Sure it’s a loaded question. And no, it’s probably not the best way to start an interview but I just had to ask Chef Martin Gilligan, “Why are chefs such jerks?” Was I hoping to shock the highly respected chef and educator? Sure I was but there was also an element of truth behind my question. Having spent years in the culinary industry as a server and also a chef’s assistant, I have witnessed, if not, received my share of harsh treatment. And of course reality television has glorified, even celebrated the idea of the tyrannical head chef with shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, starring the quintessential tyrannical chef, Gordon Ramsay.
But having had my own experiences with angry, sometimes hot-headed chefs, I know the “angry chef” is more than pure fiction. So I asked Chef Gilligan to break it all down for me and explain, from a chef’s point of view, what contributes to a making a chef hot under the collar.
# 1 – They Expect You To Know It The First Time, Every Time
This is the first phrase Chef Gilligan throws out at me in response to my question. When I ask him to unpack it for me a bit, he says, “The chef expects that they (the crew) possess a foundational knowledge of cooking. All of what he is trying to execute within the menu is based on that foundational knowledge of cooking. The roasting, the braising, the poaching, etcetera- all of those foundational cooking methods, and what he tries to do is he asks his crew to demonstrate those in the execution of working with the ingredients in order to make the recipe come out great. He also expects consistency. If he shows them once, he expects it to be done the exact same way from now until the end of time.”
So in other words, the chef expects that all members of his crew know their cooking methods in-and-out and can execute such methods in a consistent manner. These expectations can immediately turn into resentments when a cook falters from meeting such expectations.
# 2 – Consistency is Essential
For Chef Gilligan, again, it all boils down to meeting expectations, this time those of the real boss, the diner. He explains, “The reason why consistency is very important is because of the fact that if a person comes into your restaurant one time and has, say, lobster bisque, they’re going to be telling their friends about the lobster bisque. And then, as they’re driving there the second time, they’re saying, ‘You know what, we don’t even need to see a menu. We just want the lobster bisque, the same one we had last time.’ And then the lobster bisque is presented, and the guest is embarrassed and he has certain expectations of that lobster bisque being exactly the way it was before, and if it doesn’t happen, then the guest is p_ssed off.”
# 3 – Substitutions and Everyone’s Allergic to Gluten
I have witnessed firsthand just how substitutions can and do disrupt the flow of the kitchen. Even though we’ve got plenty of open air kitchens nowadays, it takes a certain degree of familiarity to understand the mechanics of how a kitchen line operates. Sure I could give you an in-depth explanation of (The Brigade System) but for the sake of keeping it simple, here’s what you need to know: Every cook and chef on the line i.e. in the kitchen, has a particular task or number of tasks they need to do. When a server places an order, usually though the Front of House (FOH) computer system, called the POS or Point of Service system, that order then goes out either to an expeditor who calls out the order and/or it gets printed on a number of tickets that go straight to the chef who’s in charge of creating that dish. Say you’re the server and you’ve put in an order for oysters on the half shell, Beef Carpaccio, a steak sandwich done medium-rare, fried calamari and an iceberg wedge salad. We’re not worrying about separate courses here so let’s say the party is in a rush and wants all their food in one course. Great. Now the moment you send your order over via the POS, that order gets split up with those tickets going to their respective stations and the expo person also calls them out, prompting the chefs and cooks to pluck the tickets off their printers at their stations and put the ticket up on their slide check rack which is a metallic thing with sliders that holds these tickets. The chef will look at the ticket that came in and slide it over to the right. If another ticket comes in, she will grab that ticket, look at it and put it to the left of the ticket that came in before it. So, if ticket A comes in, followed two minutes later by ticket B, and then ticket C rolls in after that, they’ll line up C-B-A on the line. Now, if someone has a substitution, then the chef at that station will often times have to go to the fridge or dry storage or look around for the item the guest wants substituted. Meanwhile everything else gets held up and remember, the cooks and chefs at the other stations are all preparing that order you just sent in. Any respectable restaurant makes it their priority to get all the dishes including that cold beef Carpaccio and that just-fried calamari, out of the kitchen and to the table at exactly the same time. Substitutions can greatly disrupt flow. Chef Gilligan says, most oftentimes, what the guest wants is “something that you do not have, literally, things that you do not have in your operation,” and what was “this smooth, oiled machine” just a moment ago has been held up by a monkey wrench.
And when it comes to send-backs, know this, they go ahead of that ticket in the A spot, meaning a send-back will hold up all the other dishes after it. Now imagine this happening where there are five chefs on the line, including the friturier (fry chef) and garde manger (cold side chef) who have to orchestrate the plating of their dishes. So, when the grillardin (grill chef) has to remake a steak, all the other chefs on the line have to adjust their timing and the kitchen inevitably slows down, sometimes way down. Now put yourself in the position of the Chef de Cuisine who’s responsible for keeping the wheels running smoothly and consider how these proverbial hiccups would make you feel.
Check out Why Chefs are Such Jerks – Part 2 !
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