Thursday, April 21, 2011

Learning the Language of the Kitchen

by Lauren Rauh

Every work environment has a learning curve. There are always skills and knowledge that are only obtained through hard work on the job. This is definitely true in a restaurant kitchen.
One of the key components of a smoothly operated kitchen is proper communication between cooks, especially during dinner service. Before stepping foot in the kitchen, I was completely unaware of the almost foreign language spoken among chefs. As with any fast paced job, there was no orientation to the industry terms. There was no sympathy for getting an order wrong because I didn't understand what "on the fly" ("make it now and make it fast") or "all day" ("total" as in "I have three orders of cake left all day") meant. But that is why of course, I learned these terms so quickly, out of necessity. Also, I found it fun to feel privy to a set of language used only in a specific (though large) industry, almost like how only rugby players know rugby songs (it's a stretch, I know, but rugby players always have so much fun singing their super exclusive drinking songs!).

The component of kitchen language that has given me the most trouble is learning the most effective way to communicate. The experience has sparked my anthropological background (I try to put my BA in Anthropology to use every once and a while) in trying to understand why adjusting to a new form of communication has been difficult for me. First of all, especially during service, there is no conversation, there is no discussion, there is no "why." For example, if the expediter (the person who calls out the orders as they come in, and keeps track of the preparation and organization of the dishes so they go out together and on time) turns to me and says "Do you have that market salad for table 3?" or even "I need a market salad," the last thing he wants to hear is "well, I'm about to make it but shucking those 24 oysters really held me up" or even worse "oh, I didn't hear you call that out, I wasn't aware that you needed a salad from me." Those answers make an expediter, or really anyone in a kitchen cringe. All a chef ever wants to hear is "yes," "straight away," or if necessary "I'm a minute out" if there really is a worth while delay to mention. Long drawn out explanations are not welcome for understandable reasons. Explanations in a kitchen make things complicated and in the end are inconsequential--the people at table 3 do not care why the salad isn't ready, just that it isn't in their mouth. It took me a long time to understand this. At first, when my explanations were clearly causing frustration for the chef, I took it personally. I felt disrespected that I was expected to be a robot programmed for one word answers. My MO is explanation (as well as lengthy blog entries), I'm wordy, I like context, I like discussion and these things do not fly in the "sink or swim" environment of a professional kitchen. When discussing this with my roommate, he pointed out that this form of communication is very similar to that found in sports and particularly between coaches and players during games. If you make a bad play, your coach will probably say "what the f#%* were you thinking!? Get your head in the game!!!!" and the most effective response would be either to nod or say "yes, coach." You wouldn't embark on a discussion of why you decided to kick the ball out of bounds, or how messing up the play made you feel. Clearly, I haven't played sports for a long time (I was never any good anyway) but this topic instigates a lot of potential discussions on how were are conditioned to communicate. A discussion for another time of course.

Next week: a behind the scenes look at what goes on after you've ordered your meal...
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