Life on the line is neither easy nor glamorous, but if you stick to a few guidelines, it can be incredibly rewarding. Since working in a restaurant over the past eight months, I can say I’ve learned a few things.
Mind-blowing to me is just how different culinary school is from a restaurant. Working on a line requires you to know and understand every dish you are preparing, whereas in culinary school, there is room for error.
At Cashion’s, I’ve made just about every mistake that there is to make. I’ve been criticized and I’ve felt bad about myself many times. Despite everything, I have to thank Chef for inspiring me to try my best every day and night. So, here we go – below, I’ve listed five key lessons I’ve learned from working in a restaurant kitchen.
1. Keep a sharp knife at all times.
I can’t even begin to say how important this is. If you have a long list of ingredients to prepare before the restaurant opens, a sharp knife is key. When your knife can slice through red peppers or onions with little effort, this will increase your prep speed significantly. And when it’s going to be a busy night, speed and efficiency is everything. Even during service, when you have to chop or chiffonade herbs to order, you need to be fast and precise. I sharpen my knife with a stone at least every other day.
2. Don’t leave the line on a Friday or Saturday night (unless you absolutely have to!).
In culinary school, the instructor told us exactly how much of each ingredient to prep for the day’s meal. In a restaurant, you are more or less on your own. The chef is far too busy to give you specifics – It is up to you to decide how much you will need for the night, based on how busy the restaurant will be. Your goal should be to prep enough so that you will never run out of anything. Leaving the line during service to grab more of an ingredient can let down the rest of the kitchen, especially the chef. Think of it like a basketball game. Say that your point guard just decided to leave the court during the middle of the game. Can your team play as well with one less man?
3. The chef is always right.
The chef tells you to plate a salad one way, but you think that your way is better. While he may appreciate your feedback, ultimately, it is his opinion that matters the most. If you’re working in the chef’s kitchen, you should show respect to him. If you do disagree with the chef, try to understand his philosophy behind how he wants the food prepared and presented. I will often ask the chef why he prefers ingredients to be cut or cooked a certain way. He is always excited to share his thoughts and reasons behind the dish.
4. Smile, even when you don’t feel like smiling.
If you’re having a bad day, leave it outside the kitchen and focus on your work. Secondly, even when you are given the grittiest, most mundane tasks, smile and agree to do them (even if you’re cursing everyone in your head). If you’re starting at the bottom like I did, no task is below you. I have spent hours peeling garlic and shucking beans. I have scrubbed grime off of walls, floors and ceiling. You do what’s asked of you and you don’t complain. I believe that it will pay off in the future.
5. Be flexible.
Restaurant schedules are notorious for operating the opposite of the way the rest of the world does. When everyone is finishing work for the day, you’re just beginning. On the bright side, you don’t have to be up early, unless you’re working breakfast. You will probably work Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, too. Seeing your family and friends can be difficult, but if you are truly dedicated to working in this industry, then you’ll accept it.
I have one final point – Try, try, try not to make the same mistake twice. I think I avoided putting this one on the list. Whenever I run out of a key ingredient during service or burn the skin on my salmon for the third time, I feel pretty awful.
Honestly, though, it’s just cooking. It’s not life or death. And at eleven o’clock, when the last order comes in, you’re done. You clean up, have a drink, go home and relax. Unless you’ve done something horribly offensive, like insult the chef or poison a customer, you’re not going to be fired. There’s always tomorrow night to improve.