Have you ever thought: I like to cook, should I consider working in a restaurant as a cook? Do cooks get paid a lot of money? Is there someone yelling at you the whole time? Should I consider a career change? I’ve been asked every question imaginable about what its like working as a cook in a restaurant. After 12 years, this is what I’ve come to learn about working in a restaurant as a cook.
1. This is no 9-5 Gig
Whether you’re working full-time, or part-time, its unlikely you will be working 9-5 monday to friday. Being in the restaurant industry means you’re working nights, weekends, and holidays. These are the busiest times in a restaurant, so you can bet you’ll be scheduled to work during these times. Valentines Day, Mothers Day, Fathers Day – these are your prime working days. If you’re working at a restaurant or bar that showcases sporting events, you can expect some long nights as well, sometimes working as late at 4am!
I worked full-time at a steakhouse where the standard shift was 3 until close. Closing time would be whenever the restaurant died down (anywhere from 10pm-2am), and I would do this 5-6 times a week. I would get home from work (pretty exhausted) between midnight and 3am and go to sleep. I would wake up around 11am, and have to leave at 2pm to get to work for 3pm again.
2. Its a lot more physical than you think
Being a cook is a lot of work. Hard work. Working 8-12 hour shifts on your feet, 5 days a week is a big ask. On top of this, you have ‘rushes’ times (primarily dinner service), where you’re REALLY focussed and rushing around. I’ve woken up some mornings after a very very busy dinner service and felt like I’ve been hit by a truck, only to get back to the restaurant 5 hours later to work. Some mornings it hurts to close your hand, because the of holding and squeezing pans the night before. I’ve had to use a wire brush on my finger tips to get them clean. If you’re cooking 100 steaks per night on a grill, and you’re using your fingers to check their doneness, not only will your fingers be numb from the heat, but they will be stained black (hence the wire brush!).
3. It can be seriously dangerous
Although this may seem obvious that working in a kitchen could be dangerous, you may not think of how many opportunities you have to get hurt in a kitchen. How many times have you cut yourself in your own kitchen? Now imagine if you had a knife in your hand, 2-7 hours per day, every day. You’ll need to use a knife all day during prep, but also during service. During service can be especially dangerous, as you’re usually doing 4-5 things at once, and trying to work as quickly as possible. The slightest error while using a knife and you can be seriously hurt.
Nearly everything on line (the line is where all the food is cooked) can burn you. From the grill, salamanders, ovens, burners, pots and pans, you can get badly burned on almost any station on the line. You could go in and out of an oven 20-100 times per night. Pick up and put down 100’s of pans in a night, all of which have the ability to burn you really badly.
There are sinks everywhere, which means there can be water everywhere. Cooks usually wear slip-resistant shoes, which will help keep you planted when the floor is wet, but this only helps a bit. All the floors in a restaurant will get wet, wether it be with water, oil, or food. Not only have I slipped and fallen, I’ve seen many people slip and fall. It gets especially dangerous when you slip and fall with a pot of boiling water (or soup, or stock, etc etc), or a knife in your hand. There are dozens of opportunities for this to happen, every single day in a restaurant.
And one of the most dangerous parts of working in a restaurant, are your co-workers. The line in a restaurant is usually fairly compact, and there can be anywhere for 2 – 15 cooks on it. Thats 2-15 people that can be walking behind you with anything from a knife, boiling water/food, or just to bump into. During a busy dinner service, its not uncommon to need something VERY quickly, so you’ll run down the line to get it. If you’re running (or walking very very quickly), and someone turns around to get something as you’re behind them, theres a very real chance you can hurt each other. Its so important to work with people you can trust, and who will let you know when they are walking behind you. Anyone I have worked with would be able to tell you, they know exactly when I’m coming down behind them (usually you yell “Coming down behind” or “Backs! Backs! Backs!”, or something along those lines). Its especially important to communicate this when you are coming down behind someone with something hot are sharp. Usually I would yell “Coming down behind HOT (or sharp for a knife)”, and continue yelling HOT the entire time coming down the line. It is my responsibility to make sure the cooks I work with hear me, and I need to make sure they are ready for me to come behind them before I do. The drawback to this is I do it in grocery stores by accident. I’ve walked behind someone in a grocery store and said “backs! backs!”, and they’ve looked at me very strangely!
4. You work as a team, even when others aren’t in the restaurant!
If you’re opening a restaurant, your main job will be to prep and get things organized for breakfast/lunch, but more importantly, you’re working to set up the guys coming in for dinner. If you slack off during a 9-5 opening shift, the guys coming in for dinner (5-close) are going to be really behind. While you’re opening, you need to get all the prep done that is required. If you don’t the closing guys are going to seriously dislike you for it. Because you ‘screwed them’ on their shift, they are not going to set you up for breakfast/lunch. When you show back up at 9 in the morning to open, NOTHING will be stocked up, and NO prep will be done, and you have one AWFUL day ahead of you.
On the other hand, if you pull your weight and go above-and-beyond for the guys (..or girls btw!!) coming in after you, they will appreciate it. When you come in the next morning, everything will be stocked up, and you’ll be setup and ready!
This is the first part of a multiple part article. Read Part 2 right here.
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