When you step into a restaurant kitchen, you enter a world of strict hierarchies, dangerous tools, relatively unstable personalities, and overworked/underpaid staff.
Kitchens are a breeding ground of drama, love, hate, sex, and a lot of stress. You're essentially with the same people for sometimes up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for very little pay.
Your co-workers become closer than your family, especially since you end up spending much more time with them than your actual family.
Life in the kitchen can be both wildly rewarding, humbling, and downright depressing, all in one shift. It's a space that is constantly changing, and you either keep up or you don't.
Here are some of the things you only learn from working in a kitchen in NYC:
Weekends aren't weekends
The innocent question of, "Can you do something this weekend?" becomes a dreaded reminder that you either A) do not have a weekend or b) have a weekend on a Tuesday.
Additionally, your weekends typically consist of sleeping (because you can only function on three hours of sleep for so long) and doing mounds of laundry so you don't smell like yesterday's fry pit.
Wolf down food standing up or starve
Lunch break? What's that? You better get used to scarfing down your family meal (whatever mystery meat they've scrounged together today) in five minutes flat because service starts in an hour, and you still need to prep 50 burger sets for your station.
Burns are like natural tattoos
Sure, some cooks have the coordination of a cat and have escaped the seemingly inevitable trade burns.
The rest of us are peppered with small (or large) burn scars, each with an accompanying story about how another cook turned too quickly and bumped you with a scalding hot sheet tray, or about the time your hand slipped while pouring two gallons of ice cream base into a sieve, but caught the pot in time.
Unfortunately, in some kitchens, the product is much more important than your body, so you'll go through any amount of pain and permanent scarring until you wise up and learn necessary caution.
Teamwork makes the dream work
When you're in a kitchen, you are a necessary part of a much larger machine. In an office, you can miss a deadline or call in sick and not necessarily mess with the operation.
However, if you're scheduled to be on the line and call in sick, that means someone else needs to come in on their weekend to cover your ass. That's just the start.
You're working with dangerous elements (boiling liquids, sharp knives, etc.) in close quarters. Most line cooks develop a "dance" with their fellow line cooks, following their rhythm to maximize usage of the space. When you work with someone long enough, it becomes a seamless, unconscious rhythm.
Your calves will become massive
Beveled floors. The bane of a line cooks' existence. Imagine spending all day standing on a floor that slants ever so slightly to the center. You may not even notice it at first, but after ten hours of working on a hot line, your calves will feel like you've run a marathon.
It doesn't really matter whether or not you've got the best Danskos, your calves will become epic things of legend after battling to keep yourself upright all day.
Tape and markers become essential parts of life
You'll actually find yourself reaching towards your arm pocket, apron hem, or your front pocket for the ever-present Sharpie when you're putting things away in your own apartment.
You don't need to label those Eggo Waffles (they won't last you past 3 a.m.), but you will anyway out of habit.
People WILL mistake you for a bum on the subway
How many times have you gotten off your shift and changed into street clothes only to realize you smell like you just swam a marathon in a vat of three week old fry oil?
It doesn't even matter that you've shed your scrubs and chefs whites. The stench of the kitchen is in your pores, in your hair-- don't even get us started on the armpits.
When you're riding the subway home from work at 3 a.m., someone will inevitably mistake you for a homeless person who hasn't showered in days. That suspicion rises exponentially if your street clothes consist of sweatpants.
Some bartenders will trade booze for burgers
If you're working in an NYC kitchen, we're pretty sure you have your favorite after-service bar that you hit up on the regular. If you're degenerates like us, you probably had a schedule of bars you went to depending on who was bartending that night.
Fun fact: bartenders like food. Cooks like drinks. Sometimes, it's worth forking up the necessary payment for a burger in order to receive some free booze every time you come in. Odds go up when the bartender ends up being the owner of the bar as well.
You will never see your executive chef
Your CDC (Chef de Cuisine) is basically God. There was one instance where we got our a**es chewed out while interning for not referring to the CDC as "Chef." We never made that mistake again. These people earned their title and deserve that respect.
The executive chef? You probably memorized everything about them prior to your stage. But guess what? You'll probably never see them. If they're a celebrity chef, you're probably even less likely to see them.
But when they do actually stop by their kitchen, you straighten that sh*t up faster than you do for the health inspector.
You're expected to work off the clock
Oh, you showed up for your shift at 3 p.m.? You were expected to be here at 1 p.m. to start prepping. Good luck on the line. But don't you dare show up at 1 p.m. for your 3 p.m. shift and expect to clock in... Ain't nobody gonna pay for time wasted.
You expected to leave by midnight? Think again, buddy, you're here until close. No, we don't mean when the restaurant closes. We mean when the restaurant closes, everything that needs to be prepped for tomorrow is done, and the kitchen is spotless.
Sure, this might be (read: definitely is) illegal, but it's a way of life. It's an accepted practice that goes on in restaurant kitchens, yet is never fully verbalized. Cooks know that in order to make it in the restaurant industry, they have to pay their dues in every sense of the word.
Subway rats eat better than you do
What's for family meal today? Another day of mystery meat (the trimmings from the steak that are unfit to be served to paying customers) with a side of veggies (the ends of carrots, peels of cucumbers, and wilted greens).
Unfortunately, these family meal "costs" come out of your paycheck, so while you may be paying $5 a meal, you might not actually be eating $5 worth of food... if you can call it food. Some people have all the luck and get top-notch family meals, but they're not the norm.
Unfortunately, you can't really complain about the quality of the food, because you know there's 20 other qualified cooks just waiting to take your spot on the line.
NEVER touch another man (or woman's) tools
We may leave our tools out (uh, duh, mise en place) for the second we need them, but just because they're on our station does not mean they're there for the taking. You're either prepared or your not, and if you're not, it might be your last day on the job.
Just don't touch someone else's tools... you touch our Shun knife, you might lose a finger. Ask, and you might receive... just don't take without asking. We will literally cut you.[Feature Image Courtesy Avenue Magazine]