What really goes on in a professional restaurant kitchen? I often wondered how clean a kitchen is or what the cooks do if food is returned. I had the opportunity to work in the kitchen of a Portuguese restaurant and I interviewed chefs and kitchen staff of others and the experience was surprising. Before I go into the detail, I want to explain exactly what type of restaurants I am talking about. These are not Michelin starred establishments, franchise chain eateries or large catering facilities. They are local neighborhood restaurants with a separate bar area, main dining room and modest catering service (200 people or less). All the places I worked at or those I interviewed were all Portuguese establishments in New Jersey. This is part one in my series on the inner workings of Portuguese American Restaurants in New Jersey.
The turnover of staff, especially the chef, is very high. Despite the relative consistency of the menu chances are that during its lifetime a Portuguese restaurant will have changed chefs often. It is the nature of the work and the salary. A Portuguese restaurant is open seven days a week for many hours (typically from 11:00 AM to 2:00 AM.). The salary is meager, and I was surprised to discover that many were making $50,000 annually without benefits. Owners will typically pay in cash but while chefs are taking in the full $50K they are not deducting for social security and unemployment benefits. There is also no paid time off or sick days. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. This arrangement does not instill loyalty and longevity. The other staff get paid even less and most are undocumented workers. Owners take advantage of this and many of their wages are at or below minimum wage. A chef is not revered like in television cooking shows or high-end establishments. Chefs are just considered to be another employee.
Don’t let your wife, girlfriend, daughter, sister or mother work at a Portuguese restaurant in New Jersey. It is likely that they will be sexually harassed daily. Between horny old men at the bar to the mostly male dominated kitchen staff it is a testosterone laden environment. It is as if time was turned back to the early 20th century where women are treated like objects. Female staff are constantly propositioned, groped, pinched, verbally abused and the butt of jokes. I was appalled at what they are put through. Most of the women staff in Portuguese restaurants are Brazilian or Latin American and sadly many Portuguese men think them to be promiscuous or worse. They look at them as objects or lower forms of life there to be conduit for their carnal desires. The women must fight back and defend themselves with all their wit and strength. They put up with it because they need the job and more importantly the tips. They play these guys up so they remain in their good graces. A female waiter or bartender must never be in a bad mood or have a rough day. The male customers will complain that they are “cold”, “distanced” or just “no fun”. The male staff are not held to that standard. It is depressing to even write about it now. All the women are intelligent, kind and caring. They were someone’s relative or partner, but these assholes cannot not make that distinction. One last thing…most married men that frequent a Portuguese bar/restaurant daily have at some point or other propositioned a female staff member or an unaccompanied female patron.
There is no incentive to innovate and try “new things” because the menu is established, and the clientele don’t like change. In many Portuguese restaurants most of the customers are middle aged and elderly men who generally eat and drink at the bar. They are not epicureans or “foodies” so anything fancy or new is not appreciated. They want the same food they been eating for their entire lives. I once saw a patron send back his entire dish because the chef had decorated the plate with some different colored chiffonade of colored cabbage and radicchio. It looked very nice, but the customer sent it back because “he wasn’t gay” and wasn’t paying for any extra “gay shit” on his food. Oh yeah customers are real assholes! They try all sorts of things to get out of paying. One time a guy came in and ordered all the expensive items on the menu. He had oysters, surf and turf and dessert all washed down by the most expensive bottle of wine and brandy. At the end when the bill came, he called over the owner and said, “I am not paying because there is nothing saying I am legally bound to pay for this”. He went on to say that the restaurant did not have anything posted on the premises or on the menu that you must pay for the food you ordered. He got up and just left. I witnessed countless occasions where plates come back almost empty, but the customer complained that he didn’t like it and wasn’t going to pay for it.
Contrary to popular belief the kitchen staff are not spitting in your food or dropping your steak on the floor before serving it to irate customers. I never saw any of this and while I am sure it happens elsewhere it really isn’t effective in getting back at asshole patrons. There is a much better way to get revenge. If you generally send something back to the kitchen or complain about a dish it will be addressed without any consequence. The chefs and cooks are generally proud of their work and if something goes wrong, they want to fix it. Even if the customer is wrong, they will just throw away the food you returned and make another one. What they retaliate against is repeat offenders. Everyone has a bad day so chefs will turn the other cheek for the one off occasion where the customer was just being a dick. For those people that do this regularly they will get back at them by giving them less food on the plate, delaying the order or not seasoning the food properly. Chefs will also give nasty customers the lesser quality cuts of meat. If they order grilled beef short rib for instance the chef will give them the fattier or thinner pieces of meat that are generally not served. Waiters and bartenders will pour less wine or spirits and will sometimes make a “mistake” on the final bill. These are all subtle ways to get back at someone without bringing in the health department.
Kitchens are dirty places! No matter where you go at the height of service the place is a mess. Where it counts this isn’t a concern. Work surfaces, utensils, dishes, cups and pots are all clean, but the floor, oven and sink is downright filthy. There is a reason why you see chefs where clogs or sneakers to work: the floor is often wet, greasy and strewn with debris. The oven starts off clean but with the rush of service it turns into something entirely different. There is no time to clean or tidy up. The focus is on making the food and washing up the pots, pans and dishes for the next round. Someone not accustomed to this would likely be appalled but cooking is messy. Just think about your home kitchen after you have made the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. The actual cleanup takes longer than the meal prep.
Most restaurants fail! The failure rate is something like 6 out 10 (higher in big cities with more competition). Restaurants operate on thin margins and ownership is skittish about raising prices because patrons will complain if the price goes up by 50 cents. The way they try to keep the margins intact amidst rising prices is by cutting costs. I already went over the miserly salaries they pay to staff, so the only thing is the food. They can’t cut the portions because that is viewed as being worse than raising prices. Portuguese restaurant customers want huge portions even though they don’t often finish what they order. So, a restaurant may cut back on the quality of protein. Its not that they buy expired meat and fish, but they just don’t buy the best grade of meat for instance. Prime, Choice, Select, Standard and Commercial grades are all different quality and price with “prime” being the best and most expensive. Just look in your local supermarket meat section to see the price difference. You are not getting organic, free range or farm to table food at many Portuguese restaurants either. The same goes for fish and seafood. You are generally not getting fresh seafood when it comes to shrimp, scallops, squid, lobster, crab or mussels. Same goes for flounder filets, salmon, tilapia or tuna. All of it is frozen because it is not only cheaper than fresh but if doesn’t sell it doesn’t go bad. I often see people order a paella or arroz de marisco (seafood rice) with big portions of lobster but it isn’t fresh. It was boiled when they got it in and then frozen. The chef takes it out of the freezer and puts it into the pot to defrost and pick up flavor. When was the last time you saw a lobster tank at your local Portuguese restaurant? That’s the only way to keep lobsters’ long term because storing them live in a refrigerator for more than a few days will kill them.
Check back in the blog for the next installment of Portuguese Restaurant Secrets.