Monday, August 31, 2009

Salty Dogs

There is a certain breed of line cook in every professional kitchen that I have named the "Salty Dog." Anyone who has worked in a restaurant before or dealt with professional cooks has met one or many of these people and they deserve a little explanation to those who have had the misfortune of never having worked with these folks.

First, the name. A pro kitchen operates a lot like a man o' war, and as a HUGE fan of the Patrick O. Brian Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin books, many of my current kitchen references have evolved directly from the historical wooden battleship days and the peculiarities of the Royal Navy. Restaurant kitchens are small, cramped, uncomfortable, overcrowded, loud, and a mystifying combination of stunning boredom coupled with frenzied activity. The people who operate under these conditions for many years are obviously different to begin with, but throw them all into a pot together for several years and other strange metamorpheses begin to take place. One of the most recognizable denizens of the pro kitchen is the piratical "Salty Dog."

Now, a "Salty Dog" in my kitchen refers to someone of lengthy kitchen experience with little or no formal culinary training. They are the backbone of any kitchen, just as an experienced "able seaman" would be the backbone of any first rate 74 gun man o' war fighting the French in the mid to late 1700's. Salty dogs have a variety of pros and cons to their make-up, but the main thing to remember is that even though you need them to make your kitchen work, if left to their own devices they will destroy your restaurant almost single-handedly.

1. They work FAST.
2. They can't cook.
3. They don't care that they can't cook.
4. They are very quick to train.
5. They work HARD.

First the pros:
1. Salty Dogs survive in the kitchen because of their ability to bang out food. These guys (and gals) produce. THE main problem with 95% of culinary school graduates is that they are slooooowww to do anything and are easily overwhelmed and flustered. Salty Dogs are the inverse of this. They have been pounded with insane rushes in every craptastic kitchen you have never heard of and know this comes with the territory. They understand that rules apply to everything we do but that sometimes you just have to GET THE FUCKING FOOD OUT! When you tell them that they will be responsible for breaking down these 15 chickens in the next five minutes they won't flinch and they won't panic.

The only problem is they won't know how to break down those 15 chickens until you show them. A great myth of the pro kitchen is that everyone who works in one is an aspiring chef creating little mini masterpieces in their spare time because they are so passionate about the work. Bullshit. The reality is that most people do this kind of work to pay the rent. Rather than cooks, Salty Dogs are more like Assemblers. Show them a task and the good ones get it just from watching you one time and then can repeat it ad inifinitum, which is good for business.

As assemblers you just have to make sure that Salty Dogs get enough hours and enough smoke breaks and they are happy. They have no real desire to work their way through Escoffier cooking each and every recipe for their own personal edification, and most of them don't want the responsibility of running anything other than their station. They have seen first hand how crazy the restaurant business is and they want to leave that mess at the door when they clock off.

As stated in #2, you point a Salty Dog in a direction and show them what you want done and they will blow through it. I have had guys walk in the door for their first night during a crazy rush with everyone yelling and freaking out and they intuitively know where to go and what to do having never seen the kitchen layout or the menu before. They jump on the line and start banging out plates, because no matter where you are that is your job, and the people who can filter the madness of a busy service and start producing with limited guidance from above are a very valuable commodity.

Salty Dogs understand that some days they have to blow through a monstrous prep list and hellacious service while the chef is glad handing some VIP customers, out on a catering, or just screwing around in the office. They understand that service is still coming full tilt even though the grill guy got arrested and might not be back for the foreseeable future. The good Salty Dogs have a higher gear in these times and can get. shit. done. For this skill alone they will always have a job somewhere.

1. They can be exceptionally lazy.
2. They can't cook.
3. They take shortcuts.
4. They must be supervised.
5. Their personal lives.

Now the dark side:
1. Salty Dogs generally judge the success of a day by how many sit down smoke breaks they get during one shift. You have to realize that these people get paid the same on a night with two tables as they do on one with 2000. The dream job for a Salty Dog is in a slow kitchen where they have a high hourly rate of pay, no clean-up, no sous chefs or chefs to boss them around, long hours, very few customers, and a couple sexy co-workers to hook up with from time to time. The problem is that these places usually don't have the benefit of being successful as a business so the Salty Dog is once again soon looking for a job. Not all of them realize the correlation between busy nights and success either.

Salty Dogs can't cook worth a shit. And by "cook" I mean create something from scratch with no recipe. If you ask them to come up with a special for tonight they will typically give you a look that defines the term "poleaxed." You can't tell them to "just fix that damn soup!" because you'll come back to find it in even worse shape than when you left it to their incapable hands. Remember, they are Assemblers, not cooks. We have to put them into a place where their strengths can be utilized and their flaws hidden.

"Salt? Why do I have to take the time to flick a few grains of white sticky kosher salt over this stupid chicken? It looks the same on the plate either way." If you are having problems with bland food or recipes that suddenly fail spectacularly for no apparent reason, chances are a Salty Dog is to blame. Remember how fast they are? Yeah, a lot of that comes from finding new ways to do things that involve reducing the steps in a particular recipe from eight to five, or in really bad cases even lower. Salty Dogs almost never taste the food they are making and because of this tendency to "just bang it out" they can really wreck your menu if left unsupervised. Usually one day is about the limit they can maintain your standards before starting to chop off parts of their assembly to hurry up and cram in another smoke break.

Obviously without supervision from you or your sous chef Salty Dogs will pillage and destroy your precious menu, but their debauchery can extend to other areas of your restaurant as well. Locked liquor storage is a huge priority for obvious reasons. Giving out keys and security codes to Salty Dogs, no matter how experienced and fast they may be is bound to end in expensive disaster. Counting steaks, fish portions, and portioned shrimp every night is a must or some enterprising Salty Dogs will eat your food cost into the toilet or barter your higher end food for free alcohol upgrades from equally criminally minded bar backs and/or bus boys. Take time off at your own risk.

Broken down cars and cigarettes are a huge financial obligation for Salty Dogs. Court fines and restitution figure in prominently as well, and occasionally you'll hear the word "rent" thrown in for good measure, but not nearly as often as the aforementioned smokes and shitty cars. You'll hear all this because whenever you choose to employ a Salty Dog (and you DO need them) you are then their de facto loan officer, medical specialist, relationship counselor, day care coordinator, attorney, mechanic, and any other specialist you are not qualified to be. You will find yourself embroiled in many differing and disturbing life episodes of Jerry Springer quality that you nevertheless are forced to help resolve because you need these people to come in and bang out salads for you next week.

I really feel sad for the people from outside the industry who decide to open a restaurant on a whim because it looks like fun and run into Salty Dogs with no prior understanding of how to utilize and manage them. They get taken for the proverbial ride by saavy kitchen brigade who doesn't give two shakes of a dead rat's ass how your precious dinner service is going, just that they get paid on time and don't have to work too hard. If you don't have the insider knowledge on how to motivate and control these folks (if you're not a pro cook yourself) they will ride into your kitchen like Genghis fucking Khan razing the Russian empire and instead of a pile of skulls outside your wrecked city you'll have only empty #10 cans full of cigarette butts.

Fear and respect the Salty Dog.

1 comment:

  1. Bourdain has taught you well. That was as entertaining as any chapter of Kitchen Confidential. I have met quite a few "dogs" and have liked/hated them all at the same time. My favorite part is "You'll hear all this because whenever you choose to employ a Salty Dog (and you DO need them) you are then their de facto loan officer, medical specialist, relationship counselor, day care coordinator, attorney, mechanic, and any other specialist you are not qualified to be."

    Now I know why you teach...