What the kitchen thinks about you

Cooks are, by and large, not People Persons. Waiters, sure, they like people well enough to be able to look them in the eye, smile and not laugh when you ask stupid questions.

Cooks, mostly, can’t do that. They want to shoulder-barge you out of the way so they can get to peeling the potatoes or gutting the fish or dressing their plate. What they want is to make you some nice food, for you to enjoy it, and then for you to go home.

What they don’t want is for you to tell them how they should have written the menu. That you’d like the beef but with the sauce from the lamb. And the vegetables you think should be served with the fish. And on the side, please. Put the sauce on the side. In a pretty little pot. So I can dip my fries in it. Because now that you think about it you’d prefer fries to mashed potato. Even though there are no fries anywhere on the menu.

Can you not read? Was it not clear on the menu? You won’t like the rosemary jus with the beef, and the steamed spinach isn’t suitable for the beef or the lamb. And we don’t have a deep-fat frier.

And then you ordered your beef rare but send it back because it’s not cooked enough. 

Cooks want you to arrive at the beginning of service. Come at 7, if that’s when the restaurant opens. 8 at the latest. 9 if you must, but order quickly. If it says that last orders are at 9:30 pm, don’t turn up at 9.29 and expect the kitchen to love you for your custom. Expect them to grunt and moan and whinge about your lack of consideration.

And if you do turn up one minute before the end of service, don’t hum and haw over your order and not be able to decide. And don’t, whatever you do, order the tasting menu if you arrive so late.

Of course, most people won’t know about any of this wailing and gnashing of teeth that goes on in the kitchen; that’s why restaurants employ waiters. But certainly in restaurants where staff work limited hours for very low wages – see my earlier article on this topic – if you stop the kitchen getting out by, say, 10pm when their wages finish, they won’t be happy with you.

What you won’t get is the mythical spitting-in-your-food treatment; I have never, ever witnessed this in all my years cooking. And you won’t get lower quality food than someone who treated the kitchen with respect – cooks live to serve good food, period.

But there will be a few people more in the world who don’t like you very much.

The example I always quote is from Christmas, 2009. The restaurant where I was working was closing on Christmas Eve after the lunch service for three days. Chef had already left to go on his Christmas vacation, so there was just me and the dishwasher to do the lunch service. Which, as we’d told the owner repeatedly, would not be worth doing; most French people do NOT go out to eat lunch on Christmas Eve.

So we hadn’t stocked the kitchen with anything fresh, the ‘Menu du jour’ was what was left in the fridges together with anything interesting we could find in the freezers. The salad of the day was bamboo shoots from a can, mostly. We did three covers, clients leaving the hotel (which was also closing for three days) as soon as we opened at midday.

Then we did nothing; we cleaned the kitchen, changed the oil in the fryer, cleaned again and stood around, the two of us moaning about how stupid it was to open on Christmas Eve.

Until 1.27pm, when I saw two cars pull into the car park behind the hotel and eight – eight! – people get out and walk towards the restaurant. I called the Maitre d’hotel and warned him that we didn’t have any food, certainly not enough for eight people and, anyway, it was closing time.

Unfortunately the restaurant owner caught the arrivals at the door, welcomed them and seated them and gave them the à la carte menu, from which they ordered liberally. Foie gras, pigeon, bull steaks, fish. Starters, puddings, wines, everything. I listened to the order in dismay as the owner read it out and told him, flat out, that we didn’t have two thirds of the dishes he’d allowed the clients to order and that, in any case, it was now 1.45 pm.

But he insisted we serve them, that we defrost everything necessary and serve the group who, it turned out, were old friends of his from his previous workplace whom he’d invited over for lunch.

‘Invited’ in French means that you don’t pay. So we ended up working one and a half hours unpaid overtime on Christmas Eve to serve a group who weren’t even paying for their meal.

And yes, I hated them but yes, I did cook perfect meals for them. Complaining all the time.

Cooks like to complain.

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