On Being Sous Chef

Spinach salad with bacon vinaigrette, dehydrated apple chip, blue cheese and candied cashews with chili powder.

“Sous Chef, we need more serving spoons on the line.”

“Sous Chefwhere is your soup?”

“Sous Chef, who’s at your carving station?”

“Sous Chef, I need you here!”

“Sous Chef, where is your SOUP?”

Every day in our New World class, a student is appointed to be our Chef’s Sous Chef.  On Thursday, that was myself.  I didn’t know that I was going to be Sous Chef that day, but I was ready.  I am a highly organized and efficient person, so organizing the line and designating tasks to people wasn’t hard.  But, when does anything go as smoothly as you want it to?  I will probably never forget this day in class, simply because it was incredibly busy and I learned that instilling a sense of urgency into a person is much, much harder than it looks.  I’m beginning to wonder if a sense of urgency is something that a person is just gifted with, and can not necessarily be taught.  I still don’t have an answer…

Laminated dough. Steph and I made this in under an hour on Wednesday. Holy shit that was fast.

Roasted corn soup was what my group was making today.  As we divided up tasks, one person in our group volunteered to make it and so we gave it to her.  Being the Sous Chef meant that in addition to organizing the class for service, I also had to help my group produce the foods required of us.  I helped Stephanie roll out our laminated dough and fill it with corn puree and goat cheese.  I helped out where I could and asked every single person in our group several times throughout the day if they needed help with anything, including the person making soup.  At 9:30, I asked her when she thought her soup was going to be done.  The stock had to simmer for another hour, which would have put them 10:30.  We serve at 10:30.

“That’s not going to work.  Simmer that stock for just a bit longer and then start putting the soup together.  It’s 9:30, you don’t have time to simmer stock for an hour.” 

She informed me that she didn’t realize what time it was and that she would start making the soup.  Everyone knows what time it is, always.  You live and die by time as a chef.  Our service is always at 10:30, how could you NOT know what time it is?  I started checking in with this person periodically, to have an idea on the soup’s status.  I told her the way she needed to set up her mise en place for the soup service, and after I explained it to her, she said “Could you write that down for me, I don’t know if I’ll remember.”  

My favorite plate of class, deconstructed octopus salad.

No, I can’t write that down for you, I have eight other things to do right now.  I told her to find me when it got closer to service and I would tell her again.  At 10:15, she was still passing soup through a china cap to make it thinner.  I walked by her, asking her if she was almost ready to go.  She asked if I could take over for her, as her arm was hurting from pushing the soup through the strainer.  It took all of my strength to not explode and said, “No, but I can find someone to help you.”  Remarkably, we still managed to get the soup out for service.  Two people jumped in and started putting the garnishes on the soup and that was a huge help.

Cod with fried potatoes and apple / jicama slaw

The point of this story is simply that it’s pretty damn hard to light a fire under someone’s ass.  You can’t force someone to work faster; you can scream at them all you want, but they’re never going to work faster unless they learn how to work faster or unless they want to work faster.  I asked this person several times if she needed help and she denied it until the very end; she was in the weeds the whole time she was making the soup.  I could have recognized that this was the case and enlisted someone to help her, but part of it was also that she needed to ask for help.  A kitchen is not the place to be proud.

I was pretty pissed after class Thursday and really worn out from all the stress of the day.  This Chef is by far one of my favorites and who I work the hardest to impress.  I tried so hard to purse excellence in the kitchen as the Sous Chef, but perfection is not ever attainable.  Thursday could have been much, much worse than it was; I just saw all the little things that went wrong and it seemed much worse to me than everyone else.  There were a few people that day who impressed me throughly, as they stepped up their game and made a much bigger effort than they usually do.  I suppose I lit a fire under a few people, and a few is better than none.  Nobody every talks about how hard it is to be in charge, how you must help cook, but also organize your team and motivate people and instill them with a sense of urgency.  But, despite all the stress I loved it.  The energy, the furious pace and the solidaity that forms between people is worth the stress I went through on Thursday to get us to service.

I didn’t take a picture of the corn soup, because I was so pissed about it.  But, I wish I had now; it ended up looking pretty good.

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