Being a chef is glamorous, right? Look at all the TV shows that have cooks hopping the globe, dining in fancy restaurants or whipping up meals for movie stars. What a life!
Not really. Most toques are under constant pressure to deliver food fast without sacrificing quality.
They're also dealing with no-shows (the dishwasher who called in sick - again), food delivery mistakes (where are the 30 pounds of shrimp for tonight's special?) and equipment failures (the oven pilot doesn't fire).
They're standing 15 hours a day, lifting heavy items, and enduring cuts, burns, noise, heat, smoke and fumes - not to mention working evenings, weekends, holidays and almost any time when the rest of the world is not. It's a love-hate occupation.
To find out how chefs cope and why they stick with the job, we asked some longtime kitchen warriors what they love - and don't - about life in a galley.
What they love
James Africano, executive chef and owner at the Warehouse Restaurant, has more than 30 years' experience in restaurant kitchens, including 10 years on one of Ted Turner's bison guest ranches. For him, it's about relationships, guests and aromas.
"We work closely with our counterparts in the kitchen and dining room, often spending more time with them than our families," Africano said. "The relationships and friendships that are built in this industry are truly one of the most fulfilling parts of the job. We share failures and victories, coach and mentor young people, and learn ourselves from the shared experiences of the people around us."
A recent remodel of the Warehouse kitchen added another dimension to the sharing: It was turned into an open space where guests can observe the chefs in action.
"Having an open kitchen presents a lot of challenges, but there are benefits as well," he said. "The greatest plus is when a guest approaches and tells you what a great time they had, how wonderful the food was, or what great service they received. This makes the hours, blood - sometimes literally - sweat and frustrations all worth it."
But the best part about being a chef? The aromas being created.
"Olfactory stimulation is so powerful," Africano said. "Almost daily, I go to different times and places just from the aromas in the kitchen. Jasmine rice cooking transports me back to Maui in the early mornings, cooking rice for the lunch shift. Roasting lamb (harkens back) to my brunch days as a young cook. Even chlorine bleach takes me to my high school days on the swim team. Amazing what this one simple sense can do!"
Brent Beavers, executive chef for AspenPointe Café at Citizen's Service Center, loves the pace of the work and the skill of the craft.
"My favorite thing is the rush of cooking on a busy line with talented, passionate cooks slinging out great food. ... It's the best thing in the world," he said.
Perfecting dishes provides another high for Beavers.
"Another of my favorite things is a well-finished sauce, one that has been given the attention and respect it deserves. Doesn't matter what type sauce, as long as it is done with finesse. I also love the simplicity of great food, especially fresh-made pasta and bread. Making them or eating them always puts me in a place of respect for food and the craft of making it."
Kenneth Trombley (aka KT Trombley), owner and executive chef of Bella Panini, has more than 40 years in the food industry and still enjoys "what I do, going to work and dealing with customers."
His favorite aspects include hearing from pleased customers - "whether it's about the staff, service, food and their overall feeling about the atmosphere and experience at the restaurant, knowing that you have exceeded the customer's expectations, especially after creating a meal for them."
Having loyal diners is a big one for Trombley, especially "when customers take ownership in your restaurant, like by bringing in out-of-town family and friends, expressing to them this is their place," he said. "(You) are able to share in all their special occasions, like a part of their family."
Matt Richardson is executive chef at Cheyenne Mountain Country Club and vice president of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Culinary Federation. He finds joy in the customers, technical aspects of cooking, and being an inspiration. "When friends, diners or whoever loves your food and seems genuinely satisfied, that feels awesome," Richardson said. He also likes "playing scientist - at least, ingredient scientist - mixing and matching foods, spices and fire to make enjoyable plates. Definitely fun! And every day, you get a chance to inspire someone, to do better or learn something new."
Their pet peeves
Chefs preferred to be anonymous for this category, so we've used quotations marks even though we don't identify the speaker.
- Chefs and cooks who know it all and have big egos. "We are all students of our craft and learning every day. You can never know everything, and the day you stop learning it's time to move on."
- Tardiness. "We work in a very time-sensitive environment. Getting to work on time and being on your station is so important."
- Messy employees, on either side of the kitchen window. "Clean as you go. Keep your space neat so that your brain is neat as well. A messy station is a sure sign of someone who has lost or is losing control of their work."
- Cloudy food, recipes that have too much going on in the dish. "Many times, chefs and cooks don't let their ingredients shine."
- Cooks who can't back up their boasts. "If you are an amazing cook, it will show. You don't need to talk about how good you are."
- Poor service. "Crappy service can take most of the enjoyment and luster away from a perfect dish."
- Customers who are rude and dismissive "to my staff or myself. We are there to take care of their needs and hopefully help them have an enjoyable evening."
- Customers who don't point out a problem with a meal or service, "giving you an opportunity to correct it and perhaps turn a bad experience into a good one."
- The question: What's your favorite thing to cook? "As if you possibly have only one dish."
- Dull knives. "Whether at home or in a professional kitchen, a sharp knife makes the difference."
- Inconvenient hours. "It is my self-chosen profession, but at any given time, I will find myself working when something fun is happening."