The quote, “work hard in silence, let your success be your noise” has been popping up in my head a lot lately. But it hasn’t stuck with me because I believe in the sentiment. You can’t trust anyone else to give you the credit you deserve, nor can you absolutely guarantee your success due to multiple factors; unexpected/undesirable life events, natural disasters, and personal shortcomings being some of them.
Taking and receiving credit is one of the (many) core difficulties I have with working in a kitchen.
I LOVE compliments. Tell me how good you think I am as much as you like and I’ll soak it up like a dry sponge. However, this is dependent on how worthy I believe myself to be of the compliment.
Due to the nature of the commercial kitchen, no single person is responsible for everything on one plate. You could have one (or more) chefs working on each component of a dish, whether it’s roasting vegetables, trimming meat, or simply preparing garnishes like picked herbs or chopped nuts.
This team effort arrangement makes single focus positive feedback like “compliments to the chef” difficult to process. “Compliments to the kitchen”, “well done team”, or “good job not fucking it up” are all acceptable alternatives.
Recently one of our restaurant owners commended me on a slow cooked beef and cheese pie I’d made for the cabinet. I didn’t cook the beef filling, I certainly didn’t make the puff pastry, and I might not have even made my own egg wash. On a conceptual level, it’s not an original idea, and it wasn’t initiated by myself either. COMPLIMENT DENIED.
On the occasions where credit has been given from a customer, my immediate thought is: I’m just the assembler. A cog in a machine. A worker on a factory line. An unfeeling, apathetic, joyless husk in a chef’s jacket that I don’t deserve to wear.*
It’s great to have a system so good that I can count on one chef to break down and marinate four pork shoulders, another to put it in the oven the next night, someone else to take it out the next morning, yet another chef to reduce the juices, a kitchenhand to portion the cooked meat, and finally one more chef to heat the pork and squirt gochujang on it before I (or maybe even they) place the meat on a plate containing a coconut sauce which I may or may not have made (but I definitely heat up), and then garnish with a slaw which I may or may not have prepared.
But if praise is being thrown around on the back of that dish and the combined forces of up to six other people I can’t take any of it.
As far as credit for the job itself is concerned, you can forget about that.
Cheffing is HARD. You’re not paid well in relation to the cost of your training (if you decided to go to school and pay the same, if not more tuition per year as a law, science, or architecture student (yes these things take longer to study but while they’re doing so, many of these students are being trained as chefs on the side and earning money for it). You’re not paid well in relation to what I would consider a similar trade. Your hours are unsociable and long. You get breaks if you’re lucky. You get fed if you feed yourself, usually crouched next to your service fridge with a view of the rubbish bin. You’re stuck in a room of variable size, uncomfortable temperature, on your feet, using dangerous tools and equipment.
But you go into this field knowing all of the above. May a higher power (your head chef) help you if you don’t! There’s no thanks for doing your job and all of the above conditions are just that – a chef’s job. So you’d better work hard in silence because rarely will anyone pander to your needy ass by telling you how well you’re doing.
Now regarding my success being my noise…
My one year cheffing anniversary came and went without much fanfare other than my own (see above). Twelve months in the kitchen was what I set out to do originally, and while I’m relieved that I achieved that, it didn’t feel like much of an accomplishment.
There were times when I desperately wanted to quit, wondering if I would really care if I didn’t hit that target. These times were mostly during the tenth hour of a shift, after seven and a half hours of service, trying to finish the prep list before the next relentless groundhog day. Honourable mentions go out to faulty equipment, covering absent staff, never enough beer, and wondering why the fuck I volunteered to do this in the first place.
The point of training in the kitchen was to give me a well rounded experience of how a restaurant operates in case I ever want to start my own. I was also ready for a change of scenery (BOY DID I GET IT), a challenge (THAT TOO), and to learn something new.
Based on those criteria, I achieved everything I wanted to in the first three months. But the other point of entering the kitchen was to document it. To put into words my personal struggles and highlights, and that of the people I’ve worked alongside for so long but never truly been able to empathise with. While I’ve stepped into someone else’s chef’s crocs (not literally because I don’t like a loose shoe, I HATE scuffing, and eww), I haven’t said much about life inside them.
This isn’t for lack of ideas – I have heaps of them, and opinions to go with.
At the end of July I am leaving my current work place and most likely, kitchens, for good. Between now and then (“then” being an eventual piece about why I’m not cut out for cheffing titled “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”), I’m hoping to work on my list of Chef Life topics while I work out my last month at this restaurant, and while I’m travelling in Asia and attempting to learn my mother tongue (follow me on Instagram, etc etc). What I’m hoping from you is that you’ll maintain interest in what I have to say, and that my year and two months in the kitchen (in addition to ten plus years in the industry) is enough time to give me the experience and authority that I wanted to be able to write about the life of a chef from a credible perspective. Because above all else, this was my main goal.
*For the record this comment is half hyperbole, half truth.**
**For the record that footnote is all hyperbole.***
***For the record these footnotes are designed to confuse you into not knowing whether I was being genuine or facetious in my original comment.****
***For the record, whether I am joyless or apathetic or a husk or not, I am 100% absolutely: an asshole.