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Culinary Diaries: Always Watch The Chef

Culinary Stories, Recipes


Chefs have this weird tendency to play mind games with people. Especially while they’re learning. I’m not sure if it’s a “pay it forward” mentality or if they genuinely think it makes people better. Either way — I think that’s why culinary fundamentals can be so difficult. It’s a minefield of mind games. The thing I learned in my second week of culinary school after the whole soup debacle was that I needed to watch my back. And my Chef. 

The fourth day of Fundamentals, my team and I were still on stocks, and in order to set up I needed to find a part of one of the large kettles. It was essentially a slotted disk that went in the bottom to prevent bones and debris from getting stuck in the spout at the bottom of the kettle when straining the stock. This disk had gone missing so I went to Chef to ask him where else it may be hiding.

He told me simply, “The AM Class before you can get pretty creative, so I would look everywhere, but it should be here somewhere.” He had this twinkle in his eye, it was sort of a boyish mischievous look. Well that’s completely and totally unhelpful Chef, the AM class before us is full of 18 year olds that get high off of lucky charms rice-krispy bars, of course they’re creative. 

I replied with a simple, “Yes, Chef” as any dutiful student would, despite my uncertainty and went in search of it. Less than a minute later, Chef loudly addresses me, loud enough for the entire class to stop what they are doing.

“Sydney, if you can find the strainer in the next ninety seconds, I will give you ten extra points for the day.”

Ten points! I needed those ten points – anyone in class would! Chef made it clear that no one would ever get an A for a daily grade in his class, so that could at least help me stay out of the C range. Actually, let’s be honest here, it’s more the D range for my recent performance. I looked all around, knowing this was a game with unfamiliar rules.

“Is it right in front of my face and I’m completely missing it?” I looked around frantically at all of the equipment cages thinking I must have missed something. My classmates, who of course had all stopped what they were doing to observe what was going on, began to ask me what it was that I was looking for.

“No,” Chef said, the twinkle in his eye returning, “she has to find it herself. Sydney, you’re down to thirty seconds.” At this point I looked at him and it was all I could do to not object because I was certain that sixty seconds had not gone by in that time, and there was a clock just behind him so I know this for a fact. 

“I’m looking for the strainer that goes in the bottom of the stock pots.” I murmured. I wasn’t sure what to do. Chef was staring me down, enjoying every second of my public scrutiny and confusion as well as the fact that I obviously felt completely stupid. Even worse, the seconds were ticking by along with my grade for the day.

However, Jim came to the rescue when he said, “Oh! I know where it is.” And he went into one of the supply closets where we could hear him rummaging around and came out holding the exact piece of equipment that I so desperately needed. I never thought that I small piece of metal could mean the redemption of my self-worth. Chef kept a stern look and nodded, then spoke to Jim but addressed the entire class,

“Jim, how did you know it was in there?” Chef asked in a tone suggesting he already knew the answer. He said it like a teacher would on a kids TV show — “So class! Today we’re learning how to humiliate dumb students!” Jim looked around and started to point to the closet. 

“Did you see me walk into the closet and pull it out?” Chef still used the TV show teacher voice. It was a little too similar to how Barney talks. Jim nodded. Now, Chef looked directly at me, but again spoke to everyone, “It pays to watch the Chef guys.” He looked giddy. It was payback. 

I could feel my stomach drop to the ground. Everyone went back to work, and my feet went mindlessly to Jim as I took the strainer from him and placed it properly in the stock pots. I was furious, Chef knew I wasn’t watching him because I had done exactly what he wanted and went to look for the strainer. I was furious with him but more with myself, I had looked in that closet but clearly not well enough. I knew I needed to shake it off and move on, there were too many other things to worry about. I also knew that I allowed it to become a distraction Chef would win and I would lose.

It was only the first fifteen minutes of class. What else could go wrong?

Two words that are not as fun as they sound: Trash. Party.

Hi! I'm Sydney,

nice to meet you!

I left a marketing career in Hollywood to go to the Culinary Institute of America. After a few years of working in restaurants, I am now a private chef and sommelier in the 30a area.


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