Tuesday, June 14, 2005

In the Weeds

Despite the fact that I loathe most "reality television", I couldn't help but get sucked into Hell's Kitchen on Fox. For seven years, I worked in the restaurant industry, all of them for only one restaurant chain: L&N Seafood Grill. First as a prep cook, then a line chef, then a server, and finally a bartender. I can state with no hesitation that my time "behind the line" was one of the best in my life. I loved being a chef on the line. And I was the Grillman, which meant I got paid to play with fire. Very cool.

Of course, there are some things about the show that ring hollow with my experience.

Observations of a former line chef:

  • Sounds and Words -- I'll give the show producers credit, the show kitchen sounds like the kitchens I've worked in. They are noisy, bustling places filled with shouting people, clanging metal, and the occasional broken dish or glass. But I haven't yet heard the phrase that every restaurant worker (front or back of the house) knows full well: "In the weeds." Being "in the weeds" is not good. It implies that you need immediate help or bad things will happen, such as a table walking out or the ruination of a plate of food. The only appropriate response to someone in the weeds is the following: "How can I help?" Now, I don't expect Chef Gordon Ramsay to help any of the contestants out of the weeds, but what about their fellow teammates? C'mon guys! If one of your fellow chefs goes down, you all go down.
  • Hats -- Um, where are the contestants' hats? When I worked on the line, you had to have your hair covered. Period. Either with a hair net, or a more traditional chef's hat. The law doesn't leave any room for stray hairs in your food.
  • Prep -- On last night's episode, they booted the wrong contestant. Wendy was sent packing rather than Andrew, a decision which makes for great television but terrible kitchen sense. Why, you ask? On the previews for the next episode, Andrew was heard to say something akin to the following: "I wanna own a restaurant! I don't wanna peel a bunch of carrots and potatoes!" Dude, you are so wrong on so many levels. The first month I worked in the kitchen, I was a Prep Cook. What does that mean? Well, it means that every Monday through Friday, from 8 AM to 4 PM, I performed the following tasks:
    • Chopped, peeled, and otherwise prepared cases of vegetables. Since I worked in the summers, I can safely say that I prepped several hundred pounds of yellow squash and zucchini. But I've also prepped broccoli, string beans, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.
    • Dethawed, deveined (by machine), and peeled (by hand) shrimp. How much? Usually 10 to 20 pounds, depending upon how much was consumed the day and night before.
    • Made soup. New England Clam Chowder and Gumbo were our staples, but occasionally we would make some Conch Chowder or Manhattan Clam Chowder if we had a lot of tomatoes on hand. Now this isn't like making soup in your kitchen. We used two of these babies.
    • Heated up mass quantities of marinara and cheese sauce. Now these were premade elsewhere, but heating them up was a tricky task because it took 2-3 hours, depending upon how chilled they were. I dumped the sauces in really large pots, placed them on a gas range over medium-low heat, and then stirred them every 5-10 minutes.

The line is where I learned to multitask.

All that being said, I still find the show oddly compelling. I'll probably watch for the rest of the summer, and hope that contestant Michael doesn't have some sort of breakdown and wins it all. He's the true Line Chef.

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