Everybody knows a waiter with more industrial horror stories than the Hellraiser series. But how much of that stuff is real, how much is embellished, and how much of it was just a hallucination from eating last week’s leftover specials? We spoke to Justin Croft, a chef with 15 years of experience in the industry, and John Kolka, another chef with more than a decade of experience, about what really goes on behind the scenes in restaurants. When it comes to food, these guys have seen it all. You haven’t. And, to be honest, that’s probably a good thing.
I’m sure this doesn’t happen everywhere. LOL
#5. Restaurant Owners Will Do Anything to Save Money (Including Poisoning Employees)
During his stint as a restaurant manager, Justin was compensated with a base salary, plus incentives in the form of a food cost bonus, a labor cost bonus, and a cleanliness bonus. In other words, if he didn’t toss too much food, sent employees home when business was slow, and kept the health inspection scores high, he could make bank — or, at least, enough to open and maintain a bank account. That’s what the phrase means, right?
“Sorry, Hamlet, your ass just got retired.”
“Pot roast that was past its date became the ‘family’ meal served to the staff,” he said. “Once, while working at a gastropub in London, the owner told me to take the moldy hamburger patties that had been sitting for weeks and serve them to the employees. How does that fit into the bottom line? Well in the U.K., at-will employment isn’t the way it works — [employment] is all done via contract. At this particular restaurant, the contract stated that 2.50 (GBP) would be deducted from your pay every day for your shift meal. So, instead of breaching contract, he would rather risk sending his employees to the hospital, which doesn’t cost him anything because the U.K. has the National Health Service.”
“The Queen says, ‘Dig in.'”
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Ah, but screw the staff: If they didn’t want to be poisoned, they would get jobs at the poison control center. You’re a customer, and you’re only wondering how this stinginess affects you — the diner who specifically requested a table so far away from the kitchen that your waiter technically qualifies as a delivery guy. Well …
#4. What You Order (and When You Order It) Determines How Fresh Your Food Is
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In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain advised the world not to order fish on Mondays, and that’s still very much the case today: Fish specials on Mondays are the fish that didn’t sell over the weekend, as are fish soups or appetizer specials. Also, considering that a $30 filet mignon probably cost the owner about $28 to put on your plate, you can see how a suspect steak gets sold even after the staff watched its soul crawl back into its body and start haunting the sous chef.
“People who prefer their steaks well-done are a godsend,” said Justin. “Because overcooking is the best way to cover up anything foul. You serve up the fresh meat to those who want it rare to medium — well-done, you make sure you use up the ones your boss specifically set aside for that temperature.”
Anything crawling around in there can simply be fried up and served as garnish.
But, then again, if you’re ordering your fine steaks well-done, you may deserve it. In his experience, John was never told outright to serve spoiled food. He was, however, taught how to disguise spoilage in order to serve it without customers noticing it. For example, with seafood that’s starting to turn has a very distinctive ammonia odor, you can rinse it in cool salt and lemon water, which hides the scent long enough to serve it — without the customer thinking you marinated their appetizer in Windex.
“As an executive chef, I was too strict to allow anything like that to leave my kitchen,” he said. “But, I have seen it happen. I’ve seen steak that was brown and smelling of decomposing flesh cooked and served after covering up the rot by finishing it in the oven or steaming it on the flat top with beef broth.”
But, isn’t that what health inspections are there to prevent? Exactly! That’s why you’re totally safe … if you eat there the day of inspection: “It was nothing out of the ordinary for the owner to frantically tell us to double-check all the dates and to ‘throw the P&L out the window’ whenever he got a tip that inspectors were on the prowl,” John said. “Which we did, of course. Old product the owner wanted us to special off (don’t eat the specials) or make soup out of. Never eat the soup. Never.”
That ain’t cream.
#3. There Are a Hell of a Lot of Drugs in the Restaurant Business
Why do this job? “I do it because I love food,” John said. “For my ninth birthday, I asked for a deep fryer and a fry cutter.”
Playing G.I. Joe with him would result in the crispiest, crunchiest Cobra Commander ever.
Oh, and the other answer is drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.
“We refer to ourselves as lifers or kitchen dogs or whatever — it’s different wherever you go but the mentality is the same,” Justin said. “Some of us didn’t have the chance to go to culinary school but loved watching Grandma cook. Some of us are convicted felons who need a steady job because no one else will give us a second chance (actually very common — most restaurants don’t perform background checks). We all work hard and play hard. Most of us, including myself, are alcoholics or drug addicts — restaurants normally don’t drug test either.”
“You can cook, you can breathe, and you’re probably not the puppet of a talking rat … you’re hired!”
“Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant in this industry,” John said. “I’ve also met a few former criminals — but I, for one, don’t think that’s a negative aspect (they deserve a chance to make a wage they can live by). Of course, some use this industry as a means to continue their criminal activity. The town I’m home-based out of had three restaurants shut down due to drugs being trafficked out of them, one of them through the drive-through.”
#2. Your Food Might Suck Because of Waiter/Chef Relationships
If you’re a server, you don’t want to fuck with the cooks.
“Servers, as a rule, couldn’t cook a Lean Cuisine,” John said. “Yet, they have no qualms about telling me how to do my job. I once had a server tell me a well-done steak wasn’t ‘well-done enough.’ I asked her if she knew the proper temperature of a well-done steak. She replied, ‘I know what they look like! I’ve been a server for nine months.’ So, I popped it in the microwave for three minutes and served a leathery piece of tire. Needless to say, she wasn’t tipped from that table.”
That brings up another good point: Servers, seriously do not fuck with the cooks.
“I’ve worked at restaurants where the servers ‘tip out’ the rest of the staff, and even though they make enough in tips in one good night to pay my rent, they still complain about it. If a gentle reminder that I’m the reason they get tipped in the first place doesn’t end the bitching, I’ll purposefully fuck up every single order they have, proving my point by ensuring shitty tips.”
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“Don’t worry — burgers are supposed to be mixed with tinfoil and wax. It’s the new trend.”
Cooks are a vengeful people.
#1. The Kitchen Is an Incredibly Stressful, Violent Place
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Even outside of a Carl’s Jr., the kitchen is a gross and unforgiving lawless land:
“This job is fucking brutal,” John said. “First, you will absolutely cut yourself, and unless you have a digit hanging by a string of gristle, you won’t have the luxury of leaving to get it stitched up. I’ve filleted a knuckle while slicing garlic. I’ve dropped a knife that rebounded and buried itself in my hand. I’ve sliced the tip of my thumb clean off with a potato peeler (there was a nub of bone sticking out like a goddamn horror movie prop). I’ve had second- and third-degree burns over about 20 percent of my body (not all at once, but throughout the years). Below my neck, my body is covered in scars.
“Where did you get that?”
“Vietnam … ese pho place.”
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“But not only is it physically brutal, it’s mentally brutal. I worked at a resort that sat like 200 people in the dining room. We had a 5-foot flat top, a six-burner stove, and two deep fryers for a menu that had everything from full breakfast to burgers to lobster pasta. Imagine juggling this:
“Fifteen burgers and buns, eight ribeye steaks (three rare, one medium, two medium-rare, two well-done), four Mediterranean linguine dishes, one order of steamed mussels. And that’s only three tickets. More are printing out that you haven’t even seen yet, and two servers are asking for an ETA for the appetizers on them. The dishwasher broke the damn machine again, and you’re the only one who knows how to fix it, and your sous chef has somehow managed to deep fry her hand and is bandaging herself while the fries for your 15 burgers are starting to burn.
“Fuck it; call them Cajun-style. Next!”
“Now, a ticket comes back — your last order went out wrong because the server heard/wrote it wrong. That order has to be fixed ahead of all the others that are still cooking. And, speaking of still cooking, are your rare steaks ruined yet? Those bastards are 14 bucks a pound, and you just fucked up two of them. Hopefully, another ticket comes in the next 10 minutes or else you’ll have to figure out what else you can make them into — (soup?).
“Congratulations, you just made it through the first 15 minutes of your shift.
“Perhaps because of all that, the redundancies that most businesses have in place are nonexistent in the kitchen. There’s simply no one else to do your job. I’ve run a 102-degree fever and couldn’t call in sick. Now, imagine I’m cooking all that food I just described for all those nice people … while having strep throat.”
“Just put your head over the pasta station. Steam that shit out.”
Or … don’t imagine it. Thanks for all the hard work, John and Justin — but, ignorance is sometimes bliss, and we’ll take a little disease and a lot of bloodshed if it means we don’t have to boil our own hot dogs.