Even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant, you’ve probably found yourself contemplating the kitchen door, wondering: What exactly is back there? How many people? How roomy is it? You have a right to be curious: They’re making your food back there.
Well, follow me. But I warn you: The kitchen in a working restaurant bears little resemblance to standard, shiny FoodTV kitchens or those “set kitchens” on the latest foodie reality TV offerings. Restaurant kitchen doors mark boundaries both geographic and symbolic, and they always lead into a totally different world from the dining room, whether the latter was cool and serene, hip and trendy, or hushed and formal. That’s all behind us now; here — put this apron on.
Yes, it’s noisy. At full tilt, the commercial kitchen is a study in controlled chaos. There’s the roar of the hood vents, the clang of stainless steel on cast-iron burners, the hiss of the dish machine, the sizzle of hot wine and hot oil in sauté pans, the crackle of the deep-fryer. The dishwashers are playing one radio station, there’s another radio behind the line, and another one over by the prep cook’s area.
Does it sound as if every person in here is yelling? They are. The key to a good kitchen is good communication, and with all this noise, the only way to communicate is to yell at the top of your lungs. “Walking in: two shrimp, one crab, one tilapia!” “How many crispies do we have hangin’ all day?” “Dude, for the last time — come get this pasta off the stove!” “Delivery truck’s here! All hands on deck to put away the produce order!” Criminy, it’s loud! Here — hold this towel over your ears.
Deafened, you may find a moment to squint against all the light assaulting you from every direction. There are overhead lights, oven lights, flames licking from between the grill grates, heat lamps reflecting off shiny surfaces and crème brulee torches. There are no shady oases to pause in and collect yourself; the light has no mercy if you woke up too late to put on makeup or didn’t go home last night and are wearing what you had on yesterday. No islands of soft, rosy light that flatter and forgive. Here — wear these safety goggles; they’re scratched and cloudy and may mitigate the sharp edges somewhat (but it’ll never be enough).
Finally, there’s the heat. Do you feel the beads of sweat popping out on your forehead, the perspiration night crawler coming down your spine? It gets to 110 degrees in here most nights. Here — fan your apron like this and dip that towel in ice water and wrap it around your neck. I think we’d better get you back out into the dining room, until next time, when … now that you know what it’s like behind the door, I’ll introduce you to the people who work here.
The writer, a graduate of Sullivan University, has worked at many of Louisville’s independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s and L&N Wine Bar and Bistro. She is now the pastry chef at Café Lou Lou.