To be a chef, one should…
…be able to think on a dime and remain flexible.
You have 400 people coming to your banquet facility for a wedding today. It’s 2:30pm, the guests will be there at 6 and you’re cutting it close. Like culinary Tasmanian devils, your team of three is about to trim and season and par-grill the chicken breasts that were just delivered. The entire process from bag to grill to sheet tray will take a couple hours. From there though, the prep-day will be downhill. You’ll just have to assemble the 400 house salads, get the ranch made and cut and plate the flourless chocolate cakes. These kinds of mundane tasks are layups in the prep world.
But there’s a problem.
The chicken in the walk-in isn’t breasts. It’s whole birds. And they’re partially frozen. Instantly you taste cold metal in your mouth. You see stars. You twist and turn in place trying to keep the world from spinning. Visions of an irate father of the bride chasing you around the kitchen flash in and out of your air-deprived brain. You’ve already fucked up a big wedding and are on upper management’s radar. One more catastrophe and you’re back on the sofa with your Roku and PS-5. Your compatriots—the grinning lot—are all looking at you for guidance.
Coming unglued, you know from experience, would throw the situation into flux but you’re teetering on the edge of sanity. That uncomfortable power vacuum created when leadership abandons its post would create a cataclysmic domino effect, sending the entire night’s operation into an irretrievable state of chaos. Cooks could walk. You could have a heart attack. Wedding attendees definitely won’t be recommending Le Casa De La Maison House to their engaged friends when their chicken breast is missing from their chicken piccata. You’ve got to hold it together and make the right decision.
So what do you do? Do you fold? Do you call the sales rep and threaten him? He’s the one who fucked up right? What about this: what if you keyed the wrong item into your online order? What if you’re the problem? Do you try and get a hot shot truck sent out? I’ll tell you right now, you have one choice. It’s the only choice a seasoned chef should make. You grab those whole chickens, assign the quickest butcher on your team to carve the breasts out of them, call your closest chef friend for back up (you know you may run short after every breast has been pilfered from the carcasses) and knock out the salads, dressing and cake with the two remaining cooks. Or put two cooks on the chicken and knock out the other stuff with the third one. You don’t have time to mess around an hour with will call or run to Restaurant Depot. You need to get that chicken triaged STAT!
If you can’t think on your feet like this, you’ll never make it. You should always have a Plan B (and preferably and Plan C). I’ll tell you this too; all good chefs reading this are saying to themselves, “What other choice was there?” I can only say, in my years of consulting and popping in and out of restaurant kitchens I’ve seen some weak shit; chefs and kitchen managers who have allowed their inmates to overrun their asylums who in turn kill anything resembling a work ethic. I know a few guys (and it is always guys) who would love to be so unburdened of the arduous task of doing a big wedding. And if they can point the finger at someone else, then the dereliction of duty is less about abdication and more about being thrust into an unfortunate circumstance. In other words, some chefs are completely fine with playing the victim.
Stay loose. Rigidity is often times an Achilles heel in the restaurant business. And assume the worst at all times. Plan on your breakfast cook calling out sick (again), for example. Set your alarm for five am and text him just in case. Assuming eight consecutive days is enough time to get over the sniffles could be disastrous. And realize that whatever you’ve under ordered in hopes of keeping expenses low, that will be what people want. Ordering, in particular, is a crap shoot. Over-order a little but have a plan on how to preserve or “reassign” leftovers. Set a protein cost for your menu no higher than five dollars per pound. Learn how to cook the cheap cuts. Stay away from goddamn rack of lamb, wagyu beef and seabass. Disabuse yourself of the notion that having those buzzworthy proteins on your menu makes you fine dining. And for fuck’s sake, give up on the concept of fine dining altogether. Most of the time, what passes for fine dining is neither fine, nor particularly pleasurable. That hour you spent flexing in front of your cooks making balsamic caviar could be better spent straightening up the walk-in and haggling with vendors.
The quicker you succumb to the epidemic of cynicism and demands of flexibility pervasive in the restaurant business, the better equipped you’ll be to keep drama in the rearview. The shiny new kids fresh from culinary school with their idealized preconceptions of how the restaurant business works get eaten like chum as soon as they taxi their canoes out into the swift currents of our industry. Stay sharp and trust your instincts. And if neither of those work, embrace the worst-case scenario–in every aspect of your chef life–as your new best friend. Certain doomsday is a sidekick who will never leave you and will, through sheer inevitability, steer your canoe into lucrative (safer) waters.