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Old 07-31-2007, 03:32 PM   #1
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"Behind The Kitchen Door" Stories

There are so many people here that cook for a living and I find the little stories and "behind the scenes" tidbits fascinating. Most of us eat out at least occasionally but I really had not thought too much about what goes on behind the kitchen door til now. So I was hoping you pro cooks (previous, current and retired) might be willing to share your war stories. Funny, informative, toughest boss, worst customer, biggest disaster, best save, etc - anything from behind the kitchen door!


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Old 07-31-2007, 03:41 PM   #2
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Great idea!

Bring 'em on.

If we weren't meant to eat animals, then why are they made of meat?
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Old 07-31-2007, 04:35 PM   #3
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I can tell you that any cook that has worked a grill station has wanted, at least once, to pull the same move Catherine-Zeta Jones pulled in those "No Reservations" trailers. Some dopey customer always orders their steak blue "just wave it over the flame" rare, and it inevitably gets sent back for being too rare. It makes you want to pull your hair out.

Also, the customers who make the chef go off menu because they have very strict dietary requirements, and then complain when the food wasn't great. If you've got a restrictive diet, please please please call ahead, and I guarantee that any respectable place will be more than willing to accomodate you. We had this jerk come in doing some sort of of raw diet variation, and all we had that could accomodate his diet was raw veggies, lettuce, etc. and he was real unhappy about it. Indiana is not LA where every fad diet has its own restaurant chain.

Alot of people have read Kitchen Confidential, and were sort of shocked about the never ordering fish on certain days, etc. and how you should never ever order the special. If you know a restaurant to be a respectable place, then I would encourage you to order the specials. They're usually made from ingredients fresh that day or the day before, and is one of the only, and possibly THE only outlet the chef has for creativity outside of seasonal menu changes. The chef I work for goes all out when creating specials, and has come up with some really incredible fish dishes.
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Old 07-31-2007, 05:53 PM   #4
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Ditto College Cook. example: the fish chowder may indeed be made from yesterday's leftover fish which has been kept well chilled, is is probably fresher than what the supper,market chains are selling you. It's good food if you like chowders. BTW, chowder refers to the pot and the bacon the soup is made from not the library paste some cooks think of as a soup. A broth chowder and a milk chowder are not that thick. Cream bisques are thicker but still not gluey. If your soup is gluey pastey whatever, your at a diner that lost it's good short order cook.

Pro kitchens, even busy ones, are clean and tidy. Yes there is droppage and spillage, but it is cleaned up every night. Cooks have a defined work space that is kept clean. Sloppy cooks don't last long at good restaurants.

Yes there are badly run restaurants...warm not hot food, messy plates, orders not gotten right, food substandard, etc. Once? an off night maybe, twice? don't go again till you know it is new management and new chef!
There are also trendy places that never learned the art of service. Hot plates for Hot food, Sir and Ma'am rather than "you guyz" etc. Real dishes and flatware...food tastes better on china than on paper or plastic.

A good restaurant wants to please the customer, and chef does know his/her job. THe wait staff that has been trained will be able to advise the customer. If you truly want raw meat, order the cervice or the carpacio. Most steaks are not that good at chilly rare. If it is truly heated thru, it will be med rare. Many cuts will toughen at well done. THat's the meat not the chef. FIllet and prime rib will still be tender. But if well done is really what you want, go to Bob Evans for the pot roast, not Ruth's Chris for the Porter House!

A well run kitchen tastes everything before it hits the plate, and a well run front of house knows what the customer has ordered/requested. However, garlic, onion, green pepper, etc, are basics for the building of flavors and the layering of textures. If you really can't deal with them, your dish will not be as "conceived".

Kitchen confidential (which I enjoyed btw) tells a side of the story that may be true to many second rate establishments. But places that care to stay open, and make a real name for themselves do much better. Small neighborhood places often follow all the rules impecably. Your corner pizza joint may not...and frankly that dingy greasy tired looking place serving canned sauce and food service cheese pizza should be closed down for health violations.

Why don't I eat at places like CrackerBarrel, Denny's, etc. Any or all of the above.

I take pride in what I cook and serve for my clients, and the chefs I know take pride in their restaurants, their staff, their menu, their suppliers. Chef Bordaine takes great pride in the work done and the food served at Les Halles in NYC. I've eaten there. Kitchen Confidential is a wake up call to diners to expect great things and not patronize slop. Don't go for the name, go for the true dining experience, be it a four star, a local neighborhood place, a classic diner with years of satisfied customers and good coffee!
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Old 08-01-2007, 05:32 PM   #5
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I worked in a small “Mom & Pop” seafood restaurant back when I was in college. It was called “Nan Seas” and was named after the owner Nancy.......cool name huh?

Well, Nancy was very, VERY high strung. Deep down she was a sweetheart, but on the surface, she makes that guy on Hell’s Kitchen look like Mister Rogers. When I hired in, she had toned it down to just severely screaming at you (boy she could tear you a new one), but the “old timers” that had been there a while said it used to be she couldn’t go a night without throwing an ashtray at the wall. The place was robbed after closing once (before my time), so she always wore a .38 caliber revolver in an ankle holster! She was a very formidable woman, and at 6’ 1”, 220 pounds, she was rather intimidating to boot.

I started as a dish washer and worked my way up to prep and even did some short order cooking on weekends. About 1 week after I hired in, she brought myself and Jeremy out to the front after closing. It had been a very busy and long night, and the place had been packed. We were all moving around like madmen, but we kept up. She started by telling us how well we had done. Then noticed she didn’t like Jeremy’s shirt untucked, or the holes in my apron, or the fact that we dropped a dish, and soon, she was screaming at us at the top of her lungs.....then she got quiet and said we were an excellent team and should keep up the great work. What a trip.

She abhorred a microwave and never allowed one in the restaurant. She also hated wasting food. It was primarily a seafood restaurant, be we also served steaks. Since Nancy never knew how many steaks would sell, she never defrosted any. Thus, when someone ordered one, the thing was frozen solid. I’ve seen some of the short order cooks trying to cook it frozen, and I saw many of them come back blackened on the outside and raw on the inside. Still, no matter what, Nancy would never lay out fresh beef at the start of the day because you never knew if it would sell.

The seafood was always fresh though (this was down in Mobile on the Gulf Coast, and we got daily deliveries from local independent merchants). I used to love the fried shrimp there, especially the Shrimp Po-Boys that we made. Oysters were outstanding, and a Fried Oyster Po-Boy was heavenly. The House Specialty (not Special) was Gumbo. We had a new cook hire on, and he was young and experimenting, and tried his hand at Nancy’s "Top Secret" Gumbo recipe. We made the gumbo in 5 gallon batches that would last about 3 days.

He added WAY too much cayenne pepper. The stuff would bring a tear to your eye and make your nose run. Nancy was furious.....but we didn’t have anything else, and no time to make more. So, at the prodding of the new Chef she decided to let some of the regulars try it for free (it was lunch time). We like things hot down south, and the regulars loved it....in fact, they were addicted to the stuff. That batch of gumbo sold out faster than any other batch we’d ever made......still, Nancy never let him make the gumbo again!

One thing that bugged me about the place (besides the frozen steaks!) was that they would...and I hate to admit this......re-use the Parsley garnish (each plate got a fresh stalk as garnish)!

Yep, if a plate came back with a piece Parsley that was whole, unbruised and perfectly in tact, it went in a pitcher of ice water to be re-used on another plate. Un-real. Because of that, to this day, I purposely destroy any garnish on my plate when we go out to eat!
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Old 08-02-2007, 12:10 AM   #6
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That sounds like a typical mom+pop type of place trying to run on a budget. That's a real shame about the steaks, too. As for the garnish, well its gross but I've definitely seen worse.

I suppose I can take this opportunity to share some of the darker stories I have about restaurants. Alot of times if you're going out to eat at a place that clearly runs on a budget, there's a slight chance that you'll be served floor food. That is to say that food that accidentally gets dropped on the floor will be picked up, dusted off, then cooked and served. I know the risk, and to be honest it wouldn't bother me all that much if I knew the food was cooked after hitting the floor. Now if its cooked and THEN hits the floor, BLECH! If you're lucky they'll dunk whatever it is into boiling water for a second and then stick right back on the plate.

The fact of the matter is, a mom + pop shop can't afford to waste product. A more upscale place or a chain are much less likely to serve dropped food. That doesn't mean upscale places are exempt, however. I've seen scallops, filet mignon, salmon hit the floor, but if service is crazy, having to cook a mid-well filet over again will throw off everyone in the kitchen, and they'll never let your forget that crazy night when your dumb *** dropped the steak on the floor and left the rest of the kitchen to crash and burn. Sometimes the only thing you can do is dunk it in that boiling water and send it out. It's always regrettable, but it happens. Under ideal circumstances all dropped food would get saved for chef's dog and you'd do your dish over again. But- the line is a FAR FAR Far way from being ideal. Rule of thumb during a very busy service is: if it could make the customer sick, then toss it. Otherwise, fix it. Like I said, it's regerettable, but it happens.

On the bright side, line cooks learn REAL quick that its best just to never drop food at all. As a group, we've got some of the best reflexes, steadiest hands, and thresholds for pain than you'll find in most other professions. That translates into us almost NEVER dropping food, even when someone tosses a steaming hot water pot your way to be refilled while you've got a blistering hot filet in your hand that just came out of your 500 degree oven. You hold onto that steak like it's your child, take the pain, and then catch that water pot thats flying through the air toward your face with your free hand, and try to set it down before it gets you. Metal will burn your a lot worse than food will.

Cooks also have to be great throwers, as well as catchers. Got a huge stack of dirts pans that need to get washed in a hurry? Grab em all and chuck them 10 feet down the line into the dish pit, making sure you dont knock any other cooks or waistaff in the face while doing so.

As a cook you have to be fast too. Food needs to go out quickly, and as a result, cooks are always in a hurry. If someone is racing toward your oven calling out "Hot down!!!" you'd better be **** sure you're out of the way by the time they get there. Nothing brightens your night quite like a heavy oven door being thrown open and crashing into your shins or knees.

Is suppose what I'm getting at, is that a restaurant line is a pretty intense place to spend your evenings. You're in constant danger of burns from hot oil (both from pans AND deep fryer), hot pans, boiling water, scorching metal and fire. There's constant danger of your hand being sliced open to the bone by a wayward knife stroke. There's the risk of dehydration and exhaustion that comes from standing in front of a 900 degree salamander for 6 hours in an already too-hot kitchen. And cooks go through all of this for pretty low wages. I do this for $7/hr (though, god willing, I have a raise in my very near future). More than that though, I, and any good cook does it because they love to make great food for people. We put our blood, sweat, and tears into our jobs, because we love it, and that's why we also put all of our heart into it as well. Rest assured that if you're served sub-standard, or heck, even mediocre food, the cook that prepared your meal feels much worse about it than you do. He'll remember and regret that plate for the rest of the night, will dream ( or have nightmares) about it when he finally drifts off to sleep, and will spend the rest of the week thinking of all the things he could've done differently to make that plate be what it should have been. We learn from our mistakes in an effort to make it up to you next time, when we hope to give you a truly remarkable meal.

So next time you're eating out, and start worrying that you'll recieve "floor food", just know that the cooks are worrying even more than you about having to serve you floor food. More importantly, know that the odds are heavily in your favor that you will not recieve floor food. God forbid you ever eat food that makes you hang out with your best porcelain buddy for the rest of the night, know that when that cook finds out he made someone sick, he'll be throwing up the next night, sick at himself for making such a glaring mistake. We strive for perfection in our profession, and we're very driven towards it, and that's why you shouldn't worry about all the things that can go wrong while you're eating out, but hope for all the things that can go right.
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Old 08-02-2007, 01:33 AM   #7
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Awesome stories College Cook. Here’s an idea, let’s digress a bit and talk about the crazy fun that can happen in a restaurant when things get slow (it happens, not a lot, but you do have down time).

Not long after I hired on at Nan Seas, Jeremy wanted me to try homemade fried cheese. This was back in the day before fried cheese was a big hit and everyone knew about it. I had never heard about fried cheeses and couldn’t imagine it. He kept going on and on about it, and the waitresses were also raving about how good it was. So, being adventurous, I decided I’d try it. He took a bite of his first, and it was melty, gooey goodness. Looked great.

So, I took a bite of mine, and there was an explosion of ugliness in my mouth. I tried to chew it, but just froze. Turns out, it wasn’t fried cheese….it was battered and fried celery. CELERY!! NASTY!!!!!!

Yeah, he deserved some payback….and it came at a later date! LOL!
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Old 08-02-2007, 08:46 AM   #8
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There's definitely a fair amount of fun to be had, though a decent amount of it involves swearing and some very inappropriate jokes, which I will not share here. Cooks are always game for a goof practical joke. Dumping a fistful of salt into someone's water while they're not looking is pretty common, but doesn't get that good of a reaction from the victim. When we all used to drink out of the cheap free cups you get when you ordered pizza with cokes from a local place, there used to be a lot more stuff that went into drinks. Chili sauce, tobasco, oil, cayenne or red pepper flakes, etc. Most of us have started to drink out of clear containers as a result.

We also started daring each other to do dumb stuff, for one dollar, and we call them Dollar Bets. The best one may have been when this guy was bet to do a shot of lime oil; we all just thought it would have a super-strong a disgunsting taste in his mouth for like an hour, but it ended up making him really sick. He wasn't able to work for 2 days afterwards because he was too busy emptying the contents of his stomach into his toilet. Dollar bets toned down after that.

The beginning of summer was really stupidly slow. So we invented a game to pass the time, called CUP. Which was really nothing more than plan catch using old drinking cups and an old lime. It was a ton of fun though, and eventually we started fashioning our own ball to throw instead of the lime, because it inevitably burst open after a little while, and we were starting to go through limes pretty quickly. I think the best one we ever had was a section of turnip, wrapped in multiple layers of plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and rubber bands. It was sturdy, and a good size, but not too heavy that it would knock the cup out of your hand when you would catch it. Unfortunately though, we didn't think the refrigerate the ball so the turnip rotted after about a week.
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Old 08-02-2007, 10:45 AM   #9
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An interesting biggest "save" story from behind the kitchen door. The company that I worked for held an annual vendors appreciation day. It was a day of golf, with many beer carts etc. that ended with a big meal and awards ceremony that night. I was always given the honor of being part of the team that cooked the meat for the evening. This particular time it was BBQ ribs, and we had 200 slabs of St. Louis ribs to cook. The cooker was inside the kitchen, and consisted of 5 six foot shelves that rotated. The wood fired fire box was 10 feet away and located outside the building. After burning off the first load of wood to coals we started with 60 rubbed slabs of ribs. Things were going nicely. My two cohorts left to run an errand, and I was left on guard. After a short time, I thought things were moving to slow. (We had had 140 slabs after this load.) So, I decided to move things along a bit and added 4 more pieces of fire wood to the fire. After this I got distracted, and in about 45 minutes my cohorts returned to find the 60 slabs black from excessive heat. Panic!!! 60 slabs, almost 1/3 of the total Quick! What to do?? Ah! Light bulb!! Make them “wet” ribs. So off they came and into a huge Styrofoam cooler in layers with each layer having copious amounts of BBQ sauce poured on. The cooler lid was placed on and duct taped closed. The other 140 slabs “dry” went off smoothly. At the evening meal there was a pan of “dry” ribs and a pan of “wet” ribs. Long story short. The culinary “masterpiece” of the evening was the “wet” ribs!!! They were begging for more!!!
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Old 08-02-2007, 03:04 PM   #10
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In the final semester of culinary school, we were running the fine dining restaurant. We had this girl who was absolutely clueless. She also sucked in the kitchen. To give you an example, it would take her 30 minutes to make a caesar dressing whereas it would take most people 10-15 minutes. She would do things like finely mince the garlic before adding it to the blender. Alrighty then.

So anyway, she had no idea how to work. For instance, insteading of setting up a cutting board on the side of her area to prep during service, she would use her main cutting board and when she got orders, she would have to clean up the cutting board before starting on the order. When working with a partner, she would stand in the middle of the two reach-in refers instead of on the side so everytime someone would need to get into either reach-in, they'd have to tell her to move. Total moron. After awhile, all of us just said, "F*** it" because she obviously lacked the ability to learn from her own mistakes and from experience. Because she was so slow, during plate-up we made her just finish the dishes with garnishes or whatever and then put it up in the window. She would hold up the orders if she did anything else. We would heat up the plates super hot and she would still try and grab them without a towel. We would open the refer doors and bang her legs and she still wouldn't get out of the ****ing way. We would tell the servers to ring a whole s***load of orders for her station at one time to slam her and she still wouldn't change her prep habits. Also, because she would NEVER date and label her prep (a big no-no in a pro kitchen) we would always use it, throw it away, or hide it. When she'd ask about it we'd say, "Oh, there was no date or label so we didn't know how old it was" and she STILL wouldn't date or label. Until the very last day of class she still never learned. I don't know what happened to her but I hope she's not in the industry.

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