Confidential Kitchen: The secret chef

Foodservice Consultant’s new columnist is an acclaimed, award-winning chef. In this regular, anonymous, column they lift the lid on the real workings of a kitchen

Hello. My name is Chef and I’ve been cooking professionally for more than five years. This may seem a short time to attain the giddy heights of chef/patron of my own restaurant and normally it would be.

Five years to climb the grease-stained ladder of a professional kitchen; from lowly apprentice commis chef, to line cook, to sous chef, to head chef to actually being the name on the lease? Virtually unheard of: however I avoided this hazardous route via a gilt-edged break on a food television show.

That’s not to say I don’t have the scars, the burns on my forearms, the solid callouses on my fingers and the constant – mostly dull but occasionally agonising – pain in my lower back. All of which I wear with the deep pride that comes from working 80 or 90- hour weeks.

To suggest I circumvented the traditional path is perhaps wrong. By jumping straight in at the deep end, I gave myself no alternative than to get it right first time. I concentrated the process; reduced it, skimmed it and purified it and continue to do so today, because every service presents the willing chef with many opportunities to learn and improve.

“There’s more to running a restaurant than cooking” was the advice from a chef who I’d worked with briefly on a TV show-backed pop-up restaurant. He’d run the pass for our first service and given us a thorough working over, playing perfectly the hard-ass chef. I considered walking away.

But his advice was sound. There is much more to running a restaurant. If you begin with the basic premise that service must go on, then the human brain can become extremely adept at coming up with solutions to ensure that it does.

I’ve had to play many other roles. I’ve been a plumber when the sinks blocked with solidified grease, a computer expert when menus would not print and a gas engineer with MacGyver-esque initiative when the solid top ceased to work just before the busiest service of the week. I’ve learned to read a profit and loss sheet, how to maintain a steady gross profit percentage on food costs, and then how to watch in horror as all my hard work disappears when I realise we have one too many full timers on the payroll.

I’ve had to learn when to hire and, more importantly, when to fire, which is easy sometimes and yet always difficult. I’ve had to run services on my own, and tackled others with no kitchen porter, leaving me elbow deep in suds and detritus in the aftermath of two chefs cooking for 40-50 customers.

And at times, being a chef has been the hardest f***ing thing I’ve ever done, far more challenging and soul-sapping than I ever imagined. It’s strained relationships, one to beyond breaking point, asked more from my friends and family than is reasonable, and at times left me so tired I’ve been unable to cry.

But then I see my amazing team, chefs and front of house, fighting every battle with me. My fish supplier will turn up with another stunning delivery that surpasses my expectations. A dish finally comes together after weeks of trials. And a deliriously happy customer takes the time to pop their head around the kitchen door to say how wonderful their evening was.

So, yes, there is more to running a restaurant than cooking: and what better reason than that to re-tie my apron strings, sharpen my knives and start tomorrow’s mise en place?

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