School as Work

Chef is always telling us that we must treat school as if it were work; as if it were our job. If we’re late or going to be absent, we have to call or email him. If anyone forgets their knives or any part of their uniform, they are immediately sent home. And if anyone acts inappropriately in class, we’re basically fired (sent home).

The Test Kitchen was really the first place, other than school, where I had to set up my own work station. That experience instilled good work habits in me.

Every morning, I would arrive at the Test Kitchen before most everyone — the kitchen was always nice and quiet. I put away my things and exchanged my sweater for a chef’s coat. On the way to the kitchen, I grabbed a cart and filled it with all of the tools I would need for the day: knife, slotted spoon, whisk, peeler, garlic press, zester, citrus reamer, tongs, spatula, glass bowls, wet and dry measuring cups, measuring spoons, wine key, a small strainer, and exactly 4 towels. My timer hung around my neck, and the pockets of my chef’s coat held a small notebook, 2 Sharpies, and my instant-read thermometer.

Next stop would be the walk-in, where I would grab butter, one egg, herbs, and any trays of mise I would need for the day. Next door in the pantry, I would grab salt, pepper, flour, sugar, oil. Baskets in the kitchen were filled with onions, shallots and garlic — I filled a glass bowl with a couple of each and then grabbed my favorite cutting board.

My station was set up the exact same way every morning: The cutting board was set on my bench, slightly to the left, with my knives placed on a towel to the right of the board. Above the board, in the upper left corner of the bench, sat my glass bowl of onions, shallots and garlic. To the right of the bowl were smaller bowls with salt, pepper, flour and sugar. The remaining three towels were folded and neatly draped over the handle of my cart, keeping the rest of my mise company until it was time to use it. I would make the rounds again, grabbing a potato and small skillet, and would make myself some breakfast and an iced coffee before everyone arrived. I would then receive all of my assignments for the day and make one last pass through the walk-in and pantry for any additional ingredients I would need.

As dull as it sounds, that routine really centered me for the day. I felt organized, clean and ready for anything the day might throw at me.

When I got back to school this semester, I started doing the same thing. Some of the kids thought I was nuts, asking why I would want to arrive early to set up my station. Sometimes I would reply, “It makes my day easier.” Other times I would say, “It’s what I did at work.” Both were (are) true.

It felt good to see that several of my classmates decided to follow suit this week. Next to my board, in a neat little row, sat three other cutting boards, slightly to the left of their bench surface, with knives to the right, placed neatly on a towel.