I remember cracking up a couple years ago when my news bureau received a resume from a hopeful candidate proudly declaring one of his special skills to be, “the ability to operate for long stretches of time with little to no sleep”. Why would someone include that as a skill when applying for a corporate job? Is there a job out there where a statement like that would be the ticket to the top of the resume pile?
Well, I think I may have found it. The job? New cook. In addition to positively responding to sleep deprivation, I would recommend that candidates who list parkour and training for the Ironman race as their favorite pass-times should immediately be handed a cutting board and toque.
I realize that in most cases it is wrong to hire or not hire someone based on physical attributes. However, I would argue that requiring some level of physical fitness might be the responsible thing to do in the case of high-volume top-of-the-line restaurants (oh, and while we’re on the topic—US domestic airlines, requiring that your flight attendants bums be able to comfortably fit through the aisle might be the kind thing to do… for your passengers).
Let me just say I believe this rule should only apply to kitchen neophytes. A cook who’s been in restaurants for a while who has added a couple extra rolls to their mid-section while perfecting their mayonnaise-making technique has enough skill and knowledge to carry them through a rough service. Newbies, we have yet to earn that pass. Here’s why.
New cooks get put on prep. We’re the ones putting away pounds of produce, boiling quarts of stock, and blanching big pots of vegetables—all activities requiring muscle. Being new to the game, we are also less organized. That means more trips to the walk-in, dish station, freezer and pantry. Whether that trip is 20 feet from your station or down a flight of stairs doesn’t really matter. During a 12-hour shift it all starts to add up.
I’ve always considered myself in-shape. While my whopping 110 pounds is normal in Asia, it tends to fall into the “anorexic” category in the eyes of many in the US. So I frequent the gym to maintain muscle mass. This way I can avoid women in the supermarket asking me about eating disorders, and extolling the benefits of food (as they load the 20th box of Lean Cuisine into their cart). I’ve found that while “skinny” encourages critical comments and looks, “sporty” earns me the right to remain blissfully ignored by nosey strangers.
Unfortunately, my typical gym routine did little to prepare me for the rigors of kitchen life. Within the first 3 months I was sporting a heavily defined six pack and veins on my arms that would’ve brought a sigh of relief from any nervous needle-holding student nurse. I had lost 8 pounds, and tweaked the right side of my back from incorrectly distributing my weight while standing for hours on end. It wasn’t long before a typical evening activity became propping my legs against the wall to relieve my swollen feet and early signs of varicose veins while ravenously sucking down a 1000-calorie milkshake.
Getting accustomed to standing, bending, carrying and running for long hours takes some time. Therefore I argue, why not give yourself a head start? Think about it, if you’re in decent shape, your fit little self will be able to dash off to the walk-in or pantry and return in a flash when a cook runs out of something during the Saturday dinner rush. This will no doubt increase your kitchen value (remember being a newbie your value is pretty low—on par with the citrus juicer, convenient but everyone knows how to get along without it).
Another benefit? Being fit decreases your chances of getting sick. For a young cook the only way to earn a free-of-scorn sick day is to prove that even a defibrillator wasn’t enough to raise your ailing self. Fever? Flu? Hit by a car? Can you remember how to plate that salad and grill shrimp correctly? Then get back on the line.
So, to all the young cooks out there waiting for your externship or stage to begin, I suggest you sharpen your knives, perfect your brunoise skills, & then do several sets of suicide drills, pull-ups & hurdle jumping. Sure it’s hard, but once you get in that kitchen it’ll prove far more valuable than any “technique” you’ll learn sitting on your butt watching the Food Network.