Archives » Soul of the City

Kitchen Door Confidential

You don't want to know. . .

by

comment
We were sipping drinks and enjoying the refined atmosphere of an upscale restaurant when out of the corner of my eye I spotted two burly guys slaving and probably sweating away in the open kitchen, causing my sparkling mood to deflate a little. The trend has been for restaurants to expose their kitchens to diners, but I think it's one that diminishes rather than enhances the fine-dining experience, not to mention what it does to the experience of working in those places.

During my days of toiling in food service, your typical "white tablecloth" restaurant had a split personality. The front of the house where the patrons dined was all fancy and sophisticated with classical music discreetly playing, while the back of the house, the kitchen, was a pulsating center of furious cooking, joking, cussing, on-the-job drinking, and radio-blasting.

The front was the illusion and the back was the reality of all the ass-breaking work it took to maintain that illusion. The two were strictly separated by a closed door so that, hopefully, the patrons wouldn't see and hear anything that would rip the elegant veil for them, although occasionally a crude hoot of laughter or several beats of throbbing music would escape from the kitchen. A few patrons might look momentarily puzzled, but we servers would swiftly cover up with some distracting scraping and bowing.

As a customer I've long been into the delight of having well-prepared, attractively presented food magically appear before me, with no visible evidence of how it got that way. This dates back to childhood luncheons in the tearoom of the late, great Wanamaker's Department Store in Philadelphia. There they served a scoop of vanilla ice cream decorated to look like a clown's head complete with cake-cone cap, a feat that never failed to enchant me. If I'd observed the clown's mundane assembly it wouldn't have been nearly as memorable.

Having worked in restaurants makes me even less eager to view the process that's producing my meal. Awareness of just how much labor is involved makes me feel guilty if the kitchen's visible, like maybe my behind should be back there grilling my tuna. It doesn't help, either, to know all the unappetizing mishaps that inevitably occur when large quantities of food are being pumped out.

Maybe the exposed-kitchen set-up is supposed to prevent such nauseating calamities as a cook scooping a dropped lobster off the floor and plopping it back on a patron's plate (something I witnessed more than once since the house rule dictated that a lobster was never thrown away), but I bet plenty of stomach-turning accidents still happen, if only just out of sight. Somehow just glimpsing stretches of stainless steel prompts me to envision all the horrors that might befall my food before it even gets to me.

Yes, a sealed-off kitchen has its advantages for diners, but it might be even more of a godsend for the restaurant's workers. Serving food puts all of humanity's flaws right up in your face, and the kitchen was the one spot where the wait staff got to shoot off steam.

"You wouldn't believe this asshole!" was a frequent declaration made by us servers to the cooks about our customers. They'd commiserate and in return we'd report back any juicy details of what was going on up front, like the manager getting shit-faced or the mayor dining with his wife, oblivious to his wide open zipper.

The relationship between cooks and waiters can be curiously intimate. We were separated by "the line," a long shelf where the finished orders were placed, and that barrier was as effective as a confessional screen for prompting secrets-spillage. I had some of my most intimate conversations with those cooks during lulls, hanging around on my side of the line while they scraped the grill and tossed over comments from theirs. That couldn't have happened if we'd been laid bare to the eating public, with orders passed impersonally through a dining room window.

If we wait people were under pressure, the cooks were triply so, trapped behind the line as if in a cage with heat steadily blowing on them from the ovens as the orders came pouring in. The pounding radio set the rhythm for their work, and the stream of profane comedy they kept going was their release. When we were really slammed, draft beers would start appearing on their side of the line, sent by the sympathetic bartender. It was understood: the cooks bore the brunt of the brutal enterprise that is feeding the public, and deserved any props they could get.

With the open-kitchen plan they're expected to look clean and perform culinary tricks as well as cook all the food. It's as if the whole kitchen is the cage now and they're the primates on display for the diners' entertainment. I can't imagine how they can stand the pressure without cursing and having the occasional smoke.

The restaurant kitchen was once a private realm where the surprising and real occurred. Let's close its door again.

Add a comment