by John Ryan
Cooking in restaurants is remarkably like cooking at home. At least in one respect. I can't tell you how many customers put in their order and at the same time inform their waiter that they have to be somewhere else in 30 minutes.
Everybody is in a hurry, has someplace else they have to be. The irony is that home cooks, who never get paid, are expected to walk in the door and have dinner on the table. Professional cooks, who are paid of course, wouldn't do that for any amount of money. They require time to warm up, so to speak, time to prep.
Preparing dinner for a table of 4—with everything ready at the same time—is a tremendous rush. But for a performance like that a professional expects a good two or three hours to set up. This prep time is perhaps the least talked about, but most enjoyable, part of the job.
Setting up my station....
A beautiful array of onions, peppers, and eggplant are before me. My knives and towels are close at hand. If I get to work at 2:00 I'd probably have a vegetable custard in the oven by 2:30. Then I'd start chopping vegetables for ratatouille. Once that is going I might move to pounding veal....
If I'm alone, a radio keeps me company, but usually there is another cook a few feet away setting up the pasta station. And the pantry cook is getting appetizers and salad ingredients ready to go. Waiters and waitresses gradually arrive to set up the coffee station and slice lemons for tea.
Conversation ebbs and flows until 5:30, when the restaurant opens. In theory, we're ready when the first party arrives wanting roasted duck and the ability to catch a movie a couple blocks away at 6:15. The adrenaline kicks in and the casual conversation stops. It's showtime!
As you would expect, dinner service is intense and exhausting. At the end of the night everyone cleans up their station, has a shift drink and then drifts home, to do it again the next night.
As I said, in at least one respect, cooking at home is like cooking in restaurants. But it's fair to wonder what the pay-off is for home cooks, since it sure isn't money. For that I'll turn to a bit from John Irving's book The World According to Garp:
"If you are careful, if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day: what you make to eat. With writing, I feel, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking therefore can keep a person who tries hard sane."
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created September 2000