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10 things chefs won’t tell you

10 things chefs won’t tell you

Obviously, a top 10 list is by definition a big generalization. But it is fair to say that the following is pretty accurate in the restaurant industry. And of course, the assumptions in the following list vary with the kind, location and standards of the restaurants, as well as the level of professionalism of the chef.

 

  • There is no such a thing as ‘fresh fish’. 

Let’s define “fresh fish”. I remember the days when I worked on a Mediterranean island in the south of France. I’d walk down to the harbor in the morning to meet with fishermen just back from the sea. They’d show me the catch, I would buy whatever I liked and I’d walk back to the restaurant. And I’d served the fish. That’s ”Fresh fish”.
I’ll take an educated guess and say that 80% of the restaurants in your town buy previously frozen fish. “Frozen”. Not “fresh”. While we’re at it, I’ll just go ahead and say that any given piece of fresh or “defrosted” fish has an average ”shelf life” of 2 days. Not so “fresh”. And that’s not counting the time spent traveling from out-the-water to the kitchen, which could be 1 or 2 days.
And by the way, even in Tampa Bay, FL, common grocery stores such as Publix or Sweetbay serve pieces of fish that are about 2 or 3 days old, sometimes evidently more. Again, that’s not counting the time of transit from sea to store.

 

  • Specials aren’t “special chef’s creations”; they just help our food cost. 

Come on, specials were created to sell. In the average restaurant, the chef communicates to servers what he needs to sell. Reasons go from over-ordering to lack of freshness, or left-overs from a catering event. And no, I usually never order a special.

 

  • Soup du jour is rarely du jour. 

Soups are great money-makers. Leftovers get recycled. Not-so-good-looking vegetables get used. Quick and easy to make. Don’t think for a second that chefs spend a lot of time thinking about soup du jour. At the contrary, soup du jour comes naturally. Unused leeks + old potatoes = vichyssoise. Leftover chicken + corn from yesterday’s lunch = chicken soup. Over-riped tomatoes and so-so fresh basil = tomato and basil soup.
And of course, a soup du jour (of the day) is likely made the day before for flexibility of production. But that’s a good thing. It does tastes better the next day.

 

  • A restaurant can’t easily operate without illegal immigrants. 

Restaurants margins are paper thin. Good net margins turn around 5-10% for well-managed restaurants. A penny saved is a penny earned. Illegal immigrants are cheap and “hidden” in the kitchen. Many restaurant owners and chefs rely on them. They are hard workers, too, never complain, and if they’re sick one day, they’ll find a family member or a friend to replace them. They are just unvaluable in a restaurant kitchen.

 

  • We know you don’t REALLY want to be a chef.

You already have a career? You’re bored with it? Thinking about something cool to unleash your creative side? Just happened to watch the naked chef on the Food Network and are attracted by the glamour of it all? That’s great. But that’s not the reality. If you knew the reality of being a chef, you wouldn’t want that for yourself. Trust us. 

 

  • We despise vegetarians. We hate vegans.

We just do. Vegetarians, unless your lifestyle is confined to your own house or you’re paying for your own lunch, we think you’re rude.
Vegans, actually, not quite true! We love them. Between 2 slices of baguette with sea salt, tellicherry pepper and a little olive oil.

 

  • Steak well done? You get the smallest, ugliest and potentially oldest steak of all. 

We have to cater to you, you destroyer of Taste! Otherwise we would tell you how ridiculous it is to cook a perfectly good and likely expensive piece of meat until it’s tasteless and yukky-textured. Plus, because you won’t notice the difference, we choose the smallest, ugliest and oldest piece of all.

 

  • Special requests are a bitch and we hate you for that.

We work long hours and we’re pretty uptight and precise about the way we do things. Getting us out of our routine because you want your dressing on the side is a pain. And sometimes your requests are plain ridiculous. Mac & Cheese with no cheese?

 

  • We aren’t inspired “artists” in sparky white chef jackets. We’re a weird bunch of hard-workers who retranched in the hidden back of the house because we feel better that way. 

Culinary Arts are 90% work and 10% creativity. Most chefs are hard-workers and seem to be more comfortable in the back of the house, focused on their mise en place and thinking about lunch or dinner. We don’t have much time to interact socially while working.

 

  • We don’t own Viking stoves or All clad cookware.

Some of us indulge in expensive pro- or semi pro- heavy equipment at home. But really, we cook at the workplace. The only thing we waste our money on is great german or japanese knives.

 

  



81 Responses to “10 things chefs won’t tell you”

  1. Nynn says:

    Very interesting! Thanks!

  2. Tammy Sassin says:

    As always you are candid and right on. I look forward to reading more.

  3. As a chef, I’ll give you 9 out of the 10 things you mentioned. Everything else is spot on, but I spend serious moulah trying to get the freshest fish possible. Not ‘refreshed’ fish and def not frozen.

    • chefgui says:

      thanks for your comment and please let us know which one you disagree with. we accept dissidence, here!

  4. Jenna Borum says:

    Oh, I so appreciate your candor. I don’t exactly love what I read but if it’s true, I want to know. That’s just the way I roll.

  5. Tammy Sassin says:

    really dressing on the side such a pain? How so?

  6. Squirrel says:

    I love the truth. The world needs more truth. I don’t know if many people will be shocked by these “secrets” above, but it certainly confirms some things.

  7. I have a stepson who is a chef and he would agree with you on all of these! It’s nice having an “insider” in the family :-)

  8. David Eger says:

    Preach it, brother! As a (former) working chef, I swear it’s all true.

  9. David Eger says:

    Forgot to mention – for those interested in more of the seamy underbelly of the restaurant world, Tony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” is highly recommended reading. You may never want to dine out again.

  10. Brandon Shaw says:

    As someone who managed, co-owned, and cooked every bite of food that went through a cajun diner for many moons…. I totally agree with all of those.

    Sure, working the front of the house is cleaner and air-conditioned…. but in the kitchen, you don’t have to deal with all the customer bullshit. Agreed.

  11. Deseree says:

    What a great interesting post! I totally agree with the well done steak thing. When I was a server, I would have guests that would order the filet mignon well done. I am thinking to myself you seriously want to pay for the most expensive cut of meat on the menu to completely ruin it like that??

    • chefgui says:

      interesting how the people who actually worked in restaurants agree with this post. thanks for your comment.

  12. Great info! I am always very wary of ordering any sort of seafood special on a Sunday. I’m guessing that it’s not made of the freshest fish.

  13. Carmen says:

    Excuse me…I need a moment…to burst out LAUGHING!

  14. Dave says:

    Gui, these items are so true. I was a bit surprised about the illegalls, but don’t know why I should be surprised.

    As for the high quality stoves and cookware, these great quality items help untrained “home chefs” make up for less then stellar skills. And, yes we sell cookware and knives, so a bit of bias is true. I will say a well trained individual can and does overcome poor quality in equipment and ingredients. However, Home Cooks need help in both areas when ever possible.

    I can’t believe I am repeating what my mother always said; “Save you money and buy the best quality you can afford. This will keep you from having to replace it!” This advice applies to food ingredients, TV’s, cars and kitchen tools. Damn her…she is always right!

    Thanks for sharing you TOP 10 with the world. Not sure all of your RESTAURANT Chef friends will appreciate it. Guess you will be getting lots of “Chef Specials” for Christmas. LOL

    Thanks Dave

    • chefgui says:

      The educated comment above comes from my good friend Dave of the Rolling Pin. If you are in the Tampa Bay area, don’t hesitate to check his store out for great deals on cookware and more.

  15. Susan Moorhead says:

    Water, water everywhere and not a fresh fish to eat??! Why is it here in Tampa Bay area (yikes – even Pinellas?) we can’t get fresh fish? And when I eat out I usually order something that I don’t cook at home (FISH!). Guess I’ll stick with veal. Please advise.

    • chefgui says:

      Susan, i’m not saying you can’t find fresh fish (as in fresh off the boat). But even in Tampa Bay, it’s difficult.
      If you email me i can give some recommendations. thanks for your comment.

  16. Clementine says:

    Interesting info about well done steak – never thought about it. About vegetarians (I’m not, but as you wrote you hardly find fresh fish in restaurants…): can’t they contribute to your 10% creativity?

  17. Alison says:

    Didn’t know the steak thing. I don’t really eat steak though, so I wouldn’t know. These were great though. I haven’t worked in a real restaurant before, but just working in places in general and having customer “special” requests are really annoying.

    So when I go to sushi bars in Tampa, they aren’t really fresh? :( booo

    I work at FedEx part time and we’ll get publix parcels for the sushi department. They are normally cold soggy boxes with sushi ingredients inside them. It’s pretty sad. And sadder that people actually buy sushi at publix.

    Oh- and as a side note, you can change you picture/avatar for your comment posting at:

    http://en.gravatar.com/

    :)

  18. Stephanie Rowley says:

    It must be the French in you that makes you so candid, so don’t stop! You just confirmed a lot of what I had thought about restaurants. And BTW, you can cook for me anytime! :)

  19. Very interesting, I often suspected this of the fish because my hubby is a fisherman and there is no comparison to the taste of fresh caught and restaurant fish. On another note I bet even if you dont have a Viking stove and allclad cookware you have some pretty killer knives, right?

  20. Michael says:

    About “Fresh Fish”: my cousin’s pet peeve–he sells produce to high end NYC restaurant, but used to sell fish, too–is that even top restaurants call frozen dover sole “fresh”. He used to fly in unfrozen dover sole, but these restaurants balked at the price when they could get “fresh ” for less.

  21. Stephanie Rowley says:

    Gui, how many times do I have to tell you. You can pay me in wine and good food, that you cook!

  22. Scotty Cline says:

    Spot on! I’d add “We love compliments and think they are great, you just don’t have to tell us in person”

  23. Becky says:

    nice. very candid.

    and in addition to the comment about a chef at home… besides not having extravagant equipment, nor do they eat, or cook such grandiose gourmet meals at home each night.

  24. Becky says:

    i was nice… do i get a cookbook?

  25. Eric says:

    If you want to go to a restaurant that actually serves fresh fish, try eating in a real seafood city like New Orleans. By the way we also order fresh ingredients daily for our specials and soup du jour (but we do make soup a day before serving b/c it is better the next day). The last 7 I totally agree with. I wish more illegals floated up on beaches near us though.

    • chefgui says:

      All depends of the type of restaurant and the professionalism of the chef. Regarding fresh fish, my point is even with the proximity of the sea, freshness could be more than it usually is. But hey, New Orleans is great, i agree.

  26. Gavan says:

    Site’s looking great, man. Definitely agree with the ‘artists’ point. Most of us a way more comfortable hidden behind the stove (not talking to Joe Public).

  27. Marcy says:

    ChefGui, you and Anthony Bourdain should go to lunch. This post was an echo of Kitchen Confidential on almost every point. You should read it! Great chefs think alike :)

  28. Hey, great post, really well written. You should write more about this.

  29. mark mendez says:

    I strongly disagree with almost all your points. I dont do specials to help out food costs we do them to use different products and have fun. You sound VERY cynical and bitter. I dont hate vegetarians or vegans although they an be a pain. I do a lot of special requests and sometimes we do get frustrated but i dont hate these people. What happened to being passionate about cooking for other people? that’s your job, to make them happy. I have been in the restaurant business 20 years and still love cooking and making people happy, sometimes they put challenges in front of us, so what, grow up, deal with it and move on. would thomas keller or daniel boulud share your opinions, i think not. great chefs dont think alike.

    • chefgui says:

      I’m glad you disagree. We promote dialogue as well as dissent, here. Note, however, that this post is not titled “10 things mark mendez won’t tell you”. Granted, my article is a generalization, which I actually indicated as a “disclaimer” for future reference. Don’t take it too personally, chef. Not everyone in the industry has the same standards as you do. Sure, there is Keller and Boulud, but as Anthony Bourdain puts it, there’s also the other side of the craft, the “underbelly of the culinary world”, where things are not necessarily as pretty as one may think.
      And for your information, I love my job as much as you do, and I like writing about every aspect of it. The great side and the not so great side.

  30. Alexander says:

    “I strongly disagree with almost all your points.” I’m VERY glad to read that not everyone has sold out! Mark, but I’m curious about on which points you do agree with him?

    Steak. When we ask you how you’d like to have it cooked we don’t expect you to say ‘well-done’. Never. It’s the same line as when we ask “How are you?” What we really mean, is that we serve it the way the chef / society / culture dictates steak should be served and eaten. It has nothing to do with your own personal taste. Nothing. Period. And IF you order it the way WE want you to eat it, we don’t really care if you empty the salt shaker on your table. That’s fine with us. You’ll order more drinks. Had the person who came up with the ‘no meat ever well-done’ LINE passed on the ‘don’t add salt’ line we would repeat this too – ad infinitum.

  31. Funny stuff! Having worked both back and front of the house in NYC restaurants, all this and more “realities” are TRUE.
    While I love meat myself – I’ve always dreamed of being the Pork Queen (full ceremony with a crown roast on my head and the baby back bouquet), I have always had a soft spot for the vegetarians (not so much the vegans or the raw foodies–I hate extremism). Luckily there is a trend towards vegetarian restaurants where the food doesn’t taste like dirt for them to take their meat lovin’ friends slumming.

  32. FoodSafetyChef says:

    That is so spot on dude!!!!
    You know there’s enough for several other lists!!!!

  33. Ann says:

    Very interesting. I’ll think twice when I order in a restaurant next time. I usually order dressing on the side. But what about medium or medium well steak? Do we get the bad cuts too? Sorry but I can’t take it rare. Thanks for the info.

  34. Rose Dalila says:

    I have been ordering Gevalia since 1986, and I love the product and the service. Can’t say enough good things about it. My friends and family always compliment me on my coffee, and I’ve given it as a gift to friends to try it out and fall in love with it as well. As for my Gevalia Coffee Review, it is the best coffee and customer service around.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Cool post, just subscribed.

  36. Camille says:

    I know for a fact Gui travels with his good knifes, he brought them to Italy on our Vagabond Gourmet cooking school trip – and put them to excellent use. A bit of a challenge with security these days. Gui would also go out and find the freshest fish to cook – I had never had fresh sardines before, in olive oil and lemon – awesome. Growing up on good beef, I can’t related to the person that orders a well done steaks then smothers it in A-1. I doubt they know what good beef tastes like, and so would never want to risk trying it medium rare. I would not think dressing on the side would be a problem either, but now we know Ms. Tammy. I don’t think Gui was complaining, just explaining things, from his point of view. For my sister that decided to be a chef and went to the CIA – way too much work! Thanks & Cheers Gui

  37. Camille says:

    that should be knives – oops

  38. Beth says:

    Thumbs up, Chef Gui!aaaaahhhhh the beautiful truth of what’s mostly never spoken of!

  39. Susan says:

    So, so true! As a line/breakfast/banquet cook and aspiring chef, this is all so true.

    No, most people who think they want to be chefs really don’t. It’s a lot of sweat, hard work, stress, repetition, and soreness. (My wrist had to be wrapped and on ice for a long time after reducing 3 cases of cap meat cooked medium into a medium dice. And no, I didn’t call out, that’s not an option.) There is the occasional burst of creativity where I get to make a cheese or fruit tray for banquets or we have a special order VIP plate at the hotel, or the chef generously lets me create the Valentine’s Day special dessert. There is stress and a thrill to be found in managing the entire lunch rush with great ticket times all on your own or knowing that the perfectly cooked filet and stuffed shrimp that just got delivered via room service was your doing. Truth be told, you’ve got to be crazy to love this job, though. I think I’m insane. ;-)

  40. Thank you for setting the world straight on steaks well done.

  41. KonstantinMiller says:

    Hi. I like the way you write. Will you post some more articles?

  42. lisa says:

    i work in a similar feild also, and what you are saying is sooooooooo true. Almost every one that i have worked with before in this industry have these same exact thoughts and feelings!!!!!!!!!!!!

  43. My impression is you have released a pressure valve for a lot of chef’s through your words.
    Cheers Yvan

  44. ChefJT says:

    I know of what you speak. Mac & Cheese hold the cheese……mine was a cheeseburger split, half medium rare, the other half well done. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to!

  45. Chef D says:

    hahahah!!! You are the verita!!!

    We have been telling this all along hopefully, somebody will pay attention once and for all.
    We chef are chef not because of the glamour but because we love what we do..

  46. Ray Brizell says:

    well you cant say fairer than that

  47. Mohammed says:

    Thats exactly the ugly truth that no one likes to hear . Bravo chef !

  48. Chef Dave says:

    Great Piece, Although I can think of more than 10 you hit some good ones. How about splitting a entree 3 ways. I must cater to VIP’s who not matter what, always get what they want even if the request is Crazy.
    We are introducing a new menu today, I can’t wait to see the special request we will be getting now..
    I always stress to my servers that they are the frontline in this problem, and their ability to persuade the guest as to what should or should not be possible for the kitchen to produce successfully.

    Ciao!

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