Professional(izing) Home Cooks

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Fine dining, when executed well, is an art. The work is nuanced, complex, and difficult, and when I patron fine dining establishments, I take the craft very seriously. I critique each plate’s execution, the service, and every element of the meal, maintaining high standards and expectations. I know how fine dining restaurants work, because that is my work.

But whatever my fine dining standards, I do not visit my mother’s house and tell her that her salt usage is inconsistent. If my mom cooks, I eat her food, I thank her, and then I urge her to sit down and let me do the dishes. For if I am invited to someone’s home, I just eat. Food isn’t always a serious matter, to be dissected. Sometimes, the beauty in a meal lies in the way it simply brings people together. On my off days, I am probably hungry, and tired of cooking. A home-cooked meal tastes good because of the company, because of the love put into the preparation, or, perhaps simply because someone besides me made it.

However, there is a new breed of home cook, one who takes cooking very seriously. America’s culinary consciousness is growing, with the rise of cooking shows, hip cookbooks, and access to diverse ingredients and diverse cuisines. A serious home cook may never set foot in a professional kitchen, but can still devote time and energy to learning different techniques or reading about the craft. I love watching this trend, because I think that cooking at home encourages healthy eating, self care, and quality social time.

Nonetheless, as a cook, I do not always know how to navigate situations with these professionalized home cooks, with their gear and tools that rival my own restaurant’s. At a recent outdoor barbeque, hosted by the neighbor of an acquaintance, I found myself cornered by the large, enthusiastic host who had appointed himself “grillmaster”. After someone had told him I was a cook at a restaurant in town, he told me all about his techniques, his grill, and how he approaches cooking meat. He obviously devoted a lot of time to grilling at his home, and he was intent on impressing me with the particulars.

I always want to talk about food, so I gladly listened. Our conversation continued deeper and deeper, and I started to offer some of my thoughts on his seasoning techniques and the cooking temperature he had chosen. Immediately, the tone between us shifted- there was a tension in the air, and a defensiveness in his remarks. I became hyperaware of the dynamic between this young woman telling an older man how to cook meat, going against stereotypes and expectations. I changed the subject, going back to safer ground, but I kept thinking about our conversation.

In a professional kitchen, nothing I do is beyond critique. When I put food on a plate, or ingredients in a pot, the chef is peering over my shoulder, tasting spoon in hand. If my salt level isn’t right, I hear it yelled, loudly. If I try to do something differently than I was shown, I am interrogated. If I put one more piece of squash on this plate than I did on the last plate, I am reprimanded in front of everyone. And Lord help me if my sear on this steak isn’t exactly like it is supposed to be every time. Profanities and attacks on my work and character abound, and the only acceptable response is “yes, chef”.

The standards in professional kitchens are ruthless and competitive. I have developed the thickest of skins, being able to listen to criticism and then letting it go immediately. I have developed tenacity and endurance under pressure and literal heat. Those who take insults and criticism personally do not survive in professional kitchens. The work forces you to let go of ego, to let go of being right all the time, because it is impossible. A critique of your food is simply seen as feedback, not personal, because everyone in that kitchen is working toward the eternally unreachable Good Food goal.

At this grillout, while I thought I was offering gentle feedback on the food, the host saw it as personal critique. In some way, I do understand how he was taken aback- after all, I was a guest in his home. I confused a passion for cooking with the professionalism of restaurant cooks. The “restaurant quality” grill that he bought at the store does not also come with a restaurant quality executive chef ready to scream about his steaks. Home cooks may want to professionalize their cooking, but they are not looking to follow the intense, masochistic standards that define fine dining kitchens.

Home cooking is a hobby, a pastime. Why should I hold these cooks to the same standards that I am held to at work? After all, when I am the home cook, on my weekend, even I ignore some of the fine dining rules. Because on my off days, I may be drinking the same wine that I’m using to deglaze the pan, and my steak will not have a perfect sear. And I’m too busy relaxing to listen to any critique of that- can’t we just eat?

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Who Feeds the Cooks?

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Restaurant workers are working their hardest while the rest of the world is taking time off of work to eat. It’s a straightforward connection: as a restaurant cook, I work during conventional meal times. But the cooks, especially as exceptionally food-obsessed people, are hungry as well. So what do we eat?

Cooks are, obviously, surrounded by food all day. My job requires me to take small bites from my dishes each time I prepare them, checking for seasoning and flavor. I am constantly tasting ingredients and sauces. However, a hundred bites of lemony, garlicky fish broth do not constitute a satisfying meal when you are on your feet for a long shift.

Many restaurants serve a “family meal” just before the establishment opens, as a benefit for the staff and also to pragmatically prevent cooks from passing out in the kitchen heat. All restaurants have different standards and practices– some use low cost items from the menu (fried chicken, salads, etc), while others use family meal as a test run for new dishes, or an opportunity for individual cooks to show off their skill.

Many kitchens, however, also use family meal as an opportunity to cut down on food waste, and get rid of product that is too past its prime to serve to customers. At my current restaurant, one line cook is responsible for preparing the meal and serving it on time. On an average day, the family meal cook might arrive and find a small pile of ingredients on a shelf in the cooler to work with: a half quart of slightly limp green beans, the blanched potatoes from last weekend, five ounces of snapper, and a bit of an old vinaigrette.

Now, like Jesus during his sermon on the mount, transform that into a meal for fifteen to twenty people. Including your boss.

For many months at my restaurant, family meal was my responsibility. At first, I emphatically despised the role. Family meal adds a lot of pressure to an already tight kitchen prep schedule; you still have the normal responsibilities of all the other line cooks in addition to the staff meal. You have few, or low-quality, ingredients with which to work. And, you are preparing food for people who work with food professionally. In my first few weeks, I apprehensively served a lot of buttered pasta and garlic bread.

However, slowly, I started to evolve my own family meal style. I made a few bizarre (“original”) pastas, then discovered how to make a simple sauce taste good. I became more creative with my salads. I learned the art of soup d’anything, because my northern upbringing taught me that there is no better way to feed lots of people from few ingredients than hearty soup and dipping bread. I started to scheme the day before, doing extra work to prepare the healthiest, most comforting meal possible.

After a few months, I even started to enjoy making family meal. It was a daily challenge, looking at odds-and-ends ingredients and making a meal out of them. Sometimes the staff would request certain dishes, or there would be an unfamiliar ingredient, forcing me to do some culinary research. Other times, a classic dish would prompt my coworkers to reminisce about their family recipe for a certain soup, or the way their grandmother made turnip greens.

The more work I put into family meal, the more I felt a small release, a quiet return to what I love about cooking food in the first place. In my day-to-day kitchen responsibilities, I cook dishes from someone else’s menu, and then I watch the plate disappear into a dark dining room to some stranger’s table. I love cooking at the highest level, learning plates from different world cuisines and traditions. But when I cook family meal, I am cooking whatever I feel like, whatever creation I can with leftover ingredients. I have a unique challenge and a sliver of culinary freedom.

And I am cooking, with love and urgency, for the people around me, for the people who are working hard for you when you come into my restaurant. In the midst of a fine dining restaurant, preparing classic sauces and grand plates, I am also learning a thing or two about the homiest of cooking- a family meal.