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Daily Gullet Staff

Prep School

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1208981487/gallery_29805_1195_4176.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Ivy Knight

The words, "First reservation is in at 5pm." used to terrify me. Most restaurants open at five, ready to serve their customers dinner at that time, but in reality, most reservations don't get made until six or later. If you work at a video store and you open at a certain time it's not that big of a deal; you turn on the lights, put Clive Owen in the DVD player, open the door and Bob's your uncle. You are ready for customers. In a restaurant there are so many things that have to be done before you're ready to open the door to the paying public that it boggles the mind. Polishing cutlery and stemware, setting up tables, vacuuming, dusting, stocking wines in the wine cellar, stocking toilet paper in the bathroom, folding napkins, loading the bar sinks with ice, cutting lemons and limes for garnish...you get the picture. That is just the front of house, it's a whole new can of worms in the kitchen.

There are two distinct parts to a shift when you work in a kitchen: prep and service. A cook spends the majority of the day doing prep and setting up a station, the remainder of the shift is spent doing service. If service is slow the cook can get ahead on some prep for tomorrow. When you work in busy, successful restaurant you can never do enough prep; you will always need to be at one stage or another in the three-day process of making veal jus, there will always be fish to portion and lamb racks to French, and there will always be mountains of potatoes, onions and carrots that need peeling.

I joined my first kitchen in February of 2000. Chez Piggy is a quiet little restaurant housed in a centuries old limestone building, a former stable in Kingston, Ontario. I spent a lot of time during service that winter peeling things – garlic, potatoes, shallots. I felt like I wasn't learning anything. I wanted to be sautéing exotica in five different pans, flipping the contents of each high into the air and having them land back in each pan with a satisfying sizzle, like Eric Connell, the sous chef who was my age but had worked his way up from his first position as dishwasher at fifteen. I wanted flames to shoot dramatically out of my pans; flames that I masterminded, flames that I would nonchalantly bend to my will. There was to be none of that for me though, not while stationed on garde manger in this sleepy little university town.

I peeled garlic through a rainy, cold March and chilly April, but May brought sunshine and warm breezes and the order from manager Nick Waterfeld to 'set up the patio!' That sleepy little deceptive bastard of a town woke up with a vengeance and a hunger that would never be sated, and it descended upon our grapevine-draped courtyard in never-ending waves for the next six months. The other cooks who were training me, Cathy, Quong and Milly (now Chez Piggy's head chef) had warned me about the patio, how it added so many extra seats to the restaurant, how the tables were filled and turning over non-stop from 11am until midnight every day except Saturdays and Sundays when they started filling up at 9 am for brunch.

This is where I learned about prep. If dinner service starts at 5pm you should be in your whites and in front of a cutting board prepping by 2pm at the latest. Ideally you would start prepping at noon, but in a tiny kitchen that's churning out hundreds of lunch orders from noon until 2 there is no room for anyone to be doing prep. Even at 2pm there's no room; the lunch cooks are closing down their stations and switching everything out for dinner mise en place to go in. The lunch cooks are cleaning, plating last minute orders and telling the dinner cooks what they're fucked on and what they're okay on regarding prep. Mostly you are fucked on everything for every shift for six months straight. While the lunch cooks are doing this the dinner cook is frantically trying to find a clean cutting board. First of all there are no cutting boards, pots, whisks, bowls…they are all in the dishpit. They are in the dishpit that is piled high with every single piece of equipment the kitchen owns as well as every soup spoon, teacup and side plate. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands in there, root out what you need, wash it and get moving, you have to be ready for service in three hours. Now, armed with your cutting board, prep list and knife you are ready to start. But one thing is missing – a piece of real estate to put your board on. Of which there are none, not in 'The Pig' at least. I once had to slice a lemon against a wooden post because there was no other flat surface available. Somehow you squeeze your self into a spot and begin to prep.

Tobey Nemeth, Head Chef at JK Wine Bar in Toronto describes a typical day in her restaurant between 2 and 5 pm. "The cooks not doing prep, executing final courses on lunch functions or making staff meal are loading up the trolley with mise en place for evening service. Farmers and wine merchants are showing up with deliveries. If a farmer arrives with a few pigs then it's total chaos. When a whole animal comes in we swarm on it like bees and break it down into its components and get it put away. You've got the night staff arriving and the whole staff changing over between 4 and 5pm, we serve staff meal at 4pm for 25 to 40 people."

The staff meal is made with the same ingredients they use on the menu, so although it may not be as elaborate as the menu dishes it still takes more time to prepare than frozen pizzas. Once staff meal is served it's time for the chef to give the front of house the "spiel" or menu-meeting.

"In the menu-meeting we give the provenance of all the ingredients and notes on any new wines. Because our menu changes twice a day predicated on what is received that day or the day before we have to be fluid and able to run with something unexpected. Whatever they show up with dictates the menu, because we're driven so much by fresh ingredients we have to jump on fifteen pounds of sardines that arrive at 5pm and have them ready for 5:30 pm."

When Tobey says "we" she means herself and her cooks, from the sous-chef to the dishwasher, everyone helps. JK Wine Bar is one of Toronto's most successful restaurants but they don't have prep cooks. Not many places do, mostly due to lack of space, the only help you might get in the way of a prep cook would be a dishwasher helping out when there's a break in the bus bins full of dirty dishes coming in.

It is very important for all cooks, even head chefs to prep their own station. Basilio Pesce, Head Chef at Biff's Bistro explains, "It's about getting prepared, organizing yourself. You get a lot more of a grasp on things as well. That's not to say that it's foolproof but you're least likely to be in the weeds during service."

Jesse Vallins is the Chef de Cuisine at Trevor Kitchen and Bar, "We don't have any prep cooks here. We come in and do our own prep for our own station. We were closed last night but I came in around 10pm to put the suckling pig in a 175 degree oven. I pulled it out at 10am today, deboned it and pressed it so it would be ready for service."

It appears on the menu as Pork and Beans, roast suckling pig with truffled navy beans and chorizo.

I know from my own experience how important it is to see everyone around you doing prep, working toward the same goal of being ready for service. If your sous chef is wandering around the kitchen joking and flirting with servers you feel like he's not part of your team. If the kid on entremetier is trying to clean two cases of rapini and your pastry station is squared away you go and help.

The hierarchy is important in a kitchen; knowing your place and trying to master your station because you are yearning to move up makes you a better cook and eventually worthy of the role of head chef. But regardless of where you are in the brigade there will be some part of your working day that you spend doing prep.

"We've created this culture of everyone wanting a title and respect before they've earned it. People in kitchens are not interchangeable. That's like saying anyone can do anything in the army or the hospital. It's not to say that the orderly won't go to med school and become chief of staff, it's that there is a process to learning – respect that process and take your time," cautions Tobey Nemeth.

I've seen the Executive Chef cleaning frog's legs in the middle of service because we needed them and everyone else was too busy. This is one job where it will always be required that you get your hands dirty. You may have just sabred a bottle of champers for George Clooney but you have to go back in the kitchen and de-vein some shrimp or mop a spill on the floor. Because that is what you do; you are a cook and no matter what, you get the job done. (And if you are doing prep, you'd better fucking well get it done by 5!)

<div align="center">* * *</div>

When not writing about food for the eGullet Society and Gremolata, Ivy Knight works for a living as a cook in Toronto.

Her Daily Gullet article The Greatest Restaurant on Earth was selected for publication in Best Food Writing 2007.

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OH, Ivy,

I'm SO glad it's your young, strong, talented energy in that kitchen, instead of mine. It really takes dedication to your craft, and it's evident that you take it seriously.

Quite a memorable read, both for the wordsmithing and for the word-pictures of a life not my own. This is WAY more than cooking.

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I was a garde manger for a couple of years in the early '80s, and all of this rings true. My first job was to peel, devein and butterfly fifty pounds of U-10 shrimps, a task that left me with a skin sensitivity that persists to this day. For the first week, despite being surrounded by food, I was so busy that I forgot to eat.

It's dismaying -- and reassuring -- that nothing much has changed since I did my time.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Good writing. I especially liked the part about always being "fucked on everything." I worked in a kitchen for a restaurant with a patio, and when the patio was open - from about May to September - our number of seats doubled - from 42 to 84. But you know, the size of the kitchen didn't double, the size of the line didn't double, and we didn't hire twice as many cooks. We were just fucked on everything every day.


"A culture's appetite always springs from its poor" - John Thorne

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Good writing. I especially liked the part about always being "fucked on everything."

Thanks David, tell that to my editor - Maggie the cat. She doesn't always like my use of that word. Besides that she is a great editor though.

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Good writing. I especially liked the part about always being "fucked on everything."

Thanks David, tell that to my editor - Maggie the cat. She doesn't always like my use of that word. Besides that she is a great editor though.

Thanks -- I think --Ivy. I'd never ban the Fbomb, but I follow the same editorial rule on it as I do on adverbs -- one every thousand words.

The thing that really made me understand prep was your description of cutting a lemon against a post, because there was no room at the counter. That's crazeeeee. And it shows the difference between getting our mise together at home, and doing it in a professional kitchen. I'll never again complain that I don't have enough counter space.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Thanks -- I think --Ivy. I'd never ban the Fbomb, but I follow the same editorial rule on it as I do on adverbs -- one every thousand words.

The thing that really made me understand prep was your description of cutting a lemon against a post, because there was  no room at the counter. That's crazeeeee. And it shows the difference between getting our mise together at home, and doing it in a professional kitchen. I'll never again complain that I don't have enough counter space.

Hi Maggie,

You are a great editor, no "I think" about it. Someday when the world ends and there's one lemon left on planet Zorgon - you and I will hold it to the post and cut it together.

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Thanks,

A thoroughly good read. A true taste of the life of a cook. Some can, most can't.

Thanks again,

Jmahl


The Philip Mahl Community teaching kitchen is now open. Check it out. "Philip Mahl Memorial Kitchen" on Facebook. Website coming soon.

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Good writing. I especially liked the part about always being "fucked on everything."

Thanks David, tell that to my editor - Maggie the cat. She doesn't always like my use of that word. Besides that she is a great editor though.

Thanks -- I think --Ivy. I'd never ban the Fbomb, but I follow the same editorial rule on it as I do on adverbs -- one every thousand words.

The thing that really made me understand prep was your description of cutting a lemon against a post, because there was no room at the counter. That's crazeeeee. And it shows the difference between getting our mise together at home, and doing it in a professional kitchen. I'll never again complain that I don't have enough counter space.

And all that insane lack of space, time and equipment is what leads to the gratuitous use among professional kitcheneers of the word "fuck"


"A culture's appetite always springs from its poor" - John Thorne

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Great post. I came out of ICE (Peter Kump's) at the advanced age of 32 and promptly got a job at the River Cafe in Brooklyn. Everything your describing is right on, especially the stuff about the change over from lunch to dinner prep. It was so stressful trying to get started while they were still finishing up. Making salad for the staff meal was such a time sucker for your prep for service but it had to be done. I made the mistake of not checking for shucked oysters for a fried oyster app at my station and I screwed myself in the middle of service. Nothing like speed shucking oysters and then doing standard breading procedure in the middle of service. I felt like such a loser.

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