Apprentices are generally young, hung-over and over-sexed. I should know. So over the years, working with these budding chefs of tomorrow, I was never one for calling the kettle black. Their lack of sleep and battering of livers and genitalia was not for me to judge or comment on. But only as long as they came to work, on time, and did their job well. As I did.
To be sure, not all apprentices are students of debauchery, but they generally fall into two categories – good and bad. Like in any industry, techniques can be taught and proficiency nurtured, but it always boils down to one thing. Do they care? It's not too hard to tell. Good apprentices listen like thieves and ask questions like cops. Words like anticipate and initiate are not conceptual verbs to them, but crucial mental tasks to be constantly acted on - and quickly too. They rapidly find a way to live with the eternal crux of commercial cooking - the need for speed vs being kinky for quality. Most of all they love and respect food.
Bad apprentices usually drop out fairly quickly, or grimly hang in there and become . . . bad chefs. In rare cases their indifference can turn to enthusiasm as a result of your patient encouragement. You'll feel like Robin Williams in the Good Will Poets Society when this happens. However, in trying to achieve such miracles it's incumbent upon you not to be a bastard. Correcting, directing and cajoling apprentices is legit, but to hassle them for anything else outside of the quest for speed or quality is just rotten power mongering.
Shamefully, I have at times been a little dictatorial. I worked with a cheery young apprentice who spent a good percentage of his shift being affably empathetic. Like a cosmic butterfly he fluttered around solving people's emotional problems and showering us with fairy dust mined from his ever loving soul. After one day too many of this compassionate bludging I reviewed his output and forcefully explained that rust was quicker than he was. Bursting into tears he ran from the kitchen. Prompted by the owner, I coaxed him back and was gratified to see him curtail the new-age charity and do some old-school work. On another occasion I mimicked the snail's gait of a dreamy and impossibly slow apprentice. As everyone cracked up, this normally docile fellow exploded, stamping in rage and shouting at me. It was like a sloth suddenly doing Kung Fu. Remembering what they say about the quiet ones, I took a few steps back, calmed him down with an apology and he shuffled off.
Asking an apprentice to do an unpalatable job requires force of character and for them to respect your knowledge. Those two things, and the kitchen uniforms and traditions, generally impel them to get on with it. But the senior/junior dynamic is definitely open to abuse. The full gamut of abuse - physical, sexual, mental and emotional has been the apprentice's lot. Often disguised as a joke or a prank that essential wrong is there.
In one London kitchen I worked in, the overweight buffoon of a Sous Chef was a jealous power tripper. He started calling a well-liked apprentice 'Dickhead' - initially as a muttered aside. When he did this in front of the busily prepping crew one morning, the sturdy youngster immediately called him on it. Everyone turned to look and from their narrowed eyes and serious frowns it was easy to see with whom their sympathies lay.
“It was just a joke,” backpedaled the Sous. “Just being funny."
“Oh OK Phatphuk,” replied the apprentice brightly. Our howls of laughter sent the deflated bully on an impromptu cigarette break.
As a newbie starting out I was fortunate not to have suffered any persecution, but others of my generation were not so lucky. I've seen a scar on a chef's hand where as an apprentice a chef 'jokingly' pretended to cut him and 'missed'. Another colleague recalled being grabbed hard by the ear and painfully dragged into a cold room to be shown that it wasn't as clean as it should be. Yet another chef recalled the Sous Chef who screamed so loudly at an apprentice that the poor kid wet himself. This is how fascism starts.
After a year into their three or four year culinary education, apprentices get their own title - Commis Chef - which I actually can't recall anyone using. More likely they'll be referred to by the year they're in - as in “Tell the second year to grab some more lamb,” or “Where did that first year get to?”
In big kitchens, apprentices can focus on cooking, guided by a Chef de Partie (a head of a section) learning the prep and service of the section. At shift's end they clean up nothing more than their area. In small kitchens apprentices do the kitchen hand work, bringing in stores, cleaning the kitchen, sweeping and mopping floors. You can tell who has come up this way as they work clean.
The very best apprentices are the ones who have the skills to step in and save your arse. On an island resort on the Great Barrier Reef our apprentice Mikey was a super-star. He quickly mastered the breakfast and lunch shifts and was soon working solo. His star shone even brighter the day I accidentally became a bit incapacitated.
I had two days off on the mainland and on the night before my return I was stoned and drunk with friends at a dance party. A bowler-hatted lady sold me her last tab of somewhat expensive acid. I washed down the rather large piece of blotter with my umpteenth beer reasoning that it would wear off by the time I'd caught the boat back to work the next morning. Mikey was kindly filling in for my breakfast shift, and though sure to be hung-over, I'd shower, don my whites and still pull off a splendid lunch for the guests.
I was dancing when the lysergic rush hit and it was strong. Really strong. The bowler hat lady appeared and yelled in my ear. “How are you and your friends enjoying it?” “Friends? What do you mean friends?” I said. “That was for four people!” she said.
Hendix on a Saturn V rocket! Four hits of acid! I had to act fast as a Category Five psychedelic storm was blowing away all logic and understanding. I explained to a friend what I'd just done and he agreed to get me on the once-a-day boat back to the island come morning.
Then I found a pay phone and with growing difficulty called the resort. Sure enough, Mikey was at the bar with other staff having a few drinks - the guests all long gone to bed. I burbled down the line to him. Could he do my lunch shift? No problem at all he said, but why? When I explained he screamed with laughter and broadcast my state of mind to the bar. Down the line a huge cheer rang out and Mikey, with the crew in the background, exhorted me to party hard all night long. And oh yeah - he'd be expecting a full report of my night's festivities over drinks when he finished work tomorrow. Now that's a great apprentice!