Hazing--the word brings to mind a bunch of pimpled frat-boys whacking some misguided initiate's buttocks with a paddle, or a posse of jarheads at military school forcing their underlings into some humiliating activity with a homoerotic subtext. Is it a good thing? Well, probably not-- in that context anyway (though the idea of our don't ask don't tell military vamping it up in cocktail dresses could be the seedling of positive social change). But I'm talking about the century-old rite of passage that every young cook goes through when entering a new kitchen early in his or her career; the torrent of verbal abuse, the bullying, the deliberately menial and soul-destroying tasks. I was not, in my first kitchen, allowed to have a name. I was "mel", short for "mal carne" (bad meat). I was never adressed directly by the chef-- for the first few months, it was " Tell the mel to go downstairs and peel fifty pounds of 16-20 shrimp" or "Have the mel clean and wash 80lbs of squid." This with the chef standing right next to me. "Line-up" is a European tradition, where, at the beginning of each shift, cooks are inspected by the chef, past offenses reviewed and future tasks assigned. Some of these, particularly when the chef is a mean, vicious, embittered, American-hating drunk, can be pretty rough. " You are a low, useless, insignificant fleck of bloody discharge... You will NEVER be a chef... You are an alchemist... you turn perfectly good food to SHIT!... I scrape two cooks like you from my cat's litter every morning, you horrible, bedwetting, shit-smelling, incompetent salamander-dropping! The customer sees you-- he will vomit in terror!" Is there a larger purpose to this continuum of cruelty and brutality?Well, yes. I'm not saying that chefs who put extraordinary pressure on-- and continually excorciate their new recruits are doing so with the best intentions. More often than not, they are simply indulging their own dark urges with the knowledge that this is the way they came up and their chef before them. But a valuable process is in fact occuring. The restaurant is busy. The chef is already working 17 hours a day, trying to keep things going smoothly. He has limited-- VERY limited time in which to train new personnel. What happens when, after spending weeks, patiently teaching the new garde manger how to work his station, a very busy night comes along, the whole line falls in the weeds, a few harsh words (not unusual, I think) are exchanged. The next day, new cook doesn't show up to work. His feelings have been hurt. He can't take the pressure, the noise, the abuse. He's sensitive. His saucier was unkind. The waiters rude. The chef unappreciative. Paralyzed and frightened by the seeming hopelessness of it all-- he simply goes AWOL. The chef-- and the whole kitchen is up shit creek. Perhaps, that early torrent of expletives and the unreasonable loading up of grueling and menial chores is a good thing! Maybe the chef, wittingly or not-- has replicated battlefield conditions to the best of his ability, thereby weeding out the weak and infirm and the unreliable, thus sparing the proven members of his staff the horror of pulling doubles when the new goof decides he'd rather work for a dotcom. Maybe the person who can handle such abuse without complaint or loss of self worth will prove more likely to endure the frenetic pace and nerve-shattering pressure of a busy Saturday night before Xmas, the politically incorrect tauntings of other cooks who might well have learned their language skills in Lompoc or Terminal Island..."Can they do the job without taking things personally?"The answer to this question is an important one-- as any chef knows. "Can they take ten incoming bogies at the same time-- AND my constant screams of 'Where's that table!!' and the distant whines and squeals of the floor, AND keep cooking at a high level without getting flustered or snapping?" "Can they work well with others-- particularly others with less-than diplomatic social skills?" The tradition of bullying FNG's helps answer these vital questions. As I've said many times; I can teach people to cook. I cannot teach character. And character is MUCH more important in the realpolitik of the busy restaurant kitchen. Sulking, spite, vindictiveness, martyr-mode, absenteeism, agression are all dangerous liabilities in the delicate mix of a tightly wound kitchen crew-- all of whom spend most of their waking hours in a small, submarine like space, with only each other as company, under tremendous heat, with the constant temptations of boiling liquids and sharp pointy objects with which to settle misunderstandings. New cooks who might be tempted, in moments of extremis-- to use one of these as an argument-ender-- need to be weeded out early.
By TONY BOURDAIN author of "Kitchen Confidential"