Being A Professional Cook

Being A Professional Cook

I have been a cook for over fifteen years. I work when you don’t. Rush hour traffic means nothing to me because I am always going in the opposite direction. My 9 to 5 is anywhere from 3 to 1, 12 to 12, or 8 to 6. If I’m lucky it’s only eight hours. Holidays, weekends, all that means to me is we are going to be busy. When you are spending time with your family, I am at work. When you are asleep, I am awake. While you are relaxing and enjoying the finer things in life I am getting my ass kicked for ten straight hours. My weekend can be any day of the week, usually a Sunday and a Wednesday. Why am I telling you this instead of giving you a recipe for the perfect sauce to put on that pork chop? I am telling you this and the things I am about to tell you because I think it is important for you to understand me, in order to understand this blog.

Imagine you are locked in a small, hot (40°c/104°f), noisy room with five other people. One of them is a drug addict, one is an alcoholic, one is a criminal, and one is a movie nerd. Each of you is given ten separate sets of tasks. Some of your tasks may be completely yours, but for some of them you may need components from one or more of the other people. Over the next ten hours the five of you will be given no food, and you will not be allowed to sit down. You will be given an order every minute for a different combination of all of your tasks and all five people must complete their part of the order at the same time, keeping in mind that some of the tasks require more than one person to complete. You have a time limit of twenty minutes per order and their are constantly people coming in and out of the room to ask you questions. To top it all off half of everything you touch is scorching hot, and a quarter of everything else is razor sharp. You cannot stop if you cut or burn yourself. Also, did I mention that when you complete a task, let’s say task five, it has to be the exact same as every other task five you have done and will do. It’s the same for tasks one through ten.

That is as close as I can get you to cooking in a professional kitchen without actually putting you in one. That is what myself, and people like me do everyday.

I have heard people refer to the kitchen as a machine. Though, I understand this analogy I have one of my own which I prefer. To me, a kitchen is not a machine, it is organic, it is like a ballet. There is music, singing, and well choreographed dancing. It starts with the low hum of the hood vents and the fridges. “Hummmmmmmm.” Then, the dishwasher kicks in. “Hoo shhh hoo shhh hoo shhhh.” Next, you have the sizzle of meat and vegetables when they hit a hot pan. “Ssssssssssssss.” You have the “Swoosh” when you deglaze a pan with booze and the whole things lights on fire. Next, you have pans banging against pans, and stove tops. You have the sound of plates, silverware, and glasses clinking together. The “sh sh sh” sound of steel wool scrubbing pots and pans. The printer screeching as it prints orders. All building in anticipating until finally the lyrics kick in. “Behind!” “Hot!” “Corner!” “Sharp!” A repetitious chorus followed by a call and response “Pick up ten!” “Yes Chef!”, “Four on two!” “Yes Chef!” “Pick up twenty two, thirty four, seven, and twenty one!” “Yes Chef!” “86 the f***ing clams!” “Yes Chef!” As the music churns, the dancers dance. The cooks weave in and out, twirl around each other, make precise movements done thousands of times. Dishwashers watching and waiting from the wings for the perfect time to make their entrance, darting between cooks, trying not to get a frying pan in the head. The show lasts all night long, and its the same show every night. No one ever comes to see it, but believe me, the show is always on.

In the fifteen years that I have been cooking professionally I have destroyed my body. My feet, knees, legs, and back always hurt. I have lost feeling in my left thumb and most of my fingers due to dead and damaged nerve endings caused by more burns and cuts than I can count. I have had at least one total nervous breakdown on the line and have consistent nightmares about the kitchen. I never see my friends or family, and my fiancee pretty much goes through life without me. I am constantly tired and my days off are spent recuperating, sleeping, and trying to rehydrate myself rather than hanging out with people or doing things.  The word f**k is the most predominant word in my vocabulary. I am crass, and quite frankly I am an asshole. I am not alone in this. Most of the people I have worked with over the past fifteen  years have been the same as me. We do not function well in normal society. We rarely interact with people outside our own industry and because of that have no sense of how to relate to them.

I know that from an outside perspective what I am saying sounds horrible. Why would I, or anyone else do this to themselves? Why would we put ourselves through so much shit for garbage pay and no respect? Well, it’s a complicated answer. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but for me there is nothing else I would rather be doing. At the end of the day when I get home and I am completely exhausted, starving, dehydrated, and in serious pain, I know that I have just done something that separates me from most people. The job that I do is so stressful, and demands so much of you mentally and physically that you have to be a special kind of crazy to want to do it. It is not something that just anyone can do. I have seen many people walk in a kitchen thinking they knew what they were doing and simply crumble under the pressure in mere hours. I don’t know if you have ever seen a person truly crumble, but I have. It is not a pretty thing to witness.

There is a certain high that comes from feeding 400+ people in a night. Being able to let your body run on auto pilot while your mind keeps track of the twenty-three things you have going on at once is truly a unique thrill. There is a certain feeling of achievement and relief after a busy night, when the kitchen is fully cleaned and all the literal and metaphorical garbage has been wiped away. It is as though you and your kitchen have been born again, washed clean of all sins, ready the for the challenges of a new day.

This is the life that I have chosen. If I could go back, I would certainly do it all over again. Maybe there would be a few things I would change, but I would definitely still be cooking for a living. Why? Well, because there is nothing else like it in the world. Everyday presents an opportunity to truly challenge myself, to test the limits of my body and mind. Everyday I push myself further than I thought I could the day before. When you take a second to look up in the middle of a busy service and see a board full of orders, and the printer hasn’t stopped in four hours, you learn who you truly are. You learn what you are truly capable of. In that moment you will undoubtedly question the life choices that have brought you here. You will tell yourself that you could just walk away right now. You could just leave, no need to put yourself through all this. Then, you look beside you and you see the people you work with. They are right there with you. They know you. They know you better than your family and friends ever will because they are you. They understand why you do it. Why you need to. To leave now is to let them down and that is unacceptable. You put your head down and you push forward. You drive harder than you ever have. You dig deeper than you knew you could. You accept your fate. You are here in this moment and the only way out is forward.

There is no better way for me to describe what I do and why then the way I just have. It is all these experiences that I bring with me to this blog. There are a lot of food blogs out there and I think that the above is what separates me from most of them. Almost anyone can cook something perfectly once, I can do it a thousand times. You don’t need to know how to do this, that’s not why I’m here. I am here because when you cook something a thousand times your learn the best way to do it. You learn things about food which could never be learned otherwise. It is those things that I offer you. I am here to give you tips based on my experiences to make your food better. I am here to show you have to save money in the kitchen, and optimize your time in the kitchen so that you don’t need to spend two hours a night cooking dinner. That is my goal with this blog.

I hope that you have gained an understanding and maybe respect for my profession. I also hope that you have a better understanding of me and what this blog is about.

Thank you for reading and next week I will back to food, I promise.

Chef, Benjamin Kelly.

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About Chef Benjamin Kelly

I have spent the last fifteen years cooking professionally and gaining an education in kitchens all across the country culminating in achieving my "Red Seal Cook" status. I have cooked for the governor general, a lieutenant governor, heads of major political parties, actors, musicians, professional athletes, and countless satisfied customers. Through all this the most important lessons I have learned are to be prepared and to keep it simple. My love of food comes from my mother. Some of the first and fondest memories I have are of cooking at my mothers side. She and I, would spend snowy winter days making tea biscuits and corn chowder, shepherd's pie, goulash, baked beans and oatmeal bread, or any number of other things. In the fall we would make pickles and preserves and forage for wild berries and mushrooms in the woods around our house. Our little farm supplied us with vegetables, herbs and meat in the form of chicken and turkey as well as their eggs. Most of the food we ate that we didn't grow came from other farms in our area, farmers who we knew by name. Growing up so close to where my food was coming from I gained a deep respect for the things we eat. That respect is something that I still carry with me. The lessons I learned at my mothers side, and on our little farm have stayed with me. I hold on to the memories, beliefs, and values. It is those things that have made me who I am today.
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One Response to Being A Professional Cook

  1. Pingback: I love fall | Chef's Notes

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