Thanks to Jeff for steering me to read the book, Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. It’s a look into the stark reality of a chef’s life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. But in between the entertaining anecdotes, there’s a lot of good information for amateur cooks like myself who want to develop greater skill and come as close to being a professional without the hard labor of working the kitchen in a restaurant. These are my notes from the book, which will save you time if you don’t want to read it, although honestly I recommend that you do. I’m passing over the anecdotes, which are extremely entertaining and alone worth the price of the book. These are just my tips to help succeed in life and cooking.
First, the necessary ingredients to succeed as a cook, or an employee:
-the job requires character, and endurance. Never show up late, never call in sick, and work through pain and injury. If you cook long enough, you will burn, cut, grate, smash, and boil yourself. Being good at cooking means working through it.
-if you’re going to be late, call in.
-Never lie or steal. Being known as an asshole, a douchebag, an idiot, those things can be overlooked and forgiven (or changed). Being known as a liar or a thief is something you never get back.
-Professional-level cooking has almost nothing to do with magic recipes, creativity, or esoteric knowledge about food. It’s all about consistency – mindless, unvarying repetition. You are like a communist soldier and nobody wants to hear your opinion. This is why Mexicans proliferate through the industry; you can scream at them, kick them, not let them go to the bathroom, etc, and they’ll just keep standing there, stirring the pot and cooking the way you showed them.
-Messy station equals messy mind. You want to work clean and keep everything organized. A hitch in organization makes trouble for everyone in the kitchen.
-A good quality to have is the ability to remain clear-headed and organized during hectic times. Here the soldier analogy comes through, because you want to be able to do your job and know what’s going on when people are screaming all around you.
-You want to learn to work with others. A good kitchen is like an elaborate ballet, with everyone working hard and the product coming together in a synchronized fashion. If you’re starting your own team, you want people who won’t hold you up. Similarly, don’t be that guy and let the team down.
-If you’re an amateur, celebrate it. Making food that is simple and made with love is nicer on a daily basis than herb-infused restaurant food.
-Learn to cook. This seems obvious, but all the tools and ingredients in the world won’t help you if you can’t follow directions or understand how different proportions will taste. You need someone to teach you or follow a cookbook until you have a few recipes under your belt.
-Read! Read cookbooks, trade magazines, anything that will give you new ideas or teach you old methods. Ironically, this becomes more important as you become better at cooking.
-Don’t touch other people’s kitchenware. This isn’t an absolute rule – like the body, some parts are more sacred than others. You can grab a bowl just like you pat a shoulder, but don’t touch their breasts or their knives unless they let you.
-A typical list of ingredients for the kitchen:
kosher or sea salt
crushed black pepper
ground white pepper
extra virgin olive oil
white wine brandy
chervil tops in ice water
chopped or sliced garlic
stock (roast bones, vegetables, and water until it’s reduced to a nice taste)
demi-glace (get some stock, add red wine, toss some shallots and thyme and bay leaf and peppercorns, simmer and reduce until coats a spoon. Freeze in an ice-cube tray, and pop out a cube for reheating when you need it. Just don’t forget that sauces with demi-glace need butter)
-You want all real stuff. Fake butter and pre-chopped garlic are for people who don’t deserve the real thing. If you’re too lazy to slice fresh garlic, then you’re too lazy for cooking.
-Tools that you must have:
a decent chef’s knife, something that can cut beef and vegetables with equal ease
good knife technique: once you get a knife, learn to handle it well
a serrated knife is nice but not essential
a few plastic squeeze bottles
a metal ring if you like your food round and well shaped
a mandolin, a vegetable slicer
heavyweight pots and pans – rule of thumb is that if you hit someone in the head with it as hard as you can, you would cause serious brain damage
a thick non-stick pan, just wipe it down and for God’s sakes, only use plastic or wood so you don’t scratch it
-Never order fish on Monday unless you’re at a fancy place that gets it fresh every day. Most likely, you’re eating something that’s four or five days old. Chefs order fish on Thursday for delivery Friday morning, a supply that lasts the entire weekend. Monday deliveries are similarly bad – both the fish market and the cook are trying to get rid of old supplies so they don’t go to waste.
-Never order shellfish. Cooks have them wallowing in large bins that do not inspire confidence about freshness. Also, they’re very easy to cook – just fry for two minutes, garnish, and you’re done. Do it yourself if you want to eat them.
-Any fish that is slathered with sauce, especially mayonnaise or vinaigrette, is probably not good. An old cooking trick is douse fish in sauce like that to cover up a bad smell.
-Don’t buy fish from Koreans or Chinese. They’re the last to buy fish at the market, because they hunt for rock bottom prices. Discount sushi? Indeed.
-Cooks hate brunch. A good chef deploys his best line chefs at the busiest times – dinners on Friday and Saturday. You’re getting the B-team or the punished when you order brunch. So what you want is food that has to be made to order – nothing with hollandaise sauce or seafood.
-Don’t eat at a restaurant with a dirty bathroom or dirty chefs. How they clean their facilities is a reflection on how they treat their food. Dude is too lazy to scrub a toilet but suddenly he cares about sanitation when it comes to your beef? Please.
-If you eat your meat well done or don’t eat meat at all, you are an affront to the human spirit and deserve to eat the garbage that the cook has discarded onto your plate. Or more practically, amoebas and bacteria are killed by the heat of cooking but not by washing with cold water.
-What to look for to get fine dining: Tuesday through Saturday. Busy. Turnover. Rotation. Proud names of food vendors.
Business and life tips:
-Don’t overstretch. Stick to what you’re good at or you’ll run into your own personal Stalingrad from arrogance.
-Business is not love. You do what you’re passionate about, but passion is directed into training and discipline. If you want to own a business, your eye is always on the bottom line. If you can’t find a way to make revenues greater than costs, you’re headed for disaster. Your love can’t change that.
-Be fully committed. You want to be single-minded in your determination to do anything for the job, especially if you’re in a competitive industry like food. Ready yourself to follow orders, give out orders when you climb the ladder, and live with the outcome of those orders without complaint. Or quit.
-Learn Spanish. If you intend to join an industry where you deal with a lot of blue-collar types, then sooner or later you’re going to have to learn Spanish and the differences between Latin cultures. The Ecuadorian will be pissed if you call him a Mexican, and so will the Mexicans (because they don’t want him in their group).
-Don’t make excuses or blame others. Learn from mistakes and don’t do it again. Ever.
-Lazy, sloppy, and slow are bad. Enterprising, crafty, and hyperactive are good.
-If you haven’t already, be prepared to witness every variety of human folly and injustice in the working world. You simply have to endure the contradictions and inequities of life. Stupid people get lucky, undeserving people get promoted, and nobody notices your contributions.
-Learn to see the good things about other people and accept them even with their flaws. Yes, your co-worker is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious asshole. That doesn’t meant they’re bad at their jobs or that you can’t enjoy their company.
-Don’t work for anyone who names their business after themselves or that will look funny or pathetic on your resume