Kitchen Apprentice: When Eating Where You Work

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgWhen working at a restaurant you're proud of, it's only natural that eventually you'll want to experience it as a guest. But there are a few lessons I've learned along the way.

Don't bring fussy people

The first time I ever ate at The Restaurant, I came for my birthday and brought a good friend whose birthday is the day before mine. It was so exciting: it was only the second time I'd entered through the front door, and the first time I'd really gotten a good look at the dining room. Chef came out to greet us and wished us happy birthday, and generously offered to have the kitchen cook for us instead of ordering from the menu.

"Is there anything you don't eat?"

The question was directed more toward my dining companion than myself. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and tastes, and the kitchen should always be notified of food allergies, but this was a question of open-mindedness and trust. The kitchen, the kitchen I worked in, was about to push out a two-hour stream of the menu's best, most interesting dishes for us. Would she be at least willing to try what it had to offer?

Sarah looked at Chef and back at me before answering,

"Oh, Chris wouldn't have brought me if there was. I'll eat anything."

Damn straight. Girlfriend knows the drill.

Say "Thank You"

Since the kitchen will almost always offer to cook for a fellow cook, it's customary to bring in a little something for everyone on the line to enjoy after service. Generally, beer goes over pretty well. Whiskey goes over even better.

But don't be that person who brings in Coors Light for everyone, or risk being forever shunned. Even on a cook's salary, you can do a little better for your pals in the trenches. Thou shalt not thanketh your friends with crappy beer.

Actually say thank you

Toward the end of your meal, ask your server if it's all right to go back into the kitchen and thank the chefs and cooks on service. If it's later in the evening, things are probably winding down and it's totally fine to pop in for a brief hello. Go back and see who's cooking, tell them what you liked, be polite... and then get out of their hair. Unless you were their last ticket, they probably still have a kitchen to run.

Roll with it

The second time I had dinner at The Restaurant, I brought my family to celebrate my father's birthday. Since I only work on Sundays and rarely emerge from the back of house, I'd only been introduced to one or two of the servers. Mark, our wonderful server that evening, chatted us up while he cleared the table for dessert.

"So I hear you're a black belt?"

I just sat there and blinked at him until I realized he was speaking to me. Eyebrows were raised all around the table and my mother snorted audibly. I have the grace of a penguin on land. The people who work most closely with me know this all too well. Black belt? What does the front of house think I am?

"What? No, no, that's a horrible rumor."

"That's an AWESOME rumor!"

Later, Jeff told me I should've gone with it. At the very least, I could've tried to say something more inspired than just squawking in front of my family and making things awkward for everyone. Still, I want to know who started that rumor.

Have a good time

And be proud of the food coming out of the kitchen! I certainly was, even though I'd never cooked any of it before. It was especially satisfying to be able to explain the pasta dishes to my family, the different kinds of dough that we made, the process for rolling and shaping each pasta, the ingredients that were served with the dishes. It's pretty incredible to see the thought process behind each dish from start to finish. From the amount of flour in the dough to the plated product, a lot of planning goes into each item on the menu.

When there's a bowl of peppery, cheesy fresh pasta placed in front of me, the hours I spend weeding out strands of imperfect noodles from batches of pasta suddenly all make sense. We spend hours picking out every cracked, broken, dried-out noodle so that the bowl I am served, the bowl I finally get to share with family and friends, is as perfect as possible. Worth it.