I was re-watching Glengarry Glen Ross the other day. Alec Baldwin with the “Always Be Closing” speech. ABC. After watching the film I started to think if there was something like that that I could apply to life as a chef? Nothing immediately came to mind but then I remembered this guy Paolo. Let me tell you a little bit about Paolo.
A few years ago I worked as a waiter for a steak frittes place in Dublin.
It was a cute little restaurant in the city center, fifty seats, a bar, open kitchen, homely.
The kind of place you go when you don’t fancy cooking for the family on a Wednesday night but equally don’t fancy TGI Fridays.
When I started there, one of the first people to introduce themselves to me was one of the long standing fry-cook’s; Paolo.
He was a super peppy, late twenties Venezuelan dude. His body seemed to be constantly in motion. A subconscious rhythm that flowed through him.
His feet tapped out a bass beat, the steel tongs in his right played the high-hats on the fryer basket and his left hand gave us the snare drum on the cloche he used to steam burger buns.
This man was the embodiment of a good mood.
Everyone loved Paolo. He remembered the names of everyone’s boyfriends and when everyone’s birthdays were.
He made a point of shaking your hand with a kiss on the cheek when you came in in the morning. The first few weeks I was there I loved Paolo too.
We riffed well with each other and would laugh constantly when on a station together.
My perception of things started to change one I got to know the head Chef a little better.
Mike was also a really great guy but as soon as he put on his whites he was just as much of a hard ass as any other chef worth their salt.
He ran a tight ship in that kitchen. Six cooks, three KPs. But he seemed to have a soft spot for Paolo and let him away with a lot more shit than he ever should have.
You see, despite the fact that Paolo was super peppy and friendly and made strong connections with people, despite the fact that he taught me how to question the virtue of someone’s mother in Spanish, despite all of this, Paolo was terrible at his job.
Don’t get me wrong, the guy could cook most people under the table when it came down to it. He could give you the internal temperature of a 10oz Fillet from across the room and brunoise a carrot into a near microscopic dust.
But while all of that is a fantastic asset for a kitchen to have, that’s not the whole picture. He was great at the work, he just wasn’t a great worker.
He came to work late constantly. He couldn’t keep up with his prep before service. He Never sharpened his knives so was always knicking them from other people. He would go days without changing his apron, thank God we had a laundry service for our whites.
He would never label his containers of sauces or herbs correctly, if at all. He would come in hungover at least one morning a week, when that happened the guys in the kitchen couldn’t count on him for anything.
And I think that’s what it came down to. Not being able to rely on him. Having no faith that he could do they job they needed him to do.
Life in a kitchen is a bit mental. Hours. Heat. Cuts. Burns.
With customer requests and waiters shouting orders at you and a docket machine incessantly clicking away in the corner all night long it’s no small wonder that it attracts an odder set than most professions.
In that kind of crucible you need to know that the guy to your right has your back. You need to know that you can lean on him when the orders are piling in and there seems like there is no end in sight. You need to be a team. And you just weren’t with Paulo.
He was too concerned with being the friendliest guy in the room. With having everyone like him. And also, as I only found out later, with badmouthing everyone, behind everyone else’s back.
He never had a good thing to say about management or the hostess or the bar tender. This kind of two facedness is something that eats away at a kitchen team.
Mike the Head Chef had a soft spot for Paolo because if nothing else, Paolo was clever.
He never bad mouthed to Mike, he would do a much better job when Mike was watching and no matter how bad you are at your job being the (albeit apparent) whirlwind of positivity is a great way to get kept around.
Eventually though it just became too much. Too many shifts that were almost ruined by his lack of preparation. Too many complaints from other staff that they didn’t trust him. Too much time spent wondering, “He is talking to me about so and so behind their back but what is he saying to them about me behind my back.”
Mike and Paolo had a confrontation. Paolo decided to leave. Everyone was sad. Paolo left. Everyone was not so secretly relieved.
We got a new guy in, fresh off the boat as it were from Brazil. Showed to work on time. Smashed out his prep in the morning and kept his pace during service. Nice guy, but genuine. I don’t think anyone really noticed the effect Paolo was having until he was gone but everything seemed to flow a little easier after that.
So that’s the story of Paolo, The Not-So-Great Great Guy. And this is how I came to my all-encompassing theory about being a good line cook.
N-B-P. Never Be Paolo.
Come to work on time. Have a clean uniform and groom yourself well. Keep your knife kit sharp and well maintained. When you get in to work get your prep done and boxed off. Label everything correctly. Fill out your HACCP sheets regularly and accurately. If you do come to work still reeling from the night before, push through it, p
rove that while you are human and have a life outside of the kitchen you can still push out the work when the time comes.
But most importantly of all, try to be a good person. Be a team player. Pull your weight so that everyone can pull together. Every day Mike came in he would worry about Paolo.
Was he on time today, would he come in at all. Were fries being blanched, did he have everything backed up, he usually didn’t.
Paolo was a drain on the head Chef; he MVP of every kitchen team. You never want to be that guy. NBP – Never be Paolo. You want to be like any of the other chef in that restaurant that Mike never had to think about. He never stood on the line wondering if Leon had his stock reducing, of course he did. Did Lucas have his Mise En Place for the special done? Always.
Does Paolo even have salt on his station today? Maybe not? NBP – Never Be Paolo.
Life in the kitchen can get pretty shitty at times. Quite often one of the only things that gets you through that is the team, the guy to your right, the chef calling your dockets, the kp bussing your pans. You know they have your back. They knows you have theirs. Everyone is all about the Team. Paolo wasn’t. NBP. Never Be Paolo.