Running "The Gauntlet" to becoming a "Chef"
We're Chefs, we did not get to where we are today with defeatist attitudes, or complaining about our "lot in life". We are where we are through hard work, perseverance and an unbending intent to succeed. We've "Run the Gauntlet" to get to where we are. We are resourceful, tenacious, stubborn, idealistic, purists, and perfectionists; we are passionate and dedicated, (I dare anyone to try and tell me different).
It was in a discussion recently that fellow Chef David Buchanan used the analogy of "Running the Gauntlet", referring to a concept that I had brought up, "survival of the fittest" in the kitchen and the failure rate of people in the kitchen before they make it to a Chef's position. When Chef David said this to me the "light bulb" went off for this article.
"The Gauntlet" is the stumbling blocks, the difficult circumstances, the low pay, the long hours, unreasonable demands, the stress, physical demands and HOT kitchens, etc. And not to forget, the neverending knowledge that we are constantly learning; our's is a vocation that we will be learning about til the day we die. In the recent discussion I referred to these conditions as a "weaning" process to "thin the herd", this is the reality of the kitchen, I don't think I can change it so I have to accept it. In accepting it I understand that this is the true school for Cooks, (we are all Cooks, "Chef" is an appointment and you better be a damn good Cook before you accept a Chef's position), it is the nature of the business and maybe it's this way to provide that weaning process, if one is not capable, one will never pass all the "tests" that are put on the Cook's path. It is the "school of hard knocks" that we all have to go through to succeed in this business.
Speaking of school and to address a hotly discussed topic from some other posts/threads is the calibre of culinary students coming out of our schools. I have the world of respect for our instructors, the instructors at my college were excellent but the students emerging presently have an attitude. I was told in cooking school, emphatically and repetitively, that I was learning the basics, that I would learn more in the industry, after 3 years, (basically an apprenticeship), I may get a commis position, it would take several years to go through demi chef, then chef de partie, and maybe, if I was decent, a sous chef's position in 6 to 8 years, easily 10 years or more before I could think about a Chef's position. This is what we were told in our cooking school, (1982). I don't understand the graduating students emerging from college now expecting to get Chef's positions. This is where "The Gauntlet" begins to take it's toll, the "thinning of the herd". (Of the 18 students in my cooking class most were out of the business in the first year, the final one to quit lasted 4 years). These students are already coming in at a disadvantage due to their attitude and are in for a rude awakening, (hopefully there are some students, apprentices and recent grads reading this). The issue is not the schools or instructors, there is far too much knowledge required to be taught in a limited amount of time, everyone needs to come in with their eyes open, it will take years, and you have to survive "The Gauntlet".
"The Gauntlet" is the years of pressure, stress, being yelled at by "The Chef", getting burned, cutting yourself, suffering from bouts of "The Wolf", (you know, the chafing in the buttocks remedied with corn starch), being "in the shit", etc.; it is our real teacher and it is brutal. Hence my analogy of "thinning the herd", "survival of the fittest". As we all know the failure rate in the kitchen is high, but maybe for good reason. I am realizing, and it is from recent discussions that have crystalized it in my mind, that this is the natural order of kitchens, (Thanks Chef Buchanan). It is what it is.
So what's the point I'm trying to reach?
It's a Saturday night, 7:30, your second seating is starting to arrive. You're overbooked, your combi-oven has just "crapped out" on you, your 2nd Cook/Demi-Chef, in the salad/cold app station, is on the way to the hospital to get stitches, (only because you have no time to stitch them yourself), I could go on but I think you get the idea. What do you do? (remember you're the Chef). Do you cry and whine? Do you run to the office with a bottle of Vodka? Do you have a tantrum with yelling and screaming?
Of course not. You put on your "game face", you delegate, you organize, you work your ass off, you sweat. You end up with a successful night. Why? Because you've survived years of training by "The Gauntlet", it is "The Gauntlet" that has prepared you for this moment, (and every moment that you go through on a daily basis). "The Gauntlet" will "make you or break you" and if you haven't been trained, passed the tests put on your path you will never survive a night like the one I just described. We need "The Gauntlet" to teach us and take us to that higher level of performance. It is an intregal part of our careers.
I'm accepting that this is our "reality" in the kitchen, like the Saturday night dinner scenario I just mentioned there's nothing I can do about it so I'll put on my "game face" and just work with it. Personally I'm happy to have survived "The Gauntlet", (and I'm still surviving daily as it is a neverending process).
A large part of my job, and a very rewarding aspect, is teaching and mentoring. Having recognized "The Gauntlet" for what it is I can use it as a tool to help me teach.
So for all you Chef's out there dealing with the low pay, long hours, lack of appreciation, stress, prima-donnas, HEAT and Sweat, etc. are you going to put on your "game face" and accept that this is our reality? And appreciate that this is "The Gauntlet", our greatest teacher? Take comfort in the fact that we are an elite few to survive, "The Gauntlet" has tempered us to be the Chefs that we are today. It is "The nature of the Beast" of kitchens. And I for one, There's no where else I'ld rather be, it's my "Dharma".
I'm reminded of the old saying, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".
"For those about to Cook, I salute you."
I'm very curious to hear feedback and stories...
P.S. The picture I've posted here is Circa 1982 when I was at Cooking School. (still naive and unscarred by "The Gauntlet"). I chose this particular picture for Chef Michael Niksic's benefit, (he likes pictures), take your best shot buddy, I'm ready to "Run the Gauntlet" :) (originally published on LinkedIn, July 19, 2014)
Happy Cooking Everyone!