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The real kitchen chain of command

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This guy probably started off peeling endless potatoes.
Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell / via Flickr
Jet Tila

Today’s restaurant kitchen is such a unique place, and today’s chefs have to do a lot more than just cook. If you had to rank the top 10 qualities of a successful chef, his cooking ability would probably close to the bottom. Shocked? Don’t be. A great chef needs to know how to recognize great flavors, but he can hire talented cooks to execute them. That guy with the fancy title probably isn’t seasoning your sauce, anyway.

C’mon…cooking? That’s what fucking cooks and chef de parties are for. There is so much more that goes into actually being a chef. Successful chefs are politicians, parents, businesspeople, assassins and miracle workers all at once. I’m not talking about the TV chefs of the world; those folks represent about 1/100,000,000 of the real men and women that have to bang it out every night, from the short order guy at Waffle House to an executive chef at a hotel like Wynn or Encore.

There needs to be a better way to rank and label what we do. I see it like the military: As a young cook comes up through the ranks, he or she gains a few titles, stripes on the uniform, if you will. The aspiring baby cook fresh out of school usually comes in as a commis or apprentice. In Las Vegas, land of corporate casino-speak, they might be known as the culinary trainee. They’re full of book knowledge with stars in their doughy, anime eyes, all proud and shit and ready to take the bull by the horns. This would be a military private. Survival depends on ability now. Plenty won’t make it through the battle, let alone the war.

If the private is lucky, he becomes a cook. This is the kitchen’s favorite grunt that bangs it out day after day for hours and hours doing the same, repetitive work that is necessary to get good at something. This cook moves from station to station learning the whole kitchen, until he becomes a specialist. That’s private first class, to you. At this point he’s usually part of a kitchen “squad,” a cluster of cooks that are commanded by a chef de partie.

The chef de partie is the person responsible for a particular station, like sauté, grill or fish. And that’s all you do. All. Day. Long. Working one station for an extended period of time makes you amazing at it, if you don’t die of boredom first. This is also where things get interesting in Las Vegas. If you are in a hotel on the Strip in a union environment, specialties like wok cook or sushi cook can be chef de parties on their own. To make it even more confusing, some places call their chef de parties master cooks. Semantics.

To be a chef, one of the bigger dogs in the kitchen, you have to go through all of the above before getting your first taste of life as an entry-level chef. After the years of slagging it out, you become a sous chef, commander of the chef de parties, someone with a title people can pronounce!

In places like Vegas where a hotel can have up to 20 kitchens and restaurants, the soldiers add up. With room service, pastry, bread shop and employee dining there are whole other armies of cooks and chefs that never get the limelight. I see them every day in the back of the house and have a lot of love and respect for them.

At my restaurant, Wazuzu, we have a totally unique kitchen set up. It’s like three restaurants in one. We have a sushi crew who are mostly Japanese headed up my executive sous master sushi chef, Matsu, who is also Japanese. There’s the Thai/hotline crew headed up by Thai sous chef Kit. And there’s a wok team all from various parts of China that speaks three or four dialects with very little English. If I didn’t speak Chinese and Thai, it would be a beast!

So, out of all the people sweating it out in the kitchen, who are the biggest prima donnas? I’ll tell ya, they ain’t the exec and sous chefs. They’re those damn wok and sushi cooks.

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