Louisa Haywood / Sun Contributor

Louisa Haywood / Sun Contributor

September 20, 2016

A Day in the Life of a Chef

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Over the past year, I rounded out my high school experience shadowing and working with some of Seattle’s most prominent chefs. Trying to make the most of this rare opportunity, I was toted around the city attending radio show tapings and television segments, helping with cooking classes and listening to speaker panels, while learning hands-on how to handle suppliers and make a food business profitable. Although the publicity and excitement of the corporate half of the business was appealing, I found my interactions with the shift workers and line cooks to be most bona fide.

When I designed my high school senior project around working with a cooking school, I knew that the atmosphere and attitudes of people teaching and assisting paying customers would not reveal the real life of a chef or, to be more accurate, a cook. The dress code suggested all black clothing and required clean aprons, a far cry from the stained chef coats and t-shirts found in the back of the house at a restaurant. So, thrusting myself into an entirely different role, I took a job on the side working as a garde-manger cook in a local upscale French bistro.

I had been eating at this restaurant on occasion since my early teen years and I loved the calm, intimate atmosphere. It was always quiet in the dining room and the food was delicious. Suffice to say the kitchen didn’t share the same vibe.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 3:50 in the afternoon, I would fire up the huge SUV I drove and meander through back roads to the next town over. There, I would park on the hill behind the restaurant and head into work.

Already wearing my baggy black chef pants and black Crocs, I clocked in and slipped into a white chef coat hanging next to the kitchen. Everyone shared the coats, so whichever was small enough and cleanest became mine for the night.

Louisa Haywood / Sun Contributor

Louisa Heywood / Sun Contributor

Then, I ducked through the door into the kitchen. After greeting Jésus and Andrès, the dishwashers, I found Lynn, the chef, and waited for my assignment.

Dinner service started at 5 p.m. but it didn’t usually get busy until around 6 p.m., so I spent the first few hours of my night doing prep work. My first responsibility was to prepare the line for both myself and Lynn while she rested between service.

Surviving the Vietnam war as a refugee, Lynn has always been resilient. Having worked as a chef for 40 years and owning her own restaurant for 15, she impresses us all with her stamina. But she requires a quick nap after lunch and before dinner to give her enough energy to pull through until we lock the door around 10:30 p.m.

Prep work included different tasks depending on the day and who had worked before me. Some nights, I would need to julienne whole containers of carrots; others, I sliced unused bread into crostini. Every night I had to restock the meat and fish.

A kitchen’s “line” is composed of a refrigerated trough filled with “1/6 containers,” cube-shaped plastic or metal containers with lips that suspend them above the refrigeration. On one half, Lynn had all her raw vegetables to sauté and on the other, her meats and fish. On my side, I had all the fixings and dressings for salads, desserts and appetizers.

I might spend the first hour or two talking to the dishwashers in a strange mix of “Spanglish” but by the time 6 p.m. hit, I was locked in. Actually, I was literally blocked into a corner of the kitchen. Space is tight in most restaurant kitchens, so the layout is efficient, if cramped.

In front of me I had the line; at my knees were the low-boy refrigerators with salad leaves, bowls and pre-made crème brûlée and chocolate mousse. Behind me, a small oven, two burners, a grill and an ultra-hot crèpe maker radiated heat.

Although it was a small restaurant, orders came fast on the weekends. And man, it was hot back there, especially in that heavy chef coat. I kept busy making loaf after loaf of bread, tossing salads to order and heating up and garnishing desserts, all under the (extremely) watchful eye of Lynn.

By the end of the night, my workspace may have been clean, but the floor was sprinkled with salt and pepper, the trash cans were full and a stack of used tongs, salad bowls and half sheet pans sat waiting for the dish pit.

Far from done for the night, I would start to reassemble the kitchen while Lynn returned to her desk to pay bills and respond to catering requests. Over the ensuing hour, I swept the floor and wiped the oven and low-boy doors clean of smudges and spills. I sent loads of dirty dishes back to Jésus and received clean ones to put away. I replaced the meat containers on the line with empty ones and stored the meat, along with any remaining par-baked bread, in the walk-ins (to ensure they stayed cold overnight).

The last thing I did in the kitchen was clean my knife and shut the lid on the line. Then, stuffing a handful of used towels in the hamper, I hung up my chef coat and clocked out.

Some nights I would stick around a few minutes and joke with the servers or other cooks from next door. Most nights, however, my underage status excluded me from the late night antics they anticipated.

Finally, I would head out into the drizzly, dark, Northwest night and meander home again.

  • Hey Louisa,

    You rocked the house……from your non Bons Fidel cooking school mentor!!!;)

    Tom Douglas

  • Serena Carlsen

    Luisa, such a great description of your summer job. Made me want to hang up practicing law!

  • Charu K. Bogdan

    Louisa, I loved reading and understanding what it is that goes on in the back kitchen’s of a nice restaurant. It sounds like hard work and a wonderful experience. I also loved the way you wrote about it – made my feel like I was there with you! Great job!!!

  • Lisa Proehl

    Hey Louisa!

    I loved reading about your experience at Lynn’s Bistro! We really enjoy that restaurant, and now I feel like I’ve gotten a sneak peak at what goes on “behind the scenes.” You made me feel like I was right there in the kitchen with you (except I wasn’t so hot or working nearly as hard)! Keep up the great writing!

  • Melissa O’Neal

    Such a great article! Felt like I was in the kitchen with you. You are an amazing writer and human

  • Kathy Hoggan

    I am not sure there is anything that you can’t do like a pro. Great descriptive writing.
    Kathy Hoggan

  • Julie R

    Great detail. Felt like I had a glimpse of a place I’ve never been…plus now I’m hungry! Nice read!

  • Kathy Wheeler

    Thanks for giving insight into a part of life I know little about! Can’t wait to see what else you can do!

  • Betsy Johnson

    Thanks for writing about your cooking experience, you really brought it to life. After Mr. Douglas has repped your cooking skills, I am not sure I have much to add. I miss hearing “Louisa made us a ….”

  • Anne Glenny

    Wonderful writing Louisa! I didn’t know the restaurant business was so riveting!

  • Debby Dickerson

    Hey Louisa – loved this article! So well written and interesting. Keep it up!

  • Iris Kubler

    Louisa, I think you nailed it when you wrote this fine article about the life of a chef from your perspective. I have gained a new appreciation for the hard and tedious work of a chef. It was so interesting reading about your high school experience and thank you for sharing it with us. Well done!

  • Krystal Stephens

    Wonderful writing Louisa! I look forward to the day I get to visit what I am sure will be a beautiful dining experience with you as the head chef! Don’t forget to let me know when that happens. 🙂