Richie Nakano is a chef based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @linecook.
I’m prepping the Sunday after Thanksgiving when the first signs appear: The morning reservationist has turned off Migos and suddenly the restaurant is drowning in Mariah Carey Christmas songs. By tomorrow afternoon there will be Christmas lights, wreaths, and mistletoe hanging over the doorway. It’s here—the fucking worst time of the year to be a professional cook.
Any holiday spent working in a restaurant can be hard. Just ask the cook that’s manning the stoves on Fourth of July, or prepping your Easter brunch, or stretching pizza dough for your drunk ass on St. Patrick’s Day. But December is an extra-brutal slog, a month-long build up to the New Year’s Eve grand finale, and the whole thing is bad and wrong. Why? Because cooking during the holidays is a time to play it safe; a time to churn out menus with mass appeal that inevitably suck the life and creativity out of a kitchen faster than a bottomless mimosa brunch service.
There are distinct phases of hell that cooks working in December can expect to encounter that lead to this inevitable conclusion.
First off, the no-brainer: It’s going to be BUSY. Everyone is going out, and having company parties, and meeting friends to exchange gifts. Your previously mellow Tuesday night shift is now suddenly a 240-cover night where you wind up having to cook off more farro mid-service, while the intern on garde manger goes down in flames so badly he hits the cooking wine during clean up. You’re going to get your teeth kicked in, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But there’s a bright side. Because it’s busy, chefs are going to cash in. People love to ball out on a special occasion, so December is all about truffles and sea insects that basics think should cost $42. The whole menu shifts around and suddenly you’re garnishing latkes with Osetra caviar, and the pastry chef is trying to figure out how the hell to make a bûche de Noël work on her menu. The grill guy has never cooked an A5 wagyu strip loin, but fuck it, he’ll probably figure it out.
Cooking during the holidays suck the life and creativity out of a kitchen faster than a bottomless mimosa brunch service.
At first it’s all fun and games, being able to work with all of these nice, expensive goods until the hungover sous chef over-orders Alba truffles, THEN signs for them. Now the restaurant is stuck with an invoice for $15,000. Normally, all of these luxury ingredients would be a cook’s dream to work with, but during the holidays they cause utter chaos. Everyone is on edge because of their cost, and inevitably someone overcooks an entire batch of lobsters or oxidizes an entire foie-gras terrine. Add to that fear the obnoxious restaurant owner hovering over the pass all night, critiquing every plate, and you have a recipe for holiday misery.
It is inevitable that the people who come in to spend all this money and celebrate and wear awful sweaters are going to send food back. Often it is too salty or not salty enough, and they order steaks black and blue. They will ask you to accommodate all manner of food allergies and general dislikes. The holidays bring out droves of irregular diners: parents visiting from out of town, fussy vegan cousins home from college, your aunt who suddenly has a laundry list of food sensitivities. A new generation of them will order all of their food to-go for their holiday party, and then they will two-star you on Yelp because their paella was “meh.”
It is inevitable that the people who come in to spend all this money and celebrate and wear awful sweaters are going to send food back.
Cooks, on the other hand, won’t be attending any holiday parties. All of the boozy eggnog shindigs, with tables covered in chips and dips and whisky and pie—that happens on the weekends, so we miss everything. But since the restaurant is so busy and the stress level in the kitchen runs so high during the holidays, you can rest assured that the cooks will be getting obliterated every night at the local bar. There will be epic hangovers and shocking bar tabs, and by the time January comes around, cooks are generally ten pounds heavier, and scraping by to pay rent on the first of the month. Such is the irony.
Here’s the kicker. After grinding through December, and being rewarded with maybe getting Christmas Eve off, and spending Christmas Day mostly sleeping and doing laundry, you get to then deal with New Year’s Eve. New Year’s is dumb and bad, and generally an “all hands on deck” kind of affair. Cooks get to cook a menu that they have never cooked before, for guests with high expectations that basically just need to line their stomachs with something before they puke in an Uber later. Service is longer, with station break down often happening well past midnight, which assures that cooks won’t even make it to the bar in time for last call. Couple all of this with the generally dumbed-down menu of butter-poached lobster, filet mignon, and a polite fruity dessert that inexplicably features summer fruit, and any cook will tell you: Screw this holiday cheer.