Friday 24 August 2018

The triathlon of cooking

The quit rate of a career in cooking is high. It has a unique combination of hard physical work, overwhelming pressure and mental focus that causes many to give it up just as fast as an episode of Masterchef begins. Cooking is in many ways like a triathlon: to win you must be good at all three events. You can’t be great in the swim, suck on the bike and crush the run if you expect a good result. I break cooking down to three similarly grueling events:

First event: Preparation
Highly repetitive tasks that rather than just get done must be done perfectly and as fast as possible. Speed and perfection never go hand in hand but they must. Any error in this critical stage and everything else after will never be as good as it should. Many people drown in the preparation and struggle to complete the mountains of blanching, chopping, roasting, braising, portioning and the many small details that should set them up for Service success. The time quickly slips away and too long spent on anything will have you rushing frantically with everything. Great cooks know the importance of preparation and develop systems to ensure success.

Second event: Service
This is normally where you see people leave for the toilet and never return.
Service is the grim reaper of events and will break the toughest of inmates. No two days are alike and no two moments the same. The speed of orders being called requires split-second reactions to remove items from your chiller and begin any number of challenging cooking tasks from delicately steaming, aggressively BBQ’ing, pan searing until 24-carat golden brown or just warming a few seconds in the salamander. The difference between hero and villain is small, a minute too long and the garbage, not the plate, becomes the outcome.

Third event: Functions
Functions lack the action-packed chaos of Service and rely more on meticulous structure and organization. Every detail must be planned to the second and each dish served to a guest must be broken down into little bitty steps. These are then assigned to each staff, who will assemble a plate like a child builds Lego. Each cook will place one single item on the plate and slide it to the next cook. By the time the plate reaches the end, it will have received 8-10 components resulting in the finished dish. Sounds easy but when you are serving a hundred plates, all the food must be piping hot and each item is being cooked freshly by a team just out of sight, it becomes a ballet. No panic, no screaming, but a delicate intricate dance of cooking and assemble. The challenge is any single mistake causes a traffic jam of dishes that result in waiting, hungry, “I want a discount” customers.

So, if you’re thinking that the chef looks a little stressed when he should be picking flowers and smiling like on a children’s show, you may want to remember that the determination to finish the race and have you eating the very best is not as easy as you think. If the team cooking looks to be having fun and genuinely enjoying the ride, it is because they have made it to the finish line of the triathlon. But keep an eye out for the new ones, they are easy to spot, they are still on the swim and sucking in water fast!

_By Chef-Athlete Kevin Cherkas