A quiet kitchen

We rightly admire hard work. That ability to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures that Russell said distinguish the civilised man from the savage. Prudence. Forethought. Effort. Perseverence.

But hard work doesn’t always look like hard work unless you look closely. It can be tempting to think that hard work must generate noise and commotion, huffing and puffing, crowded calendars, late nights, fraught discussions, and burn-outs. It can be tempting to think that calm and quiet imply a lack of effort. It doesn’t.

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain paints a picture of two different restaurant kitchens:

In ten minutes, when the next wave of hungry public had been seated and breaded and watered, there’d be a punishing rush — the slide filling up with orders all at once, the action swinging from station to station, boiling up the line like a Drano enema. First, the salad guy would get hit, then the saute station and finally the grill, until everything came down at once — the whole bunch of us in the cramped kitchen struggling and sweating and cursing to move orders out without falling in the weeds.

As an art form, cook-talk is, like haiku or kabuki, defined by established rules, with a rigid, traditional framework in which one may operate. All comments must, out of historical necessity, concern involuntary rectal penetration, penis size, physical flaws or annoying mannerisms or defects.

It is no coincidence that all my kitchens … are reminiscent of the kitchens I grew up in: noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone — an effective kitchen, but a family affair, and a dysfunctional one, at that.

Not all kitchens are the press-gang-crewed pressure cookers I’m used to. There are islands of reason and calm, where the pace is steady, where quality always takes precedence over the demands of volume, and where it’s not always about dick dick dick.

I hung out in the Veritas kitchen recently, knocked off work at Les Halles and ran over to see how the other half works. It’s a very quiet place.

During the middle of the rush on a Friday night, with a full dining room, the pace was positively relaxing — more a seriously focused waltz than the kind of hard-checking mosh-pit slam-dancing I live with. No one was screaming. Nobody was kicking any oven doors closed, putting any English on the plates, or hurling pots into the sink. Scott, expediting, never raised his voice.

I looked again, closer this time, and saw that [a woman working on a corner station] was plating fish, cooking risotto, emulsifying sauces, taking on three, then four, then five orders at a time — all the while never changing expression or showing any visible signs of frustration or exasperation (as I would have under similar circumstances). No worries, just smooth, practiced motions, moves you see in twenty-year veterans: no pot grabbed without side-towel, no wasted effort, every sauce getting a quick taste, correcting seasonings, coming up on her stuff at the same time as the rest of the order — generally holding down her end like an ass-kicking, name-taking mercenary of the old school, only cleaner and better. Her station and her uniform were absolutely unmarked by spills, stains or any of the expected Friday-night detritus.

When orders came in faster, the pace quickened slightly, but nobody ran. Nobody seemed hurried.

… waiters wordlessly stepped in and did the expediting and plate finishing, with imperceptible change in product. (Waiters shouldn’t touch food. Did I say that? Wrong again.)

Outside, the dining room was as relaxed as the kitchen, nothing but happy faces, lingering over appetizers, sipping wine, expressions those of anticipating first-time lovers who just know they’re going to be good together.


Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (New York: Bloomsbury, )