Chefs on the line

By Jeremy Rochow

A well-run restaurant kitchen is a bit like a choreographed dance.

During lunch or dinner service, the line is calm, the chefs know what they’re doing and everything runs smoothly. Every move the chefs make has a purpose. There isn’t any hesitation, stuttering or mistakes; the chefs know their place and their part in the ‘dance’. Food—from different sections of the kitchen—reaches the head chef for inspection at exactly the same time. There isn’t a lot of shouting and screaming; the chefs don’t argue or get angry at the kitchen hand. They may call for more pans or for them to empty the bins, but generally the kitchen hand knows their job and doesn’t need to be asked.

It’s almost romantic, standing and watching as a one hundred kilogram man—in a clean, white and perfectly pressed chef’s uniform, baggy chequered chef pants and a blue striped apron—swans around as gracefully as a ballerina. He’s light on his feet and doesn’t spill a drop of food on the floor; the sauce is spooned perfectly on the plate with finesse. Knowing exactly when to bend his head, he avoids knocking his tall chef’s hat against the exhaust fan cover. The benches are always spotless—if something is spilt on them, it’s promptly wiped off. Plates are impeccably clean, without even a finger-mark on them when they’re sent to the dining room, and the food is assembled to perfection.

The Head Chef receives a new order and proceeds to call it out to the chefs. ‘Table of two,’ he announces calmly. ‘Entrees are one salmon and one wild mushroom ravioli. For mains, one duck à l’orange and one steamed mussels.’

The chefs respond in unison with a quick ‘Yes chef’, and promptly begin to cook the customers’ dishes.

The many aromas waft through the kitchen and into the dining room, making the diners salivate over their food which is yet to arrive. Roast duck is taken out of the oven, glazed with an orange sauce and returned to caramelise. Mussels are steamed with roasted garlic, fresh herbs, and enough butter to give a fully-grown man a heart attack. Creamy, smooth mashed potato infused with fresh truffles slowly warms in a pot, and spinach is wilted in a pan with more butter and garlic. The sweetness of the roasted garlic permeates through the kitchen. The mussels are left in the pot they were steamed in, and garnished with some fresh thyme. Meanwhile, the duck is plated with the mashed potato, spinach, fresh slices of orange and a touch of orange glaze. Both dishes are presented to the head chef for inspection. He nods his head in approval; the waiter picks up the plates with a white cloth and takes them to the dining room.

Then there are kitchens where everything is a shambles. Food is sent back regularly and the head chef looks like he may explode from stress at any moment. It’s loud and there’s a lot of shouting. Nobody is relaxed, and the kitchen is a filthy mess.

This dance looks like a disastrous rendition of Michael Flatley’s Riverdance, with hands flying everywhere and people knocking into each other. The cooks splash food around as if they’re Pro Hart creating one of his masterpieces. Napolitana sauce spits and splashes from the pot onto the brown canvas that is the floor.

A few straggling strands of pasta slide onto the tiles, creating a dangerous obstacle course for the chefs. Only moments later the apprentice drops half a bowl of rocket and pear salad on the ground; instead of sweeping it up he uses the ‘chef’s shuffle’ and kicks the lettuce under the bench in front of him. Bins overflow as the chef screams and beckons for the kitchen hand to move his arse and empty the trash.

Sweat drips from another cook’s head as he hunches over the stove. He uses a tea towel to wipe the beads of sweat from his brow, and then uses it to pick up the handle of a hot pan. His uniform isn’t clean or neatly ironed. Colourful food stains cover the area around his belly, and his white apron has hand marks smeared across the front. He growls as a new order prints, tearing the ticket from the greasy black machine and placing it next to the other fifteen orders he hasn’t started.

Partially clean plates are slammed down on the stainless steel bench by the kitchen hand. The chef gives them a quick wipe with an equally clean towel and lays them out ready for the food. With very little care, he slops the fettuccine carbonara onto the plate. The pasta has come straight from the packet, the sauce is runny and looks a little oily, and the chopped parsley he inelegantly throws on the dish might be a couple of days old. After shouting at the waiter, ‘food away’, and dinging the bell, he saunters back to the stove, grabs pans and spreads them across each of the eight flames.

A couple of hours later there is an eerie quietness in both kitchens; there is no chatter or laughter coming from the dining room, no clinking of glasses and the music has stopped. The chefs clean up quietly, wiping down benches, wrapping containers and putting food into the cool room with very little fuss. Every now and then there is a little bit of banter and laughter, but most of them want to get cleaned up as quickly as possible. The head chefs do the rounds: checking stock, and making orders for meat, fish and vegetables.

Finally, the floors are mopped and the kitchens are clean. The chefs and kitchen hands prop themselves up against the benches, tear off their aprons and rip off their hats. They smell of sweat mixed with old food. Cold beer is produced from out of the blue, and everybody relaxes a little. They talk of football, each other’s families and what they might do on their day off—not cooking though. The chefs will be back in a few hours ready to do it all again, but right now, they’ve clocked off.

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