Frank Chen

Frank Chen


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

Several days into my stage, I was almost thrown off the line because I couldn't master the ability to shut drawers and lowboys quietly. I kept accidentally closing them with too much speed.

The head chef pulled my saucier over to him. "If he slams one more lowboy, he's going off the line." My saucier leaned back to me and casually informed me about my transgressions and the dire consequences if I didn't stop.

I was lucky it was the end of the week and the end of service, so that reprimand could simmer a bit if needed, and the impression (hopefully) would fade.

Respect is paramount. My actions on the line reflected my saucier's actions. He had told me multiple times to not slam things. My fuckups were his fuckups. For those slammings, he took the blame for me twice. I owe him a couple beers.

I haven't slammed anything since. Not even at home (well, maybe once or twice ๐Ÿ˜ฌ).

This brings me to the topic of standards. You're expected to consistently hold a high standard at all times.

There's a purposeful way to do everything, even use cling film. Sure, it might seem OCD, but again, standards. My saucier immediately noticed that I was doing it wrong. His wide eyes panned from the loose, bunched up film straight into my eyes.

"No. What is this? Let me show you." He pulled up a metal rectangular container and stretched it tight until the top looked like glass. "Nice and tight, single layers for solids, and double layers for liquids. You try it now."

I haven't cling-filmed the same way since.

There's an optimal way to hold a squeeze bottle. Tip at the bottom, not the top. Keep your elbows in, it's all in the wrist.

There's a pretty way of dolloping cream on a plate, plating herbs, saucing meat, even seasoning using salt. You gotta pinch and massage the salt to feel for larger granules. Uniform ones only.

There's timing down to the second. A dish can have meat, cold pickles, bread, and broth. The broth needs to be served right alongside the bread. Both need to be hot. Same with the meat. You can't stagger them. You can't pour the broth or grill the bread first to save time.

"Is the broth hot Frank?"

"Yes chef."

My saucier walks over, eyes not leaving mine, trying to mind-read me to see if I was bullshitting him. He grabs a tasting spoon and gets a taste.

"Not hot enough. It's not burning my tongue."

"Yes chef". I start pushing the broth up to the hottest part of the stovetop.

"No, no Frank, don't do that. You're going to boil and emulsify the broth." He nudges me aside, and grabs a small pot.

"Skim away the fat and get some of the broth below so you can boil it fast in the smaller pot, and then add the fat back in. It's the only way, otherwise you risk emulsion."

Standards, both in temperature and quality.

The science might be lost on some folks, but the concept shouldn't be. There's a high standard, a culture. Know what it is, and know it is your responsibility to hit that target every time despite non-optimal conditions. You. Make. It. Happen.

The only way standards are kept is transparency. Chefs are direct. They will tell you to your face if you are mucking it up.

Despite them being caustic at times, it's never personal. Succeeding in these conditions is so brutal that if you don't truly care about the people that stand alongside of you, nothing will last.

I observed genuine, heated shellackings, full-on dastardly stares of disdain during service that eventually ended with a smile, laughter, and "great job" (with the same intense look in the eyes).

Here I was, a stranger to this life, yet still acknowledged like the other chefs.

I got reprimanded and almost thrown off the line for slamming one too many cabinet doors. But also got fist bumps and redeeming "fuck yeahs".

This odd combination of direct bluntness with complimentary compassion was a really weird dichotomy. It touched me in an indescribable way - I've never felt this range anywhere else.

The work, in the end, is beautiful in its own way. There's a sense of brilliant satisfaction after a full day's work of preparation and a successful service.

The attitude I see from chefs reflect some of the principles that I see in Stoicism. Everything was "yes and".

You fucked up? "Yes, chef - it won't happen again, and I'll do better."

Too slow? "Yes chef, I'll move faster."

"How's your day?" - "Best day of my fucking life."

Every compliment, accomplishment, failure, and setback, was met with enduring acknowledgment and a persistence to do better. That's the sort of attitude that's required to be successful.