This is a painful story of my first experience with a professional kitchen. Before I begin, let me assure everyone that the story does end well.
Since coming to Chengdu, I have spent 8-12 hours of each day in a kitchen, be that at my school, a friend’s home, or out and about in small restaurants that have come to regard me as a benign presence, like a stray dog.
And yes, I can say that I do know my way around. If anything, the nearby restaurants are less intimidating than my school, since they use simpler versions of the professional equipment we use every day, and with one guy in the kitchen, their rhythm is more or less the two-person tango that I am used to, i.e., customer orders a dish, cook prepares the dish, happiness ensues. Much of the work like peeling and cleaning vegetables, etc. is done beforehand (that’s what mornings are for), but otherwise, the kitchen is a one-man show. Since our class is teaching us individual dishes (75 of them, to be precise), that’s also the way we learn: one dish, one person, beginning to end.
That’s not how a larger kitchen works.
Last Sunday I was invited to a special event, and by that I mean the event was me. A nice restaurant downtown asked me to come in and cook–four dishes for 12 people, and more if I was up to it. The rest would be handled by their regular kitchen staff.
Now since this place was an hour away, I didn’t go to visit beforehand, nor it seems was the kitchen told that I was coming. Nevertheless, they kindly offered me a station, and let me get to work. I emphasize kindly, since the kitchen staff was very gracious to their newcomer. For my part, I was well prepared–too well, in fact. I had been unable to sleep the night before, didn’t have time for breakfast, was rushed into the kitchen, and immediately found myself on camera.
Slicing pickled ginger.
Well, we all know what happened next. It didn’t look bad at first, but as everyone sprang into action to clean up the wound, it became clear first that I wasn’t going to be cooking dinner and second that I really needed to get to a hospital.
A very nice young kitchen assistant helped me stagger a few blocks to a nearby clinic. Along the way, I went from embarrassed to woozy. Just before we entered the clinic, we saw the very sad sight of a puppy that had been hit by a car. I’m not going to provide any detail on this, but it was what pushed me over the edge. We entered the clinic, I sat down on a little plastic stool, and immediately slumped over on to the floor.
I woke up after about an hour, got a good lecture on the importance of eating breakfast, and went back to the restaurant to apologize. They suggested that I stay for the social event (I was supposed to cook, and then give a lecture on my experience). Since I now had a hell of a lot of “experience” to talk about, I did stick around, and indeed had an extremely nice time.
In between though, I had a few hours to hang out in this much larger kitchen, just between the lunch and dinner rush. Everyone in the kitchen welcomed me back, and took turns showing me their various scars, and joking that my “blood sacrifice” now qualified me as a member of the club.
All kidding aside, I did see how much I learned. Every dish they made, every step they took in preparation, I knew by heart. Had I instead started the day on the “don’t cut the hell out of your hand” side of the fence, I would have made a fine dinner and been a help, rather than being terrified of being in the way.
In fact, had I come the night before, I would have understood that the crowd of talented cooks who rushed over to help me peel vegetables, wash the chicken, and take the other steps I had prepared to do on my own were not telling me that I was incompetent, but just following the usual rhythm of the kitchen. If you have time to wash the celery, you wash the celery. If you have time to refill the giant jar of minced garlic, you do that. The only time you work alone is at the stove. A professional kitchen is a crack team. Anthony Bourdain called it a “pirate crew.”
This all became clear the moment that dinner orders started coming in. For much of the afternoon, everyone had been working at a fairly leisurely pace. Fish were gutted (not by the cooks, this was the work of the dunzi), chilis were chopped, gleaming surfaces were wiped down, but nobody seemed in much of a hurry. For about a half-hour, we all stood around and talked about–what else–Donald Trump. Suddenly, a voice rang out over the walkie talkie and everyone sprang into action. Without a word, people began one by one filling metal bowls with ingredients in the order they would become a dish, all clipped to a printout of the order. These bowls began to line up along a long metal table that led to the stove, where one by one they were cooked–quickly and methodically, by the senior chef. In retrospect, I now see that’s what they were expecting me to do, and frankly, with all that help, it would have been a walk in the park.
So have I gained anything from this experience? Oh you bet I have. Beyond the obvious lessons (don’t skip breakfast if you’re planning to spend the day around knives, at least visit the place where you are planning to spend your debut), I realize just how much I have learned in cooking school, even if it took some pain to let the lesson sink in.