Updated: Jan 21, 2021
I was so unsure of myself the first few days of working in a restaurant kitchen that I might as well have never cooked anything before in my life. Every task — even the ones I'd done countless times before, like chopping onions and putting things in hot pans — made me nervous. The only problem with that is that you generally do need to chop onions and put food in hot pans when working in a kitchen. The other kids in my class just seemed so confident. They could butcher, butterfly, sausage-stuff and form chicken breasts into neat little rolls after seeing Chef Pietro do it only once. They knew how to filet sea bass and make pristine little pieces of orecchiette pasta. I, on the other hand, felt pretty great if I could make a decent pot of linguine for the staff meal... These feelings of inadequacy fluttered about for my first few days of duty (and whenever I dropped things, which was often), but I knew in my gut that my timidness had no place in a restaurant kitchen. There's no time to be shy with a hunk of meat when there's a hungry, paying customer waiting for it just a few feet away! So instead of hiding from onions and hot pans, I powered through my nervousness and learned a thing or two along the way.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I'll explain a bit about how this class worked. It was entirely experiential, so instead of having a lecture, watching a cooking demonstration and calmly making one or two dishes for the chef to taste, la di da, like my first couple of classes, we worked as the kitchen staff in our school restaurant, Ganzo, four to five days a week. Now, Ganzo is no USC dining hall. There's a sommelier, a reservations system and a real-life menu that changes every academic session, as well as Thursdays and Fridays when we host special dinners with set tasting menus. (Look, we have a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor!) There were 13 of us in the class. That's too many to work in the kitchen all at once, so we were split into two groups, half on the lunch shift (8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and half on the dinner shift (3 p.m. until about 10 p.m.). We rotated these shifts pretty frequently, so we got to see what it felt like to work until 10 or 11 at night, go out drinking together until 2 a.m., and then roll out of bed at 8 a.m. to rush to the kitchen for the morning shift. The class was three weeks long, so we each spent a week on each course: antipasti (appetizers), which also handles the amuse-bouches and desserts; primi (pastas and other starches); and secondi (main courses like meat and seafood). The menu for the everyday lunch and dinner service is always created by our school's executive chef, so it was our day-to-day duty to learn those recipes and cook them for the guests. Our other challenge was to create the menus for our Thursday-night theme dinners, which happen every week as a way to showcase the students' skills and creativity. Throughout the three weeks, we would be graded on the general quality of our cooking, menu proposals, and teamwork — oh, and a paper and a written test in there somewhere too. I had never so much as set foot in a restaurant kitchen before, so this all sounded like, as I loved to joke to myself, a tall order. But there's no learning opportunity like a challenge, so I rolled up my sleeves (literally, because it's really hot in the kitchen) and got to work. There's a lot to say about this experience, so I'll keep things organized by spouting off the top 10 things I liked and learned about restaurants and cooking in general.
10. There's a word for why pasta tastes better in Italy: mantecatura. This is the act of creaming together hot pasta and its sauce until each strand is coated in luscious goodness. It's why even the simplest spaghetti stirred with tomato sauce tastes better than plain spaghetti with tomato sauce ladled on top; the stirred spaghetti has actually absorbed the sauce — and therefore the flavor and moisture. I used to make a lot of cacio e pepe at home, so I did already know about the delicate balance of cheese, starchy pasta cooking water, and vigorous tossing required to create a sauce that is always glossy and never clumpy or soupy. I just never knew it had a name. "Mantecatura, mantecatura, mantecatura," I can hear Chef reminding us to apply to our spaghetti alla carbonara now.
9. And some other important restaurant lingo... The most thrilling new kitchen term I learned is "fire" for reasons that I'm sure are obvious. "Fire!" is what Chef would shout when it was time for us to start cooking a dish — because the table that had ordered it would soon be ready to eat. "Fire! Two chicken, three bass, one frittata," I remember hearing with equal parts excitement and panic on my first day cooking the main courses.
Another less rousing but equally important term: the "pass," which is the counter that separates the kitchen from the front of the restaurant, where the waiters pick up finished dishes to bring to the guests.
Each time I heard these words, I got to thinking about all the things that have to happen successfully for a waiter to bring, say, a cold salad, a hot pasta, and a chicken dish to one table at the same time. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the cliché "timing is everything" is really about restaurants.
When a cold salad, a hot pasta, and a chicken dish are all fired at once, that means they all have to make it to the pass at the same time. Why? If the pasta is already sitting on the pass while the chicken has five minutes left to cook, the customer is getting a tepid, sticky plate of carbonara, which is no good. The antidote to that is good timing, which really means good communication between each station.
At Ganzo, whenever cold dishes and hot dishes were fired at the same time, the team making the most time-consuming dish would say something like, "I need eight minutes for chicken," and so the other team would wait a few minutes before plating their two-minute salad. That way, the salad greens couldn't get soggy before the chicken made it out of the oven. This seems like a simple dance, but it takes a while to get the hang of it, so it made me appreciate all of the times I've gone out with big groups and our dishes were all delivered at the same time with the right temperature and texture.
8. Purées aren't just for babies; they're for adults who like silkiness! One thing my three favorite main courses all had in common was purées. Seared sea bass, scallops, and pork belly (pictured below) all became tastier and more interesting with purées made of seasoned fennel, pea, and sweet potato, respectively. To make the purées, we sautéed aromatics like onions or leeks until caramelized, then added the main vegetable and a little water. When everything got soft enough to blend, we blitzed the mixture in the Vitamix until super smooth. I think purées are a great way to showcase a vegetable's tasty flavor or pretty color — and sometimes they're more interesting than just throwing the cooked vegetable on the plate.
7. Few things are more satisfying than creating beautiful plating. As someone who had always considered a sprinkling of chopped herbs to be the height of home-cooking aesthetics, I didn't have much experience in the plating arena. But after spending the last three weeks sculpting mashed potatoes into delicate quenelles, squishing beans into cylindrical towers and trying my best to spoon sauces into swooping arcs on plates of fried zucchini flowers, I realized that good plating simply makes you want to EAT, and I'm excited to get better at it. Here are a few of my favorite plates from the class.
6. Seasonality is truly king. Cooking only with fruits and vegetables that are in season, I've learned, is probably the easiest rule you can follow to make good food. Ganzo, like any self-respecting Italian establishment, always uses seasonal ingredients, which is why this session's menu featured late-summer produce like figs, peaches, and zucchini. When those foods are at their peak, they're already delicious, so the most we had to do to them was give them a quick sauté or a basic vinaigrette. Considering seasonality is also a great way to answer the ever-pressing "What's for dinner?" question. Just make what's good right now! That's how I came up with my idea for the amuse-bouche for our final theme dinner. Inspired by the seasonal treat schiacciata all'uva, I suggested that we make ricotta crostini with rosemary and roasted wine grapes, which are at their best right now.
5. Restaurant cooks do more work ahead of time than they do when you order your meal. You might be wondering why, if Ganzo's dinner service starts at 7:30 p.m., we had to show up for the dinner shift at 3. That is because there are countless vegetables to chop, sauces to blend, and hunks of meat to pre-cook before a restaurant can consider itself ready for service.
When I was working on main courses, for example, we'd spend the first couple of hours of the shift prepping the three dishes for service. That meant making a tomato, peach, and onion salad to go with the sea bass, sautéing mushrooms to go inside the frittatas, and roasting our bacon-wrapped, sausage-stuffed chicken breasts until they were almost fully cooked. When orders came in, all we'd have to do is sear the sea bass, cook the frittatas, and get the bacon-wrapped chicken nice and crispy in a hot pan. It seems obvious now that cooks have to do lots of unglamorous prep work before they can do any sexy, fast-paced, steam-everywhere cooking, but this is something I never had to think about before.
4. Mise en place is the difference between chaos and calm. There's a certain rhythm to restaurant kitchens. Knives are clacking against cutting boards, stoves are firing away, and water is always boiling for pasta. Good cooks find their place in that rhythm. At first, I felt like a clunky off note in the music, too flat or too sharp because I didn't know how to turn on the deep fryer or where we keep the beans. That's what made the first couple of days so flustering; I felt panicked because I didn't know how the kitchen worked or how I fit into it.
But after a few days of setting up the station for Team Secondi, I started to naturally fall into the music. For example, I learned that we should always equip our area of the counter with several spoons for tasting, dish towels for grabbing hot things out of the oven, and a metal bowl for scraps of onion peels and other trash. I even learned to give people what they needed before they asked for it, handing Chef a pair of tongs so he could flip a steak and passing dessert plates to the right team as soon as the orders came in. My neatly laid-out utensils and steel bowls of ingredients always made me feel ready to cook, so I will continue to practice the miracles of mise-en-place when I go home and probably bust my dishwasher in the process.
3. Turns out working in a restaurant ain't easy! I'd heard plenty about the long hours, tough working conditions, and crumby pay that come with working in a restaurant — and that the only way to survive the work is to have the passion for it.
After doing it myself, I can confirm that it is indeed challenging. Your feet hurt. Your back is sore. You don't sleep nearly enough. And, as I've mentioned, the kitchen can be an intimidating place. I anticipated these things.
But there's no way to understand a cook's passion unless you've felt it. I can now see how the rush of working in a popular restaurant can be addictive. On a busy night, the kitchen is filled with such lively energy. Orders are being shouted, you and your teammates are racing to prepare perfect plates, and there are no idle hands in sight. You get lost in the work. Time flies by. And if you've done a good job, you get compliments on your food at the end of the service — which makes you much more excited to get drinks with your tribe when the kitchen is clean. I don't know if my passion for cooking could sustain me through a full-time restaurant job, but I'm happy for all of the people who do have that level of passion. That's something very special.
2. Speaking of tribe: your team really does become family. I realized just how much I'd grown to care for the people I worked with the day after our class ended. That night, I went out with a couple of people from the kitchen. We were drinking in a piazza when a few of our fellow students emerged from a street over, waving at us. I smiled cheek to cheek and popped up to hug them right away. It had been 24 hours since I'd last seen them, but it felt like so much longer.
I find my feelings of closeness with my classmates especially remarkable because of the language barriers we face. The thirteen of us come from six different countries, and we all speak different levels of English with different accents. Sometimes, we'd have a hard time understanding each other, which could be frustrating. But we were always patient with one another in our efforts to understand and be understood. Sharing a narrow, warm, crowded physical space while working toward a common goal — to serve good food and become better cooks while doing it — connected us all in a way that only a kitchen can. The way that only spilling and sweeping rigatoni off of the floor together, messing up orders in front of Chef together, and speed-plating 30 portions of roasted duck together can. I'm just so moved by how naturally we worked together and went out of our way to help each other. I might forget how to make gnudi (sorry, Chef), and I might never learn how to remember orders as they come in, but I'll never forget this feeling of camaraderie.
1. Practice really is worth something! I ended my post about my previous cooking class saying that I needed to continue to develop my palate, to get better at objectively tasting a dish for balanced levels of salt, acidity, and the like.
Well, I'm gettin' better! How do I know this? The best example I can recall is a super simple side dish of roasted bell peppers that was on the dinner menu at Ganzo one night. Chef told me to dress them with raspberry vinegar. Little by little, I seasoned the charred, slippery pepper strips with the fruity vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper, adding more vinegar when I could taste a lack of acidity and more salt when everything just needed to pop. Apparently, my tasters were up to par, because Chef gave his compliments. Do I deserve the Nobel Prize? Probably not, but I was just happy to have had a moment where I could really measure my progress in this whole journey.