When I arrived in Italy to learn Italian cuisine, I never thought I would end up working in a Michelin star restaurant. A solid trattoria, sure; a fine-dining restaurant, at a push. But when I decided to send a letter to five of the best restaurants in Milan and immediately received a reply from the chef at a one-Michelin-star restaurant in the city, I couldn’t believe it. Next thing I knew, I was shaking hands with the chef as we arranged plans for my first day of work in the kitchen.
Due to bureaucratic issues with my work visa, I wasn’t supposed to start work until the following week but, restless to get going, I asked if I could spend a few days in the kitchen right away instead of waiting around. I figured that I would simply be hanging out in a corner and watching – maybe for a few hours at most – since I wasn’t allowed to begin work until the employment application went through. I showed up at 9am sharp on that first day in my street clothes, hoping that my interest and eagerness would please the chef. I left my chef’s whites and knives at home. Why would I need those if all I was doing was watching, right?
Cut to 1am that night: I’m exhausted, covered in sweat, and sixteen of the most stressful hours of my life have just gone by in a blur. It turns out I had misunderstood the chef’s explanation of these days leading up to my official start date. I certainly was going to be working, he had said, it was just that I wasn’t going to be getting paid.
The two head chefs are Uruguayan and Argentinian. Having barely been in Italy for a month, I still have enough trouble understanding native Italian speakers. Rapid-fire instructions in Italian delivered in thick Spanish accents? Forget it. And, during service, there are no bills to rely on if you miss an order. Everything is verbal: the chef tells you what to make and when to make it. You better hope you hear it and understand it the first time because he certainly won’t be repeating himself.
I was hired as a “stagiaire,” the French word for a kitchen apprentice or intern. Typically, a stage at a high-end restaurant lasts for a month or two and you spend most of your time in a corner peeling potatoes or cutting shallots brunoise. You learn less from doing and more from observing; you are a peripheral figure, an outsider, but an outsider with the best seat in the house to observe world-class cooks and chefs doing what they do best. This, in short, is what I expected my time here to be. A few months doing menial tasks under intense time-pressure but, other than extremely long hours, not much more than that. I would learn how a restaurant of this level operates and for the rest of my life I would be able to say I worked for a Michelin-starred chef. However, a stage at this restaurant is completely different, more a probation period for future employment than a short-term learning experience. As a result, I was thrown straight into the deep-end and had to try with all my might to keep my head above water.
It is often said that a kitchen is one of the last true meritocracies. You either keep up or you don’t, you can either cook or you can’t. For a young Canadian with little cooking experience and only a very basic fluency in the language, there is nowhere to hide. I can’t pretend that I’m a more skilled cook than I am and I can’t pretend I understand instructions when I don’t. It takes only a split second for an experienced cook to look at me from across the kitchen and see that I’m doing something wrong or inefficiently. The result is that my experience was an overwhelming feeling of being lost. To step into a new kitchen is like stepping into a new world: every kitchen is different, with its own unique “language” (even on the most basic level of ingredients and the names of dishes) and systems (methods of preparation or preservation, for example). I remember setting foot in a Canadian restaurant for my first day of work and feeling completely at a loss, surrounded by new products, new machines, new words. And that was all in English. Now, here I am in not just a new kitchen, but a new culture, language, and country. Moreover, I’m doing this all in literally the most intense and demanding environment I’ve ever set foot in. There is no grace-period, no hand-holding as you get up to speed. You can either keep coming back day after day and try to keep up or you can stay at home. I came very close to doing the latter several times, and it took many late-night phone calls home to make it as far as I did. I’m glad I chose to stick with it.
After only ten days of work, I felt completely beat up. I knew it was an amazing opportunity, one that I can now look back on fondly as my physical (you should see the burns and cuts on my hands and arms) and mental (getting yelled at in Italian in front of all the other cooks by an imposing man with a thick Uruguayan accent is not fun) wounds have healed. At that point, though, it felt as though my brain was mush from spending 12-16 hour days focusing intently on every Italian syllable uttered, desperate not to miss an important instruction. My hands and feet, too, were bearing the brunt of the hard labour. I’d experienced swollen feet from hours of standing before, but never had they been this sore. I would flop down on my couch at home after every shift and keep them elevated as the numbness slowly wore off. My hands were even worse, and of the holy pain trinity of brain-feet-hands, they caused me the most discomfort. A typical journey for my poor hands over the course of a shift involved hours of breaking down seafood, like shrimp scampi, their hard spiny shells turning my fingertips into a mess of tiny cuts and slices. After two hours of shelling raw scampi (you can wear gloves if you want to look weak in front of the other cooks, but you don’t really notice the cuts till later anyway since the only thing you’re focused on is speed), a typical follow-up activity for me would be pitting olives. I’d retrieve the tray of tiny black Sicilian olives from the oven (probably adding to the collection of burn welts in the process) and would then have to peel them individually and throw away the pits before running them through a machine to extract their oil. As you can imagine, peeling wet and salty olives with fingertips that have just been shredded to pieces from 5kg of shrimp scampi is more akin to torture than to ‘cooking’. Yes, again I could have used gloves, but that is simply not something you do in front of cooks already exasperated by your lack of experience in ‘their’ kitchen. And anyways, spending a mere two minutes to run downstairs and find medical gloves is a sure-fire way to lose time in your prep list. Even two minutes of lost time matters.
The rest of the day would be spent in much the same way, with prep activities falling into three distinct categories: something that cuts, something that burns, or something that stings. Over the course of my time at the restaurant I had to update the fingerprint recognition on my phone six times as burns and tiny cuts accumulated, and still when I try to use my right middle-finger to scroll on my phone it doesn’t register. I guess the burn on that finger is so bad that there is not enough bloodflow for my phone to recognise it as a digit attached to a human being.
Yet, despite all the burns and the cuts and the mental fatigue, I walked away from my experience with a feeling of accomplishment. I made it through those draining early-stages and soon became relatively comfortable in the environment. I still found it breathtakingly intense at times, and I never got used to the other cooks and the chef urging me to go faster with countless “veloce!” or “vai!”. But, over time, I managed to prove to myself that I belonged. I was conquering my prep list with ever-increasing speed each day and I began finding it fun to really push myself to see just how fast I could work under pressure and just how many prep activities I could juggle at once. The fun rushes of adrenaline that I used to get at work in Canada when challenging myself to work as quickly and efficiently as possible had returned, and my grasp of Italian – especially colloquial, kitchen-style Italian – had improved so much in just a few weeks that I was now joking around with the other cooks amidst the chaos of the daily prep period. It felt as though I was in a black hole of work, waking to my alarm at 7am and deliriously rushing to the metro station after wolfing down a bowl of cereal and a coffee at home. I’d be back home by 10pm that night but would only manage to read a few pages of a book before falling asleep. This schedule would continue for days and days until, suddenly, I would have a day off. When your “weekend” is only 24 hours, however, it is nothing more than a rest period before starting all over again with another gruelling seven days in the kitchen. At the most, I would leave my apartment to do laundry, often forgetting to even go grocery shopping. One week after running out of milk I had water with my cereal for four days in a row because there were no grocery stores open in the hours I wasn’t at work.
A big reason for the change from overwhelmed to comfortable in the space of only two weeks or so was the arrival of two young students from the local culinary school. Just as I was starting to find my feet, learn the language better, and get faster at my various jobs, these two 16-year-olds arrived in the kitchen and, just like that, I was no longer at the bottom of the kitchen’s hierarchy. There is tremendous importance in the hierarchy of a kitchen, even in a relatively small one, and when you find yourself at the bottom – as anyone who is new inevitably does – your time at work is controlled entirely by the needs of others. Some finnicky, tiresome, yet relatively simple task needs to be completed on the appetizer station? “Hey, new guy, get over here!” And long before you even finish that task, you will already be getting yelled at by the grill cook to help with another brainless or dirty job that he or she doesn’t want to do alone. As a senior cook works through his or her prep-list, the shitty jobs that can be completed by someone inexperienced and unskilled will be deliberately left undone, saved until the new cook has time to do it. The problem is, every experienced cook in the kitchen is doing the same. The new arrival finds himself or herself constantly running from one side of the kitchen to the other, trying to help the senior cooks but never making it through a prep job before being called to do something else. The list of things you have been told to do grows and grows, and soon you lose track. What did the pastry cook ask me to do once I was finished helping the grill cook strain his chicken broth? How many grams of flour was I told to add to this batter before blending it? And, no matter what you are in the middle of, if the chef asks you to do something, it is expected that you will do it right away. It doesn’t matter how time-sensitive the task you’re in the middle of is, if chef asks you to grab him a whisk you drop everything and you sprint to find him that whisk.
Having completed these relatively simple jobs countless times, the senior cooks know the tasks you’ve been given to do couldn’t be easier. You’re expected to complete one in five, maybe ten, minutes flat. But, having never done it before, you are unsure of what is the most efficient method to tackle the job. You waste time gathering the necessary equipment, perhaps you misjudged the size of pot needed and you have to run back to storage to swap it out for a bigger one, losing precious moments in the meantime. You know the senior cooks are exchanging amused looks as you struggle to be efficient, and you know that they could have done the same job in half the time. When you leave the room, you know that they’re complaining to each other about how slow and incompetent you are. It would be easier for them to just do these jobs themselves, but the chef has given them strict instructions to keep you occupied.
This was the inevitable experience that awaited me in my first weeks at work. A day at work seemed never-ending as I struggled to keep the to-do list straight in my head. But, no matter how hard I tried, the senior cooks would always pick up the slack of jobs I was unable to complete in time. Operating in this mode, it is impossible to feel anything other than drastically inferior to the other cooks, and their only acknowledgments of your presence are when they are either giving you instructions or telling you to do something better, faster.
Yet, much to my delight, the arrival of two inexperienced, immature teenagers in oversized chef’s whites marked the end of my time on the bottom rung of the kitchen hierarchy. Suddenly, I was not the newest and slowest cook in the kitchen. I was given my own prep list, not merely a list of things I had to help other cooks with. I became faster and faster at conquering that list, and with more speed came more interaction with the senior cooks. Conversations about the excruciatingly slow new cook were no longer about me, but instead included me. In the space of just a couple weeks, I graduated from being the new guy stuck in the back room vacuum-packing everyone else’s products for hours on end. Now, I was able to get the new cooks to vacuum-pack stuff for me, bringing them trays upon trays of sauces and meats and vegetables, their eyes getting wider and wider as the mountain of things needing vacuum-packing got higher and higher. Occasionally, when these mountains got unmanageably high, I would get sent back by the chef to help out; now, it was my turn to tell someone else to work better, faster.
Even though I had been in their position merely days before and knew exactly the kind of overwhelming stress they were experiencing, I found I had little sympathy. When you see someone in a kitchen working too slowly and you know you could do the job faster, it is practically impossible not to get annoyed. All you want to do is shove them aside and do it yourself, demonstrating to them the kind of urgency and speed required for even the smallest job. Even though I myself, just two weeks before, nearly crumbled under the pressure of eight other cooks and two chefs yelling at me to do everything better, faster, now as I witnessed that same pressure be directed at these two culinary school students I couldn’t help but feel they deserved it. It was strange to find myself thinking, “welcome to life in a kitchen,” when ten days earlier all I had wanted was a bit of sympathy and for an ounce of pressure to be lifted from my shoulders. I know that at this very moment as I sit here writing, these same two boys are trying desperately to keep up during the morning prep period and are hating every minute of it. But here I sit, having come to grips with the stress of life in a new kitchen and having made it out the other side, knowing that what they are going through is necessary if they are ever to survive in the restaurant industry.
Will Vibert is a professional cook and writer, currently living in Milan. At the beginning of the year he moved to Italy from Canada to pursue his passion for cooking and eating and writing about it. You can follow Will’s adventures here: http://wvibert.com. And subscribe to his mailing list here: http://eepurl.com/gr-9wv