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Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Lineby Michael Gibney
The kitchen is best in the morning. All the stainless glimmers. Steel pots and pans sit neatly in their places, split evenly between stations. Smallwares are filed away in bains-marie and bus tubs, stacked on Metro racks in families—pepper mills with pepper mills, ring molds with ring molds, and so forth. Columns of buffed white china run the length of the pass on shelves beneath the shiny tabletop. The floors are mopped and dry, the black carpet runners are swept and washed and realigned at right angles. Most of the equipment is turned off, most significantly the intake hoods. Without the clamor of the hoods, quietude swathes the place. The only sounds are the hum of refrigeration, the purr of proofing boxes, the occasional burble of a thermal immersion circulator. The lowboys and fridge-tops are spotless, sterile, rid of the remnants of their tenants. The garbage cans are empty. There is not a crumb anywhere. It smells of nothing.
The place might even seem abandoned if it weren’t for today’s prep lists dangling from the ticket racks above each station—scrawled agendas on POS strips and dupe-pad chits, which the cooks put together at the end of every dinner service. They are the relics of mayhem, wraiths of the heat. In showing us how much everyone needs to get done today, they give us a sense of what happened in here last night. The lists are long; it was busy. The handwriting is urgent, angry, exhausted.
But now everything is still.
On Fridays you get in about 0900. As you make your way through the service entrance, a cool bar of sunlight shines in from the loading dock, lighting your way down the back corridor toward the kitchen. Deliveries have begun to arrive. Basswood crates of produce lie in heaps about the entryway. A film of soil still coats the vegetables. They smell of earth. Fifty-pound bags of granulated sugar and Caputo 00 flour balance precariously on milk crates. Vacuum-packed slabs of meat bulge out of busted cardboard.
You nose around in search of a certain box. In it you find what you desire: Sicilian pistachios, argan oil, Pedro Ximenez vinegar, Brinata cheese. These are the samples you requested from the dry goods purveyor. You take hold of the box, tiptoe past the rest of the deliveries, and head to the office.
The office is a place of refuge, a nest. The lights are always dim inside. It is small, seven by ten feet maybe, but it’s never stiflingly hot like the rest of the kitchen. A dusty computer, its companion printer, and a telephone occupy most of the narrow desk space, while office supplies, Post-it notes, and crusty sheaves of invoice paper take up the rest. Below the desk is a compact refrigerator designated for chef use only. It holds safe the chefs’ supply of expensive perishables: rare cheese, white truffles, osetra caviar, bottarga, fine wine, sparkling water, snacks. Sometimes, there’ll be beers in there; in such cases, there’ll also be a cold cache of Gatorade or Pedialyte for re-upping electrolytes. Alongside the refrigerator is the all-purpose drawer, which contains pens and scratch pads, first aid kits, burn spray, ibuprofen, pink bismuth, and deodorant, as well as a generous supply of baby powder and diaper rash ointment, which help keep the chafing at bay and stave off the tinea. At the edge of the desk is the closet, overstuffed with chef whites, black slacks, aprons, clogs, and knife kits. Shelves of cookbooks adorn the walls’ highest reaches, and below them hangs a mosaic of clipboards fitted with inventory sheets, order guides, BEOs, and SOPs. One of the clipboards—the one with your name on it—holds a near infinity of papers. On each sheet is a list of things to do: things to order, things to burn out, people to call, emails to send, menus to study, menus to proofread, menus to write, menus to invent. . . . You try not to look at your clipboard first thing in the morning.
As the opening sous chef, the first thing you do is check for callouts. In good restaurants, these are rare. A good cook almost never misses a shift. He takes ownership of his work; he takes pride in it. He understands how important he is to the team and he will avoid disappointing his coworkers at all costs. Regardless of runny noses or tummy trouble, regardless of stiff necks or swollen feet, regardless of headaches or toothaches or backaches, regardless of how little sleep he got the night before or what fresh hell his hangover is when he wakes up, a good cook will always show up for work in the morning. But things happen, of course, and sometimes even the most high-minded cooks must call out. And when they do, it’s up to you to find someone to cover for them. Given the limited roster of cooks in most restaurants, this task is often extremely difficult—something of a Gordian knot. So, if the problem exists, it’s important to diagnose it as early as possible.
If there aren’t any callouts, you get a cool, peaceful moment in the shadowy office to take stock. This moment is a rare encounter with tranquillity that must be relished. You chomp on a hunk of the morning’s freshly baked bread and click through your email. You fire up a few eggs over medium, trade morning text messages with your girlfriend. You duck out and smoke some cigarettes on the loading dock, step over to the corner store for a seltzer and a paper. You do as little as possible for as long as you can. For now, for just this very moment, the kitchen is yours.
Eventually your attention turns to the box of samples. It is fully within your purview—in fact it’s your charge—to inspect them for quality. The executive chef has made this clear. He trusts your instincts and expects you to act on them. Nevertheless, an adolescent excitement stirs in you when you open them up.
The Sicilian pistachios, forest green, are soft in your hands, succulent in your mouth. They are rich and sweet, like no nut you’ve had before. You twist the cap on the argan oil and a sumptuous perfume fills the air. Drops of the golden liquid trickle down the neck of the bottle onto your knuckles. Wasting it would be a sin. You lick it off. It is robust, plump, nutty. The PX vinegar counters the sultry fat with a sharp burst of sweetness. Unlike most vinegar, this redolent nectar is thick and syrupy, with layers of flavor.
The Brinata—the queen piece, wrapped in white paper with a pink ribbon—summons you. You gently lay the cheese in the middle of the desk and begin to undress it, slowly peeling away the wrappings to reveal a semihard mound with delicate curves and moon-white skin. To use your fingers would be uncivilized. You trace the tip of a knife across the surface in search of the right place to enter. In one swift motion, you pierce the rind and thrust into its insides. You draw the blade out, plunge in again. You bring the triangle to your lips. It melts when it enters your mouth. Your palate goes prone; gooseflesh stipples your neck.
This is the life, you think.
Afterward, you smoke another cigarette out on the loading dock and ready yourself for the day.
Time to get changed. You riffle through the office closet until you find a freshly pressed coat with your name on it.
Good whites are designed to be comfortable for the long haul—the hot, extended blast. Your coat, fashioned of high-thread-count cotton, buttons up around you like a bespoke suit. Unlike the standard issue line cooks’ poly-blend, the material for the chef’s coat is gentle on the skin, with vents in the armpits to let in air when it gets hot. Your black chef pants, in contrast to the conventional, ever-inflexible “checks,” are woven of lightweight, flame-retardant fabric meant to keep your bottom safe when hot grease splashes and fires flare. They slide on like pajamas. Your shoes, handmade Båstad clogs, conform to your feet like well-worn slippers. They’re ergonomically designed to reduce joint and back pressure, with wooden soles lined with a special rubber that’s engineered to withstand chemical erosion and to defy slippery floors. When properly dressed, you’re clad in custom-fitted, heat-resistant armor that’s light as a feather and comfortable as underwear.
Also in the closet is your knife kit. This kit represents everything you are as a cook and as a chef. Not only does it contain all the tools you need to perform the job, but its contents also demonstrate your level of dedication to the career. Certain items define the most basic kit: a ten- or twelve-inch chef knife, a paring knife, a boning knife. Other additions, though, might indicate to your colleagues that you take your involvement in the industry a little more seriously: fine spoons, a Y peeler, a two-step wine key, cake testers, forceps, scissors, miniature whisks, fish tweezers, fish turners, rubber spatulas, small offset spatulas, a Microplane, a timer, a probe, a ravioli cutter, a wooden spoon. . . . While these items are typically available for general use in most kitchens, having your own set shows other cooks that you are familiar with advanced techniques and that you know what you need in order to employ them. Also, having such a kit at your disposal means that you are ready to cook properly no matter what the circumstances.
Most important, though, your knives themselves tell how much the job of cooking means to you. A dull knife damages food. We are here to enhance food. Extremely sharp knives are essential for this purpose.
No one makes knives better than the Japanese. Every Japanese knife is perfectly balanced to perform a specific function, a specific cut. Its precision in this respect is unrivaled. Its sharpness, too, is unmatched. The metallurgy is most refined, a coalition of hardness and durability. No sophisticated kit lacks Japanese blades.
You take a moment in the office to examine yours, reflecting on your level of dedication. You know these knives as you know your own body. Their warm Pakkawood handles have shrunk and swelled to fit your hands; each blade welcomes your grip the way a familiar pillow welcomes the head at day’s end. You could cut blind with any of them. Their individual features, their nuances, are so entrenched in your muscle memory that even as they sit on the table, you can imagine how each one feels when you hold it.
The nine-inch Yo-Deba is bulky in the hand. She is top-heavy—a bone cutter, built to cleave heads and split joints. Beside her is the seven-inch Garasuki, a triangle of thick metal, meant to lop apart backs and shanks. She’s heavy, too, but more wieldy, with a weight that’s balanced at the hilt. Her shape tapers sharply from a hefty heel to a nimble nose, delivering her load downward to the tip. Honesuki, Garasuki’s miniature sister, sits beside her, similar in shape but lighter and more agile, for dainty work among tendons and ligaments. Even more ladylike is the Petty. Her slim six inches slither precision slits deftly through the littlest crevices. She works tender interiors, snipping viscera from connective tissue. Next to Petty is Gyutou—“Excalibur,” as you like to call her. She is the workhorse of the pack, trotting her ten inches out whenever heaps of mise en place need working through. And at the far end, finest of all, is the slender Sujihiki. At eleven inches she’s the longest of the bunch, but despite her size, she’s the most refined. She’s not built for the brute work of the other blades—she’s made to slice smoothly. A one-sided edge optimizes her performance. While her outward lip traces lines in flesh with surgical exactitude, the convex shape of her inward face attenuates surface tension, releasing the meat. Cuts go slack at her touch; fish bows beside her.
Here they lie before you, not reflecting light but absorbing it. They don’t shine like the commercial novelties on television. No, they are professionals—hand-folded virgin carbon steel. A bloomy patina colors each of them, nearly obscuring the signature of their maker. To some people, this gives the kit the tatty look of disuse. For you, it does the opposite. You see care and commitment in their dusky finish. You see a decade of daily work: a farm’s worth of produce cut, whole schools of fish filleted, entire flocks of lamb broken, thousands of hungry mouths fed. You see their maker’s hand in crafting them so well that they would last you this long. And you see a lifetime more in them, so long as you remain committed to keeping them clean and rust-free and razor-sharp.
Stefan, the closing sous chef, is due in shortly, and Bryan, the executive chef, won’t be too far behind him. You’ve been here almost an hour; the real work must begin. Espresso jolts you into action.
You start by greeting anybody who might be in the kitchen. There aren’t many people in at this hour—an a.m. prep cook, a baker maybe, a dishwasher or two—but you must see them and shake their hands. It’s an opportunity to confirm that anybody who is supposed to be in is in, and that everybody is working on something constructive. It’s also an opportunity to let them know that you are here, in case they get the idea to mess around. Moreover, it’s a signal of respect. A handshake in the morning is an important mutual acknowledgment of the fact that outside our work, we are all human beings, not just cooks or chefs or dishwashers.
“Dimelo, baby,” you say to Kiko, the senior dishwasher.
“¿Que onda, güero?” he says, turning from the slop sink to greet you. His hands are perpetually wet; he extends one out for the shake.
“Where’s Don Rojas?” you ask. “He’s here?”
“Sí, papito, ahi atrás.”
“Bravo,” you say. “¿Todo bien contigo?”
“Sí, güey. Siempre.”
You make your way to the back prep area—the production kitchen—to greet Rogelio, the a.m. prep cook. He’s loading split veal shins into a fifty-gallon cauldron. His forearms are thick and rippled from decades on the steam kettles and tilt skillets. You shake his hand and leave him to his work.
After the greetings, it’s time to do the rounds. First is a walk-through of the line.
The line is the nexus of the kitchen—the main stage, where thrills reside. It’s where the cooking gets done, where mise en place is transformed into meals, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. The three-hundred-square-foot section of the kitchen where half a dozen cooks and chefs work long into the night, straying seldom but moving much.
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