As I’ve likely mentioned before Anthony Bourdain is one of my favorite cook writers. His autobiography, and all of his short stories about all things kitchen come across with such brutal honesty and absolute accessibility that it is impossible not to appreciate them. I can’t count the number of times that the boyfriend and I have fallen into a an unfortunate series of events in our kitchens and have turned to some aspect of Bourdain’s writing for comfort.
A ongoing theme in many of his stories is the “FNG”, an acronym for “fucking new guy”. Cooks who work as a tight knit group establish a strong pecking order. When you’re a green cook, you are tossed into a group of people who know how to work together and are immediately denoted as the bottom of the totem pole. The other cooks communicate often visually as much as verbally. They have the back and forth dance of opening doors and drawers or flinging hot pans without injuring one another. And you come tromping through like an elephant in a china closet. You don’t know fire times (it takes 14 minutes to pan roast a chicken?). You haven’t learned the preferred verbage for calling or communicating (did the expeditor just say something was “walking in”? WTF?). You also realize that your pain tolerance is a fraction of the rest (did that guy seriously just grab a shrimp straight off the grill with his bare hands??).
Every cook, chef, even the dishwasher sees this unfold. And like animals, they sense fear and pounce on it. Having been on both sides, I can attest to the instinctual way the feeling sweeps the kitchen. I remember being the FNG at Serious Pie. Stepping backwards to find balls of dough under the heel of my shoe. People getting in my face about how long everything took. Burning 8 pieces of crostini on a cast iron pan before the chef ripped everything out of my hands and did it for me. Being gifted with the nickname “culinary school” for falling back on “what they taught us in school” versus just asking what was actually expected. Carrying a heavy hotel pan full of hot liquid, stopping the door with my butt, and realizing at that moment that someone had taped a blown up glove to my apron strings. Plating something and looking up to see the other guys on the line smirking at me because I had either taken too long or was being a perfectionist unnecessarily.
It’s a tough place to find yourself, because there there are only two means of escape:
1.) Bust your ass ceaselessly and improve enough that you are accepted.
2.) A newer person comes in with less school and takes your place.
When I worked at Frank’s, it was a combination of things. I worked extremely hard, and eventually learned how to fire everything from every station. But, we also had a wave of turnover, and after losing both the saute and grill cook, I found myself left as the only “original” line cook in a 3 month period with no one besides my chef and sous.
At Westcity Kitchen, we’ve dealt with several FNG’s. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to walk into a kitchen where all but 1 of the cooks you work with have working in a previous kitchen together. Being a new restaurant, we built these stations from the ground up, developing our own methods of organization and firing that work best for us. Even though we have wanted a new cook to join the ranks for the sake of giving the chef and sous days off, there is that undeniable desire to showboat and harass. Part of it is a test to see if people can handle someone being in your face, part of it is to retain that sense of order that people have fought to establish.
Which brings me to Sam, our current and beloved FNG. He came in for an interview on a Friday a month and a half ago, and then proceeded to stage/observe on what became a madhouse of a Friday service. He’s worked briefly on a food truck, but otherwise is a typical mid-program culinary student. Since then, he has been bouncing back and forth between saute/pasta and pantry/fry stations part time. This can be a stressful and confusing shift. Not only are you trying to learn and retain the pick up’s (process of how to cook) things from two different stations, but you often come in blind. Who knows what happened on your off days, or how different someone may have set up everything.
He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder now and again, which is typical of a lot of culinary students. So many schools send students out with too much pride and too little pragmatism. His first week, this happened:
Me: “Sam, feel free to express any questions or concerns you have. I don’t mind talking while I’m cooking, so feel free to say whatever”
Sam: “How about constructive criticism?”
Me: “Excuse me? You can ask why I’m doing something, but I can say with fair certainty I know what the fuck I’m doing”
Sam: “Ok…what’s with that, then?”
Me: (looks at Sam pointing to our big pot of pasta water, which has a large saute pan upside down over the top of it) “That would be how you make things work in a *real* kitchen. The pasta pot doesn’t have a lid with holes in it to compensate for the strainer baskets that sit in it during service. This is how I cap it to bring it to a boil faster if/when I refill it”.
Of course, this was filed in my memory banks for later harassment. Cue fingertip pyramid of evil contemplation. Oh, the FNG is afraid of things popping loudly in the fryer? Guess I’ll be throwing in a handful of parsley in the fryer when he’s not looking. Not turning on your grill early enough before service? Don’t worry, I’ll be happy to turn it on and let it flare up behind you while you’re prepping. Think I’m kidding about grilling your notebook if you keep leaving it in my way? Enjoy those toasty new marks along the bottom. And best of all, the inevitable nickname assignment. Colin said something to him about “You’re killing me, Smalls” the other day (which is a reference to The Sandlot, for all the young bloods out there), and I decided then and there that Sam had found his nickname.
But in the sea of “That’s what she said” jokes, nicknames, and harassment, there is something truly inspirational about the FNG. They encounter a situation with new eyes. They’re often the people most likely to take major changes (like a shift in management) and just roll with it. You see them turn from questioning everything to asking “How can I do that?”. When you see them overseasoning something and make them taste it before they send it out, they seem horrified to discover their mistake. You can see the gears turning in their heads as they actively try to plan their next move when they only have one or two tickets on the rail.
Most of all, the honesty. They haven’t learned to become the “yes man” that so many chefs expect. When they like something, they truly enjoy it. When they hate something, they have the balls to say something about it. Whether aloud or silent, then tiniest victories are celebrated. They haven’t watched management stumble around drunkenly during service, or the stress of the industry almost dissolve one relationship after the next. Their world is not yet jaded by observing failure and burnout. Even better, they might still have dreams of a career opening a restaurant of their own in the future. Those of us who have been exposed to the demotivating, demoralizing aspects of the kitchen need that every once in a while.
So here’s to everyone who has walked into a kitchen and felt completely overwhelmed. To the person who can’t find the item in the walk-in cooler, and then suffers the walk of shame as the chef immediately finds what you thought was missing. To the cooks who have watched pans and bowls of product dumped in the garbage because they didn’t meet standard. To the ones working hard doing what they thought was right, only to have someone sneak up behind you and abruptly as “What the fuck are you doing??”. To everyone who has had to stand there in silence as the chef lists of rules of the kitchen, only to violate one or all of them during service that night. The jokes will dwindle, the hard parts will gradually get easier, you’ll learn the tricks that save time and effort, you’ll likely teach other cooks a thing or two along the way, and someday a new FNG will come along.
Just remember before you give them too much shit.
You were there not so long ago…