Like the general population, professional cooks come in a spectrum of shapes, sizes and personalities, ranging from angels to assholes. But, there’s one thing most of us have in common on a daily basis: We’re hungry.
I don’t mean driven or ambitious, though a lot of us are that, too. I mean we’re literally hungry. When people discover we work in food service, they often assume that means we’re noshing on the finest comestibles at work all day, every day — and that, at the end of the day, we come home and prepare gourmet meals for our loved ones.
That is a gross misconception.
Sure, we taste things all day. That’s what good cooks do. But we’re usually tasting components. Three spoonfuls of hollandaise while adjusting seasoning. One bite of a farm truck apple that’s been sliced and divided up between six people to judge the sweetness level. While checking for doneness, we sample a small roasted beet. If we eat an actual meal, it’s usually done sitting on a milk crate out back — whoops, here comes Chef, better get back inside. We don’t clock out for lunch breaks. And as for that meal, some restaurants have their cooks prepare a “family meal” to feed the other cooks and servers so they won’t get into the good stuff. But, with rare exception, it’s not a nutritious or satisfying meal. Sometimes it’s a frozen Sysco lasagna, or scrambled eggs and stale tortillas with sriracha.
One restaurant I worked in required the cooks to make family meal from whatever was on the “staff shelf” in the walk-in. The staff shelf was where leftovers went to die. Rice from three services ago. Fruit and vegetables on the very brink of molding or over it. Quarts of leftover sauce you had nothing to pour on top of. Cold, hard biscuits that were in the oven too long to serve to paying customers. Of course, I’m not suggesting management pass out tomahawk chops and fresh English pea puree to the staff every day. Just know that, like any other job, if we want to eat well and healthfully while we’re at work we have to preplan and pack it at home to bring with us, and there’s almost never a break room to eat it in.
Do you think we take off our aprons, clock out, come home and put on another apron? On occasion, we do, but usually we just collapse on the sofa and eat cold, leftover pizza directly from the fridge. Those of us with small children may do a little better, but then we just end up eating cheesy noodles and broccoli tots along with the kids. So, when our partners and loved ones make us a sit-down meal, we’re eternally grateful.
Then, there’s the family reunion or friends-having-a-cookout situation. Naturally, we’re expected to bring something spectacular, and we probably will — but then as soon as we open the car door, someone’s handing us a spatula and parking us in front of the grill. Nobody brought their taxes to have Uncle Fred the accountant examine, but Aunt Alice brought six 2-liters of diet ginger ale because she was too bashful to make her famous banana pudding since “you’re a chef.”
Give us your seven-layer dip, your from-scratch baked beans, your devils on horseback yearning to be free (those are bacon-wrapped oysters, and, if you didn’t know, now you know!). Thanks for the tower of paper plates, but where’s your famous bacon mac and cheese I’m always hearing about?
It’s OK to ask us for pointers, but don’t ask for an actual critique. I’m way too busy shoving your bread pudding in my face-hole to opine on whether you put the right amount of cinnamon in it. You don’t need to fish for a compliment. As soon as I’ve swallowed (or perhaps even before), you’ll get one. Perhaps you’re skittish since the last time you went to a restaurant with a cook. They seemed to be thinking of all the ways they would have prepared the menu items differently (it’s a sickness), but we don’t roll that way with our friends’ and family’s homemade offerings.
Please feed us. And look away if you see a few tears. A cook cannot live on roasted garnish walnuts and broken Parmesan crisps alone. •
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.