Updated: Oct 30, 2019
Welcome to the twelfth installment of The Requirements to be a Chef; where every Wednesday I explain everything that it takes to be a Chef in my eyes. This series will by no means be exhaustive, but I will certainly do my best. If you're a Chef and want to share your opinion I'd love to hear what you have to say. Aspiring Chefs: if you have questions feel free to reach out. I'm always looking for an excuse to talk about Chef Life.
Ok, so far in this series we have covered the importance of Passion as well as a commitment to quality in regards to your effort, a commitment to food quality, Menu planning, Temperature control, The Ability to Pass on Knowledge, Building a Recipe, Leadership, High-Level Communication, Cost Control & Roasting. Today we will be talking about: The Ability to Handle Pressure.
First off; I want to say, thank you to our service men & women. My parents were in the Army and Air Force instilling the utmost respect for the sacrifices of them and their families.
The ability to handle pressure or the lack there of is a trait that is on display all the time and often reveals the strength and weaknesses of people. A person that can handle pressure makes things run more smoothly, keep a level head, performs at a high level and can keep the engine running.
It has been often said that cooking on a kitchen line is the closest you can come to being on a battle field as a civilian. In fact the traditional French kitchens were built on the brigade system, a system that was built to bring order to the kitchen just as it brought order to the military. This is how we established the hierarchy of the kitchen system not only to reward those that worked the hardest and produced the best results, but as a way to ensure that the strongest in the kitchen would find themselves at the top to guide those "beneath" them.
As you might imagine in a kitchen things are loud, there are people yelling and talking to each other (if people aren't communicating that is always a big problem without exception), its generally very hot; I've been cooking in kitchens over 140 degrees Fahrenheit while standing over a 300 degree+ grill with my eyes closed sweat pouring down my face on much more than a dozen occasions. The consideration most people aren't aware of is the ticket machine, oh that blasted ticket machine. Imagine for a moment you're in a meeting where multiple people are working on separate parts of the same problem, while you're working on your own problem, while people are adding entirely separate jobs WHILE you're getting verbal modifications...That's where the Chef lives.
Often times the problems these things cause can be nearly debilitating towards the team. I've seen many a kitchen crumble from a team that can't handle pressure. One thing they all have had in common was a leader that buckles under pressure. Oftentimes they resort to yelling. Whether they are yelling at the servers, at the host, at the front of house manager or at the kitchen staff its all bad. Possibly even worse are the leaders that get quiet. They don't share their thoughts, they don't provide guidance, they simply shut down, that's how the line loses morale, direction and drive all in one shot. A Chef knows how to run the line efficiently and can communicate at a high-level to make a map for the kitchen to get through the storm.
A Chef not only handles pressure well but they perform well as well. The best even perform better under pressure. Personally, I like it to be busy when I'm on the line. I want it hot as all hell, I want the tickets flying out the printer, I want calls in and out of the kitchen. A Chef handles pressure and thrives in it. If the Chef built the right team the entire team handles the pressure well and when the pressure's on we experience what we call "The Dance". You hear about it in Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential", you hear about a similar state in Angela Duckworth's "Grit". This is when a group of talented line-cooks and a Chef all flow together dancing around the kitchen together. This is the only time where its ok for there to not be talking in the kitchen. That's because these people have a rapport stronger than speech, they dance around each other, almost as if they're gliding on air with one another. In my opinion there's just nothing like it.
Finally I want to leave you with this quote from one of these cookbooks I have around here:
"Most, if not all, of the famous French Chefs toiled in the kitchens themselves for many years prior to becoming well known, a point often made by though who criticize "TV Chefs" of modern society. The idea of earning one's place in the kitchen is encouraged by the brigade system, which rewards loyalty, dedication and skill. This is not a trade of talkers or a position that someone can obtain by "faking" his or her way into a spot. Lack of skill, technical know-how and the ability to handle pressure will be exposed quickly in someone who is not prepared. As a result, the cream rise to the top, and in doing so gain a great sense of self-respect and appreciation for the effort that it takes -- something that creates a bond between fellow Chefs similar to what is seen among elite athletes."
Before you go I'm going to ask a favor; I want to hear what you think. If you think I don't know what I'm talking about say so, heck share it with your friends and say "look at this guy calling himself a Chef, he has no idea what he's talking about." If you agree let me know, share it with your friends, you know how we like to see that other Chefs see the world similar to ourselves, get a good laugh out of it.
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