I learned to cook at bad restaurants. Restaurants that stayed alive through the hard work of horny yet otherwise indifferent teenagers and cocaine-weary ex-hotel chefs. Restaurants that cut corners by cooking with chicken base, store-bought pasta, and hollandaise powder.
When I was a youth, these mediocre yet bustling establishments devoured my social life. I didn’t get to hang out at high school football games with my friends. Never had a girlfriend. I always showed up to the party too late, smelling like fryer oil and garlic. My best friend was a 35-year-old man named Paul who, at two in the morning, would invite us back to his apartment to get drunk and watch Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Once I told a therapist that I thought restaurant jobs stunted me socially, to which she responded “interesting.” Despite these jobs totally warping my brain, I learned a lot. And today I can cook. It’s hard to say if it was all worth it. Kind of like getting out of prison and going, “Well at least I got some reading done in there.”
It wasn’t fine dining. Far from it. Still, there’s a lot to glean from being employed at bad, uninspired restaurants. Even the most middle-of-the-road ones are filled with valuable kitchen hacks and life lessons. It wasn’t all for naught: Here are some things I’ve learned over the years.
A free tip from me to you: Forget the grocery store Saran wrap and get the restaurant grade stuff. You can get 2,000 feet of plastic wrap for relatively cheap, and it doesn’t take up that much extra space. Its sturdy nature is great for wrapping anything tightly. I hate, I repeat, fucking hate grocery store Saran wrap. It’s too flimsy and since the box is light, you can’t get a steady rip without moving the whole thing, a true nightmare for anybody who has ever worked in a kitchen.
Plastic wrap is also a malleable tool used for a plethora of kitchen tasks. Tightly cover raw chicken with it before you pound it with a mallet to avoid bacteria flying everywhere. Use it to wrap your cutting board before working with any protein, really. Plastic wrap can also create a makeshift pastry bag in a pinch. I’ve even seen line cooks make a belt out of the stuff. Good plastic wrap is as important as having a sharp knife.
Pan flipping is flashy, yes, but it serves a purpose. A quick and confident 360-degree flip makes pancakes, eggs, and hash browns a breeze. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be flipping pancakes and crepes without error in no time. A quick, controlled flick of the wrist is all it takes. Here, I’ll demonstrate.
You’ll notice I shake the pan briefly first, and bring the crepe to the edge. That’s the biggest thing for me. Right before I flip anything, I shake the pan quickly to make sure nothing is stuck, yes, but also to get a feel for the weight of the crepe and the pan itself. I always give it a quick little shake just so I know what I’m dealing with before the flip. First I tip the pan slightly, push my wrist forward, and then I pull it back quickly. It’s all one fluid, confident motion. It takes practice, but it helped immensely watching somebody else do this. I’m not sure if it’s a skill I would have arrived to on my own. Hence, the value of gainful restaurant employment.
As Paul once said to me, “It’s the magic juice.” And it goes in everything. For some depth, add a little bit of chicken stock into your vegetables and your pasta sauce. The boxed stuff is mostly sodium, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of flavor. Having a box of vegetable stock or chicken stock in your fridge at all times means you’ll always have a powerful flavor enhancer at your disposal. It’s long been said that butter is the secret ingredient at restaurants, but for me, it’s always been stock. Think of it as a liquid seasoning agent.
Or more specifically, the salamander. What’s the difference? Well, a salamander is usually its own piece of equipment and it gets super hot. It’s more efficient also, spreading the heat evenly. Salamanders also usually sit on top of the stove. Broilers are more of an extension of the oven, except they get less heat, and just about every domestic stove has the broiler below the oven for some reason. Making a chicken parm at home? Have fun laying on your kitchen floor like a toddler trying to get your mozzarella cheese to brown. Seriously, whoever designed these things needs to be outed immediately so we all know where to direct our ire.
But truly, the use of a broiler or salamander is integral to any restaurant operation. It’s how you achieve a nice crust on things like the aforementioned chicken parm. It’s an extra step, but a quick and valuable one.
One thing I admired in my early days as a dishwasher was how the line cooks would bring over piping hot metal plates with a pair of tongs. These cooks used long grill tongs like some sort of metal arm enhancement, snatching up red-hot stainless steel ovals from a 400-degree oven and placing them on the counter and screaming “Hot!” If you’re a line cook, this is an important part of your move set, as it allows you to dance around the kitchen gracefully, snatching up molten hot metal with ease. Practice your tong skills, and you’ll be a more fluid cook for it. My suggestion? You can pick up heavier things if you grip them strongly at the base. Use your palm to grip the tongs, not your fingers. Also, let your thumb rest on top, parallel to the tongs for additional support. This will prevent them from opening on you, and thus dropping the item on the ground. Get a feel for it. You should be able to pick up an entire 20 inch sheet tray easily with a pair of kitchen tongs.
This might be a relief to hear: I’ve worked in many silly, low-class, drug abundant restaurants, and cleanliness was stressed at each one. I mean people would freely snort cocaine in the bathroom, but then they’d get on your ass if you weren’t sweeping the kitchen during a lull. A confusing precedent was established where I wasn’t allowed to leave the kitchen every night unless things were spotless, but I was allowed to just purchase Vicodin from coworkers.
Working in a restaurant really sets a good tone for how to clean properly, and I’m perhaps most thankful for that. The importance of cleaning your fridge, for example, seems to be lost on most men. For the love of God, clean your fridge, men. Take everything out of there once a month, throw things away that are bad, and wipe down the inside. Those ketchup and Worcestershire puddles are only going to breed bacteria, you stooge.
If you want to get to Carnegie Hall, you need to mindlessly chop onions for hours on end. When you’re 16 and somebody hands you a knife and a bag of onions, it’s sink or swim. Luckily, I’ve worked more than a decade in restaurants and have never cut myself once. Now, plenty of chefs have screamed at me for slow knife skills, sure, but I’ve never cut myself.
If you’re in your 30s and you’re still working with one of those cheap, small, paper-thin plastic cutting boards we need to have a talk. Spend a little money on a wooden cutting board. Dampen a dish towel, fold it, and place it underneath said cutting board so that it doesn’t slide as you slice and dice. The rag trick is day one kitchen knowledge, and it’ll save you a trip to the ER.