It takes an incredibly ambitious person to stick it out in the kitchen. Whether at the sink, the salad station, or the stove, the work is meticulous and tedious. And it’s work that the entire restaurant depends on to function, though we diners often give chefs all the glory.
Many chefs, though, did prep work in kitchens before landing their own. We asked a few how those jobs prepared them for their dream role.
Gabe Barker, Pizzeria Mercato
Growing up, I have always worked service-industry jobs. I was a busboy at Magnolia [his parents’ restaurant], and I told my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school. They laughed at me and said, “Fine, but you have to work in a kitchen for a year first.” My first job was at a French bistro in California. It only took me two to three months to realize that I didn’t need to go to culinary school to learn to cook. I started as garde-manger, the salad station. They’d get rid of someone’s job and, by process of elimination, I ended up with three stations. It was the first time I realized I’d be successful. And when my family shucks oysters every Christmas. I’m most proud of finally being better at it than my dad.
I use the term chef loosely. Cooks are used to saying “Yes, Chef,” but I don’t enjoy that. If you spend a day with us, it’s light and jovial. I have a half-brother, and I’m the only one foolish enough to stay in the restaurant business. We work really hard and a lot, for not a lot of money. I spend more time with my two sous chefs than I do with my fiancée.
Billy Cotter, Toast and Dashi
My first job at a restaurant was as a dishwasher at my stepmom’s restaurant, 7th Street Café, where Watts [Grocery] is now. It had the most colorful barflies around in the history of Durham. That was in 1987. I was about seventeen and worked there a couple of years. I had quit school and was kind of a screw-up. Ironically, I decided to finish high school so I wouldn’t be stuck in restaurants my whole life. When I eventually went to culinary school, the old French guys loved to answer questions about their days as a dishwasher. That’s how they worked their way up. Dishwashers are the most important part. Without them, you couldn’t do anything. A restaurant would not function. Even now, I’m always a couple of no-shows away from being a dishwasher.
Oscar Diaz, The Cortez and Jose and Sons
One of my first jobs was at Alizé in Vegas, an amazing restaurant, and I got put on the line right away. That was a huge mistake on their behalf, because within the first day they found out I didn’t know shit. Every day I was going to work scared and leaving work relieved. My biggest fear was, I’m going to get yelled at all day. Because I genuinely didn’t know anything. I had to get over it.
Later, at Patina in Los Angeles, I worked with a sous chef named Santiago. He’d be like, “Are you ready to do some crazy shit? You’re going to have to work a lot harder, show up earlier.” I wanted to be in the industry and, sure enough, became better. Going into work was no longer fear, it was focus. Leaving work was no longer relief, it was achievement. He was like those gym freaks that keep pushing you. You have to be like that as a sous chef. He was a really good mentor. Everyone loved him, and he was really talented, but he was rough and expected a lot out of himself and others. So now I gotta push others.
Recently, when I’ve had to train sous chefs, I’m not patting ourselves on the back about a good Yelp review. The minute you reward yourself, you take your foot off the accelerator and get comfortable and complacent. I don’t want people coming in scared; that’s not good for anyone. But do you fuck with me or not? No one wants to waste anyone’s time. We’re going to find out real quick. And from there, the real badassery starts. Because when you have camaraderie and discipline together, you have the best crew, you kill it.
Cheetie Kumar, Garland
My life has been such a strange progression. I didn’t have the same kind of evolution as most chefs. I really only started my professional cooking career when Garland opened. I worked in the kitchen at a sandwich shop, the original Rockford, many years ago. I was a line cook and came up with the weekly specials. But I really got my restaurant experience behind the bar and catering on the side. I was in the kitchen for about a year and a half and after our band started touring a lot. I moved to the bar to help me make ends meet! I bartended on and off for ten years, including at the original Kings. The real lesson I learned early on that I still hold onto daily is to make lists! Prep lists, pack lists, order liststhey are a chef’s lifeline! When the unexpected always happens, you don’t have to rely on a stressed-out brain to remember the tasks at hand.
John May, Piedmont
I was still in culinary school when I first started out in the kitchen at Weathervane in Chapel Hill. School has its benefits, but it didn’t prepare me for what it’s actually like to cook on a line. That comes with experience, or, if you are lucky, like I was, you get a lifetime cook with compassion as a mentoror at least as a coworker. At Weathervane, I was thrown onto one of the busiest stations on my first day; I can still point out the permanent scars on my arms and hands from burns I acquired that night. I kept grabbing hot handles bare-handed, looking like the amateur I was. A cook whose nickname was Tigre thought it was hysterical. He always worked the station next to mine, and, for like two weeks, he let me flounder. One evening, I looked over at him laughing at me. He explained that, on the line, you hold tongs in your right hand and a towel in your left. He later admitted that he had to tell me that because I became less funny to him and just more sad. It was such an obvious thing to learn, but I am so happy that Tigre finally let me in on the tricks.