The Chef and the Compliment

Hell's Kitchen

The chef that fired me never liked me. That isn’t some kind of lame excuse, or anything. “Why did you get a D in math, Johnny?” “Mrs. Appleslog never liked me!”

Chef Dean never liked me. I don’t know if it was personal or not. It wasn’t arbitrary, though. It wasn’t just a personality conflict. He was precision oriented, thought that little mistakes were just as bad as big mistakes, and that cleanliness was slightly above Godliness.

I do not share these traits. I can cook up a storm, but I can’t achieve perfection. I work better when I can be fast and loose and make modifications. Plenty of restaurants work that way, and when I worked in those people loved me and thought I was fantastic. Not at this place. This place was very expensive, and that means everyone gets a stick up their ass. Chef Dean’s stick had its own restaurant.

So he never liked me. He never complimented me.

Except for once.

He wasn’t the chef of the restaurant itself. He was the Corporate Chef of the entire restaurant group. He had been chef of this steakhouse until he got a brain injury and couldn’t work the line anymore. Everyone said he ran the place with an iron fist. They said that he had mellowed since then, and that is terrifying.

Everyone was scared of him. My boss, Chef Jerry, lived in absolute quaking fear of Chef Dean. When he found out Chef Dean was coming around he dropped everything and got to work making the place just how Chef Dean liked it. Chef Dean liked things a certain way, and some of these ways were widely acknowledged as stupid.

He wanted us to use just salt and pepper on the asparagus instead of our seasoning blend, even though the seasoning blend was much tastier. So when he was around for an inspection we used salt, and the minute he disappeared through the huge double doors we went back to using seasoning.

I worked as the prep cook much of the time. The prep position at that job was more difficult and demanding than lead saute and grill positions I’ve had at other, lesser restaurants. It involved baking cheesecake and cooking lobster tails and making hundreds of crab cakes from scratch in 20 minutes. There was often 12 hours of work to get done in an 8 hour shift if nothing went wrong. Things went wrong.

One of the big ones was Chef Dean. The restaurant was closed at night, so during the day only the prep cook, Chef Jerry, and the daytime dishwasher/cleaner were in the kitchen. When Chef Dean showed up to these shifts there was no one to deflect him. He watched me like a hawk.

He criticized how I moved around the kitchen. He criticized how I cut the bread. He once flipped out so badly when he found that I had drained the veal stock in a certain way–the same way I had every week for a year and a half–that Chef Jerry intercepted me coming back from the bathroom and told me to just go home to avoid the firestorm.

Mostly, he criticized my cleanliness. I won’t fault him for picking the right target. I worked messier than the other cooks, who were all immaculately clean. I didn’t know how to work cleaner than that. I also got more stuff on my apron and my coats. At the end of the day you could tell exactly how hard I worked. Chef Dean did Not Approve. There’s an old adage that to see how good a chef is, look at his shoes. In fine dining this is a biblical passage. I should never have been in fine dining. I was a walking violation of the Law of Sanctity, and Chef Dean was its high priest.

The days Chef Dean showed up during my prep shifts were truly terrible. I work worse when I’m stressed, and he stressed everyone out. They were terrible.

Except once.

I’m not sure what was different that one day. Maybe my workload was lighter than usual. Maybe I got enough sleep that night. Or maybe I was just hitting my stride on my work at that place. I whizzed through the whole day, getting everything done right and getting it done fast. Even Chef Dean didn’t slow me down, even though he followed me around and kept stopping me to ask questions and make long-winded points, as usual. But I handled it. I handled it with style and we even had a few really good conversations.

As I was leaving that afternoon I said goodbye to Chef Jerry and the other cooks who had shown up for the dinner shift. Then I turned to Chef Dean. “Good evening, chef! Always a pleasure!”

I meant it, too. In that moment. Because I did always learn from him when he was there. It was neat to hear his stories and tap into his vast experience. It was always a pleasure, even if it was always more of a pain. Life is complicated.

“Jesse,” he called to me as I walked out the door. “You’re doing a better job of keeping this place clean. And yourself.”

I beamed.

I don’t know if it was true. I don’t think it was, really. Maybe I worked a little cleaner that day, but I was never a slob. Not really. I just didn’t clean as I went very well. I had to do it in shifts.

No, Chef Dean gave me the only compliment he ever gave me for one simple reason: I complimented him. He meant it. I’m sure he did. But he felt it because of the bond we shared in that moment.

In the fictional version of this story that was a turning point for me and Chef Dean. After that we became friends, and he took me under his wing as his protegé. I took over the restaurant and to this day we laugh about that story over drinks.

That didn’t happen. The next time he saw me it was business as usual for both of us. A year after this he fired me. He was nice about it. He told me I was a super nice guy but I just didn’t fit here. I guess that’s a compliment, too.

But that one doesn’t count.

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