Working in a French kitchen is like sailing on a French frigate in the 18th century heading out to war. Our code, work hours, and skills are more in line with the navy, than a bunch of tatooed swash buckling cons.
Remember, I said ‘frigate’. You know, one of those ol’ wind powered wooden fighting yachts with square sails and canons? Not Battlestar Galactica.
It’s France, not Mars, after all. And we don’t have nuclear technology aboard ship, we’re still pulling ropes and hoisting sails with blistered hands and feet wrapped in toe holds. In fact sometimes I think we’re still navigating by the stars.
Nonetheless, we gracefully sail onward.
Growing up in the French kitchen is a tough life. Teens sign up around the age of 18 and hand over their youth to indentured servitude knowing full well that the hours will be long, the work back breaking and monotonous, the pay ridiculously low, the camaraderie hearty, and the staff meals lousy.
They willingly do this. And, I might add, once a student is on this trajectory, it’s very hard to jump ship.
What are you going to do if by the age of 24 you realize this is not the career for you? You can’t walk the gang plank the way we do in the States between one career and another. No one wants a dishonorable discharge. Students are trained and tracked in one field at a very early age.
And think about this: spending 60 hours a week in a kitchen. Work starts at 8A.M. and goes to 11 P.M. with a short hour and half break in the middle of the day. There’s no time to go for a workout, take care of personal stuff, see family, or be with friends. There’s no time do anything else but cook and clean.
Is it really any wonder that there are few women in the French cooking brigade? Unless you are bringing your children into the restaurant to cook or can afford day care, kids aren’t an option. And, who can afford daycare on a cooks salary?
So the question remains: Why do French kids sign up for this kind of life? I’m still trying to figure this one out. But here’s some of the perks to working for a famous French frigate: there is an opportunity to travel to foreign countries as the restaurant expands its empire and there is great honor given to chefs in France.
But I’ll tell you life on board the ship can be truly suffocating. There are personality clashes, jealousy issues, cultural differences, language barriers, behavioral problems, and more. And all this gets blown up under a microscope because there is just no escaping. Thank God for le weekend or we’d all be court marshaled. Adults included.
Funny enough as much as we drive each other crazy, when the weekend does roll around, we all go out together and drink ourselves silly.
Well what else would you expect from a bunch of sailors?
It goes without saying that the captains are militant instilling fear while demanding perfection. But doing so only to keep the ship afloat, on course, the kids in check, and ready for battle twice daily. And when the lunch battle is over, after the deck is scrubbed down and casualties accounted for, everyone breathes a deep sigh of relief and relaxes for an hour or so before the dinner attack begins.
It is during these battle times that the ship comes together as one. Everyone has a job to do and everyone knows what it is. There is not a lot of thinking going on, just a lot of executing. In other words, we don’t always know what battle we’re fighting, we just know that its war and we have to rely on each other to win.
I have been asked before why it is that the Grand Chefs of France don’t cook anymore. Why do they just stand around? And I think it’s for the same reason that Captains don’t reef sails.
First of all, they’ve already done that for twenty years or more. The muscle memory of cooking is ingrained into every inch of their bodies. Second, they keep a constant look out over every dish that goes out. Third, they need to drive the team.
And I truly love this part of the battle. All the call and response that goes on makes me feel like we’re all pulling oars at the same time. Like we’re really getting somewhere fast. Without this, it would be a miracle if even one table got their food at the same time.
The chefs call out the complete orders and the whole staff responds, “Oui Monsieur!” loud and strong to acknowledge the command.
If some one doesn’t respond, then they get in trouble. Sometimes they have to scrub the deck after the service, which sucks. Especially when you’re already exhausted.
Perhaps you’re thinking that this is not a crime worthy of punishment, but really it is. The whole restaurant relies on verbal commands – no computer, no written down anything.
It is very, very easy to be concentrating so hard on what you’re cooking that you don’t hear the next order. Responding to the order is supposed to ensure that you’ve registered it.
For example, if the fish station is ready to serve up a juicy piece of turbot, and the meat station hasn’t even begun cooking the roasted veal chop then not only is the client going to be waiting a long time, but the fish will have to be thrown out and another fillet cooked. This costs the restaurant money.
Waste in a restaurant is often what makes it or breaks it. We don’t waste anything.
But I’ll tell you, once you’ve been punished once, you’re less likely to make that same mistake twice. It’s a tough way to learn, but at least we don’t tie sailors to the mast and give lashings. (Although, sometimes I think this might work better.)
And no, I’ve never seen anyone picked up by the scruff of their neck and thrown against the wall or anything like that.
Well, once, but it was more of a peer to peer “discussion”. There were no officers involved. And I suppose the young man had it coming. It didn’t hurt him – just knocked the wind out of sails a little and shaped him up real fast. Growing up in the kitchen, you fall into line, or you fall off the ship.
The teasing can be relentless. One evening an apprentice started crying at the end of a dinner service. These apprentices are young, mostly 16 years old, and still in trade school. Yet, they work 12 -14 hours a day, just like the rest of us and alternate between weeks on and off for school.
I asked him if he was okay, in fear that maybe he was injured. But he just said he was exhausted and couldn’t stop the tears. And believe me, we’ve all been there before. The next day, all the other young guys asked him “What’s the matter Arnaud, you tired?” “Did you sleep well?”.
This went on for a full month. He sucked it up, laughed at it, and never said he was tired again. Lesson learned.
I get teased about my chef’s clothes as well as my hair styles and make-up. We wear our own jackets and cooks pants and mine are designer. Excuse me, but I am a woman and I like to wear chef’s clothes that fit my figure.
I am not square head to toe and my chef’s gear is designed by a woman in San Francisco who knows how to cut cloth for female cooks. I hear a lot of “What are you wearing today? Gucci?” to which there is really no reply but a smile or a quick fashion turn.
It’s all in fun, but lets just say that no one and nothing goes unnoticed. When I cut my bangs, I heard about for a week (it did look terrible). When I braided my hair, a slew of jokes I don’t even want to understand got cycled about. The last time I changed my perfume one of the servers called me on it. There’s just no escaping! Aaaaaaaaaaarrrgggghhh!
But, I think for all of our squabbles, there is a sense of family that can’t be beat. It’s why I’ve never even considered being a personal chef or anything like that. I love the team aspect of cooking. I like mentoring and being mentored. And I love the work.
The funny part about it, is the whole time you’re on the ship you’re thinking of how much you want to get off of it. And then when you get off, you can’t stop thinking how much you want to get back on.
That’s life on board a French frigate.