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8 Things Restaurant Chefs Won’t Tell You

Mandy Major
April 19, 2012

restaurant chef chopping vegetables
restaurant chef chopping vegetables

Despite what reality TV would have you believe, most restaurant kitchens aren't filled with filth and egos. Yes, things can get loud back there during the dinner rush, but more often than not, you'll find teams of creative and hard-working cooks who love life behind the scenes. To separate restaurant fact from fiction, we turned to chefs and culinary insiders. From cleanliness to who's really cooking your food, read on to find out what it's truly like behind those double doors-and how it affects your meal. Photo by: Getty Images

The head chef doesn't usually cook.

The more famous the chef, the less likely they're doing day-to-day work. "Diners are often surprised, but a head chef isn't actually cooking their steak," says Missy Robbins, chef of A Voce Columbus and A Voce Madison in New York City. "People always think I'm back there cooking their fish." Instead, a head chef is probably focusing on big-picture issues, such as crafting menu dishes, hiring lower-level chefs and ensuring their creative vision is executed.
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The chefs probably aren't the people buying the food.

"I get asked all the time if I'm up at 4 a.m. to go to the fish market," laughs Robbins. "I would love to live in a small village in Italy and go to the docks every morning, but that's not the reality. We go to the green market, but the bulk of our product comes from vendors." That's because vendors deliver goods straight to the kitchen, allowing chefs more time to concentrate on bigger restaurant details. Farming out this work is also cost-effective, since vendors negotiate prices, quality level and shipping dates with suppliers.

You often can tell how clean the kitchen is by the bathroom.

Sanitation is just as crucial to most restaurants as it is to you. "What you see on Kitchen Nightmares with Chef Ramsay is vile," says one family restaurant owner in McHenry, IL. "The cleanliness of the staff and our equipment is really important." If in doubt, head to the restroom. "If the bathrooms are dirty, you can count on the kitchen being dirty," says Greg Dollarhyde, a chef, former CEO of Baja Fresh and the current CEO of Veggie Grill in California. "It speaks to the overall fastidiousness of the general manager."
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Allergies make our jobs tougher.

Allergies are serious, and chefs take them to heart. That's why most get frustrated when patrons pass off a dislike for an actual life-threatening allergy. "It's not fair. There's a difference between being cautious about how we prepare your food and being cautious that we don't kill you," says Bjorn Somlo, owner and chef of Nudel Restaurant in Lenox, MA. Not only are chefs under extra pressure, but they also have to create a separate preparation station in tight quarters, a potential legal landmine. Because of this, and the sky-rocketing rate of allergies, more restaurants are refusing to serve customers with allergies. "It's a matter of safety, and guests shouldn't be offended" when that's done, says Somlo.

Your cook didn't necessarily go to culinary school.

A good chef can come from anywhere-with or without a degree. "Some of my best cooks were dishwashers two years ago," says Robbins, a culinary school grad, herself. Of her seven pasta makers at A Voce, she says, "Every single one was a dishwasher. They don't come out of school with bad habits-they just want to learn." Dollarhyde won't even hire culinary school graduates. "They want to come in, cook and go home. We need workers who are going to do everything: cook, clean up and organize."
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We sometimes use frozen food.

The bigger the menu, the more mediocre the meal. Why? With that many options, the cooks need too much food on hand to guarantee freshness and fully made-to-order dishes. That means many items are prepared in advance or come together with the help of packaged products. Dollarhyde says a lot of restaurants fake it with sauces, using frozen or jarred varieties instead of made-from-scratch ones. Seafood also commonly comes out of the freezer. "Almost all fish is frozen when it's fresh and then shipped out to restaurants semi-thawed." Robbins says she doesn't use frozen food at her A Voce locations, except for excess homemade stock. Freezing doesn't change the composition, as it would with proteins, starches and produce.

It's true that chefs can be pretty cutthroat.

You think doctors have it bad-most chefs work six days a week for a minimum of 10 hours a day. "We're a little nuts," says Robbins. "It's a crazy culture of being a tough guy or girl. Kitchens are competitive and you don't want to look wimpy." This is why, as reality TV has shown, chefs often work through injuries or illness. "I think I've called out only twice in my career-and that was for the flu," says Robbins. Adds Dollarhyde, "The restaurant business has always been a harsh mistress. It's a younger person's business. It takes a lot of energy," he says. "It's also rough because you work while other people play. I can't tell you the number of Mother's Days, Father's Days and New Year's Eves I had to work while climbing my way up in the business."
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Chefs read your reviews online.

Chefs care about restaurant reviews-especially yours. While press coverage is vital, chefs are avid followers of Yelp, Twitter and Facebook. "Facebook is a big thing for us," says the McHenry, IL, restaurateur. "We try not to get too caught up in that, but you have to address comments." Somlo agrees. "We absolutely listen to what people have to say. A restaurant doesn't exist without a guest." While some chefs often ignore first-time diners (too subjective), complaints about saltiness (a matter of personal taste) and the type of cuisine served (a misunderstanding of the restaurant's intention), they do pay attention to regulars and recurring criticisms. "If there are a lot of complaints about a particular item, it's my job to ask, 'What are we doing wrong?'" says Dollarhyde. "One bad experience of, 'My food was cold,' is a local issue of execution. But if I see three comments about cold soup, then I'm looking for systemic problems-ingredients, preparation or a person-and need to make a change."

Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.

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