It is 7:30 on a Saturday evening and I’m at Vele, an upscale restaurant in downtown Springfield. It’s a busy night and the dining room is nearly full. I, however, am not among the diners. I’m working in the kitchen, trying to keep up with all the orders coming in. I’ve been on my feet cooking since early afternoon. My hands are burned and blistered. My shirt is sticking to my back.
A server comes back to my station and tells me that some diners saw me through the door and were asking how old I was and what was my story. I told her to tell them that I’m a 65-year-old dentist fulfilling a dream and reinventing himself as a chef.
I’m three times the age of my coworkers. I’m the new guy in the kitchen and the low man on the totem pole. This job is the most physically demanding work I’ve ever done.
Over the last five years I have staged (apprenticed) in restaurants from Montreal to New Orleans. I’ve learned how to make brioche dough, egg yolk ravioli, polenta cake for 100, and even sea urchin ice cream in squid ink ice cream cones. I’ve cut up countless vegetables and stemmed scores of herbs. My experiences have been mostly as a “prep” cook where I am essentially an additional set of hands, helping the other chefs work their prep list. I’ve been able to take my time and try to “make it nice.”
I like working in restaurant kitchens. So much, in fact, that it’s what I plan on doing after I retire from dentistry. Realizing that my experience has been mostly in the prep kitchen, I decided I’d better try to get some experience as a line cook. The line cook is the one who stands in front of a hot stove, burners turned on full blast, with six pans going at once.
I’ve never been a good multi-tasker. In my dental practice I never double-booked patients. I always allowed plenty of time so that I never had to rush. I’ve wondered how I would adapt to a work environment where I would have to cook multiple orders simultaneously and “on the fly.” (“On the fly” means “right away” in restaurant lingo.)
Denise, one of my CrossFit friends who works at Springfield’s Vele restaurant, told me that they were looking for a line cook. I knew Vele’s executive chef Justin Richardson from an article I had written a while back about his first restaurant, The Garden in New Berlin. After the article came out he received 300 reservation requests during the first hour alone. He has been busy ever since. I figured he owed me a favor so I filled out an online job application and requested an interview. “Are you wanting to do a stage here?” he asked. “No – I’m wanting a job here.” “So you are interested in just working a couple days?” “No, I’m wanting to work as much as possible. I’m willing to start out at the bottom and work my way up.” Justin agreed to give me a try.
I’ve survived my first month at Vele. My fingers are scarred from errant knife strokes. My hands and arms bear some impressive burn marks. After decades of working 21-hour weeks as a dentist, I’m now putting in 48 hours a week. Sleep time is a precious commodity that I jealously guard. Never has work been physically harder or more pressured. Yet somehow I love it.
Having never been to culinary school, I am essentially receiving an education by having my mistakes corrected. Connor, Vele’s head chef, always maintains calmness under pressure and never yells at me or belittles me. He is, however, constantly correcting my work, making sure the quality is up to his standards. My fellow line cooks have been great to work with and jump in to help me out whenever I get behind. They are all in their 20s and like to listen to hip-hop while working. Hip-hop is a music genre I’ve never been able to appreciate. When they sense I’m getting flustered, they’ll switch the music to the Grateful Dead.
I’ve lived a life of privilege and have enjoyed many fine dining experiences over the years. However, until now, I’ve never really had an appreciation for how physically and mentally demanding restaurant work is. Cooks are on their feet for long hours in crowded conditions. Moving through the kitchen with hot pans or sharp knives is hazardous. The temperature in front of the stove can be stifling. Profit margins in restaurants are low, and ingredients such as aged T-bone steaks or fresh halibut are extremely expensive. Ruining an expensive piece of meat or fish is a big deal, and when you are cooking several things at once, all requiring different degrees of doneness, misfires can easily happen.
Working in a restaurant kitchen has given me a whole new understanding and appreciation for all that goes into the creation of a dining experience. In the past I would be annoyed if someone who was seated after me got his food brought out before mine. I realize now that each dish is made by a different chef and has different preparation times. A salad can be put together rather quickly. Shucking a dozen oysters takes longer. Some dishes are assembled from ingredients that can be prepared ahead of time. Other dishes such as halibut crudo have to be prepared from scratch as each order comes in.
It’s hard to predict how much product to have available on a given night. Preparing too little often means having to stop and chop up a batch of new ingredients during the peak dinner rush. Running out of an item is a disappointment to diners and affects profitability. Preparing too much is wasteful and runs up food costs.
Appreciation of a good dining experience is traditionally expressed by leaving a nice tip for the server. There should be a way of expressing gratitude to the hard-working cooks in the kitchen as well. If the food you ordered is especially tasty, ask your server to pass on a compliment to the chef. Try not to be impatient if your appetizer doesn’t make it out in less than 10 minutes. If you are a “walk-in” near closing time, ask your server what the kitchen staff can still easily prepare. As service winds down, the stoves and fryer are turned off and clean up and wrapping will have already begun. Some dishes are easier to prepare than others and don’t require undoing cleanup. And lastly, consider buying the crew a round of beers. They truly deserve it!