Friday was my last night at Cafe Flora. And I’m sad. These few months of sabbatical from my engineering job, immersed in food and life in the kitchen, with all my new friends there, has been a really happy time for me.
Since this was an internship, it is only fitting that I try to write down what I learned. Of course this is only my experience, over a limited period of time at a single restaurant with all of its particularities of people, style, location and size.
I learned to prep hard and fast. Part of this is looking for efficiencies, like gathering all the ingredients you need for a recipe on a single trip to the dry storage, or knowing which projects can be done simultaneously. One recipe can get to a step where it needs a prolonged simmer while you do the chopping for another.
Another factor is repetition. When you small-dice 20 pounds of roma tomatoes by hand a few times a week, your hands just get quicker. Even little things like where you place your compost bucket and the container you are putting the goods in make a big difference.
Probably the biggest part of getting faster is just the desire to give yourself that extra push and try to keep your hands moving as quickly as they can while doing a quality job. That and watching the people around you, picking up on everyone’s tricks. You’d be amazed how many ways there are to do even a simple task like filling and rolling the famous Oaxaca Tacos. The end result is the same, but each person has their own special way of doing it faster and leaving less mess to clean up.
I learned the importance of taking responsibility for your own cooking. Most of the time no-one is looking over your shoulder. It is primarily on you to uphold standards of food safety, quality and flavor. You have to do that because you love food and you care about serving it as good as it can be. Likewise when you make a mistake, you’ve got to own it, talk it over with the sous chef to determine whether to fix it or start over, and move on quickly.
Watching all of the managers and leads do their things, I began to get an idea of the organizational systems required. Some of those systems live on computers, some on clipboards and whiteboards, and many in the minds of the cooks. Especially in a large restaurant with multiple shifts and teams, you have to have good tracking of ingredients and preparations or you can easily end up with menu items that are 86′ed because you didn’t make enough, or food that is going to waste because you made too much. Or menu items that you are losing money on because the food costs are too high. Or junky produce because purveyors may give you their less desireable stuff if you aren’t firm about checking everything that comes in.
There are also systems that everyone in the kitchen uses, like organizing the walk-in so you know where to look for lemon juice or kale that has been washed and cleaned without having to search the whole place. This will be part of the learning curve in any restaurant, just knowing where to look for a whisk, the rice flour, even a pen or rubberband. It is annoying at first, but there just is no way around having to ask for awhile until you know the place.
In the same vein, I learned that there is almost always a good reason that something is done a certain way. For example, when I first got there I wasn’t sure why there was such an emphasis on "downsizing" food as is partially used. (For example, moving the rest of a sauce from an 8 quart to a 4 quart container). It seemed like a waste of time. Why not just leave it in the larger one until we use it up a day or so later? Turns out there are many good reasons – changing the container is good for sanitation, it gives you more space in the walk-in, and it makes it easier to assess your situation so you know if more needs to be made, because you can see at a glance how much is left.
So again the key is asking the right questions, at the right times, and with the right attitude. Ask because you genuinely want to know, not because you assume you know a better way. Ask when someone isn’t too busy. Most folks are happy to share what they know if they see that you are genuinely interested. And once in awhile that conversation will lead to you both improving a system or a product.
I learned a ton about how to move and talk in the often-crowded, fast moving kitchen environment. From letting someone know that you are about to go behind them with a knife or a hot pot, to confirming that you are getting the backup supply of Madeira sauce so they can go back to what they were doing, communicating clearly and concisely makes the whole machine flow.
I definitely learned a lot about food. It was really cool to see the creative process of other cooks, and try techniques and flavor combinations that were outside of my well-worn pathways.
I also got a better understanding of what food works in a restaurant setting where large quantities are prepared, tools are different, and final cooking happens on a tight timeframe. Some things just work better at home, and some things are vastly easier to do in a commercial kitchen. For example, very few folks I know will deep-fry at home, but in a restaurant it is trivial to include a fried component in a dish.
One thing I really wanted to do during my internship is try my hand at running a station during service (as opposed to doing prep work). Chef Janine gave me ample opportunity to do this, starting with my very first shift when I worked on the pantry station. I got good at that one, and also can handle lunch and dinner pizza (which also does sandwiches and other grill items), and the lunch line. Dinner line during the rush on a busy night is still a bit out of my comfort zone, but I feel confident that if I worked on it for a week or two solid I’d get my speed up to where I could handle it. All of my fellow cooks were amazingly generous about teaching me the stations and letting me work parts or all of their shifts.
I got to see a lot of the interactions between the front and back of the house. I think Cafe Flora is probably very much on the positive side of that spectrum. The cooks and servers all know each other well and generally get along great. If I have my own place somewhere down the line, that is an attitude I’d strive to keep: we are all part of the same team, working to make sure that the customers are happy and the restaurant is successful.
One of the questions I had going in to this internship was whether I really had what it takes. Did I have a solid foundation of knowledge of food and cooking and culinary common sense? Were my knife skills up to the task? Would I have the physical stamina? Could I even stand on my feet for a full shift? At the advanced age of 41, could I still hang? Would I actually like the day-to-day work as much as I thought? I’m happy to say that the answers to these were yes (at least in my opinion :). I loved going in every day, and I’ve never felt so physically strong in my adult life.
As in any business, whether you are the owner or the most entry-level employee, the keys to enjoying yourself and reaching your goals are the same. Show up on time. Work your butt off. Do the best work you are capable of and try to do it even better the next time. Stay late. Go above and beyond. Say yes to opportunities and no to the little jealousies or gossip that you find in any workplace. Get to really know the folks you work with, and let them get to know you too.
I think ultimately that is the most important thing I learned. I really loved all the folks I worked with. We have a lot of fun in the kitchen, talking about our lives while we work, listening (and occasionally dancing) to music, and giving each other a hard time. Sharing the hard work, and the sense of accomplishment when it goes well, or when we just survive a long shift. And sharing the love of good food and the curiosity to keep learning about it. To any of my Flora buddies who are reading this, thank yous are not enough, but they are all the words I have.