September 5 1998
Organization is everything
in cooking and laundry

The task of the day:


While I'm waiting for the laundry (yes, this is a weekly event for me as I only have enough clothes to make it through about 8 days), I'm going to type some observations on cooking in a professional environment. Now, this is all a bit slanted, as working in a CIA kitchen isn't the same as a restaurant. But Marla and I chatted a bit about the topic this morning while she was getting awake for the trip into the City. So, it's fresh in my mind.

* * *

The big thing that you notice when working in a "real" kitchen is how advanced and yet primitive everything is. All surfaces are covered in stainless steel. Things are easy to wash down and keep clean. They are more difficult to break, and stand up to long punishment, hard washing, and kicking. They aren't pretty to look at, except in the industrial sense of the word. Function above form. Stovetops have basically two settings. Full blast, and off. Simmer is a difficult concept for them to understand, and so you offset your pots to get that effect.

Containers are all stainless steel. Hotel trays and "inserts" are the normal way to hold things. Bowls are stainless steel, but this looks less unusual. No glass. Nothing that a drop onto the hard tile floor might shatter or that might chip into a pan. Not only do you lose money from the breakage, but the glass might get into somebody's food.

Everything is scaled up. A small mixer is ten quarts. Large ones are 50 and sit on the floor. Baking ovens take up an entire corner of the kitchen. Sinks look like two of your parent's utility sinks joined like siamese twins. Spoons are comically large.

The kitchen temperature hovers between 80 and 90 on most days. On a hot day, with all of the stoves on, it might be between 110 and 120. A sauce pulled off the heat will only "cool" to that temperature. If you want something cold, you ice it down. Butter pulled out of the fridge will warm up to that temperature. If you want it cold, you have to leave it in the fridge until the last minute. Lots of instructions you read in recipes suddenly start making more sense.

* * *

Work a week in one of these kitchens, and your cooking changes dramatically. You clean as you go, because the pots are shared with others. You have much more to do with less time, but somehow it all gets done. In the down time, you wipe down your station and wash bowls and pans. If you keep on top of things, there is no mess at the end of the day. People who don't learn this have an extra hour of cleaning once they are "done." You use this time to get more cooking done, or to prepare for the next day.

You spend the extra thirty seconds or minute to start things organized. Your station is made ready the way you need it. Ingredients are prepped ahead of time. Salt and pepper and other seasonings are placed into small containers to be at hand. Tools you need are gathered first. Production goes smoother. The brush to get rid of flour is within reach. The lemon to brighten the sauce is prepped for squeezing with the seeds already removed.

Part of it is enforced by size. There are no drawers to reach for tools or knives. Those are stored in the pot cage. Too far when you need to stir something. The spices and fridge are a walk across the entire kitchen. Too far if a sauce is cooking. This is enforced by the need to be focused on the tasks and not distracted by missteps.

There are no pot holders. You grab and move hot pots and pans with tongs, or with your side towel. Your side towel stays tucked in your apron. If you get it wet, it stops insulating. You soon quit wiping things on it. Paper towels are used for that, in large brown rolls. You keep one near your station.

The trash is also far removed from your station. You keep a tin pan for your garbage. You walk to empty it once or twice a day, rather than moving through twelve other people to throw away every onion peel.

* * *

Your language is different. It's not a fridge, it's a "reach in." It's not the sink, but the "pot sink" (because there are also prep sinks and hand washing sinks). You don't "cook" the meat or dish, but "cook it off." You don't start cooking the dish, you "fire" it. Mise en place is a common verb or noun, as in "Please mise en place tomorrow's dishes" or "how does your mise en place look?"

You warn people as you walk. "Behind you with a knife" or "Hot pot behind you" or "Coming through, finished platter," you say to avoid injuring somebody or ruining your hard work. Those working are focused on their task, and may turn quickly unless you tell them. You pay attention yourself to such warnings.

You do not let questions hang unanswered. "Where's the salt?" will generate at least three "Not here"s plus an "I've got it."

When a lull comes, you offer help, or extra prep. "Anyone need diced onions?" you'll ask. There's always at least one team in the weeds. Sometimes it's you. You try not to have it be too often.

* * *

Overall, your pace changes. You start to think and work organized. Stages. Flow. You begin to get a rythym. You are working faster, but also smarter. A sauce forms up in a flash, but there was ten minutes of prep first, sometimes much more. Actual cooking is the kick at the end of the long race. Quick phrases are exchanged with your teammates as you work together. The kitchen is quiet, no extra talking.

Even while cooking at home, you notice yourself prepping things differently. Setting them out, although somewhat less formally. Washing down bowls and knives rather then piling them in the sink. While waiting for a pot of water to come to the boil, you find yourself wiping down the counter.

People have told me that I don't smile in the kitchen. It's not that I'm mad or unhappy, it's that I'm focused. This was true before I came to the CIA, and I suspect it's doubly true now. I'm not sure if I'm a better cook. But I'm sure that I'm a different one.

* * *

The house is having a Labor Day weekend BBQ on Monday. I'm in charge of the wine, because I have good taste and money. Okay, maybe just the second part. I remember what it was like to live on a student budget. I'm glad I don't any longer. Shawn is in Wines right now and is enjoying the chance to try and discuss wines with me. It's interesting because he has very good senses of smell and taste, but doesn't have a framework upon which to hang them.

Since this is New York, and barbaric, the wine must be purchased today. Anything other than beer can only be sold Monday to Saturday, 9 AM to 7 PM. And it can only be sold in specialty stores, not the supermarket. Time to Mise En Place the wine, I guess.

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Copyright 1998 Tom Dowdy