I’m more than “just a cook”

Understanding and revaluing my learnings as a cook: What the kitchen taught me that the outside world doesn’t seem to understand (or see in my resume)

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

It’s been about a year since I made the decision to step outside the kitchen to look at food in a whole new dimension. I wanted to understand how it was grown and what happened to it when it left the kitchen doors?

It was a really great growth year; I learnt about food innovation, design thinking, foresight and signals and co-created an online platform called Edible Issues where everyone can go to learn about the food system in India.

The challenge after all this learning was the synthesis, not of the things I learnt in the last 12 months, but of what I had been focussed on, which seems like forever — to be a cook.

To cooks, just cooking is no longer enough; we have a responsibility towards people and the environment. To everyone else, cooks or chefs don’t just, well, cook. There’s a lot we can learn from them, more than just the transformation of food.

Don’t let any cooks resume throw you off. Here are ten reasons why any good chef could be an asset on your team!

  1. Mise en place (everything in its place): The foundation to a smooth functioning kitchen — Mise en place is a plan of tasks and tools. My chef used to say, you need to be so well organized that if you or any of your cooks pick up the container on the second shelf, at the back on the right (blindfolded) it should always be pickled onions.
  2. Managing time: Prepping for a smooth service is the most important part of the day. It involves making a task list and executing it before the restaurant opens and the busy service starts. Prep lists often involve multiple tasks involving ingredients that take different times to prepare. A simple task of turning the oven so it preheats before prepping the chicken to roast saves time. Prioritizing and structuring tasks and time is key. Who would want to go back to a restaurant where you are told every dish you pick seems to be “not available”.
  3. Get work done, get work done well, get work done well always: When it comes to prep it’s not just about rushing through and being done with it. The whole part about being a good cook is preparing the dish (that people return to your restaurant for) well, always. Precision is key. Keep your knife sharp (and tools always working well)
  4. Working individually but together: A cook needs to have to flexibility to change work modes. 1. Working independently the cook shows his personality through creativity. 2. Working in a team seems to be more managerial and some even think less important but it’s what keeps the kitchen running smoothly and efficiently. Better process structure helps others do their work faster.
  5. Communication: Language, tone and reading the (room) kitchen can make or break a kitchen during a tough service. Once a chef calls an order it doesn’t end there, there is a whole process where s/he checks back in on the process; find out if anyone needs help and directs the kitchen to speed up or slow down or switch roles to get back on track. This communication is not just one way, it’s a call and response system (yes, chef! 40 seconds chef!). In this busy environment with many people engaging in fast movements and focussed tasks, a clear, respectful verbal communication keeps the boat afloat.
  6. Waste not: Be it ingredients, water, electricity, manpower — every resource is precious and a chef knows his/her costs. Restaurants run on incredibly tight budgets and a good chef knows compromising on the quality of food by stinging on ingredients or labour is not the smart way to get customers to come back. Utilizing every part of the ingredient, creating an efficient and smart work environment is not just economically beneficial but sustainable as well.
  7. “Salad section is going down, everyone jump on!”: One in a while on a Wednesday night just as the kitchen seems to be winding down unexpected events would leave one section in the kitchen with the most number of dockets (orders). These we some of the best moments as even though the section “in the sh*ts” and that was not the area of your expertise, you would roll up your sleeves and jump on. Helping the section with whatever they needed. These nights often tested our strength as a team. Some lunch services were so busy — I’ve ended up in the dish wash (we were so busy we ran out of crockery and cutlery). It’s not about doing the task or a skill that you are good at or like to do, but what you do to help a team member out, so the restaurant or the organization does better.
  8. It’s more than food: Being a cook is more than just cooking. Understanding the world around is so important to the business. The tomato crop in the south of the state was hit by a pest so the markets in the south are selling tomatoes at a premium. Demonetization — how does this affect our business and customers. Climate change is causing increasing salinity thus farmers are not growing rice anymore but farming mud crabs. The ban on plastics. State elections this week. It’s the end of the financial year — What do some of these things mean for business and what opportunity do we see in them.
  9. Clean as you go: Keeping your station clean always is the best way to work effectively. Yes, literally keeping any workspace clean gives better visualization to the task ahead but also mentally keeping a system in check and cleaning out unnecessary tasks.
  10. “Pack down go home”: The last words you’d hear called out at the end of the service — and no this doesn’t mean dust off your apron and scoot. Now some real work begins. The kitchen speeds up to a cleaning spree, everything is scrubbed down, benches, floors, walls. Prep is checked and put away. Lists are made for ingredients, prep lists for the next day, inventory is checked, work is assigned and importantly the debrief of the service. The kitchen is ready the day before for a smooth start with new inputs to do better. The next morning you walk into a clean space and with a fresh and ready mind, you know where to go and exactly what to do.