Saturday Nights From A Chef’s Perspective | First Person
It was a bloody hot day, even at 8 AM. The sun was glaringly bright for Mumbai after a night that I spent being too restless to sleep. Fuelled by the minimal carbs from two eggs, I’m in the local train, holding on and swaying while somebody’s armpit is in my face for four stations.
Today was a big day for me, a kitchen intern.
The previous night two consecutive orders going to the owner’s table from the grill section were a mess. The pasta chef piled on too much cream despite clear instructions to go easy. I was working salad and my station ran smoothly. The night ended with the Chef asking the cook running the grills responsible to resign, while the pasta cook got a warning.
Naturally, somebody had to be bumped up to fill the vacancy. By the end of the night, the Chef dropped a bomb – it was going to be me. I felt a bold surge of pride, and got a rush just to hear the news. Then, the doubt and fear and agony seeped in. Am I ready? What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t keep up?
I reported to work by 9:15 AM, nervous but smiling. As I entered, my fellow cooks are leaning against their sections, drinking chai and nibbling on toasted bread. A dated Nokia phone plays old Hindi bhajans from within a cup, its heard throughout the kitchen. The cook’s version of surround sound reminds me of what a scrappy, creative bunch we can be.
At 10 AM, I began my prep work, almost too much for any day but a Saturday. We all knew it meant serving a 100 covers for brunch and about 200 for dinner.
Brunch hour arrived really quickly. As it was my first day on the grills, I was meant to observe each dish. With eyes on the steps behind each recipe, I was expected to replicate these dishes during dinner service.
The KOT machine buzzed in the corner, the sous chef expediting all orders, and “Yes, Chef!” replies flew thick in the afternoon air. A dozen poached eggs were smothered with hollandaise.
Brunch seemed to go by in the blink of an eye. It was exhilarating, but also intimidating. I spent the break between services prepping myself and the grill station for dinner. I had to clear my head of salads, dressings and garnishes to make room for meat cuts, marinations, and sauces. That was the easy part.
Then, I had to understand the process that took each dish from raw to cooked, watch it get assembled (fine, plated) and then skilfully replicate it as many times as required.
Dinner service began just when I was getting my prep finished. The first order of the big night came in – someone wanted snapper. For service, we move seafood portions to the blast freezer in the main kitchen because it’s more accessible. My fish was still in the walk-in freezer, and Chef watched me run to get it. That was rookie mistake #1.
I get the poaching liquid going, add the fish in, baste it, prep the veggies and sauce before handing over a perfectly cooked fish to the pass. The order goes out, but within minutes it’s back in the kitchen. It’s tasteless, sad, and not good enough according to the customer. On tasting, none of us find anything wrong with the dish, but we pan-roast it anyway. The customer likes it, and this ticks Chef off.
Chef, like all others chefs, hopes you like a dish on the menu in the manner it’s meant to be eaten. As cooks and chefs, we put a lot of effort into deciding each dish on the menu, and aim to prepare each order with same consistency. We respect your choices, but not liking a dish because of the dish itself is like spitting in our face. To add to that, a perfectly good portion of fish went into kitchen waste and became leftovers gobbled by the waiters.
An hour into dinner service, I start getting frazzled. We have 70 people seated, KOTs just coming in and I, in all my glory, just zone out. I stop saying “Yes, Chef!” to the orders coming in because I already have so many pending orders piled up in my head. I become dead weight. Another rookie mistake.
I’m taking out two orders of grilled chicken when I look to my left and see Chef standing there, oblivious to the chaos.
He tells me to throw some butter into a pan and then some garlic. I do as commanded and wonder why he’s on the line. As I come back to reality I notice, it’s the owners’ table again and he didn’t want two botched nights in a row. He asks me to pick up the chicken, which means heating the oil, putting the chicken skin side down into the hot oil, crisping up the skin, turning it over, pouring some chicken stock around the side to retain moisture in the breast, and throwing it in the oven.
While I get the pan ready, the stove goes out. So I transfer the pan with oil onto the flattop which is still working but takes longer. As I wait for the oil to heat up, Chef stands next to me and asks me what I’m waiting for and I explain. He gets ticked off and pulls the pan closer to his side and tosses the chicken in. I realised much later that I was expected to keep a few pans heated on the flattop in advance.
During this chaos, I forget about the butter and garlic I left in the pan atop a full flame. He asks me to hand it to him and as I go to pick it up, I already know I’m screwed. The butter had split from overheating. The owners’ table order was an ‘all together’. An ‘all together’ order is one where the courses listed get sent all at once, placed by the servers on the table at the same time.
So the order only gets picked up once all dishes are ready and plated. Salads were ready and the Pasta was getting plated just behind Chef. He takes the pan from me and notices the butter. I can see the anger build up now. He screams, “You split the butter, you son of a bitch! You had one fucking job, to heat butter and garlic in a pan, and you split it.”
He takes the pan, raises it above his head and brings it down hard onto the flattop. The handle dents downward. He turns around to see the dishes being plated, knowing that due to this mess, the order will turn cold waiting for one dish.
Chef then takes a step back to see the pasta get plated, with cream and sauce dripping from the pan. He then watches the sous chefs, who don’t take notice of this excess, and go on to shave thousands of rupees worth of truffles onto the pappardelle.
In slow motion, I watch them make the same mistake as last night for the same table. Chef waits for the entire dish to be plated. Then, he grabs it and flings it across the kitchen, where the plate smashes into bits.
He then goes on to break down every man in the kitchen. The garlic in the garnish section had to be crisper. The butter in my section had to be cubed. For the pasta station, Chef took an entire carton of cream and slammed it into the dustbin to prove his point. Who needed a dramatic life if they worked in a kitchen?
Lastly, he set eyes on me, cowering behind 3 cooks. Through the space between them, he points his finger at me and says “You don’t fucking cook until you know how to.”
I stood there, stunned speechless. The rest of dinner service was carried out in silence.
In the days that followed that particularly incidental one, we’ve never reached a point that low.