Interesting Work: Prep Cook

Dishes clatter.  The washing machine hisses.  A knife strikes a cutting board over and over.  Snippets of shouted Spanish drift around a corner. In front of you sits a large box of chicken breasts.  You take out the first of sixty and place it on a giant cutting board.  You quickly trim the fat off with your ten inch knife, then cut the breast in half.  You take each of the thin, large pieces of chicken and quickly chop them into cubes and throw them into a metal pan.  Fifty-nine more to go.

Next you take two large boxes of kale and stack them on the stainless steel counter. Thirty pounds…that is a lot of kale. You take the twist tie off 10 bunches of them and then one at a time grab a piece of kale, grasp it by the stem and using your other gloved hand shuck the leaf from the stem.  You fill the sink with them and wash them, dry them and then shuck some more.

The food order for the day arrives.  You take the itemized receipt from the delivery driver and check off the 46 different boxes of food that have just arrived.  You put the meat in the walk-in cooler, being careful to stack to avoid cross-contamination and rotate any that is already there to the front so that it will get used first.  Whole salmon are carefully unboxed and put in the walk-in as well. Vegetables get weighed and then moved into Lexan containers and put away in the walk-in or beer cooler.

The line cooks are out of broccolini, so you unwrap two boxes and put them in metal trays which you then steam in the oven.  While they are steaming, you fill one of the sinks with ice and water so that you can blanch the broccolini as soon as it is steamed (this preserves the bright green color).

The restaurant is out of coleslaw.  You grab 20 heads of cabbage, 8 lbs of carrots, 6 lbs of jalapeno peppers, 9 lbs of red onions and 1.5 lbs of cilantro.  You carefully chop the cilantro using the middle finger on your left hand to guide the knife.  Then you peal the outer layer of the cabbage, cut it in half, remove the stem and quarter it.  You wash, chop the ends off and hollow out the jalapenos, wash and cut the ends of the carrots and peel and chop the onions in half.  You try not to cry.  You find the right blade for the industrial sized food processor and process all of the ingredients into a large tub.

Next up, bacon wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates or maybe meatballs or house made tomato sauce, or Caesar dressing or blue cheese sauce or chicken stock…so goes a day in the life of a prep cook.  But at the end of the day you get to sit down and enjoy a shift meal and appreciate some of the fruits of your labor.

What Is the Work Like?

I never really cooked.  I mean I could make pancakes… As a family with two active kids and two working parents food was always about convenience.  My wife is actually a great cook but she would always kid that her dream had been to marry a chef.  I thought it was time that I learned enough to be able to feed my family healthy food on a regular basis.  Could I have done this without working at a restaurant…say taking a class or reading a book?  Of course…but I have always been a little different.  And at least for me repetition is a great learning tool.  If I read a book I might remember it for a day, if I do it 1,000 times I will remember it forever.

Cooking at a restaurant takes considerable skill.  It would be nearly impossible to walk into a quality restaurant and start cooking on the line, putting out as many as six dishes at a time.  Even a good home cook, which I was not, would really, really struggle.

First is quantity.  Everything at a busy restaurant comes in huge volumes.  Three-hundred meatballs, 15 lbs of roasted cauliflower, 60 lbs of chicken, soups and sauces by the gallons…all made from scratch.

Second is speed.  Everything has to be done fast.  Cooking jobs require constant motion.  You are on your feet the entire job and other than a legally mandated 30-minute break, each shift you work essentially without a break.

Probably the most important thing is the chef at your restaurant.  If he or she loves cooking and is a good teacher, all of the drudgery is worth it because everyday you will learn something new and interesting.  I was fortunate that the chef I worked with really liked to cook and wanted to share that knowledge with others.

You may have heard cooking is a young person’s game.  I am not sure this is entirely true, but for sure it is very physical.  There is a nearly constant need to move boxes and containers, standing for long periods and lots of repetitive movements like chopping and stirring.

I found that the time passes fast.  You are learning new techniques and concentrating, trying to work fast and carefully.  There is little to no downtime.  To be a true commercial cook you really have to take the step from prep cook to line cook.  I may yet do that.  Regardless, what I have learned has been enough to get me cooking at home and much  more interested in food.

How Do I Get a Cooking Job?

Working in a restaurant kitchen is hard.  It does not pay much for the amount of knowledge required and there are no breaks, no surfing the internet, no chatting around the water cooler.  Many of your coworkers will speak primarily Spanish.  If you are looking to work on your Spanish this is a great opportunity, everyone I worked with was grateful for any effort to speak in Spanish.

Restaurant kitchens are filled with all kinds of folks.  People living in vans, people that have been to prison, folks with engineering degrees, guys that work for six months and then rock climb for six months.  The only real requirement is that you are willing to work hard and can do what you are told.

There is also considerable turnover.  Good cooks are in demand so they can move from kitchen to kitchen pretty easily.  People leave and go into other types of work.  So getting a job is not hard so long as you are willing to start at the bottom.

On Craigslist you will see lots of ads, half in English and half in Spanish looking for cooks.  Go meet with the chef…and be honest with them.  They need people so they can live with your lack of experience…there will be nothing more embarrassing than telling them you are an experienced cook and getting in there and having your ass handed to you.

I got my job by looking for a farm-to-table restaurant that had simple, high quality food and going in and asking to talk to the chef and asking him for a job.  I had a “stage” a few days later.  This comes from a French work meaning trainee but in essence it is working a shift before they hire you to see if you know what you are doing.  For me that meant learning how to chop vegetables and putting away a bunch of boxes.

Should I Try This?

If you want to learn how to cook but don’t see yourself going to cooking school it is a great choice.  I think it is important to realize that unlike some other jobs that you can try for a week or a month and have a good feel for the work and learn some new skills, cooking likely requires much more time.  A kitchen is its own world with its own language, customs and considerable skills.  I think to feel comfortable you have to commit four or five months to being a prep cook and likely an equal amount as a line cook.  At that point you certainly wouldn’t be a great cook…but you could cook.

Job: Restaurant Prep Cook

Fun:  Folks are generally kind and willing to help you learn.  But restaurants are a tough business and it is about getting s**t done.

Learning: The fun is learning new things...how not to break Caesar dressing let's say.  And then you get to show friends and family what you learned.

Pay: $12.50/hr

Side benefits:  Free shift meal each day you work.  Lots of new skills for home cooking

Worth doing:  If you can't cook or want to get a lot better it is totally worth it

Resources:  Storefronts (look for signs), Stop in and talk to the chef, Craigslist

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