Frank Chen

Frank Chen

quality above speed

Interning at a 2 Michelin star kitchen - ๐Ÿงต for story number five:

"Frank, I don't understand why you put these uneven pieces in here."

My sous was picking bitter melon slices out and inspecting them one by one. He sighed impatiently, discarding one out of every three he was looking at.

I stood there, looking an idiot. I didn't have a good explanation. I stammered in apology, and said I was cutting them rind side down.

"Yeah, but why did you put them in if you knew they weren't good? Also, that's not the way I showed you right?"

"Look, almost half of these are unusable. If I didn't catch them here, Chef would have my ass."

It's the feeling of "getting in trouble" that makes you never fuck up again because it's tied to an emotion (namely, embarrassment). It immediately taught me that anything I do is a reflection of the chef I'm working under, and as an extension, of the head chef himself.

Anything that makes its way to a chef should be perfect as a standard, because each one of those melon slices will have eyes on it. My sous sees it, the Chef sees it, our guests see it. ๐Ÿ‘

There's honor in having pride for your work. How you show up for the most menial and simplest of tasks is how you show up for something that really matters - executing a coveted recipe, making complicated broths and sauces, or handling the management of an entire kitchen.

I quickly realized that not all labor is equal. There's quality labor and shitty labor. Shitty labor loses money and trust pretty fast. Better to consistently do high quality work more slowly and ramp up the speed than the other way around. You save face and money this way.

I also realized that maximal extraction really matters from a cost perspective. When I was asked to cut small, flat shallot squares, I was expected to use as much of the the shallot as possible.

"Frank, try to have less trim." My sous pointed at the hearts on my board and thumbed some of them. "You can definitely use these and get some more out of this. Also, you gotta move faster." He smiled.

"Yes chef."

Somewhere in the back of my mind I imagined shallots made from dollar bills - the olive green color, the rough texture of Benjamins, and the musty smell of old cash. I certainly didn't want to throw away money, right? ๐Ÿคฃ

Produce is product, and product is money. There are times when we process ingredients and the trim is thrown away. If you suck with your knife skills, you'll be throwing away usable parts with the trim, and that's more money down the drain.

Before I started, I signed a contract with several informational clauses. Most of them dealt with standard intellectual property and legal cover for the restaurant, but one clause stood out to me:

"The restaurant will incur significant expenses as a result of having you here. The cost of materials that you will work on and therefore potentially lose is significant. Please be respectful of them."

This clause was the most important to me. Coming in, my goal was to be helpful. With from no industry experience, I knew there were times where I was going to screw up or not move fast enough.

I knew this because I've read and re-read Anthony Bourdain's seminal book - Kitchen Confidential, which served as stark reminder of what professional cooking is actually like.

While there's an art, science, and honor to cooking, there's also the business side. In the context of expenses, restaurants are still businesses with small margins. Employees are expensive. Benefits are expensive. Great ingredients are expensive.

Food is finicky, seasonal, and expires. When you're prepping, there's an infinite number of variables that could make things go wrong. Add in variables like equipment failure or plain ol' bad luck and that margin starts looking razor thin.

Because margins are thin, it trickles down to the accuracy and precision of the chefs handling the product, all the way to the front of house perfecting the guest experience. To keep this type of excellence through and through is not easy.

Working here has brought a lot of context to that particular clause and to the cost side of running a restaurant.

I've observed three habits that keeps restaurant costs in check:

  1. Quality assurance. I've seen my sous rummage through the seafood boxes, poking, smelling, and looking at trout. Clear eyes, clean guts, firm flesh, good smell. Anything less than and it goes back with the purveyor. No purveyors gets to just drop shit off and leave.

  2. Prepping well and fast. Sharp knives, accurate cuts, and most importantly, things done fucking right the first time. Duck, melons, shallots - you name it, the same rules apply. There's a reason the sous is showing you a particular way of processing product.

  3. Produce the least amount of trim and waste. Always ask, is it possible to repurpose trim or waste into something that could be edible? That's a 180 degree move that turns waste into a meal, and possibly some profit.

The waste constraint lets you get creative. Chefs love that.