bennies too?


If you get a job at a union property, everything gets taken care of by the casino. There's a 45 minute orientation at the culinary union office where they explain the benefits. (And the benefits are pretty good.)
Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#45 judiu

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 10:43 AM

Scoop, congratulations! Advil also makes a Nightime pain releiver, and it's easier on the liver. A slug of Bourbon is my usual "sleeping pill"... A hot soak for your feet may help, too.
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#46 ScoopKW

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 01:11 PM

OK... time for a new installment.

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of "funny" to report. Funny usually happens when I'm working with Jimmy "I'm doing nothing chef" and Jackie "Can you hand me a broom." I worked worked with Jackie last week, but it was just the two of us on a long graveyard shift. We talked about what we did prior to moving to Las Vegas. Jackie is another cook with an advanced degree. There are a LOT of people like that working in Las Vegas kitchens. Cooks make close to $20 per hour, and where else is a guy with a doctorate in philosophy going to see that kind of money?

I started at the property quite recently. And cooks helpers generally work similar shifts based on when they joined the company. So I've got five people that I see all the time. One of the five, Johnny, is my age. He was a cook forever, but jump-shifted to a new property as a helper because it's easy money. (As I've mentioned before, there is a significant workload increase from helper to cook.) Another guy, Joey, is half my age and came to the property for a shot of making it into the fine-dining kitchen on site. The others (I'm running out of generic J names) are just trying to make a living in Las Vegas.

A little exposition:

Every casino has many kitchens. If they have open space that is accessible to the guest, the casino WILL put either a bar, a diner, a coffee shop or a baccarat table there. Every square inch of the casino is jammed full of money making venues.

Every casino has a main kitchen, which primarily takes care of the buffet. Then they have garde manger, which takes care of salads, sandwiches and slices deli meat for the other kitchens. There's the bakeshop, which does everything from wedding cakes to brioche for the French Toast. There's roughly 10 smaller kitchens for the property's various on-site restaurants. We have the banquet kitchen which serves the conventions. Of course there's the EDR. And then we have the fine-dining kitchens -- like Robuchon's restaurants over at the MGM. The fine-dining kitchens are very much connected to the property, but operate very much like Vatican City. They're their own little island in the casino. But they have to follow the casino's rules, and the union's rules. So while they're more-or-less self-governing, I still see their cooks and helpers eating in the EDR.

Let's say we have a wedding reception in the Elvis Room for 200. The bakeshop will do the cake, the petite fours and the dinner rolls. Garde manger takes care of the salad, crudité and other hors d'oeuvres. Main kitchen will do the soup course. Banquets is in charge of the entrees and sides. They'll also provide the carvers, because the entree is almost always a prime rib or steamship. The beverage department takes care of the bar. One of the largest work forces at the casino is the servers and busers, the set-up guys and the tear-down guys. They can set up a room for farm machinery salesmen, take care of them, then break it down and put a wedding reception in the same room. All in a day's work.

Each kitchen bills the event and gets paid. Every roll, cake, crudité and entree has a price. Then the event bills the guest. Everything is done by the book, because a casino faces regular audits. Also, each kitchen (except EDR) has to turn a profit. I'm always astounded how much people will pay for a Hors d'oeuvre.

As far as the kitchen totem pole is concerned, lets compare it to the military:

At the bottom you have me, the helper. We're the grunt infantry of the kitchens, doing the dog work that nobody really wants to do.
Next up are the cooks. They're like the gunnery sergeants of the kitchen.
Then the master cooks. They're the NCO's.

After that, it's black pants. The chefs aren't in the union, they're salary, and many of them work 100-hour weeks. They'll be the first to tell you, "Stay a cook. I was never happier than when I was a cook." And they have their own hierarchy. From the executive chef (General) down to Sous Chef (Lieutenant).




I promised earlier, I'd talk about strong and weak cooks. Well, I have something to report on that. I saw a weak cook get fired recently.

For the most part, the cooks and helpers move quick. They walk quickly from place to place. There's work to be done. Compare that to the stewards, who clean everything. They have one speed -- snail on quaaludes. They're getting paid by the hour. Their job sucks. And it's almost impossible to fire them. So while they do their job. There is a considerable amount of hour-stretching going on.

The chefs can't order them around. And although you can see it drives them nuts, they let the stewards languidly go about their business.

Not so the cooks. We've got deadlines. And we almost always make deadline. If a kitchen is falling behind, the chef can pick up a phone, tell an executive chef "911" and get as many bodies as necessary in a matter of moments. If time is critical, they'll pull cooks and helpers from other kitchens. Jackie (the broom guy) holds the record of being sent to five different kitchens in a day. If there's time (but realize they're not going to make deadline without help), they'll call in an army of temps who will drop everything and head to the casino for a chance to work. Most of the temps are green, but earnest. But occasionally, we get a real slack-ass temp.

And Junior was one such slack ass. First of all, we're in a busy kitchen. The chefs are stressed because it's their ass if they don't make deadline. And we've got Junior staring at the clock with his hands in his pockets. Chef asks what Junior's doing. "I'm waiting for the turkey to get sliced."

"Well don't just stand around, ask me for something to do."

"Can I go to the bathroom?"

Chef can't refuse a bathroom break. And Junior takes four of them over the course of four hours. After four hours of standing around, watching everyone else bust their butts, Chef could take it no more.

"What's your name!"

"Junior."

"Junior, get out of my kitchen. You are not coming back."

And just like that, Junior's name goes on a list of "do not hire" at the property. At the bigger places, getting fired means the slacker should basically just leave town. Or find a new career. Junior reminds me of some students I see in culinary school (I take one class a semester, mostly for fun.) I don't know where people like Junior end up. But they aren't working in Las Vegas casinos. Not for more than one shift, at least.
Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#47 JTravel

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 02:38 PM

This is fascinating! I love learning about "what it's like" wherever someone is. And this is a world away from my everyday home cooking, with a bit of travel and foreign foods from time to time. Great stuff.

#48 ScoopKW

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 02:39 PM

Oh, a couple random addendums.

Junior also made the mistake of talking back to Chef. Chef in question does not have the same sense of humor as the others. He's OK, but kind of a hard ass. He's the one Chef on property you do NOT want to talk back to. That probably was the final nail in the coffin.


The other day, I was driving home at 6:15 a.m., and I saw two drop-dead gorgeous Geishas walking down the street. Both of them were absolute "10s" and dressed in real Maiko outfits. An absolute joy to behold, if you're into that sort of thing. I wonder what they were doing? (I don't assume they were working girls. We have plenty of those, but these two didn't look the part.)
Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#49 Country

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 06:52 PM

Junior also made the mistake of talking back to Chef. Chef in question does not have the same sense of humor as the others. He's OK, but kind of a hard ass. He's the one Chef on property you do NOT want to talk back to. That probably was the final nail in the coffin.


That reminds me of when I was in the Navy. After boot camp, in 1960, I went to Memphis NAS for aviation school and got assigned to commissary for a month or so while waiting for the next class to start. The commissary supplied all the mess halls, feeding thousands of people three meals a day, so there was plenty to do. (Pulling the giblets from hundreds of still half frozen chickens kind of numbs the hand, and cleaning the bandsaw is a bit messy after processing hundreds of pounds of frozen beef liver into slices - but it sure beat working in a mess hall scullery...)

Anyhow, we ended up with our version of Scoop's Junior... He wasn't worth a pisshole in the snow. He was lazy and he'd complain. The commissary boss, a career NCO, wasn't really a hard ass, but he had his limits and one day during a break our version of Junior made the mistake talking back to the boss. That was the final straw and one punch from the boss decked Junior hard enough to knock him out. The boss looked at the rest of us and said, "Anyone see that?" Everyone shook their head no, and that was the last we saw of Junior. :smile:

#50 catdaddy

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Posted 12 October 2011 - 07:48 PM


Junior also made the mistake of talking back to Chef. Chef in question does not have the same sense of humor as the others. He's OK, but kind of a hard ass. He's the one Chef on property you do NOT want to talk back to. That probably was the final nail in the coffin.


That reminds me of when I was in the Navy. After boot camp, in 1960, I went to Memphis NAS for aviation school and got assigned to commissary for a month or so while waiting for the next class to start. The commissary supplied all the mess halls, feeding thousands of people three meals a day, so there was plenty to do. (Pulling the giblets from hundreds of still half frozen chickens kind of numbs the hand, and cleaning the bandsaw is a bit messy after processing hundreds of pounds of frozen beef liver into slices - but it sure beat working in a mess hall scullery...)

Anyhow, we ended up with our version of Scoop's Junior... He wasn't worth a pisshole in the snow. He was lazy and he'd complain. The commissary boss, a career NCO, wasn't really a hard ass, but he had his limits and one day during a break our version of Junior made the mistake talking back to the boss. That was the final straw and one punch from the boss decked Junior hard enough to knock him out. The boss looked at the rest of us and said, "Anyone see that?" Everyone shook their head no, and that was the last we saw of Junior. :smile:


I love the military. It's the great equalizer in our country.

#51 gfweb

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 05:43 AM

Great stuff , Scoop! I'd love to know the pre-story. How'd you train, what were you up to before the casino?

#52 Country

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 08:56 AM

Scoop, Sorry to sidetrack your excellent thread with my Navy story. Slackers have no place in a busy operation. In our case there were 4-5 of us breaking down stuff to feed thousands. No time for the Junior types.

Did your move up from helper come from the audition you wrote about on another thread? The one where the Chef was timing you with a stop watch?

#53 ScoopKW

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 10:22 AM

Did your move up from helper come from the audition you wrote about on another thread? The one where the Chef was timing you with a stop watch?


No, unfortunately I didn't get that gig. It was at the "fine-dining" restaurant on-site. Naturally, I'd prefer the fine dining environment. But my concern is that if the celebrity chef dies, what happens then? Then I have to go back to the casino and start building up seniority again. That's what.

Edited by ScoopKW, 13 October 2011 - 10:24 AM.

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#54 Mr Holloway

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Posted 13 October 2011 - 01:26 PM

This has been a fantastic read
Keep up the great work :smile:

Shane

#55 ScoopKW

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Posted 14 October 2011 - 07:17 PM

Great stuff , Scoop! I'd love to know the pre-story. How'd you train, what were you up to before the casino?


I thought this was all common knowledge from my other posts.

Prior to being a cook, I was a brewer. Mostly in brewpubs. I was at a local brewery, but that blew up in my face. So it goes. So while I have a decade of restaurant experience, none of it was on a kitchen line, and therefore not applicable to what I do now. Hence, starting at the bottom.

My entire life, I have loved to cook. I cooked semi-professionally in college. The school didn't offer a weekend lunch. I made lo-mein noodles and sold them illegally out of my dorm in order to buy beer. And since I've basically been in restaurants for a third of my adult life, I can't really cut it in the real world. I'm used to telling people what I think. For instance, if a chef asks my opinion about a dish, and I think it's under seasoned, that's what I'm going to say. I'm not going to say what I think he or she wants to hear. If the Chef wanted a yes-man, he or she wouldn't be a chef in the first place. We may even disagree, but the chef wants (and deserves) an honest answer.

Second, kitchen co-workers are the BEST co-workers. (Well, they can be the worst, too. But those guys never last long.) My co-workers wouldn't just help me move. They'd help me move the bodies. (OK, exaggeration. But not by much. I'll cover for a co-worker who's hung over, or having a bad day, or sick out of his mind but can't take the day off because he needs the shift. And they'll do the same for me. There aren't a lot of careers where you can say that.)

That sort of thing is important to me. Also, at the end of the day, I did something I find professionally fulfilling. I didn't shuffle papers around, or move numbers on a spreadsheet. I cooked someone's food. I hardly ever see the people I'm cooking for. (Unless I'm out at an event, as "eye-candy.") But it doesn't matter. I cook as if I'm preparing food for the President, the Dalai Lama and Stephen Hawking -- every guest, every time.

As for training, we have a very good culinary school at the local community college in Las Vegas. So, I've been going there for three years now. It's inexpensive, and the education is on par with some of the best schools in the world.
Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#56 Alex

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Posted 15 October 2011 - 08:03 AM

As for training, we have a very good culinary school at the local community college in Las Vegas. So, I've been going there for three years now. It's inexpensive, and the education is on par with some of the best schools in the world.

Thanks for the shout-out to your community college culinary program. I suspect that lots of people, even those into fine dining, don't realize how good CC programs can be. Our CC here in Grand Rapids also runs a first-class program (and a terrific restaurant). Schoolcraft College, in suburban Detroit, also is top notch.

P.S. Like everyone else here, I'm enjoying your forum immensely. An old acquaintance of mine was a CIA grad and worked at Caesar's in LV. He had lots of stories to tell about both places.

Edited by Alex, 15 October 2011 - 08:07 AM.

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#57 Kouign Aman

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Posted 20 October 2011 - 07:57 PM

Sounds like good times. total focus on the job, and no carry over to home (except extra shifts).
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#58 ScoopKW

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Posted 27 October 2011 - 05:47 PM

Just woke up (5 p.m. PST), after a week of grueling graveyard shifts. I'll have an update about THAT tomorrow.
Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

#59 Tim6

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Posted 28 October 2011 - 05:04 AM

good reading here.

#60 haresfur

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Posted 28 October 2011 - 05:18 PM

Great read, Scoop. Could you describe the different uniforms worn by various people in the kitchen hierarchy for us outsiders? Are they pretty much universal or vary from place to place? Maybe I'll take up cook-spotting.
It's almost never bad to feed someone.