Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front- and back-of-house about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. In this instalment, we learn how to act as a peacemaker when a fist fight breaks out in a kitchen.
The student surpassing the mentor is a typical tale in any industry. However, when this happens in a kitchen—a place that is usually fueled by nothing more than a person's pure sense of pride, confidence, and ego—tensions can erupt abruptly and very intensely.
In this case, the student was a kid I brought in who worked his way up from being a dishwasher to my daytime lead line cook, and the mentor was my nighttime lead cook. I noticed the tension between them slowly build up day after day. Working alongside them was the equivalent of living in the 'hood when two rival gangs were at war. It got to a point where you could almost cut the tension in the kitchen with a knife.
Then one day, in the middle of shit popping off during our lunch rush, it happened right as I walked into the kitchen. The mentor shouted, "Chinga tu madre!" And the student responded, "Fuck you!" That was the exact point when they stopped being a mentor and student and became equals. Next thing you knew, they were both swinging and tossing each other, stumbling dangerously close to the deep fryer. The kid was at least 260 pounds and five-foot-two, while the mentor was five-nine and 190 pounds. I acted to defuse the situation immediately.
People think that the walk-in is just for storing food, but I swear it has been my safe haven since I started in the food industry.
The first thing I did was grab the kid and shouted at him, "Look at me, fucker! Look at me!" I told the mentor to go outside and take a walk, and I dragged the kid into our walk-in, all the while shouting at our only other line cook on the line to call in the dishwasher and teach him how to quickly assemble salads. It was up to them to somehow bang out the rest of the eight tickets during our lunch rush. What many people don't know is that working at a restaurant during lunch is much more stressful than working a dinner shift. In the former, your customers want to get in and out as quick as possible and there is absolutely no room for error in a kitchen—worse yet, aggression between cooks because of the errors.
Mind you, we have an open kitchen.
Back in the walk-in, I told the younger guy to calm the fuck down. People think that the walk-in is just for storing food, but I swear it has been my safe haven since I started in the food industry. I'm sure it has saved many cooks from having nervous breakdowns too, or worse, committing suicide. It is conducive to chilling out. Better yet, there are no cameras and the only sound is the soft hum from the fan. It is obviously colder in there too, which feels great after cooking for hours in front of a high-power range and even hotter oven.
I told him, "Mijo, what is your problem?" He responded, "All I wanted to do was a good job." It turns out that the mentoring had escalated to the point of pointlessly bossing him around and bullying, and the student was tired of it. Once he confessed this, I didn't know whether to get mad at him, write him up, or to hug him. Of course, I want someone like this kid who takes pride in his work and cares about properly executing food in my squad, but duking it out won't solve anything. We were in the walk-in for a while. When I was done reassuring him, I walked out to the alley, where the mentor was waiting for me.
I brought them both back in the kitchen to confront each other. I made them look into each other's eyes and told them the following: 'There is no more I'm bigger than you' or 'you are smaller than me.'
I told him, "You guys are now equal, so let him be." The crazy part about working in a kitchen is that even though someone gets promoted and keeps on moving up, they will most likely still get treated like shit. To make the tension of it all even worse, it was a Friday and we were falling behind on our prep for a huge catering job.
I brought them both back in the kitchen to confront each other. I made them look into each other's eyes and told them the following: "There is no more 'I'm bigger than you' or 'you are smaller than me.' Fuck both of your prides and fuck my pride. At the end of the day, all that matters is the food and the guests." I then forced them to give each other a hug and cook their anger out. If they refused, I would fire them both on the spot. They hugged, and by the end of the evening's service, the older guy told the younger guy, "I'm sorry, mijo. I love you."
Cooks are artists who cook with their heart, soul, pride, and blood. We all got over the incident and six months later, the student ultimately realized that he makes a better cook than a leader. The mentor is now my sous and they both cook next to each other in peace.
As told to Javier Cabral
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.