When I started my first kitchen job as a dishwasher at the age of thirteen, the world was a very different place. It was 1998. On my first day at the banquet hall, the Chef – a grizzled old Vietnam vet, with a hunched over back and a thick gray handlebar mustache and a raspy smokers voice – grabbed me ‘Hey kid, it’s getting close to time. Fill up the creamers.’
I had no idea what this meant at all. I was already terrified. This guy was scary. Everyone else was afraid of him. I figured I should be too.
Shit, he’s looking at me and I think he’s noticed I’m not moving yet. He repeats himself slowly, mockingly ‘Put the milk in the silver things.’ He gestured scornfully, pointing at the shiny silver coffee creamers.
Fuck. I don’t drink coffee, I’m 13, fuck’s your problem man.
‘Umm.. Where’s the milk for them..?’ I responded in my disaffected teenage voice.
He looks both a bit dumbfounded and a bit amused. ‘In the oven. Where do you think?’ He snickered… in the kind of way that scary drunk veteran snickers. Did I mention that it was my first day? Did I mention that I was 13 and never had a coffee before, nor did I have the vaguest clue about coffee service, or the proper temperature for milk going in to coffee.
When I slipped around the chefs table and actually opened the oven, he approached from behind quickly, slammed it shut with authority, and instructed me (more like screamed drill sergeant style) to “never ever, under any circumstances for any reason, ever ever ever open an oven or come behind the line. Period.” I was stupid for trying it and should be ashamed of myself for being that big of an idiot, he added in some longer more abusive wording.
I went on to work for him for eight years, and he became one of my first chef mentors.
But that’s how it was. It still sort of is. But it’s getting better.
Now I’m the one running the kitchen. I have employees. It’s my reputation on the line, my head on the chopping block, or my accolades to reap. And I get it. I get why so many chefs yell and scream and throw things. I get the stress, I get the pressure, I get the frustration, the heat, and the pain all over the body. But I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the guy that makes a teenager cry during work, the guy that makes servers afraid to come into the kitchen, the guy that publicly humiliates someone for a simple error.
I want to lead the kind of team that thrives on positivity.
I have a short temper. I used to let myself get riled up, throw pans, punch walls. That was the way it was done. That’s what I learned. Chefs leave knuckle marks in cooler doors. Chefs drink every night. Chefs sleep with waitresses and bartenders. That’s what I was brought up in. It was chaos and I’m amazed anyone got fed sometimes.
There has been a shift though. More and more kitchens are becoming civilized and dare I even say happy. Happy kitchens work harder, put out better food, and work better as a team with the FOH. There are still those stuck in the old school of thought, but the truth is they are becoming fewer and further between. The new generation is over that. We don’t need to put up with psychotic abusive old school chefs anymore in order to learn the proper techniques, we have youtube for that. We don’t need the yelling and cursing and threatening in order to motivate…. just cursing is enough. That part of the kitchen doesn’t change, we still drop 60 f bombs a day. But we do it happily. We can do it with smiles and positivity.
Every time I see a chef angry at his crew, it probably stems back to the fact that he hasn’t trained his crew properly.
The kitchen is a harsh environment already. It doesn’t need to be abusive. It can be an environment where learning takes place, where young chefs grow and develop skills, where mentorship and real training take place. That’s what it is like in the best of kitchens. That’s how I choose to run my kitchen. At the end of the day it’s a choice we make, to go into work and do the thing we love, and be happy about it. It’s that choice that defines us as chefs.
-Chef Jay Racavich