A Chef, Without the Line: Part 2
Part 2: The unedited thoughts of a chef who struggled with suicide and substance abuse, beginning a new life through music.
As a chef, I hate how passionate I am about the small details. It’s almost a sick turn on to be a perfectionist, worrying about the small details in a sadistic OCD behavior of everything in its place. Every time I step foot into the kitchen, onto the line to prep, cook, and push through dinner service, I always see service as a formula one race. The operation must be perfect in order to win and not a single person can win by themselves. Down to every little detail that would prevent a kitchen or its service from being absolutely perfect. I began to hate people who didn’t have the same outlook as I did, in the sense that excuses were made to why the job wasn’t done and or jobs were done half ass. I always believed that food needed to be perfect, every time. No exceptions. It was an art form to be respected.
For about three years, when I was really striving to develop my skillset and talents as a chef, I began to send my resume to Michelin Star Restaurants. It was an idea that spawned from watching a short documentary on YouTube on how Michelin Star Restaurants and chefs produce. I knew, or I should say, I believed I had what it takes to be a Michelin Chef, not at that exact moment, but I knew I could develop myself into this caliber of a chef, and I believed that if I could get my foot in the door of one of these prestige establishments, I could do it, or at least absorb all the information I could and use in my repertoire of skills.
I figured in order for me to be considered for any of these establishments, they needed to see my skillset and talent, not only on a resume, but in some sort of visual fashion. I began to submit with my resume the absolute best photos of my food. From edible cocktails I had won competitions with, book publication photos, to fruit sculptures. It wasn’t the type of photos that… well they didn’t look like shit in other words. I spent a lot of time and energy into taking these photos, and making each dish perfect. My assumption was that the photos would speak for themselves and I would be getting calls or emails left and right.
Sadly, I hadn’t been getting any responses from any establishments to come stage at their location for about two years. I began to send one establishment in particular my resume… maybe once a month, then it became every other week, once a week, and sooner than later it was every day, and sometimes twice or three times a day.
“Stage” is a culinary term used to describe how one individual will come and work for free. Pretty much a way for the restaurant and applicant to test each other out.
On a cold winter night, eating Little Caesars Pizza on my floor after work, that annoying little iPhone notification ding went off. Assuming it was my annoying boss of a prick with no skillset whatsoever in a kitchen was calling me to come in and cover a shift for the evening so he didn’t have to. I refused to look at my phone, kind of like a cop not writing a speeding ticket; “If I don’t see, I don’t write it.” Three, maybe four hours had passed and I finally realized I needed to look at my phone and see what was going on. I received an email from a Michelin Restaurant; the restaurant I was constantly emailing. Subject line titled: “Re: Career opportunity.” Before I opened the email, I stopped and paused as I could see who the email was from. I was scared, fucking Scared. The email was sweet short and to the point.
“Hello Daniel, I received your email and welcome your interest in a position on our brigade. We require that you complete a stage with us in order to be considered. Please let me know if this is something you are interested in and we can take it from there. We are currently looking to fill Commis and Chef de Partie rolls. Thank you.”
At that exact moment, I celebrated with a shot of rum, maybe two, and started looking for plane tickets immediately. I was out in Chicago two weeks later. I spent every penny I had for hotel lodging and transportation fairs. I even took out a thousand-dollar loan from a shady cash advanced location just to get out there, even after I was in the negatives with my bank account. I don’t think I had ever been more nervous in my life, making such a rash decision to travel thousands of miles to work under intense conditions. Even though it was food, I felt like I was being selected to work on the next Apollo mission to the moon and I would never get the opportunity of its kind again. Not many cooks and or chefs get this opportunity to work in a Three Michelin Star Kitchen, but I did and I…. I was speechless.
The first morning of my Stage, I woke up extremely early. Kind of like a kid on Christmas waiting to open their gifts. I had a pretty heavy breakfast knowing I probably wouldn’t eat during my work schedule. I took a cab to the restaurant an hour and a half before I was supposed to arrive for my shift. In the middle of a Chicago winter morning, I walked up and down the street and the restaurants back alley dozens of times, asking myself “You ready for this?” I was so eager, hyped like it was my first time about to get laid.
There are very few things you can remember from your past in a vivid sense. Naturally, the brain blocks out memories and makes space every minute for new ones. The moment I walked into the kitchen, was the moment I will always remember pure silence, and how fucking weird it was. Walking in I was abruptly stopped by Chef Dan, one of the sous chefs at the time; he came and grabbed me and took me into the basement, showing me where the chef coats were and that was it, stating “Change, bring tweezers, a paring knife and a chef’s knife and leave the rest of your shit down here. Get upstairs quickly. I have a list for you.”
On the same day three other cooks were staging alongside me, like the scene out of The Dark Knight Batman movie where the Joker explains how the operation is small, but with room for expansion with only one spot open right now; all while the Joker breaks a pool stick stating their would-be tryouts. It felt pretty cut throat and may the fittest survive.
I quickly got changed and ran up the back basement stairs with the other two cooks close behind me. As the last cook walked into the kitchen where a door separated the basement storage from the kitchen, the door slammed, with the third guy being starred at from a crew of 20 chefs stopped in their place like dears in headlights, judging with a look of disgust. First lesson of the stage, don’t slam doors. Silence is gold in this kitchen.
The amount of detail was ever so erotically displayed by silence as every single chef worked with an extreme sense of urgency. You could almost hear each and every thought by every chef in the kitchen through the shear silence resting on every station. Chef Dan handed me my prep list with a friendly facial gesture, “I could give two shits who you are or what you can do, but get to work.”
I read my prep list thoroughly; inspected every little note and detail about it. Before I had flown out to Chicago for my stage, I researched the establishment immensely. Down to every dish, how they garnish, their expectations and plating styles. I had really prepared myself to work in this kitchen and I was determined I was going to be offered a job. I knew looking at this prep list exactly what I needed to produce and how to produce with a high level of accuracy.
Prep list read:
- lime julienne
- red onion julienne
- fresno rings
- banana pepper rings
- ginger rings
- pick/compress Vietnamese coriander
I was quick to start my prep, and prior to doing so, I spoke with Chef Dan on his expectations of the garnishes and my prep list. As a chef, I am always wanting my crew to ask me questions on production or procedures before they start work. Clarifying anything that would prevent shitty work and having to produce something multiple times due to errors, that way everyone is on the same page and it leaves an open forum for discussion, input and suggestions; plus the crew knows my expectations and the project is done right the first time.
Asking Chef Dan how he needed the prep list done was almost sin like. I was starred at in a condescending fashion, as if I didn’t know what a julienne was. A basic French culinary classical term that every cook would know. After his sarcastic explanation on my prep list production, “You don’t know what a Julienne is,” all while responding as if I was in boot camp training “yes chef, no chef,” I began my first task of “lime juliennes.”
You’ll notice I quoted “lime julienne.” As I mentioned I did my research on the restaurant prior to my stage arrival and fortunately, I had got a task on my list I had been practicing from research on the establishment. I knew that each rind of the lime needed to be peeled from the citrus meat inside. Then, with the upmost delicacy, I needed to use a paring knife to skin away the white membrane from the rind that binds to the citrus and rind itself. This was a process I had practiced several times before my stage. I knew I needed an extremely sharp knife and had trained/made my muscle memory perfect to produce this garnish. Not only did the rind of the lime need to be almost transparent green, the cut of the rind needed to be the width of a hair strand. I had ensured each of my knives I brought to Chicago would cut the souls of its enemies just by looking at the chromed steal blade (LOL).
Chef Dan had walked by and noticed my garnishes. In Michelin kitchens, really any kitchen, hierarchy is a form, a respect, very militaristic in fashion when it comes to responding to your chef and their authority. Chef Dan began to inspect and critique my work. “This is shit, throw it away. You know we only have room for perfect here.” Without hesitation I replied “Yes Chef,” and began to start the process over again. After several more ½ quart delis filled with lime juliennes were thrown into the garbage, I began to think, more frustrated at the fact I felt like I was being hazed and if I was going to crack under pressure. Several others chefs during this process had come up to me and stated my knives were “shit,” even to the point one of the other line chefs brought over his knife for me to use after inspecting my work. The line chef stated my Juliennes were not the “correct size” and that they needed to be thinner. Again “Yes, Chef” and continued my work.
Contemplating the work, my ego began to kick in. I had thought “I’ve created a world record for fruit sculpting.” A skill that really no one possess that requires intricate detail and precision with a knife. Almost surgical like. I knew how to handle my knife, let alone keeping my knife extremely sharp. I took out my fruit sculpting knife and began the garnish once more. After completing the task, I finally had Chef Dans approval, relieved I could began working on my other tasks of intricate detailed garnishes I knew was going to be scrutinized.
I’m an asshole, especially when I’m right. I know that. What I did next took balls, and I am shocked that I even did it. I walked back over to the chef who lent me their knife to use for my lime julienne garnish. While handing his knife back to him and a simple, “Thank you chef, you might want to sharpen your knife, it’s pretty dull. I couldn’t create the 1/8 x 1/8 x 2” cut needed for a julienne, but I was able to create the hair thin garnish expected of me with my knives.” I knew why I said it. I couldn’t stand that I was being critique on a knife skill that wasn’t even the dimension of a Julienne! I myself and my tools were being criticized as “shit” because the chefs didn’t even know the dimension of a classical Julienne cut, nor could they reproduce the cut themselves as they tried to demonstrate to me, and were requiring me to create a garnish that was virtually transparent and as thin as a hair strand.
At this moment while I continued my prep, I began to look around the kitchen, absorbing everything I could. I noticed, besides the eerie silence lurking in the kitchen, every single chef kept their head down. There was no camaraderie within the team. No one cared about the person standing right next to them or even bothered to lend assistance. Everyone had this demeanor to only look out for themselves, as if everyone was in the state penitentiary.
I didn’t like it. There was no feeling that everyone served a purpose together, the end result was for the team to win together. I noticed things that should have been happening but were not taking place in the kitchen. There were no sanitizer buckets, no one was washing their hands and cross contamination was everyone’s best friend here. I thought to myself how could this place represent three Michelin stars, failing at the common practices? I was shocked that I was witnessing this and if anyone spoke up about these topics of practice, they would be dismissed pretty rapidly.
My shifts were filled with silence and my inner monologue began to become my best friend during my stage. On a particular day prior to dinner service, all work was stopped so that the Head Chef could speak to the crew. We were informed that we would be participating in the culinary Olympics, all while stroking his own ego with every word he vomited out.
As much as I want to name drop the establishment and the head chef, I can’t out of respect, and mainly because I don’t want to find myself down a dark alley only to wake up with clubbed knee caps soaking in a pool of my own blood. Before I ever staged here, I looked up to this chef. I wanted to learn from him, I respected his work, his philosophy on food, his personal story and his journey to get where he is now and how he conducted his team.
Just listening to him was disgusting. He had put on this façade while on camera, then walked around like he was god with a 12 inch black c$%k in his restaurant, loving the sound of his own voice and his existence, all while everyone praised the ground he walked on. I saw right through that bullshit.
Before every dinner service, the team would have family meal that the line cooks would produce. I had the pleasure to make the salad for the crew and for the chef. I was actually very excited to produce the salad as this is where my culinary world started and my strong points were amongst greenery and vinaigrettes that tantalized the taste buds.
What was so bizarre, is that prior to the crew gorging their only shift meal for their 12 hour slave driven silence, everyone had to wait in line like a Hitler youth rally, waiting for the head chef to come in and serve himself first. I couldn’t stop thinking how pompous and arrogant that was. I sat eating my shift meal, noticing the head chef was looking at me. From what I could tell, he was asking who made the salad, as the Exec Chef and Chef Dan pointed at me. I never heard from him, but I remember he had this impression of something that sparked an interest with him eating what I had produced, almost like he saw my passion through food.
Dinner service would take place and I was assigned to be on what a normal restaurant station would call “starters.” Through reading this, I am sure you can imagine there was little to no training in this establishment, nor any type of introduction or orientation on what to expect. I began working on the station with this arrogant little shit of a “chef.” This line chef had to be no more than twenty-three at the time. I was so eager to work dinner services that I kept asking him what he would like me to do, since no one spoke a single word during production. I recall he would ask me to run to the basement to pick up product, then with my return to the station, he would ask me to run back down stairs to grab something else. Over and over I became his personal errand boy for the station, one task at a time; soon leading to his personal dish washing servant running dishes to the dish pit, one dish at a time. I stopped and pulled him aside and politely told him “look man, I worked my ass off to get here and work, I spent a shit ton of money to be here too. If you’re going to have me run to the basement and get stuff, give me a list so it can get done in one task rather than several and much faster. Have me cook, produce, prep, whatever it takes. I’m here to work, assist you, but I’m not going to be your little servant.” This little shits response was so entitle, arrogant and egotistical, I walked off and chose another station to work during the rush. Forever will I remember this establishment and the people they employee. He responded to me, “If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other chefs who will run my dishes for me. Maybe (bank… restaurant name) isn’t for you.”
I was shocked. Disappointed that I worked so hard to get here and everything about the restaurant was a let-down. I remember the next morning I called my mom and just talked to her about it. I told her everything and how let down I was, asking if I made the right decisions. We spoke for about two hours before my next shift, and every second I was contemplating buying a plane ticket and flying home. I began looking into the emails the restaurant had been sending back and forth with me for my stage, re-reading them for some reason. I began to notice their unprofessionalism in the emails, their inability to even use proper grammar or have correct spelling. I don’t know why I was analyzing everything, but I began to feel I was in Chicago to learn something. Not to cook and work at the restaurant, but felt a sign was put in front of me and I needed to listen. I decided to continue my work and I showed up for my next scheduled shift. Prep work continued with constant scrutiny and harassment of my knives as well as another Hitler youth rally shift meal.
My last diner service in a three Michelin Star Restaurant consisted of this…
I will always remember the executive chef under the head chef was on a high horse, yelling at people, dictating to them how much better he was then the rest of us, pompously stroking his ego because no women in their right mind would ever want to be involved with a man like him. He made it so clear he was over compensating for a small appendage, walking through the kitchen with his demanding dictations, especially with cleaning. Working in the kitchen everything needed to have a “pristine” appearance, polished and wiped down. If you weren’t doing anything you needed to be cleaning, wiping surfaces and such. I felt at some point by how much I wiped my table down, I was going to burn a hole into it. I found myself wiping surfaces down, rather than producing any type of food I came here to do. I get it, I love cleanliness in a kitchen and I’ve often been called the cleaning Nazi, but the restaurant took it to an extreme where it became counterproductive.
Towards the end of the night, one of the chefs named Chef Mike had come up to me and asked me to torch some compressed roots for dinner service. He asked if I knew what burnt wood looked like, and jokingly I mentioned I was from Colorado and experienced the Waldo Canyon and Black Forrest Fires. We both chuckled at the fact that the next task I was given, I would be able to accomplish pretty easily. Chef Mike took me outside where a grill was located and instructed me on how to torch these parsnip roots. Now in Chicago in the middle of winter with a wind-chill factor at ten degrees, I am trying to torch these damn parsnips to perfection with only a chef coat for comfort, shaking like the last autumn leaf on a tree, trying to not to die. I come back inside from the blistering cold with my parsnips finding myself being placed on Pastry with another chef.
On the pastry line, I was instructed to plate desserts. Doing so I noticed one of the service vessels we used to plate some caramels was smudged with finger prints. The serving dish was like an old circular ocular two inch lens made out of glass. I mentioned to the pastry chef I needed some paper towels to clean the smudge, and a quick “no don’t worry about it” disregarded my comment. Now I am standing here thinking, I busted my ass to get to a Three Michelin Star Restaurant and I am being told not to worry about the small details such as finger prints on a dish… things that determine good from great, that allow for such things like Michen Stars. Like what the hell? Me and me OCD kicked in, and I decided to grab some paper towels and polish all the glass service ware. While I was polishing the service ware and minutes after from being outside in the freezing arctic tundra conditions, my shaking hands dropped the circular dish on the floor. Before I forget to mention, the kitchen line was lined with black carpet; I’ve never been able to stop a crowd and draw attention to myself the way I did in the exact moment. The whole service line stopped, starred at me as if I just murdered as small child, with barely any sound omitted from the drop of the dish that didn’t break. I remember watching an interview of the head chef where he is talking about the conjuring of one of his dishes and how it came about from someone dropping food on the floor; that dropping food on the floor in his restaurant was a “huge no no.” I immediately thought of this and before I could even stop thinking about that interview he had with Oprah, Chef Dan was right up my ass, asking why I dropped the dish and what happened. I explained to him I was only trying to remove these oil smudges from the service ware. I was then instructed to go apologize to chef for what I had done, as if I stole a personal possession from him.
I began taking the embarrassing walk of shame with my tail between my legs as everyone watched me approach the fearless god almighty. “Chef, I am sorry I dropped the service ware. I was only trying to maintain Three Michelin Star Quality expectations by polishing finger prints off the pastry vessels.”
I wasn’t sure what else to say, how to ask for forgiveness and continue to stroke his personality with a side blow job I could inflate his ego even more with. Something that is/ was a complete accident shouldn’t have made such a big deal, EVER. I’ve worked in many kitchens and lots of items are dropped, dishes are broken, things get misplaced, all of the above. It’s the nature of the beast when working in restaurants. I just recall the feeling of being labeled as an infant beneath the egotistical chef I was apologizing to. With no response from the chef, nor a face to face conversation or any thought that he should acknowledge my existence, arrogantly he shoed my off with the way of his hand dismissing me back to the lions den.
I walked back to my station. Stood there with a towel in my hand. I began to wipe more surfaces for fuck sake. Then, I just stopped. I folded my towel, then put it neatly on the table. I grabbed my knife and approached the executive chef. I think I knew subconsciously what I was going to do, but something took over and I couldn’t control it. I approached the chef. I shook his hand and thanked him for his time and the opportunity knowing I was probably making a mistake leaving what is considered one of the best restaurants in the united states. He told me they were going to offer me a position tonight. I respectfully declined and said it wasn’t for me, that I learned more valuable things in my time at the restaurant than I could possibly imagine.
I walked to the basement. Grabbed my belongings and that was the last time I was ever in a Three Michelin Star Restaurant.
About a week after my visit, I had decided to send the head chef a letter. I explained my experience to him, told him how I felt about the gestures I was submerged through. I explained how his chefs place a name on the establishment and how I was told, after how long I worked to get there, that the “restaurant wasn’t for me” because I didn’t want to run dishes as a servant and their chefs lack team morale and leadership skills. I remember sending him photos of my work within the letter, almost like a “hey dude, you lost someone talented.” I left disappointed and I’m sure others have too by how much time and money was spent to get into this restaurant for a learning experience. I explained not one thank you was given for my time to be within the establishment. Shortly after I noticed the restaurant posting a group photo of their chefs, stating they encourage anyone to work on their team to learn their techniques and amongst many other hidden culinary gems they had to offer. I laughed and I like to think I had something to do with that.
I came home explaining my experience to my family. All of which they didn’t understand why I left Chicago and felt like I couldn’t handle the work and I just needed to shut up and keep my head down. My father had this tone of disappointment and regret that he was not able to brag about me working in a Three Michelin Star Restaurant anymore. This was really the first time I saw my family look at me as a poor investment and asset to the family.
Any time prior to this experience, I wanted to explode at someone for something they did or didn’t do in the kitchen that really didn’t matter, they didn’t know, they weren’t shown or trained; but now… I stop. I would think and always remember how the chefs at the Three Michelin Star Restaurant would degrade “the help,” talk down to their staff, and disrespect good help and forget that the person there working, is ultimately a person. It made me a better chef, but really a better person, putting people first over the work. Still to this day, I have my prep list framed so that I will always have a reminder of my experience. How I can and shouldn’t act. And what I can do to make a difference with people.
Treat people right, do good and be good. It's lonely at the top, so try and get as many followers as you can to enjoy the top with you. That’s what I learned.
Still to this day, I am waiting from my response from the head chef.