28 May 2008
What Is A Sous Chef?
What makes a sous chef great? Or how about even good? What does that mean, "sous chef"? Who are they and why are they necessary? Where does the sous chef reside in the hierarchy? When do you say yes to becoming a sous chef? Can you become a Chef without first being a sous chef? Can you become a sous chef if you've never been a line cook?
Who writes the sous chef's job description? What are the sous chef's duties? When does a sous chef punch in, and will he ever punch out? Will the sous chef put out fires or will she start them?
Sous. What does it mean?
What does it really mean?
When you are a sous chef you are Middle Management. You are between a rock and a hard place. You have a little power, but not all of it. You have a dash of authority, and maybe a pinch, but rarely an armloadful. Sometimes your chef will back you, and sometimes not.
You work too many hours. It's a thankless position. You want to be a brother among cooks on the line but the truth is you can't always be their friend. In fact it's a good idea if you try not to make too many.
The sous chef is somewhere between chef du partie and chef de cuisine. It's a stepping stone. It tests your mettle. And every emotion you own.
The sous chef is the chef when she's absent. The sous chef is the chef when he's hungover from the night before. The sous chef is the seer of all things, taster of all mis en place, receptacle of all blame, babysitter, mother and father of all cooks, translator of all languages, orderer of all goods, trainer of all below and herder of all above in rank. The sous chef is therapist, dominatrix, Priest, coach, coxswain and Captain.
The concept is that the sous chef has been in your shoes, could do a better job at filling them than you, but can get you to be as good as her. The sous chef has an eye on the chef's job, but never lets on. That sous chef, he's good at being all things to all people.
It's a hard position.
Being a sous chef has little to do with the title and all to do with what you make of it .
Step the fuck up, if you're the sous chef.
Want to be a sous? Then show me you're the sous. Want my respect?
Cook your ass off. Organize your station better than I would. Stop whining. Turn problems into solutions. Take challenges and ride them one handed. The bull threw you? Get up and get back on. Ask for help when you need it. Rally support that's available to you. Work cleaner every day. Create systems and implement them. Learn stations you've never known.
Get out of your comfort zone. You love working saute but hate grill or pantry or pastry? Then get over there. Learn something new every day. Ask questions of those who you think know less than you, and those who know far more.
Being a sous chef is a verb. Conjugated. An action verb.
Manage like your life depends on it.
Because it does. I've seen kitchen coupes and they're not pretty.
Coax out all the best traits from your cooks and temper the not so good ones. Think every day about how you can better the kitchen. Still whining? Call yourself a line cook then. If you can't see beyond the space between your own eyebrows, you're not a sous chef.
A sous chef has eyes in the back of his head. She gets to the kitchen before anyone else and leaves last. He has lists upon lists and he's translated them all into Spanish too. A sous chef is the chef whether her chef backs her or not. Too scared to stand up to your chef? You're still a line cook.
Middle Management Is Not For The Meek.
The sous chefs shoes are so large they need to be contracted out to a special cobbler. You own a notebook and you write everything down. Everyone's questions and suggestions start and end with you when you're the sous. She who is the sous has no friends. He who is the sous never rests.
In some restaurants the sous chef is the poor hack who will work all the thankless hours. The person who has no life anyway so what will a 90 hour week mean anyway? That sous chef is preparing your raw meat and seafood on the same cutting board. She comes to work hungover and he calls into work sick from the drunk tank. No one respects that sous chef, they just put up with said person.
There are sous chefs who sleep with someone to get the title. Or they've been working pantry for 10 years and it's
time for a change. There are sous chefs who can't taste when the soup is burnt and their chefs expedite every night so it doesn't matter because everyone is asleep at the wheel.
But if you're a cook who wants to be someone one day
work somewhere where the sous chef is a verb in action. A graceful line cook. An efficient and supportive expeditor. A clean cook and a well versed gastronomist. An agile butcher and a humble dessert novice. A good communicator. A talented walk-in organizer. A person who can meet deadlines. A person who can do and think about dozens of things at the same time. A Juggler.
A sous chef can admit when he's wrong, and she can take flack for mistakes she didn't make.
A sous chef is building a stronger ego. Every day. Adding a stick to the nest.
For when she has to hold onto that heavy capital letter C. For when he has to truly step up and man the stoves and steer the ship. For when she has to keep the restaurant from hitting the rocks even though she knows every night will be a rocky ride.
For our industry,
no matter how organized, how efficient, how passionate, how prepared, we are; how good at being listmakers, how many t's we cross and i's we dot, how we show up every day more prepared than the day before,
It's the game.
Can you play it?
I'm so tired of sous chefs who not only don't know what they're doing, but have no idea even what it means.
Sous. Under. Beneath. Second-In-Command.
You chef is absent? Step up. Your kitchen is dysfunctional? Try and help it out. Payroll is bouncing? Go to the labor board and collect pamphlets in Spanish and English. Know your rights too. The owner is sleeping with all the waiters who are filing sexual harassment suits? Do the right thing. The proteins are being stored at too warm of temperatures? Ice them down. There aren't enough stock pots? Go buy one and get paid back or don't.
Remember: it's your job to solve problems, not just notice them.
No one in the kitchen knows how to manage worth a damn? Think back. Who was your most favorite grade school teacher? Which high school math teacher turned you on to geometry? Did you ever have a chef who you thought brought out the best in you? That chef appeared to have done it without working too hard. Magic hands. Psychic powers. Was mean, with love.
Conjure that person, those people. Learn from them and attempt to transmit. Consider yourself a vehicle for one very hard life lesson. You may have to crash into the same wall over and over to learn it, but it's there for each of us to learn, if we choose to.
The sous chef must also know the cuisine the chef is making. Even if said cuisine doesn't come naturally to sous chef. You don't have to love the dishes, but you better be able to like and taste and feel them because it will be your job to execute the chef's wishes down to a grain of salt when the chef walks away from the line, restaurant, kitchen.
Don't know anything about the chef's palate? Ask questions. Have no comprehension about why the chef has chosen to work within the confines of this cuisine? Ask questions. Want to know more about the ineffable why and not just the boring hows. Ask questions.
The chef wants you to learn more slowly? Go to a library. Make Google your friend. Buy cookbooks. Eat at other similar restaurants. Learn something for fucks sake. A good sous chef knows her place and he knows when the pool exceeds his height.
Know lineage. Who did that chef work for before? The sous chef must climb inside the portal of the chefs mind.
The sous chef must be both omniscient and naive. Smart and stupid. Egomaniacal and humble.
When you're the sous chef it's your job to support the whole kitchen. The pantry guy is in the weeds? Pick parsley. Dishwasher is down? Get out the toolbox. Dishwasher walked out? Roll up your sleeves.
If you want to be The Chef one day, being sous is your practice. If you want to own your own place one day, being sous is your practice. If your culinary education is sorely lacking in the sweet area, go in on your days off or an hour early and help the pastry chef out.
Favors are usually returned with favors.
Two small words. Monosyllabic. Innocuous. Mild mannered words. Well dressed, shirts tucked in. Good haircut, but not too expensive. Stands tall. Excellent posture. Easy voice & diction. Polite but not a doormat. Jazz club with a dress code. A-line skirt. Monogrammed stationery. Thank you notes and modest affect.
But Superman by night. Cat Woman after a blink of a quick change. A yes man and girl friday. Firefighter and single mom.
Sous Chef. You are invisible to the public. The chef's seamlessness and greatness is your pride. The kitchen's loyalty is your medal. The systems you leave behind are your gift.
Your integrity is yours to keep.