By Karl Prohaska (reprinted with permission)
(I loved this post because its so hysterically spot on to the food industry, HT)
You want to eat the food that you see in magazines! You want the attention of an adoring public!
You want to look cool while igniting a sauté pan full of spirits to the ooh’s and aah’s of the worshipful throngs who will flock to your restaurant, because flipping a flaming sauté pan makes you the modern Marlboro Man. An artist who works in oil and fire. Someone down to earth enough to shed a tear when making Mama’s meatloaf yet so impossibly cool that you can date girls with names like Kandi (that’s right, with a “K” and an “I”).
So, off you go to seek out fame and fortune to become a chef.
“What kind of chef do you want to be?” asks the interviewer at the school where you’re applying. “An executive chef,” is your eager reply. He or she smiles and tells you that is exactly what you can become by attending their school, as long as your check clears.
While your desires to be the Culinary Potentate Supreme are admirable, they don’t exactly give those jobs away. You are most likely going to have to start at or near the bottom and work your way through the ranks in order to give your diploma some gravity. The Mighty Dozen (my regular readers) know that I’m all for giving advice to young cooks, and today that advice is to educate you on kitchen positions so that you can make an informed decision.
So what kind of cook do you want to be? Let’s examine typical kitchen jobs:
Steward. Responsible for cleaning and maintenance of the kitchen with additional responsibilities involving banquet plating and prep. Generally regarded as the least “skilled” position in the kitchen. Most dish rooms, when really busy, resemble the furnace room in Hell, only slightly less pleasant. Good stewards have the work ethic of the machines that took over the world in the Terminator movies, and they will trample you. For the past 15 years they have also had two other jobs. This position will reduce you to a sniveling heap of broken will and scarred flesh in about 20 minutes. You’re not tough enough to do this.
Prep. The backbone of any large banquet house, prep cooks are responsible for batch cooking proteins, starches, vegetables, and sauces for both the banquet kitchen and the line. Hyper-organized. Good prep chefs are like Rain Man; everything is a number, portion, or a time. Parties of only 25 annoy them. They’ll grudgingly accept your help, but move their cutting board and you’re a dead man. They know exactly where the remaining three tablespoons of a sauce are in your walk-in but can’t remember where they put their coffee. This results in your finding 14 or so cold, half cups on shelves and under tables.
Garde Manger. Responsible for the preparation of cold dishes and salads. They generally work in a cool, well-ventilated pantry areas. These are your artists—incapable of looking at a watermelon without envisioning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel carved into the side. They are the only members of the human race who still think fondly of radishes. They are Xerox-like in their precision and possess a Zen-like calm to overcome the mind-numbing repetition of putting a chive in crème fraiche 500 times. Most couldn’t cook toast if you spotted them bread and a toaster. They sweat at 82 degrees.
Grill/Broiler. Responsible for preparations in a station containing a char-broiler, stand-up broiler, or wood/gas fired grill. Sturdy, capable of taking punishment and pushing forward like a tongs-wielding musk ox. They are the best butchers in your kitchen—capable of working in extreme heat without complaint. Grill men enjoy the song stylings of AC/DC and the movies of Clint Eastwood, and think denim is a perfectly acceptable fabric to get married in. They believe “steaming” is a Communist plot and are above-average bowlers. Grill men love their Mama but would consider slapping her if she orders well done.
Sauté. Responsible for all items that come from the fast moving sauté station, which often has the largest mis en place of any line position. Fans of high heat and continuous motion. This makes them suited to produce large amounts of food and gives them the attention span of a firefly. Cook most likely to have approximately 150 clean dry towels hidden but only knows the location of 20 of them. Often your fastest person at station prep. This comes from not only a high skill level but also from years of forgetting to prep things and having to do it mid-service. Highly aware of their own skill and sincerely believes you can train a gorilla to run the grill station. Highly valued team member, which is what you’ll tell the HR director when this knucklehead gets into trouble.
Saucier. Gifted specialists who are responsible for sauces, stocks, and soups. Highly knowledgeable about arcane sauce preparations. May have the best palate in your kitchen with regard to subtlety and nuance in sauces. Strong enough to transport heavy cases of bones for stock making yet strangely incapable of ever lifting those bones out to clean the steam kettle when the stock is done. Sincerely believe that all kitchen equipment is “theirs” but they graciously allow you and the rest of the staff to use it. Will protect a chinois (a fine mesh strainer) as if it were their child but have knives no sharper than a standard Popsicle stick. Will never short you on product but also doesn’t care what you do with the overage. And trust me, there will be overage.
Poissonier. Another gifted specialist. A cook tasked with preparing and cooking (and possibly selecting) fish and fish dishes. Most concerned about cleanliness, product turnover, and freshness. Consider themselves the sensualists of the culinary world given the delicate nature of their principle ingredients and overtly French sounding title. However, since they frequently have scales in their hair and smell like fish, their appeal runs mostly toward seals and sea gulls. This can understandably cause mood swings. Knows the words to all the songs from The Little Mermaid but fails to grasp the irony of it.
Pastry. Responsible for the preparation of baked goods, desserts, candies, and confections. Have an artist’s eye for beauty and detail but an engineer’s mind for calculations and formulas (recipes). Probably the only people still using the metric system daily. Potential sugar junkies. Most likely completely insane. For safety reasons, they will not be discussed here.
Achieve greatness in these positions and then you can progress to sous chef, where a whole new education will begin and new levels of craziness will be revealed.
It’s a trip I highly recommend. Take it and raise your level of cool.
And say hello to Kandi for me.
Karl Prohaska resides in San Diego, California, and is the executive chef of the Handlery Hotel and Resort. He has been a chef for twelve years and was previously executive chef for SunBear Culinary Services, a consulting company and executive chef at both the Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Hilton Ocean Front Resort on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He has also served as the executive sous chef for Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the DoubleTree Mission Valley in San Diego, California. He is a married father of three great kids and Shadow, a Golden Retriever/Yellow Lab mix who may be “the greatest couch sleeper of this, or any, generation”. He is generally regarded as loud and disagreeable.