Kitchen Confidential: The 25 Lessons Chefs Teach On The First Day

The kitchen can be a hard, alien world to live in. You’ll be pushed around relentlessly, perform tedious and repetitive tasks until your fingers bleed and you’ll be perpetually exhausted. None of it matters, though, if you have a true passion for food and enjoy the hustle and bustle of hospitality.

If you’ve chosen the life of a minion under the sovereignty of the Chef, there will be no room for disobedience or laziness. Leave your opinions at home, too, for the Chef will always be right!

Starting your first day in the kitchen, fresh from school and eager to put yourself out there, you’ll find that there is no experience that could’ve prepared you for a life in the kitchen. May it be a small one with just one chef, or a massive one with at least five kitchen hands running around like lost chickens, you’ll find that the only way to fit in will be through unequivocal dedication and continuous hard work. Your teammates will be more important than you initially would’ve thought. Underneath all that roughness, cursing and shouting, there lies the mutual passion for food in every teammate and the shared experience of living the kitchen life, where you can draw strength from.

However, your first day can be daunting. We’ve laid out for you the 25 lessons chefs teach their pupils during their first shift, so you can prepare yourself a bit (or enjoy the fact that you’re just working in accounting and don’t have to deal with all of this).

25 The Chef Is Always Right

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As important as your opinion might be at home or on your blog about cupcakes, the chef Does. Not. Care. They have had many years of experience and has found a particular way that works best, so you'll do well to remember that. Besides, they've been down the same path as you’re currently going, where they worked hard to get where they are now. Don’t ruin it for them (or yourself). Always let them know you’ve heard them after they've yelled out a new order, by replying “YES CHEF!” It’s almost as if you’re being trained in the army!

24 If The Chef Is Wrong, Refer To Rule 1

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In the rare occasion where you might suspect that the chef’s made a mistake, don’t be inclined to tell them or others. Since they carries the full responsibility of the kitchen, whatever happens in the kitchen, will fall onto their lap. Maybe you have learned a different way to cut those beans. Maybe you know there’s a better way to cook lamb cutlets than sous-vide. Bring them the solutions, not the problems. Be a good subordinate and don’t question their authority or decision making. The chef knows best and that’s the end of it.

23 Clean Up After Yourself

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As obvious as this rule sounds, it’s not as straightforward when you’re rushing through the kitchen trying to make ends meet. The last thing you’d want to add to your predicament is that, while trying to get to the fridge, you’re slipping and sliding over leftover pea soup on the floor and having to push your way through bin bags and dirty pots. Things might get hairy. It’s easy to forget your mess and when everyone else doesn’t bother either, that’s when the kitchen transforms into a jungle. So, do yourself a favour and wash those knives and pans after you’ve used them.

22 Preparation Is Key

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Wondering how kitchen staff work those insanely long hours when lunch and dinner are only served a few hours of the day? Mise en place. It’s the French word for preparation of dishes and ingredients for the beginning of service. Translated to English it means ‘putting in place’, which is exactly what the kitchen does. Parsley needs to be picked, potatoes need to be peeled, fish needs to be skinned and pizza bases need to be prepared. The true secret to a well-functioning kitchen with fast service is preparation. And it is astonishing how many hours you’ll need to have everything ready to go.

21 Watch Your Posture

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In order to avoid an instant hernia to your back, try to pay attention to the way you’re standing while cutting those carrots. Although it is essential that they’ll receive your close attention, it’s not meant in a literal way, where you scrutinise every line and dent in the vegetable. Working in a place where you are required to do heavy physical labour for long hours, it is imperative that you watch your back - literally. You won’t be able to help out your workmates or Chef when your back is so sore you’re walking around as stiff as a poker.

20 Don’t Complain

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Some days the kitchen will be so hot, it’ll feel like the oven is the coolest place around. No air-conditioning can cool down a melting kitchen, not even the most ingenious one. However, try not to complain. Your workmates are going through the same thing and your grumbling about is not going to perk up their moods either. Same goes for the long hours, where you’re positively sleepwalking and your body aches in places you didn’t know you had muscles. Try not to complain. Instead, think of a happy tune and dance through your 16-hour shift like an elated ballerina!

19 Expect the unexpected

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While the Chef has given you a preposterous amount of tasks to perform and you’re attempting to get through it all while perspiring profusely, an oven blows up and all the immaculately marinaded chicken breasts have been burned. Instead of continuing your job, it’ll be required of you to help out with this utter disaster. Being flexible is essential. Since everything is run by time in the kitchen, you might often have to help out in order for the kitchen to be ready for service. Being creative and being able to adapt to new situations will make for valuable qualities in a kitchen hand.

18 Be A Team-Player

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Whether you’re working with just two people or with twenty, in the kitchen, you’ll work as a team. Like a fluent team of basketball players moving towards the hoop, an organised kitchen is a happy kitchen. When you find yourself ahead of your schedule, help your fellow mates out with their accumulation of chores. butchering meat is not exactly a job anyone enjoys, though doing it together might make it slightly more bearable. Besides, the Chef will probably be marginally less irritable if everyone has completed their tasks on time, which is a win-win situation!

17 Warning, Tedious Tasks Ahead

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There’s no way to sugar-coat this part about working in the kitchen: you’ll be performing monotonous, repetitive tasks hours on end. If you’re extra unlucky, you’re working in a restaurant where everything is locally-sourced and freshly-imported. Although it makes for an enticing marketing trick, it’ll mean that all vegetables, meats and fruits need to be washed, cut and trimmed by the kitchen before they’re able to use it. You can’t expect to serve canned onion soup to the customers, can you? The secret to working your way through those tedious tasks is going through all your favourite Christmas albums in your head. Or you might finally get the chance to catch up with the new girl next to you - misery loves company!

16 Work Smart & Hard

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Someone might say, work hard. The other might contradict that by saying that the trick is to work smart instead. We’d suggest that you take both visions into consideration. When you need to serve three smoked salmon salads and expect to be serving a few more soon, work ahead! Don’t just make one bowl at a time, whilst running around panting and frantically moving sauces and spices out of order, but use the same ingredient for all three of them before putting it away. You might still be labouring, but in the end you’ll be panting and sweating a little less. And that’s worth a lot during a lengthy service.

15 Wear Proper Uniforms At All Times

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Those permanently greasy aprons with unremovable stains from its previous owner are going to be your garment for mostly every day of the week. Although it’s likely not the most fashionable outfit and you’d rather work in your baggy jeans and comfy jumper, these uniforms are designed to look like your granddad’s overall for a reason. They’re meant to be hygienic and protective, where they mainly protect you from heat and burning. The last thing you’d like to encounter is Dave from the grill running around, shrieking that he’s on fire because he didn’t wear is uniform today. So, get comfortable in those greyish cloths if you value your skin.

14 Use The Right Chopping Board

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If you are colourblind, you might encounter an issue here, for it's important to use the same coloured chopping board for the same type of food in order to prevent food poisoning. An article from news.com claims that the common chopping board harbours an astounding average of 24,250 potentially deadly bacteria per square cm, making it 200 times dirtier than a toilet seat. Dr Lisa Ackerley claims ‘its a dangerous source of cross-contamination’. Therefore, besides how grossed out you are at the moment by your 5-year-old chopping board, using different colours to separate your meats from your vegetables, might actually aid in the prevention of food poisoning.

13 Multitask, Multitask

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Sometimes, the only way to get through an accumulation of tasks is to pretend you’re an octopus and use your long tentacles to cut, slice and dice all those veggies and fish. However, too much multitasking can be counterproductive too. It’s easy to forget a pot where you’re trying to simmer rhubarb, while you’re whisking the eggs for a custard and microwaving chocolate to melt. In order to avoid an outbreak of absolute chaos with burning pots and a kitchen in a thick layer of smoke, rather focus on the tasks at hand if it requires your full attention.

12 Passion For Food

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Have you ever heard of a chef who didn’t have a passion for food? Someone who rather pursued a career as a professional basketball player, but got stuck working in the kitchen? What a sight that would be! For someone to endure these long hours of tough, physical work, it is crucial you have an affection with food. Devotion and passion are the key ingredients to be able to face the hard life of working in the kitchen every morning. Even though it might not feel as if you’re cooking a lot at all with all that prep that needs to be done, it is still something you’re working towards. And you’ve got to love it.

11 Not A Goldmine

Working in hospitality is often not a branch where you’ll get to become a millionaire in a few years and starting out as a kitchen hand in Canada will definitely not make you rich. The average hourly rate of a starting kitchen hand/ dishwasher is a mournful 13$. Through the years, roughly five to ten, you might rise to become a chef, where you’re pay rate will increase to a whopping 2$ extra per hour! You and I both know that’s not worth all the trouble if you’re life’s purpose is to get unlimitedly wealthy. Hence, working in the kitchen is not a goldmine (although the hard work might be strangely similar to working in a mine).

10 Broken By 40

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The brutal work pressure adds to the physical labour and long hours, which often affects the mental health of chefs. In 2017, the Unite conducted a survey where they shed some light on the dark side of the kitchen life in the UK. Almost half (44%) of the chefs assessed said they work 48-60 hours per week. An overwhelming 79% said they have had an accident or near miss due to fatigue, where 51% chef’s report to be depressed due to being overworked. 27% drink to get through their shifts and 56% take painkillers. The Work Until You Drop mentality is taking its toll on the unrecognised engine of hospitality.

9 Forget Your Personal Life

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The sentence “the kitchen is my first home” has been said so often by chefs and kitchen staff, that they may as well tattoo it on their forehead. Working shifts from 8 am until 12 am and opening the next day at 6 am is not unheard of. Reasons why chefs work these insane long hours boils down in the end to an inherent passion for food and service of food. That, and the fact that becoming a chef is a highly competitive aspiration to have. Like any other job where one strives to be the best at, it requires a huge amount of time and sacrifices to your personal life. So, maybe instead of forgetting to feed your beloved Maine Coone cat, take her with you to work?

8 No Recognition

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Hardly ever will you hear praise for a job you’ve done well, which will be tough. Imagine, you’ve just spent two full minutes of your precious time applying decorative edible flowers to your dish, yet no one acknowledges them! However, you’ll soon start to recognise the unusual silence of the chef. There’s this queer thing in hospitality and mainly in the kitchen, where praise is a rare, fleeting friend. Treasure your appreciative nods from the Chef, though accept that silence instead of critique, is sometimes worth more than you would’ve initially thought. Besides, you’re doing this for your undying passion for food and not to appease your chef, right?

7 Be A Tough Dove

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Warning: Contains coarse language. If you’ve ever seen Gordon Ramsay’s shows, you’ll know what I mean. Part of being a kitchen staff is dealing with delicate time pressure and everyone’s in a rush. It’ll cause everyone to be short-tempered and you can expect to be yelled and cursed at. However, do not let it get to you. Although it might be hard at first, you’ll eventually learn to build a wall to those hurtful, yet surprisingly creative insults. Soon, you’ll be the one shouting slander like Gordon Ramsay, so you know where to work towards and learn from the best.

6 Respect

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Not only respect your teammates, but also the kitchen rules and the equipment you’re working with. There is a reason why the intimidating meat slicer is placed away from the stove. The kitchen can be a treacherous environment, where lethally sharp knives and slippery surfaces lurk around every corner. Besides the safety aspects, equipment is often rather expensive too and you do not want to have a broken mixer of $15,000 on your conscious. Be considerate of your mates too, by giving them enough space and love. They’re working as hard as you are and you want someone to talk to during those mundane prep sessions.

5 Wash Your Hands

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Wash your hands! A rule that sounds so simple yet is forgotten so often. Handling different kinds of meats and fish all the time, you don’t want to risk spreading salmonella, believe me. Basic hygiene can go far. Trimming your fingernails, tying up long hair and try not to dribble too much on that steak when you sneeze. You might also want to avoid sneaky creepy ants getting into your eggplant salad, since no one is going to enjoy finding those in there. Again, the rule is simple. Hygiene is essential to a happy kitchen and a happy chef.

4 Become Immune To Heat And Frost

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Rewatching ‘Frozen’ will not make you an expert on how to handle the freezer, though it might get you into the right mood. Dealing with melting heat and icy coldness is a massive part of the job, since everything is either stored in the freezer or heated up on the stove. Tempering chocolate, for example, is often done in the fridge. You might spend a significant time standing next to the pizza oven, feeling the droplets of sweat trickle down your back. Plates and pots will be hot but don’t worry, your unfamiliar hands and body will get used to it soon enough.

3 Announce Your Presence

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Calling out ‘Backs!’ when you pass someone in the kitchen is an important feature, since it will prevent clashes or tricky cuts. Similarly, calling out ‘Hot!’ when you’re carrying a pan full of boiling water towards the sink, will refrain anyone from a premature shower. You do not want to bump into someone who’s balancing five oven trays and three bowls. So, it’s time to vocal chords warmed up and shake off your shyness, for you’ll be announcing your presence as bold as a peacock ready to mingle (you can leave out the funny mating dance they do).

2 Break Down Projects

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The best way to try to cope with the workload and pressure is by simplifying your tasks. Masterchef’s Croquembouche was a stunning yet elaborate dessert. However daunting the recipe may have looked, they broke down the recipe into parts making them easier to understand and overlook. In the end, almost all of them ended up with a near perfect result. By doing this, you’ll gain clear-headedness and will be able to tackle any Croquembouche-like project in the future! Or you could just assign different tasks to your workmates to increase the fun and get it done faster.

1 It’s Not A Job, It’s A Lifestyle

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Lastly, becoming part of the kitchen is going to take over your life. You will be exhausted, aching, possibly crying, though if this is your true passion, it will be mostly exhilarating, invigorating and satisfying. You’ll get to pursue your dream of becoming a chef. There will not be a day where you’ll get bored, for there’s always an expecting twist happening in hospitality. Learn to deal with the tougher parts of working in the kitchen and work hard, though always take the necessary time to relax. Hardly any job is as time-consuming as being or becoming a chef, though in the end, it will be worth your while.

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