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When I was 19 I dropped out of uni (for the first time... more on that in another post.) My parents said I could come home as long as I found myself a job, which was fair enough, and went back to uni in September, which I did (with disastrous results, but again, more on that another time). I moved back to Wiltshire and started applying for every job I was remotely interested in. My only work experience was volunteering in a charity shop and occasional waitressing at school events, so I wasn't exactly massively qualified, but eventually I got hired as a "Kitchen Assistant" at a local chain café/restaurant. I'm not going to name it, because I don't want a lawsuit on my hands in the unlikely event that they ever read this post. You'll see why.
Anyway, I was hired specifically to cover the early shift, which meant getting there on the very first bus (which took over an hour) assembling sandwiches, stocking displays and helping with breakfasts. The place was horribly understaffed, so even though I was meant to be part-time I was often asked to stay and cover other shifts, which meant I was regularly doing 14 hours shifts, 6 days a week which was not only exhausting but completely illegal. I quit after a month because I got another job offer, but despite my short stint in this role I learned a few things which I thought I'd share.
1. Commercial kitchens aren't as clean as you might think (or hope)
I thought a kitchen where food was prepared for public consumption would be hospital-level clean. I was wrong. It wasn't infested with vermin or anything, but it was definitely scungy around the edges, and the big bags of ingredients weren't as tightly sealed as you'd expect. Other people in the kitchen wore their aprons outside to smoke, which kind of defeats the object of wearing one for hygiene. Granted, this was just one kitchen, but given that it had a 4-star hygiene certificate I shudder to think what standard all other kitchens are at. Also, I once grated my knuckle off while grating apple for one of the cooks and my boss told me to just "pick out the bloody bits and use the rest" which is just gross.
2. Working in a kitchen makes you really hungry... at first
This might sound obvious, but being surrounded by the smell of food does mean your stomach is growling for your entire shift, for the first few days. Then the effects of seeing food in such huge quantities means you start seeing food as just inventory and your appetite sort of vanishes.
3. Poached eggs are really easy to make
They can be tricky little suckers, but once you've cooked 100 or so in a few days you get the hang of it. My best method is to use a deep frying pan, put the water and a splash of vinegar in and stir it until the water is swirling around at a decent pace. Then crack the egg straight into the centre. The motion of the water will keep your poached egg in a tidy little ball. No cling film or silicone moulds for me!
4. Customers ask some really dumb questions
My favourites were "Does your wholewheat toast contain wheat", "Do you have any vegetarian chicken salads" and "I know it's three minutes until you close but you have time to make seven burgers?"
5. People will joke about spitting in your food, but they probably won't
When dealing with the aforementioned stupid customers, or unreasonably picky customers, we all made the odd silly joke about adding, ahem, bodily fluids to their plates, but to my knowledge nobody ever actually did anything untoward.
6. Some dishes are just money down the drain
The biggest mark up is on pasta meals, especially "pasta bake" dishes. The sauce is bought in huge buckets and is mixed up with pre-boiled pasta before being chucked in the microwave with some bulk-bought grated cheese on it. It's your money, you do what you like, but it'll cost you pennies to make exactly the same thing at home, so paying upwards of £7 for it is a bit extravagant.
7. Communication is key
In a kitchen if someone says "That's hot" or "Move", you need to listen. Especially as seasoned waiters and kitchen staff have Targaryen-levels of heat tolerance, so if they say something is hot it'll melt your skin off. In dangerous environments you also learn the perils of lack of communication, like the time I was helping with the washing up and stuck my hand in a massive cooking pot to scrub it and shredded my hand on a smashed glass that the waiter had forgotten to mention. I have a pretty serious phobia of broken glass, so this resulted in a full-blown panic attack. Bad times, my friends. Bad times.
8. Sometimes you have to say "no"
As I mentioned earlier, I was constantly asked to stay way after my shift and work extra days, and MAN was I knackered. I do appreciate that for some people putting your foot down with your boss and turning down overtime isn't necessarily an option, and that's crappy. But if you're working so hard it's making you ill or putting you in danger then you need to put yourself first. In my case I ended up quitting, but maybe if I'd felt more comfortable setting boundaries and only working my allocated hours I might not have been as burned out (and might not have grated my knuckle off...)
9. The right music can have healing powers
If you're going to be in a loud, hot, dangerous room for 14 hours on the trot you need the right playlist to keep yourself going. I've never appreciated music more than I did in that job. Though, a fistful of chocolate chips out of the supply cupboard helped in emergencies...
10. It's ok to quit a job if it's not right for you
Even now that I have a job I'm generally happy with I've always got one eye on job listings. You never know what might be out there, and if another opportunity comes along that's better for you then it's totally ok to chase it. I'd never quit a job before and the nerves and guilt I felt were off the charts. I felt like, by leaving, I was letting everyone down, but ultimately life is too short to turn down better offers. This isn't specific to kitchens, I suppose, but it's important anyway.
So, would I ever work in a commercial kitchen again? Probably not. Was it a wasted experience? Definitely not.