9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Chefs
We think we know chefs. We eat out multiple nights a week, watch chef-centric reality TV shows, and consume gossip about their personal lives. But they aren’t all the hot-tempered characters we see on TV. In fact, the successful, high-profile ones rarely are. They’re in the kitchen to feed people, to surprise diners and make them happy. They’re there to work. Mental Floss spoke to chefs across the country to learn what really goes into their jobs and lifestyles—and why they all seem to love fast food burgers.
1. MORNINGS ARE THEIR QUIET TIMES.
Cooking in a restaurant kitchen is taxing, physical work—so many chefs start their mornings with exercise and a healthy breakfast to prep their bodies and minds for the day.
Daniel Humm, executive chef and co-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad in New York and Los Angeles, dedicates his mornings to getting outside, since he’ll spend most of the day under fluorescents. “Most days start with some activity: a run in Central Park, a yoga session, a bike ride around the city or along the Hudson,” Humm says. “It sets me up for success and gives me space to get away, to wander in my thoughts and clear my head.”
Chefs who do dinner service are usually working in the kitchen until midnight or later, and mornings provide the best opportunity to spend time with their families. Erling Wu-Bower, executive chef and co-owner of Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, spends mornings in the garden with his son Max. “Then I get in the car, roll the windows down and listen to sports radio while I drive to work,” he says.
Michael Solomonov, executive chef and co-owner of Zahav and CookNSolo restaurant group in Philadelphia, says every day for him is different. “But it consistently starts off by drinking too much coffee and then working out, or dropping my kids off at school and then working out,” Solomonov says.
2. THE HOURS ARE BRUTAL.
If you see a chef in their restaurant, that's usually because they're out in the dining room, possibly delivering a theatrically prepared dish or shaking hands with VIPs. But that’s a tiny fraction of how they spend their days. Chris Shepherd, co-owner and executive chef of One/Fifth and Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, gets to his restaurants around 8:30 a.m. every morning and then works until closing time. Sometimes that means 16-hour days. (In the industry in general, 70-hour work weeks aren't uncommon.)
“I don’t think people know the hours that go into the job,” Shepherd says. “It’s long. It’s definitely a labor of love: the hours, the money, everything. I always feel like I’m running late for something.”
3. SUCCESS REQUIRES MUCH MORE THAN JUST BEING A GOOD COOK.
While expertise in the kitchen is obviously required, there are many other responsibilities and skills that go into being an exceptional chef: hospitality, time management, even communication skills. Wu-Bower says that now that he’s a restaurant owner as well as a chef, he’s picked up a variety of other roles: amateur plumber, handyman, and glass polisher, to name a few.
And then there's being a good boss. “A successful chef needs to be able to lead a team, to inspire, to critique and to praise,” Humm says. “It’s about managing people just as much as it is about putting together a menu and having the ability to cook delicious food.”
Wu-Bower says he focuses on being a mentor and teacher on a daily basis. “There is a team behind every chef,” he says. “I work with a big network of farmers, purveyors, designers, dishwashers, cooks, and so many more every day. They all contribute hugely to what our guests taste on their plates.” In other words, a chef's ability to cultivate relationships might just show up in your dinner—whether in the form of a difficult-to-find ingredient or an extra-sparkling plate.
4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT TIMING.
How do a chilled ceviche and a hot bowl of soup arrive to the table at the same time at the right temperatures? It's all a matter of communication between the chef, cooks, waiters, and diners, which is facilitated by an expeditor, or kitchen liaison. “The expeditor orchestrates the timing of everything that happens in the kitchen,” Wu-Bower says. “It’s a dance choreographed in the moment.”
Dishes are often prepared at different stations, or designated areas for certain types of food. The stations vary in required serving temperatures and length of cooking time; for example, a cook working the grill station needs a different amount of time to prepare a dish than a cook on a salad station. “Communication is essential between the kitchen and the dining room,” Humm says. “Without it our timing would never work. Our team knows the cues for when to get dishes ready, how long a dish may take to prepare, and there’s a constant conversation between the kitchen and dining room to ensure we don’t miss a beat.”
5. THEY DON’T MIND IF YOU SEND A DISH BACK.
Chefs are perfectionists. If a dish arrives to a diner's table and he or she doesn’t like it, chefs don’t get angry; they want to make it right. “First is understanding why [they sent it back]: Did they dislike it? Was there an aversion? Was the temperature wrong?” Humm says. If a diner doesn’t like the flavor, Wu-Bower tastes the dish right away to find out what is going on. Then the chef decides if the dish can be recovered—cooked again, correctly—or if the diner would prefer something else entirely.
“It’s never a time to be defensive, but always an opportunity to make improvements,” Humm says. “We think of how we can recover that experience for the guest and get them back on track.”
Sending a dish back may actually affect tomorrow’s dining options. Solomonov says he encourages candid feedback from guests and servers so they can adjust their menus. “It’s an opportunity to assess our dishes and see what needs to be changed or improved,” Wu-Bower says. “We treat it as a learning experience.”
6. THEY TEND TO CARRY KITCHEN TOOLS AROUND WITH THEM.
Humm always has a fish thermometer. Wu-Bower has his peeler, fish scaler, and a mini spatula. Shepherd has kitchen spoons, palette knives, and blue tape. “Spoons for stirring, plating and, ‘hey, let me get in on that,’” Shepherd says. “Palette knives are for picking things up and moving them around. And you got to have the blue tape. You got to label everything.” Solomonov also has a good spoon and a small, offset spatula. “I think carrying a knife is maybe illegal?” he jokes.
7. THEY HAVE TO CONSCIOUSLY SCHEDULE MEALS.
It’s hard to find time to eat as a chef. They may take meetings over a midday meal—Shepherd tries to have lunch with one of his chefs every day—and they taste items while the food is being prepared, using single-use plastic spoons to check seasonings, sauces, grains, and desserts. But that’s about it if they aren’t careful.
The hardest meal to schedule is dinner, because after 3 p.m., it’s usually crunch time at a restaurant. It’s hard for everyone to stop what they’re doing and eat, even the pre-service “family meal” that kitchens usually prepare for their staff members before the rush begins. (Such meals might feature new dishes, staff favorites, or simple, comforting food that might not be on the menu.) “Even if you bring food in for them, you see them run off real quick and jam it in their face and then go back to work,” Shepherd says. “That’s part of [working conditions] that need to be addressed at some point.”
8. THEY DON’T COOK AT HOME MUCH, UNLESS IT’S FOR THEIR KIDS.
Chefs have demanding schedules and are around food all day—and they’d rather spend their free time doing other things besides making elaborate meals.
Shepherd cooks breakfast at home a few times a week, but only cooks dinner once a month. “Not enough!” he says. He makes sandwiches, or rice and beans, or grills some chicken thighs, chars some corn, and tosses together a salad for himself and his girlfriend. “I always cook simpler at home because I don’t like making messes. I’m a one-pot guy.”
Humm travels a lot and doesn’t have much time to cook at home. “But when I do,” he says, “I enjoy a quiet meal of roast chicken or a simple pasta and salad. I also love to cook breakfast for my daughters when they’re visiting.”
Other chefs also enjoy cooking for their children. Wu-Bower and his son make pasta together. Solomonov says he goes through phases. “I really enjoy home cooking; I find it very therapeutic,” he says. “But also incredibly satisfying to get my kids to actually enjoy my food.”
They also need to be health-conscious. Chefs don’t have a choice in what they are tasting throughout the day, but can make their own dining decisions at home. “We’re not eating crap late at night after service,” Shepherd says. He’d prefer to just have yogurt after work. “Inevitably if you go have a couple of drinks, you’re like, ‘pizza sounds really good, doesn’t it?’ You always end up regretting it and kicking yourself the next morning.”
9. THEY STILL LOVE TO EAT OUT.
When dining out, chefs aren’t necessarily looking for five-course meals, but they are drawn to cuisines they don’t cook in their kitchens. Humm likes to dine at Asian restaurants, especially sushi. “I’m really quite open, though I do like to order what’s in season or specific to a city or that restaurant’s specialty,” Humm says. “You want to get a taste for the place you’re in.”
Wu-Bower doesn’t need to go far to get a diverse dining experience. “I live in a neighborhood in Chicago—Pilsen—that’s really exploding with new restaurants and it’s been fun to try them all,” he says. His favorites? Thai and Vietnamese. Solomonov also reaches for sushi, Thai, and Vietnamese when he’s out. “And hot dogs,” Solomonov says. “Because America.”
Chefs also do have a reputation for enjoying greasy fast food when they get the chance. “I just slammed a corn dog and it was delicious!” Wu-Bower says.
But like any other restaurant guests, it’s the surprise on the plate, the hospitality they receive, and the time with others that they really love. “My favorite thing about eating out is enjoying a moment with friends or family,” Humm says. “The convivial spirit of sharing a table, hands reaching for dishes, and the conversation that ensues. That’s what I love."