Working In A Restaurant Kitchen

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There is no "personal space" in a kitchen

I always get a chuckle when someone who is not in the restaurant business asks me about the show, “Hell’s Kitchen”.  Their question is always, “It isn’t really like that is it?”  The honest answer is that if you spend 30 years progressing up the ladder as a cook, you might one day get to work in a setting that luxurious.  I have the same response when a guest tells me that their child is looking into culinary schools, but have never worked in a kitchen.  They have no idea what they are in for.  It would be like going to work for Roto-Rooter after never having been in a bathroom.

So today I wanted to share some insights about what it is really like to work in a high-volume restaurant kitchen.  I have served my time in a handful and there is a reason I am a server instead.  Before you think of leaving your cubicle behind to become a great chef, these are some things you might want to think about.

Your cubicle is huge.  That kitchen on Hell’s Kitchen is a complete and total myth.  Of course so is every kitchen on television.  The reason is simple: in a real kitchen the cameraman would have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the person he is filming.  The average cook works in a space that is less than 4’x6’.  So cut your cubicle in half.  Then pretend that your desk is 350 degrees, your lamp is 500 watts, and your monitor is shooting grease at you.  You also might want to throw that chair out the window to get some ventilation since you won’t be sitting.

Speaking of ventilation, restaurants have their own system.  You have that cute little fan over your oven at home.  If that is a fan, what restaurants have are jet turbine engines.  They suck air out to prevent the smoke from entering the dining room.  This means that the smoke is drawn directly into the cook’s face.  As a result, they often leave work looking like a greasy faced coal miner.  This also results in spending several hours a day inhaling smoke through the nose.  The stuff that comes out of your nose afterwards looks like small nuggets of coal.

You will wear gloves during your shift for sanitation reasons.  These gloves are lightly powdered to make them easier to put on.  Over the course of a shift, you might go through 50 pairs.  Between each pair you will wash your hands.  You can give up being a hand model because your hands will be dry, cracked, and raw on a nearly constant basis.

Don’t worry though; when you go in for a manicure you will save money because you only have nine and a half fingertips.  If you work in a kitchen for any length of time, you will lose a fingertip.  It will be put on ice and someone will drive you to the emergency room, after the rush has ended.  I hear it doesn’t hurt that bad until the next day when you return to work and start cooking again.

You will also get a few burn scars to keep as souvenirs.  You cannot work around hot ovens, fryers, grills, pans, pots, grease, and boiling water without eventually burning yourself.  It happens to everyone.  Grab a pickle and apply it to the burn immediately.  This will take the burn away and you will be back over the stove in no time.  As a bonus, if you can manage not to pop the blister, you will develop a callous that is impervious to heat on that spot.

When you finally do get home from work, you will have earned a shower.  Not that it will make the smell go away completely.  Fortunately, you will be used to the smell of grease, sweat, and smoke in no time.  It will permeate your pores as well as your car, home, and anything you wear to work.  What you won’t do when you get home from work is cook dinner.  After making food for 250 people, ordering pizza will seem like a fine idea.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is the creator of The Hospitality Formula Network, a series of websites dedicated to all aspects of the restaurant industry. He is also the author of the book Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips and Building Your Brand With Facebook.

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4 comments on “Working In A Restaurant Kitchen

  1. meesha.v on said:

    that’s it – no fryers and grease in my imaginary russian restaurant

  2. Don Sexauer on said:

    Made me laugh. So true. After 30 years of working in restaurants and off-premise catering in Chicago I now teach. One of the things I’m asked every semester is “Working in a kitchen is like on TV, right?” I wish! Loved your blog and have reco0mmended it to many aspiring young chefs or their parents actually!

  3. Brian on said:

    So true! I love cooking at home, but after spending most of college working part time in restaurants I’d not wish that “career” path on anyone.

    To become a successful chef you either have to have not only exceptional natural ability and excellent training, but a access to a suitcase full of money to open and market your own restaurant. Even with that you will still need some well to do friends to give it word of mouth in the right circles if you want any recognition above any other normal restaurant.

  4. not ture on said:

    Your making this sound a lot worse than it actually is, working in a kitchen is not that bad. Yes you stand the whole time, you don’t breath smoke constantly, your hands don’t get dry and cracked, the food smell does not stay with you, you do get burned if your not careful (you’ll get used to it, pain is only temporary), its not a job for lazy people in a air conditioned cubical sitting on a computer all day, overall it is not that bad neither is dishwashing. I’ve worked in a high class restaurant for 3 years.

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