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Answer by Christian Lemp, former chef de partie at Jean Georges:
Incredibly demanding and rewarding.
The standards for freshness and quality are non-negotiable. All mis en place was made fresh, with fresh ingredients every other day, no questions asked. Still tastes fine? Don't care—make it fresh. That is the attitude and the philosophy that drives the ship in a restaurant like that.
It's competitive. Can't keep up with the work? One hundred applicants sent their resumes yesterday—if you can't do the job then someone else surely can. The restaurant industry at any level is fierce. In fine dining, it's amplified. Cooks were constantly reminded that we were in an elite and highly coveted position that every other cook in the kitchen was vying for. That the people working next to you gave up everything, moved to NYC, and worked at this restaurant for a chance to work the job that you currently have. Can't handle it? I'm sure the guy over there would love the opportunity to do the job just a little better than you. That attitude was pervasive, so cooks would form miniature alliances and networks of teams to help each other succeed while making sure certain people had no shot.
Exhausting. Every Monday, I worked a double, arriving around 6 a.m. to prep the entire station from scratch, worked lunch service, broke down the station, prepped for dinner, set up, then worked until midnight. At most, I took one 15-minute break to shovel food into my mouth. When the night was over, I would take the subway home, arriving home around 2:30 a.m., sleep until 6 a.m., wake up, and go back to work. That's how my team and I started every single week. The constant pressure to perform drives cooks to work at a level most people would consider insane. Showing up hours before schedule to prep—unpaid of course—just to handle the work load. Or clock out, pretend to go home with the team, walk around the block then go back in the kitchen and work for free for hours.
Ego driven. The adrenaline keeps you high. Expensive restaurants are beautiful—copper pots, only the cleanest, best equipment, artistic plates, famous people. It's a rush. I felt like the king of the world. There are thousands of cooks, but only a handful get to experience this, and in that small, elite group is me. I owned a piece of that incredible, extravagant show that we put on every night for our guests, and that was enough to keep me coming back every day.
Poverty. Nobody made enough to pay rent, food, transportation, AND save. We worked for the experience. It wasn't about the money—it was about working, learning and feeling like we were each part of something greater and bigger than our individual selves.
Educational. Working at high-end restaurants exposed me to a new world of food. I learned what good food should taste like. I developed my palate, learned how to balance flavor, and be thoughtful about how I approach a recipe I learned what good product looks like, what good caviar tastes like, what a real truffle smells like. I learned what, in a perfect world, the customer experience could be. I learned how to be creative and whimsical with food. I learned time management, and discipline. I learned teamwork and endurance. I learned how to focus. I learned how a successful restauranteur runs multiple operations.
I wouldn't trade the experience I had for anything. It shaped me and made me who I am. I am not cooking professionally anymore, but I take the lessons, experience, and knowledge with me wherever I go.
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