08 November, 2007

Sailing versus Cooking

There are a few professions that I would give an eyetooth for just to be able get a glimpse behind the scenes of the profession. Locomotive driver, crew on a European barge, stage designer, and, most particularly working in the kitchen of a fine restaurant.
This week I am living out this later fantasy. I asked the chef at our favourite restaurant whether I could work in his kitchen for a week. He gave me this calculating look and then a quick nod of his head, and said I could work the preparation period (from three to six).

It has been a wonderful learning experience so far. I wish I could transform it all into some great story, but that is out of the range of my abilities. What I can say is that there are a lot of parallels between cooking in a restaurant and sailing in a regatta. Here are some of the parallels between sailing or sailors and working in a restaurant kitchen or chefs:

Most are males. (It turns out that I am the first female the chef has allowed in his kitchen.)

The guys are the right type of males: they can physically survive the rigors of working in the heat, in cramped spaces, under stressful conditions, and yet they have a fine, even sensual love for detail.

This reminds me of sailing when there is almost no wind and how the captain and crew coax every little breath of wind into the sails. There is something distinctly fine and sensitive about this, yet the guys also have the enormous strength needed to deal with gale winds.

They are very competitive. I get this underlying sensation that the guys are always trying to outdo each other.

They will compliment or recognise something well done, but such praise is hard earned and never lavishly spread. It can be expressed as a nod of the head or a grunt; and that is enough.

There is a clear hierarchy of who is to do what when. You do what you are told and try not to ask any questions. If there is a lull, then the chef or sous chef just might give you the chance to do something different. The moment things get serious, you are back to your proper job.

If the team works well together then everyone is moving quickly and smoothly. There is no bumping of elbows, not shuffling back-and-forth. You can tell the person who doesn’t quite fit because, no matter the size of his stature, they take up too much space.

There is an economy of space and movement practiced all the time. You don’t spread out your wares. You don’t travel through from the front of the kitchen to the back without something in your hands in both directions.

So that is what I have learnt so far. Here are few things I’ve learnt that are really surprising to me:

All the guys smoke. (Not in the kitchen, but one step beyond the doorway.)

They don’t use many (any) spices other than salt and pepper and next to no herbs, unless they are fresh. The only explanation I can think of is that it seems as if the food’s flavour should be brought out and not coated. Does anyone know if this is the case in other restaurants?

I couldn’t possibly stand the physical rigors of the job. After four hours I am pooped. It is impossible to imagine how people do manage to work ten to twelve hours a day.

This has been like a dream come true. Next I’ll have to do is figure out a way to work on a barge…


  1. I am so excited for you!!! Congrats on your stage!!!And I love this post. The experience really is like sailing on a yaht isn't it? Sometimes it feels more like a pirate ship, but still the heave-ho and commraderie is like none other. Don't let those guys push you around too much. Show 'em who's boss. Gros Bisous, Ms. Glaze

  2. Very well put Lia! I used to shoot the dinners at the James Beard House and the guest chefs moved like dancers in that small space - delight to watch and photograph. But I had no desire to join in.

  3. Wow! That's great!