A day in the life of a chef

April 30, 2009

- See all 3 of my articles

Guest writer Phil Ossifer was formerly employed as a chef.  Today, he gives us a view of a day in the life of a chef.

Phil is also the author of the Stop the Auto Bailout article and a participant in the  Casual Observer Stock Market Contest (coincidentally, today is the deadline for submitting a prediction in the contest).

My Reoccurring Nightmare

aka – A Day in the Life of a Professional Chef

It happens about every two weeks. Eleven years after leaving the industry, I still have the panicky dreams. Everything exploding around me…confusion, smoke, sweat. Wait a minute, I never served in the military, did I?

No, of course not. This is one of the hotel’s kitchens into which I’ve been thrust. Employees struggle to serve two busy restaurants, room service, lounge food, and I’m apparently in charge. Looking down, I find to my great discomfort that I only have a white t-shirt on — no chef’s coat and no pants. Worse, I suddenly realize that I do not know any of the menus, nor any of the employees that I must have personally hired and trained. Why do I still work here; didn’t I quit years ago? Don’t I have another high-paying job — or, or did I get fired? Even though this dream invariably wakes me up, I’m always grateful for the end.

The real nightmare isn’t quite as bad. I know the menus, people, and have a pressed uniform. I know the job, and I know that the salary is pretty good, even if the 70-ish weekly hours makes for a sufficiently pathetic hourly wage. I also know that I will work nearly every day, excepting about three Mondays a month, and will work every night, weekend, and holiday. I do miss having Thanksgiving with my family for the last nine years, but that is part of the price.

The “normal” weekday runs from 9 am to 8 pm, unless a breakfast cook calls in sick, in which case I rush to make the 5:30 am opening. Thankfully, this occurs only about once monthly.

The day starts by greeting those on duty, then as quickly as possible retreating to the office to get a handle on events of the day. Seven hooks each hold a clipboard of the days BEO’s (Banquet Event Orders) and associated prep lists. Today is a normal weekday…4 lunch events and 2 dinners. The lunches are for various sizes of groups (25, 30, 180, 90), and are of routine composition. For example, the party of 25 Kiwani’s women will have a tossed salad, Chicken Piccata, fresh steamed veggies, Linguini, garlic bread, and a slice of pecan pie. Two of the other three parties also have tossed salads, so one cook will plate all of the salads at once, rolling the finished cart into the walk-in coolers for holding. The 180 is having a pork loin buffet, which is a great relief since plating 180 additional meals is rather taxing. Of course, all four events serve precisely noon, which coincides with the restaurant rush, so I may have to pull in a few draftees from outside the kitchen to get us through plate-up.

At 9:15, I take the elevator to the banquet kitchen, and meet the lead banquet cook for our daily catch-up, where he informs me of the status of “prep” for all of today’s banquets. By this point, he and his crew are done with prep for lunches, and are working on dinner prep. By 2 pm, they will be well into prep for the following day. I write all of the prep lists on Sunday for the week- one sheet for each day’s banquets that details all food items, quantities, procedures, and assignments for the day. The banquet lead works from this sheet. Prep includes any thawing needed, so that on Tuesday, the banquet lead is ensuring that Friday’s 400 chicken breasts are placed into a thaw area of the cooler. At about this time, a dishwasher delivers an electric warming cart containing a few hundred clean plates and lids. Hot plates = no cold food.

By 10:00, I am back in my office, working on the purchasing orders for the week. I spend several hours over two days, preparing to place orders with all five of our major vendors, and a few of about 10 specialty vendors (the fresh herbs guy, the coffee company, the specialty cheese/chocolate company). I meet with most of the vendors at the hotel to place orders and field sales pitches for new products. Each Wednesday and Friday, cooks take time to receive the deliveries into the walk-in coolers and freezers.

11:30, and the lunch rush comes…I jet up to a banquet dining room to inspect the buffet food which has been delivered to the chafing dishes and tables. There are mirror displays with fruit, cheese, vegetables, dips, and small fruit and vegetable sculptures. There are hot pans of sliced, roast pork with port wine chanterelle mushroom sauce, twice-baked potatoes, and more. The dessert table looks good, but there are only three varieties of desserts (instead of the requested five), so I jump back to the banquet kitchen to yell at the lead. Of course, extras are always on hand, so it’s only a 10-minute affair to correct this error.

I stay to work the assembly-line plate-up lunches, then head back to the restaurants to check in. Runners would have notified me if there were problems while I was gone. I grab a rueben and fries, and choke this down in five minutes.

This afternoon, I interview several applicants for a lunch-cook position. Having several applicants at one time is quite lucky, and I already know that at least one of them will have a job at the end of the day. In between appointments, I spend some time training a newer line cook for the tablecloth (aka fancy) restaurant, and help two new hires complete their paperwork. Why doesn’t HR do this? Uh…I dunno. Never took the time to find out.

By 4 pm, I am writing the nightly specials for the tablecloth restaurant, and may even prepare a sauce for it. This might be the only cooking I do today, depending on how the restaurant does tonight. The evening sparks up another round of banquet plate-ups (one is a filet mignon dinner for 220 – big bucks!), and checking over the 90-or-so meals that will be produced in the tablecloth restaurant tonight. I stand at the exit window for nearly two hours to ensure each order is correct – hot, cooked right, well-presented, timed with appetizers, etc. The family café restaurant is also in full swing, and will serve upwards of 150 – 200 meals tonight. The café is running pretty well at present, so I may only stop in for one minute tonight to greet the cooks, and while en route, will probably snag an extra filet mignon dinner from the banquet kitchen. We always prepare for 5% over estimated head count.

By 7:30, the main rush is over, and I begin to wrap up for the day – checking personnel schedules for the next day (making needed changes), checking the BEO’s for red flags, cleaning up the office a bit, then heading out by 8 pm if all’s well. If it was Saturday, I would be here until about 10 pm, then back in at 6:00 am Sunday for preparation of the Sunday brunch. Sunday night, I usually get off early (6 pm), as this is the slowest night of the week for the tablecloth restaurant.

I am keeping an eye on this weekend, as we have two concurrent wedding reception dinners, which tend to be a lot of work. Most Saturdays include one wedding reception, but two are not uncommon. This Saturday, I also have to do an ice sculpture for one of the weddings. Thursday, I will pull the ice out to temper it for several hours, then carve the sculpture Thursday night in the parking lot. This will take about 1 ½ hours, after which time I’ll cart the finished, fragile sculpture into the walk-in freezer, ready for the banquet in two days. Once in a while, the sculptures crack or shatter, thus I leave two days for margin of safety.

I get home, peel off the greasy, smelly clothes, take a shower, gulp a beer, and soon am asleep.

It was a day.

One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Esther
    May 04, 2009 @ 00:49:28

    hello.. haha! I used to work as a chef – when I left school at 16 I went to a community college in London and trained for two years in professional catering and food service. I then spent the next 4-5 in various and quite upmarket I might add restaurant and hotel restaurants in London. Yes, it’s hot, adrenalin fuelled work.

    My very first job out of college was at a little restaurant in Greenwich by the Cutty Sark (since burned down..). We worked split shifts there, in the kitchen or front of house on weekly rotation for the lunch and dinner service. There was no time and no point in going home between shifts so we literally spent the best part of 70 hours per week in Le Papillon. It was hard work and a lot of fun. All of this for a pittance of a wage, I don’t know how we did it! Yeh, I do.. young, fit, fresh and dumb!

    I absolutely still adore food.. and cooking. Thanks for bringing back the good memories.

    I love the site, like a treasure box of all sorts. Keep in touch.

    Best wishes.

    ps. I couldn’t get this post to show in the box below, but here’s the one I’d like to share. I think it’s a match:

    Esther’s last blog post..Young Chicago Authors [Video]


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