When Cooking Gets Extreme: How Chefs Adapt to Limited Resources

There are over 14 million people in the foodservice industry. It is plausible to grasp that there are bumps in the daily ritual for more than a few of those millions. From sweetly exhaled hiccups to full-on retching, successful cooks must be quick to react. Being proactive, acutely organized, and willing to do the work of many when tasked with the resources of the few — and making it look good all the while — is part of the day.

Cooking fulfills a basic human need. People require energy derived from food. Good cooks make that energy a bit of an experience. When adversity is on the menu, true character is the price. Need some inspiration to get through those rough kitchen shifts? Here are some points to keep in mind that prove chefs are resilient and adaptable.

Severing the Silence of Any Peaceful Morning

Kitchen tragedies are numerous. Working through them is part of the routine. Reaching elbow-deep into a clogged grease trap is right there on the job description, just beneath substitute dishwasher, and just above “go clean up the vomit in the bathroom.”

Kitchen calamities are an almost daily occurrence, with even the best-laid plans. Being the mechanics responsible for hardwiring the kitchen on a shoestring budget is just another day at the office. When the sheet tray under the slicer gives way and said slicer is wide open — and spinning — while breaking down a whole strip loin, there is going to be hell to pay. And blood to spray. But dinner still needs to get prepped. Adapt.

Cooking at the Coldest Spot on the Planet

Anywhere people come together, there will be food. Hospitals, prisons, zoos, concert scenes, mall food courts, and schools are all gathering points for hungry end-users. Some venues require more cajones than others.

The McMurdo Station, a United States research center on the Antarctic ice shelf, is about as extreme as it gets. Over 2,000 miles south of New Zealand and a scant 860 miles north of the South Pole, McMurdo is an unlikely restaurant spot. The mean temperature is a toasty 0°F with a high of 46°F in the summer months and a hyperborean low of -58°F in the winter. Really puts a few inches of the white stuff across the hood of your car in perspective, don’t you think? With up to 900 residents stationed at the research facility across 100 buildings, food is one of the few comforts.

Production cook Doug Rhoades is part of the team entrusted with the importance of keeping the human energy flowing. Over 2,400 meals per day can flow from the outpost’s kitchen. It’s all fueled by “one resupply vessel that brings the majority of the nonperishable food down,” according to Rhoades.

“The ship arrives in late January. Fresh fruits and vegetables are flown down from New Zealand when there is space available on the military cargo planes that come several times a week in October and November,” he explained.

The five-week cycle menu is aimed at providing comfort in an area where comfort is all but a warm memory. Weather conditions can dictate sudden shifts in services patterns, but flexibility is part of the process.

“There is a small kitchen galley out at the airfield 10 miles outside of McMurdo, as well as another small one at a science site about 15 miles outside of town. If a blizzard suddenly occurs, people will get stranded out there and the galley staff have to feed more people than anticipated. You were planning to cook for 30 and suddenly there are 40 more mouths to feed!”

Most recently, Rhoades was “cooking eggs to order during a breakfast rush and calling out ‘Next!’ — only to look up and have Anthony Bourdain casually say ‘ham and cheese omelette.’” Even weather extremes can get overshadowed when the pressure pours on from the esteemed and often contemptuous Bourdain leaning in over the breakfast station.

Too Much Chlorine in the Employment Pool

This whole bravado of an apron being a turned-around cape is ridiculous. The self-aggrandized, swollen ego of kitchen disciples is what gets us in trouble. The kitchen is a theater in which just about anybody can have a role. Those players can be weak.

Right now, right this very moment, kitchens are reeling with agony in the squeeze of piss-poor employees. That cook-turned-hero bravado is cool and all, but too many of the folks wearing those aprons are lacking in the Skill Department. Or have some shortcomings, necessitating getting sent home with a “Does not play well with others” note pinned to his apron.

Nationwide, it is tough to get the right people to fit into the kitchen. Competition — market saturation, really — is at fault. As is the tarnished rep of restaurant boot camp being made up of endless nights, holidays, and weekends. Of course, the pay doesn’t help, either. With a cook’s whopping median annual income fluttering around $25K, the call of just about any other profession begs to be answered along with more take-home pay.

Battling the hardships takes creative solutions. Turning to smaller menus, or even smaller operations, helps fill in the gaps. Grabbing some speed-scratch items can also keep the operation afloat. With the ground swell of food trucks and their capability to be manned with just a dollop of labor, for example, it is apparent why so many eateries have grown wheels. Operating slimmer is sometimes the only option.

All the Money and Good Looks Stop at the Kitchen Door

How often do you pass into a kitchen and find that the sparkly refinement of the dining room ceases to exist beyond the flippity-flop kitchen door? The miscreant minions that are at attention with backs to the dining crowds don’t often enjoy the civility of the front-of-the house. Heat is undeniable. Cramped quarters, the break-neck pace, and barely a whisper of respect are part of the cooking workday. Adapting to poorly designed, poorly equipped kitchens is more habit than not. Kitchen space is, afterall, all expense.

While the cooking suite, the line, the pick-up window, and dish area are the structural steel to the operation, they are not what the paying public sees. Every foot the kitchen takes up is less real estate that a table with a diner can hold. Cut the kitchen space, buy sub-optimal equipment, and expect magic. That’s the cooking credo. Turn a warmer into a proof box. Fix the broken cooler door with slabs of cardboard. Plug the holes in the leaky steam table with plastic wrap. Keep cooking.

Pick Your Poison

The daily muck of office politics can be more daunting than super-gluing a gashed thumb, depending on perspective. There is an ebb and flow to the rush of a busy meal service. Getting to that zen-like state as the POS printer pukes all over the pick-up window is invigorating. Like writing that keeps you from going crazy, doing the kitchen ballet is a sickly poison that forces the marred, calloused hands to be nimble enough to juggle what’s coming next.

Brute endurance, quick thinking, and a dash of brain power is the elixir for combatting any kitchen affliction. Accepting that some folks are better at cooking than others is actually a comfort. There are spectacular accountants, mechanics, engineers, and tattoo artists. Turning a kitchen into a viable (profitable!) operation rests on the shoulders of the staff that hold it up. Sometimes that crew needs to approach the day’s challenges with tools that many simply don’t have in their tool boxes.

And that is okay. The dining room will fill up, the food will fly and the diners will be none the wiser that Andy and Hector are in the kitchen fixing the fryer with a zip-tie and two broken butter knives while Eric is wrapping Brandon’s bloodied hand with a dish towel so they can get back to making seared scallops. We like it that way.