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In the 1970s, before people started caring about Chefs and dropping restaurant names, cooking for a living was something you did because you were between jobs, because you just got out of jail, or because you were part of the family business. Working in food service didn’t occur to anyone who had an education, ambition, or good sense. No one ever thought it would lead to a TV show, a book deal, or their picture on a jar of spaghetti sauce.
In 1980 Alice Waters and a group of her friends opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, introducing a new passion and an exciting career possibility to graduate students and young professionals. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential showed diners what really happens behind those swinging kitchen doors, Bourdain became a star and by the 1990s, celebrity chefs were everywhere.
In the real world, restaurant cooks are a tough lot who work hard and are seldom well paid. During the time I worked the sauté station at Trumps, a Beverly Hills wife and friend of one of the investors, talked her way into a kitchen job. The line cooks were told to “show her the ropes”. “She “loved to cook”, “was known for her great dinner parties”, and “thought it would be sooo cool to work in a restaurant.” We, the ragged-unwashed, rolled our collective eyes when she showed up on her first day wearing lipstick, a hairdo, and fingernail polish. “Poser”, we muttered under our breath. She didn’t bring her own knives, she balked at using the dimly lit, musky, communal changing room, and she moped after Chef barked at her for wearing perfume. Now I’m not sayin’ that the sous chef shared our spiteful feelings, but he took her directly to the prep sink to clean thirty pounds of squid. She left in tears after Chef’s third torrent of profanity, his second thrown sauté pan, and her first broken fingernail.
A restaurant kitchen is a hot, stressful place bristling with loud voices, sharp knives, boiling water, and heavy cartons. To survive and flourish in that environment, you need discipline and an inner sense of calm. If you really want a career in food service, consider these precautions.
- As Anthony Bourdain said in “The Nasty Bits”, “You are in the service industry. You are the backstairs help. When rich people come into the restaurant, you cook for them. When your customers play, you work.”
- Restaurant kitchens are small and crowded—there is no personal space. Make everyone aware of your movements, calling out Hot!, Behind you!, and Sharp! will save not just your job, but your physical well-being.
- Loud music plays all the time in most kitchens. Although at Trumps, after three solid hours of Mexican salsa, every Saturday night at 6:00, we listened to Prairie Home Companion.
- Even though you are surrounded by good food, you seldom get a chance to eat. Get used to eating leftovers on the move, out of a plastic cup, leaning against the wall or hunched over a garbage can.
- There is no slow time in the kitchen—if you have time to lean, you have time to clean, and there may not be time to eat, smoke, or go to the bathroom.
- The kitchen is not the place to pad your resumé or toss off French culinary terms you don’t understand. If you are a Grant Achatz wannabe, don’t boast about your molecular gastronomy skills if you don’t have any. Better to exceed expectations than over promise.
- You will have an advantage when you show up for work in the morning, if you avoided last night’s partying and are sober and well-rested.
- Always keep your station and yourself clean. There will be loud, mean words if you walk away from your area without cleaning up first.
Although it’s been fifteen years since I’ve worked in a a restaurant kitchen, I still cook with a sense of urgency. I find it difficult to visit, chat, lean, or idle when I cook and I still stifle the impulse to tell a helper, “Step it up, we don’t have all day! or “What? Are you on a break?” Somehow there is still a deadline looming, a 6:00 seating to prep for, barbarians at the gate, a new menu to put out. And I still have restaurant dreams: night terrors about walking into an unfamiliar kitchen with an unknown menu, wrangling a slow-moving, reluctant male crew.
Moroccan Eggplant & Chickpea Stew
- 2 tbsp coconut oil or olive oil
- 1 onion, peeled and diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 large chunk minced ginger
- 1 eggplant, peeled and cubed
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp ground paprika
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 cup crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 6 saffron threads
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas
- yellow or brown raisins
- Zest of 1 lemon
Brown eggplant cubes in hot oil, drain on paper towels and reserve.
Sauté onions, garlic and ginger for about 10 minutes or until soft. Add eggplant, spices and tomato paste. Sauté for 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently. Add a splash of stock if spices begin to burn.
Add the crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, chickpeas, raisins and saffron, stir until mixture comes to a boil, then lower the heat. Cover the pan and simmer for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in the lemon zest at the end of the cooking.
Serve with rice pilaf, dollop of yogurt and squeeze of lemon.