I started a new job a couple of weeks ago. The kitchen there is populated with young cooks, many much younger than me. I’m the oldest person working in the back of the house. At this point in my life, that’s not notable. Restaurant cooking is a young person’s game.
As in any new job, I have to be trained to the specific standards and practices of that institution. So, I found myself taking notes from much younger folks with far less years of restaurant experience than I have (and at my age, believe me, I have some). Some of them had actually worked for me or alongside me at a former job where I was in charge of training them.
Those who hadn’t worked with or for me before had no idea what my experience level was. The woman training me for lunch service was thorough and kind. While guiding me through the training process, she asked if I’d ever cleaned salad greens before. It was hard not to laugh; I’ve probably cleaned hundreds of pounds of salad greens in my career. But I was determined to learn their specific method. Of course, I already knew to be gentle with these beautiful hydroponic greens, and that I would float them in cold water, gently swishing them about and letting any soil or grit fall to the bottom of the container before removing them to a salad spinner without disturbing the layer of dirty water at the bottom.
And though I knew how to use the salad spinner, what she knew (and I didn’t) was where to stage the spinner, where to most efficiently gather the cold water, where to dump the water after cleaning the greens, and where to set the lid during loading the spinner so it was hygienic. She also reminded me to taste everything in my mise-en-place before service. Everything — even potato salad tasted the previous day, even pickled vegetables which almost never go south, freshness-wise.
On my second day, I over-zealously loaded the cart I was using to stock my station, and a container of pickled beets went overboard, creating a huge purple puddle in the center of the main walkway between the prep kitchen and the service kitchen. No one batted an eye, and I didn’t get scolded. The dishwasher helped me get a mop bucket together, and another cook came behind me with a dry mop to make that area of the floor safe. While I was working to clean up the spill, folks just jumped over or tiptoed around the puddle. I’m sure there were some chuckles behind my back, but I earned those.
My first service by myself was a little bumpy. I failed to pull enough biscuits for brunch and had to ask permission to go off the line to pull more. I ran out of a condiment I hadn’t realized I was responsible for whisking together, and the sous chef had to make it for me on the fly. Everyone pitched in to help me over the speed bumps. The next day, I apologized to the chef for my substandard performance the day before, and he said “What are you talking about? You did fine. Here are some pointers to help you succeed …”
Whatever new job you take over, you have to absorb all the knowledge of the folks who’ve been doing it before you. Every restaurant has its own way of doing things. It’s to your advantage to learn from the people who already work there, no matter your level of experience. Some dishwasher will always know the best place to fill the mop bucket; some server will know where to grab a linen napkin to wet down and put on top of your salad greens; some prep cook will know exactly where the brunoise sweet potatoes are in one of the walk-ins. It’s good and appropriate to be humble, no matter your level of experience.
Speaking of being humble, I’m humbly proud to be associated with APRON, Inc. (I am a board member of this non-profit charity for cooks and servers who work at independent restaurants in the Metro Area). Please consider dining out at one of nearly 50 restaurants on Wednesday, Feb. 3. These restaurants are donating a portion of their proceeds from that day to APRON, which supports local restaurant employees when they run into financial trouble through no fault of their own. For more information and a list of participating restaurants, visit APRON’s Facebook page or our website at aproninc.org. •
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.