Who does what in a typical Cheltenham restaurant kitchen?
Writing Cheltenham restaurant reviews is, ahem, all very well, but respect is due. Working in a restaurant is tough.
Yet, as a customer, sometimes you even forget there’s kitchen on the other side of that wall.
Cheltenham restaurants cover everything from one man bands to larger hotel and national chain kitchens. If the kitchen is of a reasonable size, you’ll find a larger team. Amazingly they’ll be organised more or less according to a scheme drawn up by a chap called Escoffier in Victorian times. He, in turn, based his organisation of the kitchen in the Savoy Hotel in London on a ‘chef and brigade’ model that had been in use in the European military (an army marches on its stomach) for centuries.
So, if you’ve ever wondered why chefs all seem to have French job titles, even in humble Cheltenham restaurants, you can trace all that back to Mr Escoffier. And if you’ve ever made a comment along the lines of “it must be like a military operation in the kitchen”, you’re closer to the truth than you think.
These days it would be most unusual to find the number of chefs – and specialisation of roles – that used to be the case. But you’ll still hear the French job titles, even if things are simplified these days.
Roles in a modern Cheltenham restaurant kitchen.
Taking the military analogy further; the Executive Chef (or ‘Chef de Cuisine’ or Head Chef) is the General. ‘Executive Chef’ is sometimes used as a flattering title to cheer up a Head Chef, but a true Executive Chef is basically a top level manager. Not much cooking involved.
Head Chef (aka Chef de Cuisine)
Head chefs run the kitchen – from staff to suppliers to menus. In smaller restaurants they cook everything, in larger places they oversee a brigade.
Sous Chef (‘Under Chef’)
The sous-chef de cuisine is second in command and, translated, the name literally means ‘under chef’. Basically, the role is be number two to the Head Chef. so more cooking, less admin. The relationship is vital to a successful kitchen – a good Head Chef will aim to make the Sous Chef as competent as possible, if only so that he or she can enjoy a day off.
Chef de Partie (aka Line Chef)
Historically, in large restaurant and hotel kitchens, you’d have Chefs de Partie running specific sections – meat, poultry, fish etc. Top of the tree was the ‘Sauté Chef’ because they were responsible for sauces and gravies – a highly respected role in the kitchen.
Pastry chefs (patissiers) are the equivalent of wingers in rugby: a mile away from the hard work in the scrum but useful to have around. They’re the butt of jokes because they necessarily have to work away from the heat of the kitchen and because patisserie is not often a team sport. That said a good pudding can make a meal, so they’ll only take so much grief.
A commis is a junior kitchen employee often learning his or her trade, maybe just out of catering college.
Kitchen Porter (aka KPs)
These guys (usually they’re guys) are another breed apart. They shift stuff, they clean everything (the ceiling if necessary) and maybe help out with vegetable prep. KPs often don’t have any formal culinary training. They are invariably the most interesting characters working in Cheltenham restaurants, often with interesting personal habits.
Essential, unpleasant work – this is a job that chooses you, rather than the other way round. Unlike in sit-coms dishwashers are never people who haven’t been able to pay their bill.
In writing Cheltenham restaurant reviews we’re enormously respectful of the hard work involved in being a chef or working in a kitchen. These heroes work when everyone else wants to play and are busiest when everyone else is on a public holiday. There’s a macho culture in kitchens that means that you don’t call in sick unless you’re basically dead – and your rare day off can disappear in a moment if the boss calls you in. You work with extreme temperatures, with sharp knives, with mandolines – you get cut burnt and bruised due to accidents caused by tiredness. Meanwhile, relationships suffer, and your relatives expect you to cook at every family occasion. The no reason to suppose that life in a Cheltenham restaurant is different to anywhere else.
Thankfully some enlightened employers are changing the culture by investigating a 4 day week (some high end restaurants are reducing their opening hours to improve the work/life balance of staff). A recent study by Unite found that about half of chefs work over 48 hours a week, with 14% working more than 60 hours. Better employers are reducing tolerance of abuse in the kitchen and creating career paths – but there’s no way around the fact that the work is tough and pressurised with physical and emotional casualties. If you’re a regular diner, you could take a positive step by supporting http://www.hospitalityaction.org.uk
It’s worth noting how many staff in restaurant kitchens are migrants workers. They prop up the industry. A report Labour Migration in the Hospitality Sector, commissioned by the British Hospitality Association points out that the hospitality sector is “highly reliant” on EU national workers, with up to 24 per cent of the sector’s workforce made up of EU migrants. I recently met a Tory MP who attempted to be jolly about Brexit by saying that we could attract ‘the brightest and the best’ migrant workers. The assembled restaurateurs looked at each other and shrugged… “It’s not the brightest and the best that we need for some of our jobs” was the response.