Kitchen Confidential (Not): Life Lessons from the Back of the House

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Have you ever enjoyed a meal at a restaurant and wondered what’s going on at its kitchen? A thought unrelated to food safety, since it may sometimes pop up as a passing concern. I’m talking about pondering on what goes on in that aroma-filled, steam and smoke-emitting corner of a dining place we frequent. It seems to me like the kind of thing only people involved in restaurant business or food industry would do.

A management training afforded me with an opportunity to spend several hours each day for over a month in a casual dining restaurant’s back of the house. The idea initially terrified me for I have yet to discover a glimmer of culinary talent on top of having close to zero cooking skills. I started out thinking it’s just something I needed to do to complete my training. Little did I know of the life lessons I’d end up learning in my time at the kitchen.

  • Everyone’s wired to adapt – The back of the house churns with activity. Food preparation begins while the rest of the restaurant is still dark and quiet. Watching the busy staff can be overwhelming. But standards and systems make it easier for a newbie to gradually adapt. Doing leads to adapting. Forget about committing mistakes and just do tasks with enthusiasm. You’d be surprised as to how quickly you’d get in sync with the team’s rhythm.
  • Desire reveals ability – If put in a situation where your skills are in doubt, you only have two choices, raise the white flag or keep going. The unfamiliar is a scary ground to pursue, but a burning desire to try and do it is a good starting point. Desire fuels everything. It makes you do whatever it takes to achieve what needs to be done.
  • Reserve judgment – Listen, but don’t believe everything you hear. In the kitchen, as in life, you’ll hear many things from more experienced people. Remember that every opinion formed is based on experiences unique to an individual. I used to dread the time when it’s my turn to train at the broiler and fry stations. I’ve never enjoyed frying at home because of the occasional burns from the cooking oil. And I remember being apprehensive about grilling because almost all the cooks in the line said it’s one of the hardest stations to handle. They further added that it’s not something a girl would enjoy doing. It turned out that I had fun at both stations and became good at them. The areas that initially scared me turned out to be the ones I enjoyed most.
  • Master the basics – Like most everything in life, taking time to master the basics is a necessary (life) skill. It prepares you for more complicated tasks. It serves as a lighthouse in times when you feel adrift. Mistakes are often avoided if you don’t forget the basic of things regardless of what level of mastery you may have achieved. Learning and practicing the basics on a daily basis can be tedious especially if you’re ready to move on to more challenging tasks. But you’ll soon realize that the simplest knowledge and skills you’ve learned early on are actually the foundation of much bigger things in the horizon.
  • Integrity is key – No one will be watching you every minute that you do your job. You have to have a strong sense of integrity to keep doing what’s right and follow standards even during the most trying conditions. Restaurants and third parties adopt food safety standards that staff need to follow. Strictly adhering to those standards is a test of integrity especially in times when no one’s checking up on you.
  • Teamwork makes everything better – I remember comparing the usual busy day at the back of the house with rowing. Everything has to be in sync. Everyone needs to at least have a basic understanding of each and everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. In the kitchen, it’s not just about being the best cook. It’s all about being the best person working with a great team. It’s a rare time that only one station gets to do all the work. Everyone becomes busy at some point in time. And everyone must be in tuned to others to be able to jump at a chance to lend a helping hand if needed.

I moved on to complete weeks of training in different front of the house stations. But it was at the kitchen where I excelled most. Looking back, I started at the back of the house with nothing in terms of ability. I left with more knowledge and skills I didn’t imagine I’d get to learn in my time there.

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One thought on “Kitchen Confidential (Not): Life Lessons from the Back of the House

  1. Hi there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that it is truly informative. I will appreciate if you continue this in future. A lot of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

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