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  • Writer's pictureRyan Kurr

Hidden Recipes and Flaming Chef Coats

“I want you to do more,” the chef said to me as she slid the spreadsheet of my dessert sales for the last 12 months back towards me across the table. “This doesn’t really show me anything.”

I was so confused. I was sure that having something as solid as actual numbers­—dollar amounts, actually—reflected that my desserts alone had brought in thousands extra for the restaurant each month since the previous Pastry Chef left. When I started, there wasn’t a dessert program, or even a real dessert menu if we are being real here. I had ideas, I was full of gusto and ambition and after years of having to do what another chef told me to do, I was finally in control of what I wanted to do (mostly). Wanting me to do more didn’t quite register, like when a cashier tells you that your card has been declined even though you know your check was deposited yesterday. I looked her straight in the eye and in my head I started to run through all the bullet points that led me to ask for a raise in the first place. I had moved from Chicago and taken the job because it was for a James Beard award-winning chef (I’ve been in that kitchen before…I knew what it could be like) only to be told, after having my start date delayed three times, that I wasn’t going to be put on salary and would be hourly, and it would also be a little less than I was originally told. I had started as the Pastry Chef for the embarrassing rate of fourteen dollars an hour. But, like the first James Beard chef once told me, “you’re not doing this for the money, you’re doing it for the experience.” So I took the job and I began my relentless war against the superfluous mint leaf garnish that plagued every dessert on the menu. I allowed it on the two classic desserts that she insisted on having on the menu forever because they weren’t mine. It was a battle I lost every single day because after I left, the night staff would do whatever the hell they wanted, like putting mint on every dessert, but also leaving their station during the middle of a busy service to go have a beer from the six-pack they stashed in a cooler out by the trash, or smoke a joint by the janky smoker and exhausted fryer oil. I missed two days of work in two years, I went in on my days off, I answered calls from the chef de cuisine during off-hours, even though I wasn’t salary, and I also helped open another restaurant endeavor by the chef, one that required me to wake up at 3 a.m., start work three hours earlier and then drive to the other restaurant and begin working that shift. Wanting me to do more just didn’t make sense. Isn’t that what I had already done?

At my first job, when I realized I was slow in the kitchen and didn’t know much about anything, especially what the rhythm of the kitchen is like, I learned that I had to be fast in order to get anything accomplished. I had to get things done and find time to do it, even when there was no time. By the time I landed the job, I was fast, fast to my own detriment it seemed because I was finishing all of my work hours early, much earlier than the previous chef, who I suspected dragged everything out on purpose so that she could actually get a paycheck that would allow her to buy more than one bag of groceries every month. I just couldn’t do that; if I didn’t have to be at work, I didn't want to be. I was fast enough that I was soon given tasks that were supposed to be on the prep cook’s to-do list. Before I knew it, pastry (me), was responsible for producing all of the pizza dough and all of the steam buns. And even then, I still managed to finish ahead of schedule and deep clean the kitchen, handle inventory and check in all of the orders coming in from different vendors. I was fast and reliable, and that led the sous chef asking me to help him with production for a private event he was doing. I did it after I finished all of my work and I was standing around waiting to go home. The chef later complained to the chef de cuisine and demanded that she dock my paycheck for doing work that wasn’t for the restaurant. That was a particularly difficult pay period because I still wasn’t able to go grocery shopping very often, and I never did anything or went anywhere unless one of the waiters took me out and paid for my tab because I couldn’t afford it. I started to wonder if the dishwasher had the same problem, who was making sixteen an hour, and I…wasn’t. Sure, he had been there for a while, but it was still washing dishes, not planning menus, executing all production, plating, and trying not to complain about it. Do you know how hard it is to make a gallon of ice cream using a tabletop ice cream maker designed for home use that was held together with 8 pieces of masking tape and only churned if you placed a 6 pound can of crushed tomatoes on top and could only spin one quart a day?

Kitchens offer a very unbalanced way of life: chefs are gluttons for more work, “meals” are eaten during your shift from a sad deli container while sitting on a milk crate during the few minutes you have between tickets, you’re on your feet all day and all night and you’re constantly doing something, even if it’s avoiding being burned to death by the deep fryer the chef refused to get fixed, even though it stood on only three legs and was ejecting flames from the gas pipe. It sucks, and you only do it because you love it, or you have to. But as I said, I was fast, and I needed more recognition than my name added to the bottom of the dessert menu with the title of Pastry Chef. Was I though? Was I just a glamorized pastry cook? It’s hard to tell when the chef rolls her eyes as she informs the wait staff of the desserts on your menu during pre-shift meetings.

I did receive one small raise, mostly because I had become very reliable and I was running the entire dessert show and they never had to worry about it. Apart from maybe some of my ice cream flavors, like Strawberry Rocky Road.

“What is that? That’s not a flavor, Ryan,” the chef de cuisine said, shortly after she’d woken up from one of her very common naps taken on my 50-pound sacks of flour after she had come in two hours after service started (also a weekly occurrence).

“Yes, it is, it’s strawberry ice cream with almonds and marshmallow cream,” I said.

She shook her head and said, “That’s a stupid name,” and turned on her heels.

“Oh, by the way…” I added as she turned to face me again, “The 28th is going to be my last day.” It was more than two weeks, it was a few days short of a full month’s notice.

Stoic AF she replied, “Okay!” She immediately retreated to the office to complain to the other managers and office staff that I was quitting.

It wasn’t that she said my dessert had a stupid name, (something I childishly retaliated by adding actual names to my ice cream labels in the freezer from that point on, like Barbara’s Blueberry Pie, or Russell’s Rocky Road), it was the fact that after I asked the chef and owner for a raise, which was insultingly rebuffed, she purchased a brand-new patio set for the outside dining area. So that’s where my raise went.

For reasons that I will never understand or make sense of, I showed up the next day and my recipe book was missing. Sure, it had the two recipes that belonged to the restaurant, but it also had every single recipe of mine that I developed, produced and served over my two years. A couple of days later, it resurfaced from the safe in the office where the chef had intentionally placed it, after having to work a full day without recipes. You better believe the first thing I did when I saw that recipe book was remove all of my recipes from it and take them home. Like many other frustrated people, I took to the internet and responded to a coworker’s bitchy post by mentioning the restaurant by name and declaring that they don’t take care of their staff. Apparently, one of the managers saw it, reported it to chef, who wanted to take legal action for dragging the restaurant’s name through the mud, forget the fact that I had bent over backward for them for two years straight. The chef called and told me to turn in my key. With only one week left, I didn’t care, I was happy to be out of that absolute train wreck of a mess. So when one of the waitstaff started reaching out to my Saturday assistant to ask what the secret was to not having the lemon tart crack in the oven, it made me smile.

There is a myriad of reasons why there is work shortage and why places are having trouble getting people to come back to work. The pandemic shook things up and a lot of people realized they were being exploited, taken advantage of, underpaid, overworked, and more…and sucked it up because they didn’t really have much of a choice, they needed a check. So when the pandemic hit, there was a surge of people beginning to realize their own self-worth and that there were things that were more important than working for an asshole, like living your life and being able to enjoy some of it for once. The truth is, it’s going to take more than higher wages for a lot of people to start showing back up to work. It has to be worth it, it has to be a different environment, it has to be managed differently; this applies to all industries, not just the restaurant world. No one deserves to have plates thrown at them, overworked and humiliated in front of staff and having to work through major sicknesses and emotional and mental traumas because there is no other choice because there are no sick days, no benefits, no relief from the futile, crushing defeat that is being in the working class. Nothing should stay that way just because it has always been that way.

Put yourself first, demand what you’re worth, don’t put mint leaf on dessert, and if they don’t like it, go home, take off your chef coat…and set fire to it. I did.

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