Today I write in a more serious manner, on a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Something I hate to love, and love to hate: what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen.
Crisp breezes and consecutive days at 15 C here in Toronto are reminding us that our long awaited summer is slowly vanishing. It’s only mid-August, but I think we’ve all accepted that we haven’t had much of a summer this year and it’s not about to surprise us with a return anytime soon. As I think about the arrival of autumn and the dreaded winter that seems to come so quickly after it, I’m also reminded that 2014 itself will disappear with the rapid changing of seasons. Another year passed. As I get older I sense each year passing faster than the last. Now I know what my parents and grandparents meant when they said time speeds up as life goes on. But the passing of a year means something else to me this time around: 2015 will mark my decade anniversary of deciding to join the world of professional kitchens.
10 years since I first stepped foot in a real kitchen.
They say that at least 50% of culinary school graduates quit the industry within 5 years. From what I’ve seen and from the amount of students I studied with that no longer work in the industry: I’d say that rate is much higher. If my class had 30 culinary students: I’d be hard pressed to count on one hand those who still stain up their hands in the name of food for a living. Hell, I know students who never even pursued a job in the industry at all after our quick internships ended. To say in the least: working in kitchens is a mighty challenge for even the toughest, and dare I say sometimes even tougher on us women who’re outnumbered by men by as much as 10:1 . According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US only about 15% of the workforce in restaurant kitchens is comprised of women. The general idea is ‘man up or get out’, with which I both agree and disagree. You’re never spared the near-sexual-harassement-case, the condescension, or ass whooping no matter what your sex or age, and if there’s one good thing to say about that: it’s that it toughens your skin. Man or woman, we all could use a little skin toughening. To learn how to push through in tough situations under incredible stress with the added bullshit of inappropriate kitchen antics, is nothing to be scoffed at. That is a honed skill in itself. To learn to keep your mouth shut and your head down when all you want to do is scream obscenities and throw pots and pans at your tasteless, incontinent colleague: that takes balls. Metaphorical ones, of course. And on the bright side, if you’ve been watching much TV lately or been out and about in your city, you’ve probably taken notice of the fact that female chefs are indeed making themselves heard. So things change, slowly. And the industry as a whole is changing. Chef Jacques Pepin recently spoke out in regards to the Hell’s Kitchen mentality of Gordon Ramsay and the like, stating that he feels it’s a great disservice to our industry to portray the kitchen in such a negative, degrading, manner. That to terrorize and humiliate people is disrespectful and not at all ‘reality’. It’s embarrassing. You can read the article here- How Reality TV Cooking Shows Get it Wrong.
Those talented young chefs you see (or more accurately: never actually see) filling tables at the most booked-in-advance restaurants, have come up through the trenches and survived levels of stress often unthinkable to the ordinary person. They’ve honed skills that require dedication, focus, and sacrifice that I find difficult to describe.
The worlds these chefs create around themselves are intense ones, they live and breathe their work. I recently watched Grant Achatz of Chicago’s famed and Michelin starred Alinea boldly state that he’d risk his own life for his work. After years of struggling with an extreme case of cancer, Grant is lucky enough to just be getting out of bed each day let alone heading back to work at the same pace as before. His wife points out that other people who’ve survived similar illnesses are instructed by doctors to eliminate stress in their lives, work less, and get adequate sleep each night from then on, in order to ensure the disease does not show it’s face again. Despite the risks involved he still goes back to his old ways. He gets up as the sun comes up and is home near 2 am each night, just to do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow… This is quite an extreme example, but it is not just Grant who puts work before all else. I’ve met many chefs and other food service professionals who’ve allowed their personal lives to shrivel up and blow away in the breeze in the name of the game. There’s a fine line to be walked not just in this industry but it work/life in general. For everybody. But it’s the fast paced industries that seems to take hold and convince the driven that none else matters, at least ‘not right now’.
But, if you’re like me and the majority of the world’s kitchen workforce: you’re probably like to hang on the lighter side of tracks. While you know and appreciate the intensity and meyhem (because you’ve seen it for yourself), you mostly just want to have fun in what you do and you enjoy the social aspect of the service industry. Love food, love hard work, love the rush, but don’t take it too seriously.
After all, it’s just food!
(Tell that to yesterday-Me, as I was banging my fist on counter top at 11:30 pm, in a rage over having accidentally allowed one side of this clementine cake to stick to the effing cake pan!)
So to top you off with a little glimpse at back-of-the-house: I leave you with this humorous list, and a recipe for Nigella Lawson’s Flourless Clementine Cake.
You Know You’ve Worked in a Professional Kitchen When…
1) You yell out “behind!” to people on the street and on the subway, and nobody even flinches. You start to think everyone’s deaf.
2) You constantly grab your left arm for a phantom Sharpie when you need to write something down.
3) Your friends ask you if you’re coming to a BBQ four days from now and are baffled when you tell them “I don’t know yet”.
4) Your friends and family are disgusted with the amount of fat and salt you put on everything!
5) You’re addicted to coffee, beer, smoking, or all three.
6) You see a colleague outside of work, say “hey!”, and they have no idea who you are without your uniform on.
7) You use the phrase “in the shit” to describe to people how swamped you are, and they look at you blankly, as if you’ve just told them you’re swimming in actual excrement.
8) Coffee, more coffee, and potato chips seem like a reasonable breakfast to you. (me, yesterday)
9) You know Ratatouille is a dish of stewed vegetables, not a rat living in Paris who likes to cook.
10) You plan your day off down to the hour, just like you do when you’re prioritizing your huge list of mise-en-place at work, and when people screw up your timing or are late, you’re livid!
11) Your friends all think you’re criticizing every bite of food when you go out to eat with them (which you are, but not like they think) and they’re always asking you if you think it’s terrible and if you could “do better”. You’re rolling your eyes on the inside.
12) You’re actually ok with mediocre food when you go out to eat (if it’s a mediocre price!), but bad service somewhere as simple as a coffee joint throws you into a blind rage!
13) When you cook dinner at home you’re always setting off the fire alarm before even noticing it’s smokey.
14) Nobody willfully agrees to the “you cook, I’ll clean” deal because they know you’re doing to dirty every single pot and pan in the house.
15) You use every pot and pan in the house, and though you have thirty of them you find yourself yelling “I don’t have enough bloody pots and pans!”
16) You are astounded by how slowly everybody seems to walk down the street, and you start to wonder how the hell anybody gets anything done in life!
17) You start to notice you scarf down your food in 12 seconds whilst your friends and family are only half done their meals. Years of face-stuffing in order not to starve while working busy, long hours.
18) You go long hours without food and then when it’s time to eat you feast on a meal the size of an entire horse (and eat it in 12 seconds).
19) When your friends tell you their boss is so mean because he/she “didn’t invite them to the company pool party”, you want to smack them! You know what real mean is.
20) You don’t have many of these types of friends anyways, because 99% of your friends also work in kitchens.
21) Your family is getting sick and tired of you always complaining about work and how much you want to quit!
22) You quit because you’re pissed off and want to work a ‘normal job’, and then a few months later go back to your old ways because your ‘normal job’ bored the hell out of you, and you love food and the jackasses that are your coworkers, too much!
If anybody has more to share or add to this list, leave them in the comments below! I’d love to hear your stories!
…and now for the cake.
Nigella’s Flourless Clementine Cake: makes 1 eight inch round cake.
3 medium sized clementine/mandarin oranges (about 375 g)
225 g sugar
250 g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
-Preheat oven (with a pizza stone is best for even cooking) to 365-370 F, and prepare an 8 inch cake pan with parchment paper on the bottom and butter and flour the sides.
-Seriously. Stop. Go back and butter and flour the sides of the pan. I didn’t flour mine, hence the fist banging from earlier. It’ll make your life easier!
-Submerge the oranges in a pot of water and simmer for 2 + 1/2 hours. Be sure they are not boiling rapidly, just simmering.
-Remove oranges from the water, and rest for 10 or 15 mins, until they are cooled slightly and you can handle them easily.
-Cut the clementines in half through the center (not lengthwise) and remove the seeds.
-Place entire oranges (skin and all) in a blender, and blend just until smooth.
-In a large bowl whisk together the dry ingredients, then add the vanilla and eggs, then add the clementine puree.
-Once all ingredients are incorporated and are a smooth mass, pour into the cake pan and toss in the oven.
-Bake for an entire hour or until a skewer comes out clean from the center. I covered mine with a piece of tinfoil halfway through baking because it gets dark on top quickly. Remove from oven after one hour, and ensure the cake has lots of colour. It’ll look as if it’s starting to burn, but this is the doneness you want!
-Chill the cake in it’s pan 20 mins or so, and flip out onto a baking rack. Cool completely and refrigerate overnight before slicing and eating. Next day is best to eat it, but obviously you can eat straight away if you really want, the crumb just doesn’t hold together as nicely same-day.
This cake was incredibly moist and delicious, I highly recommend making it. So easy!
So, if you’re still reading: thank you! I appreciate the endurance! Hope you all have a lovely start to the week, and again if you have any kitchen related stories, or anything in general to add, I’d love to hear your comments!
Ciao for now, and happy cake eating!