A lot has been said and recorded that shows chefs to be extremely temperamental, serious and even downright mean. Just watch “Kitchen Nightmares,” or many of the other reality shows. Chefs are often thought of as being high strung with tempers ready to explode at any moment, unleashing a fury on any poor waitress or waiter for the simplest reasons.
Well, in reality, a chef’s job is a high pressure job that comes with a ton of stress and quite often, there are some high anxiety moments. The thing is that chefs will often release these tensions in far more creative ways than merely throwing a temper tantrum.
I remember one of my first waiting jobs in Stowe, when one of the waiters said something that kind of upset the chef-owner. It happened to be my night to work in the kitchen and I noticed the chef never lost his cool. He was Austrian and I had heard through many of my friends in town that the European chefs were the worst when it came to losing their tempers. Dietmar, however, never did yell at him. Instead, I watched in fascination as he prepared our meals as always, as he was making the guest’s meals, (we would reheat ours’ after we finished clean up). It was Wiener schnitzel that night and after breading all the veal, he then proceeded to cut out a piece of cardboard and bread one more exact replica, hiding the waiter’s real meal, and swearing me to silence. Watching Luke try and eat his cardboard schnitzel was awesome.
So. what are some of the pranks? Well, you know how all cooks wear those plastic gloves? If you take a pastry bag and put a little mayo in it, you can fill just the tips of the fingers. Put the glove back in the glove box and watch to see who puts their hand in it.
Then, there is the old Tabasco on the tip of the straw stunt, but you have to go that one extra step and also rim the glass, so once they get hit with the straw and figure they should just drink out of the glass … bam, you get them again. The drink is still unharmed. Of course, you can take that one step farther and put the straw into the hot sauce, place your finger over the top to keep some sauce in the bottom of the straw. Clean the outside of the straw, place it in the drink to the bottom and then release your finger. The Tabasco stays in the straw until that first sip, but the drink is still unharmed … or, at least, mostly unharmed.
Cooks always keep a rag on their cutting board so in between cuts they can wipe the board clean. I know one manger that will casually walk by and squirt whipped cream under the rag so when you wipe, you end up smearing it with cream. Speaking of rags, I once noticed one of the cooks stood in the same spot of his station pretty much any time he made anything. I took a towel that matched the ceiling perfectly and hung it right over his spot filled with ice cubes. I also purposely didn’t tell anyone else. After a while, the ice started to melt and at first only one drip at a time came down and he would look around. As the ice melted, the rag became more saturated with more drips. He kept thinking someone was shooting him with a water gun; it was hilarious.
There also was one bartender, yes, we will often spread the pranks around, that put a real looking, stuffed rat in the microwave, so the first thing in the morning that the cook saw made him jump. And, oh yah, if someone calls down the line and tells you there is a phone call for you, first think, did the phone really ring? And, then check the receiver before putting it to your ear as it could be filled with softened butter. If I’m the one doing that prank, I will call from my cell to be sure everyone hears the ring, but you better still check the receiver before putting it to your ear.
Of course, there also is the staple prank of slipping a raw egg into the batch of hard boiled eggs, and one that Mike got me with in our ski school locker room: I thought it was so funny I will use it in the kitchen changing area. Unlace a person’s shoes and lace them backwards from the top. Then peel the plastic tabs and melt the two ends together with a lighter. It is like a shoe string with no ends to tie.
There also is always a special treat for any cook that leaves his knives out when he leaves. One of the local chef’s answers is to place them in a 5-gallon bucket, fill it with water and freeze it overnight or whenever he gets back to work.
These are just a few of the pranks that go on in the kitchen while you are out in the dining room thinking everyone out back is working hard and being serious. So, the next time that you are out to eat and you hear a commotion from the kitchen, don’t go assuming it is the chef losing his temper. It might just be another staff member getting pranked.
Trained under Master Chef Anton Flory at Top Notch Resort in Stowe, Vt., Smitty is a personal chef specializing in dinner parties, cooking classes and special events. For more information and archived copies of Stir it Up, visit chefsmitty.com. Smitty welcomes your questions and comments at [email protected] or (530) 412-3598.