Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Eat to the Beat

It’s said that the color red is supposed to stimulate the appetite.  Bright dining room lights (vs. dim) are supposed to make you eat faster.  Textures and appearance are critical to your eating mood, especially if you’ve ever eaten sushi.  Restaurants pay thousands of dollars installing sound-dampening panels to ensure when they fill, it doesn’t sound like The Super Bowl.  But, what about the effect of music on your eating habits?

The speed of music played during a meal directly affects the pace of eating, and thus the rate or ease of digestion.  Studies have shown a mild increase in the rate at which people eat when there is spirited music versus gentle classical.  And louder, more aggressive music works the opposite way, reducing the number of bites and leaving the eater with an irritated, uneasy feeling.  This trade secret has long been in the quiver for many unscrupulous, if savvy, restaurateurs looking to turn tables in a pinch.  And, if you’re the last table of the night and suddenly notice the music shut off, that’s your cue to hit the road, Jack.

There are obvious arguments for music in restaurants, most of them common sense.  Music provides an ambient noise that makes people feel more relaxed to talk among dinner guests without being self-conscious of others listening in.  Also, music is a useful fog for that sensitive discussion between acquaintances, attorneys or would-be cheaters.  Music in a major key is more melodic to the ear and relaxing than minor, or dissonant tones; for example, Jack Johnson good, The Cure, bad.  In a public dining room, melodic rhymes relieve diner tension; Bustah Rhymes, causes it.  This same aural psychology is applied in casinos.  A cacophony of slot machine clatter would drive anyone mad after 10 minutes, but in a harmonic loop of arpeggios, the bings and bongs of winning machines become hypnotic. 

Music is personal and subjective.  Whether you’re preparing a meal or eating one, we play what makes us feel good.  It motivates!  Home cooks and line cooks rarely share the same playlists, of this you can be sure, but both hook in and stir it up to their own personal soundtrack.  A little bossa nova, Coltrane or cafĂ© accordion can relax the soul when putting together a leisurely Sunday supper for the family.   Alternately, a gritty grill cook breathes a little easier when the occasional f-bomb or axe solo grinds out of the Ipod dock.   Music is also a cheap and accessible pressure valve.

Not every professional kitchen, however, condones music.  Even in my own first kitchen, I wanted complete focus.  As much of an audiophile as I considered myself, I wasn’t willing to let details slide if someone was off in a Pink Floyd fantasy.  But, one afternoon while prepping for a party, I was alone and threw on some Rolling Stones to get me over the hump.  When the cooks arrived, they smiled, put on aprons and quietly went to work.  I’m pretty sure the food was some of the best we put out.  From that moment on, I’ve always shared the stereo with my cooks.

Here is an example where music may have actually helped improve the quality of food of an establishment.  One of the hottest and most revered restaurants in the world is Eleven Madison Park in New York City.  In 2006, when a critic reviewed the restaurant, though her comments were favorable, she lamented that the kitchen could use “a bit more Miles Davis”.  Without fully understanding what she meant, the line resonated with the chef and manager.  So, Swiss-born chef Daniel Humm read as many articles as he could find about Miles, and came up with a list of the words most commonly used to describe him.  The list included: cool, collaborative, fresh, vibrant, endless reinvention and spontaneous, to name a few.  Today, the sounds of his quartet and quintet can be heard piped into the kitchen as well as the dining room.  And, a reverent black and white framed photo of the trumpet master hangs in the Spartan kitchen.  Last month Humm was named Best Chef in the US by the James Beard Foundation, and Eleven Madison Park among the top 10 restaurants in the world, with three Michelin Stars and four from the New York Times.  Cool, indeed.

Music can affect mood, even if you’re not aware of it.  When the Shoprite at the waterfront opened a few years back, I queued up like everyone else to see what modern marvels awaited the culinary curious.  Much to my surprise, I first noticed not the shiny floors and pyramids of produce, but the music that was playing.  There was a smart playlist piped in of 80s tunes from slightly off the beaten path.  It added an unconscious spring to my step and made me take note of the age of other shoppers, mostly under 40, also tapping their toes.  Grocery shopping cool?  It could happen.  But, I get it.  We all have to shop, so any little nugget of newness can be a tipping point for customers looking to break up the monotony.  “When I met you in the res-tau-rant.  You could tell I was no debutante!”

Originally published in Out & About Magazine June 2012

Saturday, March 23, 2013

50 Things They Never Told You About Being a Chef: A Rebuttal

So, there’s this list going around the internet called "What to Expect When You Choose a Life as a Chef."  I read it.  I saw it reposted by a number of chefs and cooks.  And I re-read it.  And it made me think.  Two things were pretty obvious:  it was written by a cook, not a chef, and it was written by a Brit, not an American.

The latter can be witnessed by certain accepted spellings of Queen’s English, but a bit of history would reveal that nearly all the great expectations listed come from a different culture, one of European origin, and one that is largely becoming extinct from American kitchen culture.  

One of the most impactful books a young cook can read is George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”.  It chronicles the travails of two young immigrants employed mostly as kitchen plongeurs around 1900 when kitchen work was not just blue collar, but on the lowest of rungs of acceptable employment.  One step above being in prison.  And many of its employees were ex-cons, unskilled laborers and transient types.  Fortunately, between the addition of indoor electricity, proper ventilation, and the slow elevation of the profession of cooking by one Auguste Escoffier, cooking in Europe rose a few rungs up the ladder of respectful employ. 

Yet, a certain kind of Darwinian mentality still exists in many kitchens across the continent, mostly because of a hierarchy established by the same man who emancipated generations of kitchen slaves.  Escoffier's Brigade System explained in short: everyone in the kitchen has a job to do, and they become perfect at it or they get the boot.  Says Orwell of his experience, "I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another."

It certainly doesn’t help that two notorious European chefs who have gained international fame, fortune and notoriety in recent years have used this hook of “suffer to succeed” to earn millions of dollars from television shows and being branded as being “mean”. 

Luckily across the pond, schools of the culinary arts have been instilling a different mentality in young cooks: one of mutual respect among kitchen employees, but with the same work ethic as the European model and without the debasement of earning physical and emotional bruises for your mistakes.

So what is the difference between being a cook/chef in the US and abroad?  Below is the list that was compiled of all the realities of day to day life as a chef, based on the experience and observations of one of their own.  The biggest factor you must consider when trying to understand the nature of a cook/chef through a list of this kind is assuming that people who choose this lifestyle want the same things in life that other professions offer.  In essence, we are the opposite of people who would watch American Idol or similar claw-to-the-top type of talent shows and expect it can happen to them.

My replies are in italics.

What you can expect from making a living in a professional kitchen:
1 You'll almost always have open wounds on your hands and arms.
If you do, you’re not doing it right.  Yes, we learn from our mistakes, but if you constantly walk around looking like a leper, you’re not learning, you’re stuck in a masochistic loop, and maybe you should consider getting out.

2 You'll never meet new people because your social life deteriorates into non-existence.
I’ve met the most interesting people in my life through the hotels, kitchens and restaurants I’ve worked in without traveling to all the various countries of their origin.  Gotta go with “false” on this one.

3 You'll find it hard to start relationships because alone time will become a precious thing.
True, it is hard to start relationships, but I also know many inner-kitchen relationships where both have a more honest understanding of what that person is made of.  You won’t find a super-model, but then again, you weren’t looking for one, were you?

4 You'll lose your social skills.
Not sure what that means, but if it means not knowing how to act at a tea party, Walmart or the DMV, I’d say we fit in just fine with the rest of the public. 

5 Your sense of humour will degrade into the politically incorrect and socially unacceptable.
And we’d be right in line with those in the military, teachers, those in TV production, the music business and a host of other professions that tend to appeal to those with not-so-serious attitudes about the small stuff in life.  Let’s face it, these are the ones you’d rather be with, anyway.

6 You'll eventually start swearing like a sailor and you won't even notice yourself doing it.
See answer above.

7 You'll turn into an anorak/monomaniac and always turn all conversations back to food.
I confess I had to look this up.  “In British slang an anorak is a person who has a very strong interest, perhaps obsessive, in niche subjects.” My answer to this is, if you’ve ever worked in corporate cubicle life, the office is littered with such types. There's always one or two who don't know when to shut it down, but I wouldn't say it's exclusive to the biz.

8 You'll earn a pittance for years/decades.
This presumes, as I stated earlier, that you chose this profession to become rich.  There are very few people who make it out of their first kitchen job who don’t understand they aren’t doing it for the money.

9 You'll either lose a vast amount of weight or gain a vast amount of weight.
And the other option is remaining the same weight all the time?  Honestly, how many people do you know who are this way??  It is true when you first enter a new kitchen, your body will adjust to the work load, the eating habits and schedule.  When you do find equilibrium, so will your weight.

10 You'll never ever have a tan ever again.
Oh, horrors.  Now I’ll never be famous or get laid.

11 You won't become famous.
Think I’ve covered this in the previous answers.

12 You'll develop a habit, whether it be coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, cannabis, cocaine, or even red bull.
I can think of a few that are missing, but while this may be true, you’ve just described more than half the workforce in America.  Next.

13 Your feet will get destroyed.
Buy and wear proper shoes, you dummy.

14 Your back will get destroyed.
Insist on rubber mats, and stand the hell up straight when you cook.  This isn’t a librarian’s job, it’s physical labor.  Stay sharp, or you will reap what you sow.

15 Your hands will get destroyed.
See answer #1.  And, if you’re holding onto the hope one day you can parlay this career into being a hand model, perhaps he’s right.

16 You'll live in a constant state of sleep deprivation, indefinitely.
Again, once you develop a routine, you will find your balance, including a sweet spot for sleep, relaxation and even personal time.

17 You'll have to ask your friends to plan everything around your schedule, which is in complete opposition with their availability, because you never know your days off in advance and you probably won't be able to change it.
Wait, I thought we didn’t have any friends?  Plus, you’re used to showing up late anyway, as long as you get there, it’s like being upset you’re not the first at a party.  Boohoo.

18 You'll become of a very highly strung nature.
If you smoke pot, this is patently false.  Seriously though, all those self-help books out there also apply to us, and that is, it’s all small stuff.  If you do become Captain CrankyPants, you are only upset with yourself for not being able to admit you’re in the wrong field.

19 You'll become more prone to temper flare ups.
See above.  And puff puff GIVE.

20 Your awareness of other people's lack of efficiency and common sense will increase and your tolerance of it will decrease. 
Yeah, it’s called professionalism.  You don't want to be around people who are morons. There is nothing wrong with wanting to work with the ones who get it.  This is not exclusive to a kitchen.

21 You'll spend the largest part of your life cooped up in a small, undecorated room with poor ventilation, high temperatures, a lot of noise, humidity, no natural light and no windows, with a small group of people who will become your only social interactions.
Zero Dark Dirty Little Lie.  Jeez- this sounds right out of Orwell’s book.  A bit melodramatic.  But that small group of people they refer to is called a second family.  Unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t understand it.

22 You will work longer hours than you ever imagined possible or thought legal.
When you love it, you’re not aware of the hours you work.  It’s just your job.  But any job you hate will make you feel like you’re a slave to the time clock.  Be honest with yourself.

23 You will spend all your waking hours on your feet, never getting a chance to sit down even for 5 minutes.
It’s like saying pilots are constantly flying all day long without a chance to get up and walk around.  You can't cook sitting down!  Plus, with all that caffeine and red bull coursing through our veins, who can sit down and rest??

24 Your shortest work days will be longer than most people's longest, and your longer workdays, which make up about half of your working week, will be longer than the
average person is awake in a day.
Answered this already.  Wah.  Surgeons and mid-wives don’t complain, neither should you.

25 You will not cook gourmet dinners at home. You'll be too tired, and too fed up of cooking.
Then you don’t really know the restaurant crowd.  A few times a year, that group of degenerates you’re forced to hang out with all year round because of your "lack of social skills" will convene for pot luck dinners and piss-ups that rival any partying you’d have read about in Kitchen Confidential.  We are pros at this shit. And we do it up right.

26 You will probably start eating mostly fast food and cheap instant noodles.
A weak argument, but I admit the kinds of foods available to us at those unusual times of the day/night are limited.  Someone should fix this and open a 24 hour sushi-bar, otherwise known as New York City.

27 You will be the subject of abuse, whether physical or emotional. Officially, it will be as a test of character. In reality, it will be as a form of entertainment.
If it is physical, move the hell on, because they’re not professional or your friends.  The rest is part of bonding with your new family.  You cannot take shit too seriously and be so sensitive.  If you are, it makes them stronger and your life will be hell.  Laugh back.

28 You will end up spending so much time at work that your colleagues will know you better than your partner/family/friends do.
Yup.  And?

29 You will meet and form strong bonds with types of people whom you'd previously never even have imagined sharing conversations with.

30 You will be in a constant state of stress.
Not true.  You must work your station not let your station work you. Have a healthy sense of anxiety, but put things in perspective.

31 You will never be irreplaceable and will be expected to constantly give 110%.
If that is true, I’ll hire you on the spot.  As long as we understand each other.  Even my sous chefs will move on- and I accept that.  You should, too.

32 You will always be exhausted.
Yeah, if you sit up playing video games all freakin’ night, smoke too much, drink too much and sleep on the couch.  For Christ’s sake- be an adult.  Take care of your body and your mind. 

33 You will not be allowed to call in sick for a hangover.
And if you do, you will pay for it the next day in spades.

34 You will be expected to place your work before any other part of your life in your list of priorities.
Not true with me.  Family first.  Because you ARE family, and that’s how families treat each other.  But don’t tell me you have to miss a Saturday night because your buddy’s band is playing.  That's "day one" shit.

35 You will never be congratulated on your work.
Again, this falls under the heading of reaping what you sow.  I frequently thank my people for their work, and I recall the times as a cook when I was myself thanked.  Don’t take abuse, but also don’t expect a pre-school atmosphere.  You are expected to perform at a high level because it’s part of the job.  Here’s a hint- if you don’t hear it enough, maybe you aren’t saying it enough.

36 You will be expected to treat your superiors as absolute masters and never answer back, try to explain yourself, start a conversation, or show any other type of insubordination, even if you know that they are in the wrong or feel as if their behaviour towards you is unacceptable.
There is a time and a place for everything in a kitchen, including expressing your opinion, feelings or ideas.  Know when and life will be a lot easier.  Computers have many working parts, but only one mother board. Don't be a virus.

37 It will become very difficult to watch friends cook.
Yes, in the beginning, you’ll want to stop them from fucking up something really simple, but when you shut your mouth and realize that others are cooking for you, no matter how trivial, it is the holy fucking grail of kitchen wisdom.  Non-restaurant people will never understand that, because there really are some people who criticize others' cooking.  Chill the hell out.

38 Your mum will stop cooking for you because she feels embarrassed.
I don’t have a “mum”, but your Mom knows the score.  She taught you to cook, so don’t be a dick.  She brought you into this world, she can take you out.

39 You will be expected to cook for family gatherings such as Christmas EVERY SINGLEYEAR. Luckily, at least one year out of two, you will be working on Christmas.
Haha!  It’s part of growing up.  Like expecting to be off every time it’s your birthday.  When you realize it’s not such a big deal, you stop torturing yourself.  If you are off on a holiday, have that talk with the family.  Holiday means holiday.  That said, at least carve the turkey, you Turkey.
They’re proud of you, and this is their way of showing it.

40 At least one year out of two, and maybe every year, you will work Christmas, New Year's Eve, Easter, Valentine's day, Mother's day, Father's day, bank holidays, Halloween, your birthday, and pretty much every other day of celebration on the calendar.
Statistically, this is not possible.  Find a balance with your family and loved ones, and stop putting so much pressure on yourself to be there “at the important” times.  It’s kind of cruel for them to expect you to be there on the actual day of all these holidays.  Tell them to lighten up and have some perspective and flexibility.

41 You will have to work many years in menial positions before attaining any level of authority in the workplace.
Not if you’re good at what you do, you won’t.  We work in a very transient field.  Promotions are possible all the time.  And the ones that stand out for excellence are the ones that get them.  We’d rather promote the line cook who knows the staff, the menu and the operation than bring in a guy who applied for sous chef simply because he wants the title.  You have it all over that guy.  Don’t hide in the shadows.  Own what you do!

42 The better the restaurant is, the longer the work hours become, the more pressure you end up under, the more unhealthy your lifestyle will become, the more likely you will be to develop a habit, the more competitive the people around you will become, the less sleep you'll get, the less you'll eat etc.
There is a truth to this.  Know going in that you won't be there forever.  However, it is working in those environments that make you the unique chef you will become one day, and I promise you- you cannot trade the feeling that comes with knowing the temporary sacrifice you made has separated you from the pack.  You are on your way to becoming a true chef.

43 You will constantly make mistakes, and every time you do make a mistake, someone will notice it and make you understand that you are clearly a subhuman because only a subhuman could make such a mistake.
If I don’t notice mistakes, I’m not doing my job.  If you don’t notice your mistakes, it’s because you’re not paying attention, and whatever type of motivation works, a chef will find it to get the best out of you.

44 If you are a woman, you will constantly be the subject of misogynist remarks and jokes, sexual harassment, belittlement and remarks about your menstrual cycle.
And you will also make jokes about our pathetically small penis. 

45 None of your friends or family will understand what is involved in your work and you will never be able to make them understand.
Invite them in to eat one shift.  And maybe take them on a little tour of your kitchen.  And let them see how much you are respected, or how hot the kitchen is, or how noisy, or chaotic.  Or you could just give them a copy of Orwell’s book.  But, you likely share that misunderstanding of aspects of their life, too.  Know thyself.

46 You will spend vast amounts of money on equipment, books, eating in good restaurants, etc, which will leave you with not much money for other things. 
Such as?  Bills?  We must constantly educate ourselves or become irrelevant.  We most motivate ourselves (and each other) or become stale.  We must treat ourselves, or we’ll become bitter.  It’s called “renewing yourself”.

47 You will develop a creepy obsession with knives.
If by creepy you mean wanting really high-quality ones, or keeping them razor sharp, or taking them with you when you leave because you don’t want them stolen- then, yes.

48 If you are a pastry chef, you will develop a creepy obsession with spoons.
I would argue it’s spatulas, but, whatever.  Spoons are for tasting, and if you're using a spoon to taste instead of sticking your grubby little fingers in everything, then fine- creepy is as creepy does.

49 You will get a rash in your arse crack from the mixture of heat, sweat and friction that will not heal well, sometimes get infected, will mostly always be slimy and itchy and will be there most of the time.
Oh, Christ.  Take a shower! 

50 If you are the right type of person, you will thank your lucky star every single day for the rest of your life for making you take the best decision you ever did and become a chef. And you will fall in love with your job and never look back.  

You bet your sweet arse.

Congratulations, you’ve graduated to Chef.


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