Movement in the kitchen is a carefully choreographed dance. Your dance floor may be 50 square feet or 15 square feet, but cooks must always be aware of where their “partners” are. In addition to the other people, you have to dance with props. As anyone who has actually performed with a hat, fan or umbrella knows—it’s a lot harder than it looks. In the professional kitchen your props are searing hot pans of braised meat, pots of boiling stock and sauces, knives, ovens, skillets and food of all sorts. Oh and let’s not forget fire.
A serious failure by a clumsy cook is akin to a dancer failing to execute a complicated lift… someone will be hurt, another will stand there like an idiot, the choreographer (Chef) will be yelling, and there will inevitably be someone laughing. But the worst part is— the performance will be brought to a grinding halt.
Luckily, there are lots of simple verbal cues to signal impending moves to your dance partners.
“Behind”: Stand where you are, someone is executing a tricky spin behind you. When you hear someone call this out in your vicinity, it means that it would not be prudent to turn, knife or cutting board in hand. It is also not the moment to take a large step backwards or stretch you aching muscles.
“Below”: Take a step to the side or turn your body just enough to allow your fellow cook access to the drawer or low boy under you. Failure to do so may result in a drawer or door to your most sensitive bits.
“Below” and “behind” may also mean that someone is crouched down behind you… the perfect position to take out your knees. Stepping back into them would result, at the very best, in a back flip. However, the kitchen dance is more similar to a high-speed, multi-partner waltz, not a B-boy street competition. Flips will not score you any points.
I learned the importance of properly signaling my moves after failure to do so resulted in a second-degree burn to the forehead. I bent under the flattop to retrieve a blender. As I stood up the cook behind me took a step back. My forehead kissed the stove’s scorching stainless steel border… instantaneous blister. That was also the day I learned a new use for the kitchen dunce caps, hiding the battle scars from one’s stupidity from Chef.
“Corner”: One cook is carrying a 22-quart container of chicken stock down the stairs on his way to the walk-in. Another cook is bringing up his ingredients to start prepping his mise en place for the night: delis, c-folds, a gallon of milk, five shallots, a bundle of herbs, vegetables, a bottle of white wine and ten eggs are precariously balanced in a hotel pan. Were these two to occupy the same space and time unexpectedly, the results would be akin to a collision between two scooters returning from a family trip to the local market in Bangkok or Kaohsiung (anyone who’s lived in Asia and witnessed a family of four piled on to one scooter—papa steering with handlebars laden with produce, while mama holds on to a toddler and junior on the back balances a chicken and piglet for dinner—knows what a major disaster this would be). So, to avoid a serious spill smart cooks will call out “corner” when coming around a blind turn baring a full load.
The shin tap: This is a Chef specialty and an extremely effective silent maneuver. Rather than saying “below” he’ll tap a side of your shin or ankle. Translation—take a quick side step in the opposite direction.
The pace of the dance quickens once service begins. There is less signaling; at this point you are expected to anticipate your partners’ moves. Often two or three cooks will be plating delicate, multi-component dishes at once. The dance begins to have strong similarities to an advanced game of twister on fast-forward. Learn the moves or get out of the game.
I almost took myself out of the game… when I burned Chef (yes, I lived to tell the tale). During service, I stand to Chef’s left and sometimes use part of his station to plate canapés. Disaster struck one night when I approached from behind carrying a soufflé on a sheet tray straight out of the oven. As I went to put it down, Chef slid his hand left. The scalding tray came down on his knuckles. In that second I saw my culinary career flash before my eyes. It was not promising. In fact there was nothing much but panic and blackness. Chef was pissed (obviously), but surprisingly he didn’t boot me out of the kitchen. Although he didn’t let me forget my transgression… nor did the general manager, sommelier, pastry chef, souf chef, line cooks, dishwashers, or anyone who caught wind of my crime.
Chef said that I was the first person to burn him in his 20+ years in the kitchen. “Someone once threw a hot skillet at me, but I dodged it… no one’s ever burned me before”. The best way to describe that experience would be utter humiliation. But now I never fail to call out “hot behind” when approaching anyone who has his or her back to me.
If you plan to step foot into a professional kitchen learn the basic moves above if only so that you can avoid a fate like mine… going down in history, unlike the hot skillet thrower, as someone stupid enough to successfully injure their chef.