Friday, February 27, 2009

Ben Walanka on Hell's Kitchen

Having discovered that I actually know one of the chefs on Hell's Kitchen this season, I sat down to watch the show last night. Oh man, it brought back so many memories. My friend Kelley (who is quite the chef herself) is right to note that Hells Kitchen is more about the drama and cussing then about the actual cooking. Gordon Ramsey's character (and I do think it's a character) is absolutely ridiculous. However, I do think the show reflects the reality of the intensity, drama, and social order of the kitchens of high class dining establishments.

In some ways a chef's world is like the military. You can start out with no training and work your way up by working hard and being disciplined and ambitious. A head chef is an unquestionable authority. When he gives out an order, it is meant to be obeyed immediately, and anything he says is usually responded to with a military-like barked response, "Yes CHEF!"

Here are my brief thoughts:
- Chefs lead a crazy life with crazy hours, intense pressure, and lots of competition
- Chefs typically have a HUGE ego.
- A kitchen is just as dramatic as a hospital emergency room or a trading floor in a stock exchange.
- I loved working the culinary industry. I thrived on the craziness and the sense of community.

A chef's life is strange. When dinner service starts there are several hours of non-stop chaos in the kitchen. Some food can be prepped ahead of time, but most of it must be cooked to order and it must be perfect to meet the standards of a high-class establishment. A few minutes too long in the oven and the meat will be over cooked. If a chef runs to get the meat out of the oven and leves his vegetables sauteeing on the stove, they might burn. Even putting the food on the plate must be perfect - presentation is crucial and yet must be done in seconds.

Not only do they keep moving for hours in the steamy heat of a kitchen, they are also responding to the constantly barked requests of the servers, the hostess, and the head chef. Often dishes are returned to the kitchen and have to be re-done, which is usually where a night in the kitchen can turn into a disaster. The head chef's reputation rides on the actions of the rest of his chefs, so the line cooks and sous chefs are under intense pressure to perform perfectly. All it takes is one bad review to bring down the reputation of an entire restaurant.

On Hell's Kitchen last night Ben got in trouble multiple times with Gordon Ramsey, and watching their interchanges made me giggle. Gordon would be like, "Get over here you fat f***, what have you done with this? I don't want to ever see anything like this again!" Then Ben would reply, "Yes chef! I'm sorry chef! I messed up, it will never happen again Chef!" Gordon Ramsey may be unusually uncouth for a head chef, but the strict chain of authority and Ben's response is absolutely realistic. I had to laugh because I have stood five feet from Ben and heard the exact things come out of his mouth before.

Ben was one in a string of chefs that ran our members-only Club at the Symphony Center in Chicago. It was only open on Symphony nights, so the chef was on loan from the fine-dining restaurant downstairs. It was crazy because everyone arrived just in time to have dinner right before attending the Symphony, so there was intense pressure to be done on time. Not only that, but these are the rich and famous - a veritable who's who of Chicago's big shots. They expected their food to be perfect, and there was intense criticism when anything went wrong. Because of that, the head chef from the restaurant downstairs would often come up to make sure everything was running smoothly. When it wasn't... he was PISSED. He didn't blow up like Ramsey, but he did bark orders and let his displeasure be known. Ben would bark his apologies and move to barking orders to his own subordinates. When it was finally over he would settle back into his jovial, easy-going self. He is a bit of a loud-mouth, though, so I really am not surprised to find him on tv as quite a controversial character. I hope he stays on for a while, it's fun watching someone you actually know!

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