“10 seconds! Nick! Nick! I need it now! 3…2, 1! Nick I got 50 f*ckin’ people out there…Nick I swear to God…”
“Here! Here’s your f*ckin’ scampi, ya dick.”
Nick hands over the piping hot plate of linguini and shellfish to the other cook—“you’re an asshole, ya know that, Jay?” They exchange a sort of private and oblique smile, erupt into a fit of laughter, and then give each other a high-five.
As I stand in the corner, second day on the job, watching an ineffable chaos boil and then quickly cool into a potable playpen full of contagious hilarity, a quick but tentative smile falls upon my face.
What did I just watch? How did that just happen?
The frantic performing arts of an authentic Italian restaurant’s kitchen can often feel overwhelming—even when you’re not the one who’s racing against the clock. In the kitchen, someone else’s anxiety and panic becomes your anxiety and panic.
Although comprised of multiple different stations, the kitchen is a cohesive unit with one common goal: to deliver an end-product in a timely manner that surpasses the customer’s dining expectations. In order for this to happen, the kitchen staff must transform time from the problem into the solution.
It takes the stress and anxiety born out of the time-crunch and turns it into a challenge. And in the kitchen, no one backs down from a challenge.
The kitchen staff quite literally use stress and the ticking clock as fuel.
When your critics are flooding in, minutes away from judging your work, the mentality that keeps you from crumbling is knowing that it’s about to turn into a sh*t storm and—like a guy in a back alley about to get jumped with nowhere to run—you clench your fists, grit your teeth and say “let’s go!”
Put simply, this mentality is courage.
Courage is the anti-venom to stress and panic. Even believing that the stress is something beneficial for you—that the shortage of time is actually the solution, and not the problem—creates an elegant dance of productivity. A party with a purpose.
This courage however, is a delicate balance; one which can only be maintained through discipline and enjoyment. And so, aligning with this outlook are a couple of unwritten rules that must be followed:
If respect is not given, the kitchen will suffer and consequently the restaurant will as well. It is known, especially on busy days with endless orders, disrespect in any form—blaming, shaming, undermining—can temporarily awaken that sense of panic in a person just long enough to disrupt the common goal that courage is working so hard to create.
Disrespect in the kitchen simply does not make sense from a logistical standpoint, let alone a moral one. Its degrading temperament has a ripple effect that, even though it may be aimed at one individual, eventually impacts everyone’s overall performance. Its negativity quickly crosses over into the realm of productivity, thereby hindering the main objective of the business. Disrespect is seen as a kind of unforgivable social gaffe inside the confines of the kitchen. It’s not even worth it.
2) Laugh at yourself.
The dynamic of the kitchen’s party is designed for heightened emotions. This means that before one enters, one must locate and then incubate in a kind of gooey, coagulating plasma to develop a ‘thicker skin.’ No, not that type of skin. I can assure you, fire will still hurt. But what won’t hurt is the panic that so often results from a mess up or the stress from running out of time; the staff’s eyes glued to your every movement as if they’re watching you defuse a bomb in the middle of a crowded street.
Instead, you breathe. You chuckle. Who knows, you might even call yourself an asshole for merely thinking about taking something so seriously. “It’s just a chicken parm man, relax.”
This ability to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously is not something that comes naturally, but rather it is learned and practiced, just like anything else. And in the kitchen, this is practiced through laughter and dancing and teasing and constant reminders that everyone’s got your back.
Pretty soon, this thick skin envelops you; you might not even realise when it does. All you’ll know is that when Jay is screaming 3, 2, 1 in your ear, sweat pouring down his face, you’ll be secretly laughing at him, and then when you hand him his stupid plate of shrimp scampi your laughter will squeak out and so will his.
The kitchen is like any company or business or relationship. There’s going to be stress. There’s going to be times when the clock has you wrapped up in a full-nelson and you’re on the verge of passing out.
But it’s about learning how to effectively cope with this pressure that makes all the difference.
So before you let panic and stress go to waste, size it up, and say ‘ehh ya know what, you could be good for me actually.’ Once in battle-ready mode, give the guy next to you that ‘yeah we’re screwed, but oh well’ smile, realise that what you’re doing is probably not the end-all be-all, and start doing the robot dance with the person next to you.
You’d be amazed at how much gets accomplished.
Author: Andrew Somps
Images: Unsplash/Ryan Pouncy
Editor: Erin Lawson