Behind the scenes in a restaurant kitchen
Anyone who has enjoyed the relaxation of dining at a barbeque restaurant knows the excitement of watching a piping hot plate of food appear on the table after smelling and hearing the barbecue equipment sizzling for a while.
The savory wafts of steam, the perfectly composed arrangement of food and the knowledge that someone else has just prepared dinner are among the reasons for the thrill of receiving a restaurant meal.
But the meal does not come without a story. No, the restaurant meal has endured a long journey from its humble beginnings to the eager mouth of the customer.
“There are dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly – a subculture whose centuries-old militaristic hierarchy make for a mix of unwavering order and nerve-shattering chaos,” chef Anthony Bourdain wrote in his autobiography, “Kitchen Confidential.”
This leaves but one question: what really happens behind the swinging doors of the kitchen?
First, one should know how the standard restaurant kitchen is set up. The kitchen staff is organized in a pristine and ordered manner.
Nick Swanson, a sous chef at Bacaro Venetian Tavern on Pearl Street, said the executive chef sits at the top of the restaurant staff hierarchy. The executive chef, often the owner of the restaurant as well, is in charge of the menu concept and oversees the entire kitchen. Directly below him is the sous chef, who is responsible for making sure the kitchen runs efficiently.
At Bacaro, and at many other restaurants, both these individuals create dishes on the menu as well as come up with specials.
“Below the sous chef are various line cooks, and then the pastry guy, the pizza guy and the prep cooks,” Swanson said.
According to Lorri Mealey in her article titled “Your Guide to Restauranting,” the kitchen consists of various stations, such as the sauté station, grill station, fry station, pizza station and dessert station. Each is carefully stocked with necessary items and is meticulously organized.
At Bacaro, executive chef Tony Justice and Swanson think up daily specials together. Thinking of a new dish every day may seem daunting, but Justice and Swanson seem to have it down.
“We talk to our purveyors and see what they have coming in that’s fresh and exciting,”
Swanson said. “We order things you don’t see every day, so the specials are interesting for the customers.”
This is why, in most restaurants, one can find a list of specials that are a step above the dishes on the regular menu in terms of quality, flavor and price.
Many restaurants talk up their use of locally produced ingredients. Yet some things, such as lobster or oranges or pineapple, simply cannot be produced here in landlocked Colorado.
Purveyors, which are suppliers of hard-to-find ingredients, exist for this reason.
“We get a lot of our ingredients from local farmers and producers,” Swanson said. “But some exotic things, like certain spices, vinegars and oils, we order from larger companies.”
Swanson mentioned Seattle Fish Company as one of Bacaro’s major seafood purveyors.
When asked if the company was able to provide the middle of the country with fresh fish, Swanson sounded encouraging.
“We can get fish coming off the docks and into our kitchen the same day,” he said. “Seafood companies have been doing this for so long that they have the system down pretty well.”
In today’s world of heightened transportation and technology, even the interior states are able to enjoy the wonders of fresh fish.
“Perhaps if we were on the coast of California, we’d be able to get fresher ingredients at a lower cost,” Swanson added.
But for a non-coastal state, it appears as though fish supply is surprisingly lush.
In Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ an entire chapter is devoted to warnings about when not to order various items. For example, seafood, he warns, should never be ordered on a Monday.
“The chef orders his fish on Thursday for delivery Friday morning. He’s ordering a pretty good amount of it, too, as he’s not getting another delivery until Monday morning,” Bourdain writes.
So, the fish you order on Monday will most likely be leftover fish from the Thursday order, according to Bourdain. Is this a valid warning?
“Times have changed since much of the action described in this book took place,” Bourdain later writes.
Indeed, the diner in today’s world now enters an eatery with higher standards than ever before, due to increased awareness and a more discerning food culture.
As Swanson mentioned, companies such as the Seattle Fish Company have increased their distribution techniques to cater to a more perceptive audience. Seattle Fish Company now makes deliveries on Saturdays to ensure freshness all weekend long- in Bourdain’s time, Saturday deliveries were unheard of.
“The reuse of bread is an industry-wide practice,” Bourdain writes. “When it’s busy, and the busboy is crumbing tables, emptying ashtrays, refilling water glasses, hustling dirty dishes to the dishwasher, and he sees a basket full of untouched bread, most times he’s going to use it.”
If customers were allowed a peek back into the kitchen, the sights could cause a few frowns.
In the 2005 film “Waiting,” servers and chefs are depicted spoiling one customer’s meal after she was rude to them on the floor. While this is merely a movie, it seems surprisingly convincing.
“Things like this, and the things people get away with in ‘Kitchen Confidential’ would put you out of business instantly,” Swanson said.
In his afterword, Bourdain adds that when he entered the business in the 1970s, cooking was seen as a “low status, dead-end job for the marginal and marginalized, something you did when you couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything else.”
But now, largely due to the emergence of celebrity chefs, attempts to cook better, more authentic and more daring food are now rewarded.
“Where once, well-to-do parents would have been dismayed at the prospect of their child attending culinary school, they began cheerfully ponying up $20,000 a year and bragging about it,” Bourdain adds.
Restaurant dining has shifted into a whole new realm of intent. No longer does the customer dine out simply to be fed. He or she now enters a restaurant to be entertained, to relax, and to experience the current form of food, a most crucial element to our survival.
Contact Campus Press Staff Writer Lauren Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org.