Cooking in a Parisian 3-star restaurant and not speaking the language or understanding the cultural subtlties causes some interesting situations – some funny, some not so funny. As I just recently found out English is outlawed in the kitchen…well, sort of…
I came into work for the Saturday night shift ready to get the amuse bouche station into gear and was talking with another stagier (apprentice). He was explaining the variations of the soup for me in English. There was no one in the kitchen yet – just us – and no real need to keep our voices down or hide our conversation in English.
Out of nowhere, the coffee maker guy started to yell at us. “Pas Anglais! Anglais – NON!” He went on to tell Justin that he was not allowed to talk to me in English and that we were both going to get in a lot of trouble. Justin fired back that he was only trying to help me with the different plates for the soup as it was my third day on the job.
I kept thinking, “Great, the coffee maker guy is telling me that I can’t talk in my mother tongue and he’s obviously not from France orginally, what a jerk!” But then the thought donned on me that I am an immigrant and an American at that. I started to wonder what it must of been like in Early America with immigrants coming from all over the world speaking different languages.
How hard it must have been (and must be today) to find work and friends. To survive. And here was this guy, totally out of line, yet in some ways totally right – I’ve got to learn French. Period.
When the chef in charge of the Amuse Bouche station came in, the coffee maker guy told on us just as promised. But our boss just shrugged it off and told me not to worry about it. Later I heard from another young chef that English is forbidden and if some of the older chefs hear me speaking English they will get angry.
I had to think about this for awhile. What was the big deal? Was this because they hate Americans or because if you have a kitchen of people shouting multiple languages you’re going to have some pretty messed up dinners. I hoped the later was true.
So I started the shift upset that I had been yelled at for speaking English. We don’t talk to each other like that in American restaurants. At least not in San Francisco where most kitchens have an equal staff of men and women of all different nationalities.
Our chef de cuisine for the evening was a man who I was warned about. I was told that he would not tolerate English and was very strict. Funny enough, the Chef de Cuisine had just come back from America and was eager to speak English. When I attempted to hold a conversation with him in French he replied “You can speak English with me, I want to speak English”. Ha!
The Chef was an excellent leader the whole evening, he knew just went to raise his voice to get the kitchen moving faster and when to laugh and give praise. He was even tempered but demanded excellence on every plate that passed by on the way to the customers. We were slammed that evening, but we made through it good spirit. If I was ever to sail through a typhoon, I would want to be on his boat.
As the night winded down, with only two orders yet to fire, my boss at the Amuse Bouche station told me I could go home. I started to take off my apron and wish all the chef’s a a “Bon soirée’ when the Chef de Cuisine stopped me and said in French that it is customary to give two kisses when you depart for the weekend. The kitchen of eighteen young men stopped and stared at me to see just exactly how I would respond or if I even understood.
I looked at the Chef de Cuisine quizzically, “You mean the two kisses on the cheek?”. “Yes” he responded and laughed not thinking that I’d actually go through with the dare. So I walked forward and gave him two kisses and the whole kitchen burst out in laughter. Although the greeting with kisses is traditional, it’s not something you do to the big boss.
He then pointed to the other main chef and said, “And him too!”. The kitchen staff paused again to see my reaction, “Him too?” I went over and gave him a double peck. And one last time he pointed to another chef and said, “And him too!” and I replied “Okay, him too, but that is it!!!” and the whole kitchen burst into laughter again.
I think we all left that evening on a high note. For a brief moment we had all managed to transcend the language, cultural, and male/female barrier and just have fun. It’s amazing how far a little humor and a lot of hard work will go.