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You'll be hearing from the staff at Food52 in Too Many Cooks, our group column in which we pool our answers to questions about food, cooking, life, and more.
Restaurant kitchens are crazy -- hot and fast-paced with sharp knive and hot pans all over the place. All of that crazy is fodder for great stories of youthful incompetence and questionable food safety practices.
Earlier this week, we asked the Food52 staffers about their first food job experiences in the front of the house. Today we hear the other side -- stories from the kitchen. So today, the answers to:
What was your first job in the back of the house?
Did you serve under a tyrannical head chef? Did you have to wake up at some ungodly hour to put bread in the oven? Tell us in the comments!
Julie: My first food job was at a D.C. bakery. When I first started, the kitchen operated quasi-legally out of a Georgetown townhouse, which meant that it was very cramped and very hot and involved a lot of running up and down stairs with scalding, full sheet pans. We often tripped up the stairs and whatever we were carrying landed on the floor.
The man who took special orders lived upstairs with his cat and would come down every night around 11 PM in his pajamas looking for a warm cupcake and a glass of milk. Also, one of the prep guys would sing, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mambo #5" every time he walked into the kitchen (in an El Salvadorian accent). It was a freak show in the very best way.
Michael: My first "job" in food was volunteering in the kitchen of Chez Panisse Café two days a week the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I once spent hours cutting corn kernels off of cases of cobs, only to find out I'd taken the corn from the wrong place; it was a day old, and thus destined for the Chez Panisse Foundation, not for the café menu. Whoops! (It was all worth it for the staff lunches though.)
Allison: I remember they scrounged up some checkered pants and a chef's coat, and I looked like I was wearing my dad's pajamas. My job during service was to observe and be of service to the line cooks, and I thought the evening was going pretty well until the cooks started yelling, "Ramps!", "...need more ramps!!" As I contemplated, in slow motion, what the heck they were talking about, the lead line cook came charging over to the walk-in, and walked out brandishing said "ramps" (Aha!). I stayed at that restaurant four more years, with many more humbling experiences to come, and years later, a few of these same folks were guests at my wedding.
Lindsay-Jean: I worked for a bakery franchise, kneading bread loaves and drawing fancy designs on the tops. (As I type this, I'm wondering why I don't own one of these yet.) I "transferred" to another location while in college, and they wouldn't let you on the table until you could knead one loaf of bread in each hand. When I went back home to visit the original location, I told one of my bosses their policy, he looked at me like this, then challenged me to a knead-off. And yes, he kneaded two loaves, one at a time, before I could finish kneading my two loaves simultaneously.
James: I learned how to knead dough as a 16-year-old in the kitchen at Chuck E. Cheese Pizza. I also learned how to cut a small pizza into 6 slices (harder than you think) and how to maneuver in a giant mouse costume with limited visibility while a crowd of 10- through 12-year-old boys repeatedly attacked me. Valuable life lessons.
More: Chuck E. Cheese will seem like a bad dream when you try this pizza.
Sheela: My first job in food was working at the bakery of a farm just down the road from my house in Massachusetts when I was about 15. It's a big place where they do hayrides and pick-your-own and such, and I had to wake up at 5 AM on Saturday and Sunday mornings to help open the farm stand/bakery, make coffee, and set out all of the muffins, donuts, and pies. We used to fry hundreds of cider donuts every morning and we were able to eat any of the brokens and seconds. I would come home everyday sick from eating too many scraps and basically smelling like a giant cider donut (cinnamon sugar up to my elbows and all). It took me years to get over that and back on the cider donut train again.
Erin: When I was 16, I got a job doing bakery prep for a natural foods bakery in my hometown. In Kansas, there are laws to prevent kids from working in a kitchen until they are 18 (unless they are a dishwasher or part of the waitstaff), so they were breaking some rules by letting me behind the counter. I came in everyday after school to make the scone and muffin mixes and frost and slice cakes. As soon as I graduated high school, they threw me into the position no one wanted -- the 2 AM muffin and scone baker. The staff parking lot was shared with the neighborhood bar, which was always closing right as I showed up for work. Seventeen-year-old Erin frequently ran from car to building, head down (Napolean Dynamite-style), with a whisk dangling from her purse straps.
Amanda: My first job in a restaurant was after my freshman year of college. In Pennsylvania, you can bartend before you're of legal drinking age. I heard you could make good money bartending, but being the nerd that I was, thought I'd need a degree to be a bartender and signed up for the Boston Bartenders School. Having had no experience as either a cocktail maker or drinker, I muddled through, mixing colored liquid with colored liquid to make new colored liquids. I went home for summer break with my "degree" and resume printed on heavy paper stock and got a job at the Falls Port Hotel, a new restaurant in our small town. The owner, a Brooklynite, chuckled at my resume, but hired me anyway. A few nights later, my first customers, also New Yorkers, sat down at the bar and asked what we had on draft. "What's draft mean?" I asked. They laughed and took pity on me, leaving me a $10 tip, which was pretty sweet for 1990. Needless to say, I was soon moved to waiting tables.
Do you have a great story from working a front-of-house restaurant job? Share it with us in the comments!