Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work

Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work

by Gary Alan Fine

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Kitchens takes us into the robust, overheated, backstage world of the contemporary restaurant. In this rich, often surprising portrait of the real lives of kitchen workers, Gary Alan Fine brings their experiences, challenges, and satisfactions to colorful life. A new preface updates this riveting exploration of how restaurants actually work, both individually


Kitchens takes us into the robust, overheated, backstage world of the contemporary restaurant. In this rich, often surprising portrait of the real lives of kitchen workers, Gary Alan Fine brings their experiences, challenges, and satisfactions to colorful life. A new preface updates this riveting exploration of how restaurants actually work, both individually and as part of a larger culinary culture.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In contrast to recent behind-the-scenes narratives describing the realities of the restaurant business (e.g., Irene Daria's Lutce: A Day in the Life of America's Greatest Restaurant, LJ 11/15/93), Kitchens is social analysis. Sociologist Fine (Talking Sociology, Allyn & Bacon, 1989) uses the "negotiated order" approach, coupled with a methodology of interviewing and participant observation, to examine how internal and external interrelationships have created the current food industryincluding its workers, organization, economics, and aesthetics. While written in an accessible style with a cogent introduction and helpful summaries at the end of each chapter, this ethnography will probably be most useful to those with a knowledge of or an interest in sociology. Nevertheless, the descriptions of the interplay between the micro and macrokitchen work vs. market demandsmake for fascinating reading and a more critical understanding of this cultural force.Wendy Miller, Lexington P.L., Ky.
A guide introducing CD-ROM technology to neophytes and providing more advanced users with standards and trouble shooting information, the text is arranged for simplicity of use, covering basics, tutorials on installation, networking and publishing, and applications. New terminology is defined within the discussions, technical portions are marked off, and the appendix includes a vendor guide for buyers. A CD-ROM sampling MS-DOS/Windows and Macintosh applications is included. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher
"Oozes with first-hand accounts of pranks and mishaps. . . . Fine's book entertains as it enlightens."--North By Northwestern
North By Northwestern

“Oozes with first-hand accounts of pranks and mishaps. . . . Fine’s book entertains as it enlightens.”

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The Culture of Restaurant Work

By Gary Alan Fine


Copyright © 1996 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94289-9


Living the Kitchen Life

Heaven sends us good meat, but the devil sends cooks. —David Garrick

The day begins slowly. Entering an empty, clean kitchen on a cool summer morning, one has little sense of the blistering tornado of action to come. That the room has no air-conditioning or windows hardly matters when the door to the dining room and the backdoor are left open. Slowly workers arrive to prepare for lunch. Mel, the day cook, enters at about 9:00. The maitre d' slightly after. Some busboys arrive early to prepare the dining room. Later a pantry worker, another cook, a potman, half a dozen servers, and a bartender show up. Phil, the owner, and Paul, the head chef, appear shortly before lunch.

Mel begins by checking that the restaurant has sufficient ingredients for lunch. He and Paul have already determined what specials will be offered. Since the special is ivory salmon with a beurre blanc sauce, he checks the fish for freshness. He tastes the beef stock that has been slowly simmering for two days and casually tosses in some vegetable scraps. Denise, the pantry worker, is asked to clean the newly arrived asparagus, peel potatoes and carrots, and boil some eggs. If they fall on the floor, no matter, they will be boiled. Mel and Denise prepare anything that once completed can keep. The goal is to be prepared by 11:30 for the first orders. At 11:10, a supplier brings in tomorrow's walleyed pike, and Paul, dressed casually in chinos and a checkered work shirt, examines the fish and signs for them. He has had problems with this company, which is in conflict with the local Teamsters union, and which had recently delivered tenderloin instead of rib-eye steaks. But today the pike is fresh and good. Later that afternoon the fish will be filleted for dinner. Slightly before noon, Jon, a second cook, arrives; he has been told to be in later than usual because the restaurant hopes to save on labor costs and does not expect a large number of customers for lunch.

Geri, a veteran server, hands Mel the first ticket at about 11:45. Normally the orders are to be ready in about twenty minutes, but because there is no competition for his attention, Mel begins work quickly, and the order is ready shortly before noon. Paul samples the buerre blanc sauce with his finger and approves. It sits on the counter for a few minutes before Geri's customer is ready for it. Little by little the tempo (and temperature) heats up, and Mel and Jon soon find themselves snowed under—perhaps there is a convention in town, perhaps everyone wants to eat out, but whatever the reason, the kitchen is swamped with orders: a real lunch rush. Some twenty orders are waiting at any given moment. One steak falls on the stove and is wiped off and placed back on the plate. The situation is so desperate that Paul pitches in even though he was planning to work on the books. There is much banging of pans and anger when a server takes the wrong order, and the cooks have to scramble to prepare another. Jon prepares the vegetables, and Mel, the fish. The dish is ready, but not before the server has been abused for her incompetence. The kitchen is sweltering, smoky, and greasy from the large number of salmon and London broil served that day. Paradise has become hell: a communal one. Finally at 1:10 the orders let up, and by 1:30 there are only three orders left to prepare. The cooks survived lunch. The owner strolls in to congratulate and tease Paul. Together the three cooks have served over 120 diners in about ninety minutes. The servers made good tips, which will not be reported to the IRS.

Now the dynamics change. By 2:00, Mel has left to play a round of golf. Two evening cooks, Bruce and Larry, arrive by 4:00. Paul goes to his books and later slices the pike that arrived that morning, and Jon begins to prepare for dinner, readying vegetables, reducing the stock to a beef glaze, and checking the storeroom. Life is easy as Eddie, the bartender, smokes an illegal cigarette in the hall near the cooler; Larry jokes about spiking the drink of Ray, the mildly retarded potman. Those few servers who remain congregate near the door of the kitchen, joking with the kitchen staff about their romantic lives and teasing them about the tips they received.

Not until 5:30 do workers begin thinking about the dinner to come. Today is Friday, and the restaurant has reservations for several large parties. Paul asks Jon to stay late to prepare for a crowd of nearly one hundred customers. No one expects much business at six o'clock, but at seven the restaurant is still nearly empty, and the cooks stand around chatting. Suddenly Roy, the maitre d', enters the kitchen cursing, a party of eight has suddenly canceled, and a party of ten is fifteen minutes late. Kitchen life is pathetic.

At 8:00, things are so slow that Jon is sent home. By nine only thirty customers have arrived, far fewer than expected. Cooks and servers stand outside the backdoor of the restaurant making sarcastic comments about the customers and their own idiocy in becoming involved in such madness. Everyone is frustrated and bored. By ten, the nightly kitchen cleanup is nearly finished. Only one further affront awaits. Minutes before the 11:00 P.M. closing time, a regular arrives and waits to be served. Larry remains, cooking, banging pots, and grumbling about the inconsiderateness of diners. A day that began with hope ends with frustration. Emotions and sauces have been spilled. Friendships have grown and been rended. The community survived. (Abstracted from field notes, Owl's Nest)

* * *

Consider the life of the cook, who faces enormous challenges, toiling in an environment less pastoral than infernal. Cooks must ready the kitchen several hours before customers arrive, not knowing precisely how many to expect. Preparation must permit flexibility, depending on the walk-in trade and last-minute reservations. They must then be ready to cook numerous dishes, simultaneously and without warning, with sufficient speed that those with whom they must deal—servers and ultimately diners—do not become frustrated. Cooks have several masters. Restaurants are both service and production units, and, so, cooks work simultaneously for customers and management (Gross 1958). While also part of the burgeoning population of service workers (Fuchs 1968), cooks remain part of the diminishing manufacturing segment of the American workforce.

Customers can legitimately return food to the kitchen for additional work and have, as their agents, servers whose economic interests (though not necessarily their social loyalties) are with the customers. Servers do not have authority over cooks, but they can and do make demands to which cooks must respond. Cooks and servers experience different pressures. Cooks hope to have the authority to prepare dishes in an unhurried manner, whereas servers need to maximize the satisfaction of the customers, who are their immediate source of income. Since servers do not share tips, cooks have little invested—in the short term—in insuring that customers are optimally satisfied (Paules 1991, p. 108).

The second source of control is management. Management wants to limit costs while maximizing customer satisfaction. As a result, management hopes to employ as few cooks as possible, demanding efficient performance, and to use inexpensive ingredients and limit waste. In practice this means that backstage workers will be the cheapest labor available; the restaurant industry is known for hiring undocumented aliens and the mentally impaired.

As a consequence, cooks operate under heavy constraints and feel a lack of autonomy, leading to occupational dissatisfaction. This lack is compounded by the hierarchy within the kitchen. Most restaurants employ a chef, or head cook, one of whose responsibilities is to manage the other cooks. The distinction between cook and chef is real, and may provoke friction. Beyond this occupational division, cooks (or chefs) have different responsibilities and degrees of power and autonomy.

This chapter explores how, despite these forms of social control, cooks make their lives tolerable, and how they define the satisfactions and dissatisfactions of their work lives. Specifically I examine the routine grounds of cooking and how personal organization, shortcuts, tricks of the trade, approximations, dirty work, and a negotiated division of labor among cooks affects the production of food. I further describe those elements that cooks see as characterizing their occupational status, both positively and negatively.


Like all workers, cooks attempt to "get by." They do not demand paradise but strive for a passably smooth routine. Yet, routine has its dangers. Cooking can be both difficult and boring (Molstad 1986). Cooks wish to transform a potentially oppressive environment into a regime in which they can live, and from which they gain a measure of satisfaction. Formal rules and demands are secondary to the practical doing of food preparation. The classic account of this problem is that of George Orwell in his memorable, disturbing Down and Out in Paris and London (1933, PP. 80–81):

It is not a figure of speech, it is a mere statement of fact to say that a French cook will spit in the soup—that is, if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness. To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment. When a steak, for instance, is brought up for the head cook's inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up with his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumb round the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it round and licks again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist judging a picture, then presses it lovingly into place with his fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning. When he is satisfied, he takes a cloth and wipes his fingerprints from the dish, and hands it to the waiter.... Whenever one pays more than, say, ten francs for a dish of meat in Paris, one may be certain that it has been fingered in this manner.... A customer orders, for example, a piece of toast. Somebody, pressed with work in a cellar deep underground, has to prepare it. How can he stop and say to himself, "This toast is to be eaten—I must make it eatable"? All he knows is that it must look right and must be ready in three minutes. Some large drops of sweat fall from his forehead onto the toast. Why should he worry? Presently the toast falls among the filthy sawdust on the floor. Why trouble to make a new piece? It is much quicker to wipe the sawdust off. On the way upstairs the toast falls again, butter side down. Another wipe is all it needs. And so with everything.

While American restaurants—at least those I observed—are not blessed by the same standards of sanitary "care," Orwell is correct in attributing to cooks the desire to have the food look and taste right without excess concern about the process by which it becomes right. Workers do what they must within the reality of the structure of the restaurant.


When one asks cooks what is essential to help them get through the day, they frequently point to personal organization—organizing those projects that comprise the arc of work (Strauss 1991, p. 72). Workers with numerous unpredictably arrayed tasks find that it is not the work but the preparation for that work that is critical. I asked one cook at the Owl's Nest what he considered the most demanding part of his job: "The job is as easy as you make it. If you get the stuff lined up, it's easy. There's nothing hard once you have a system. You know what you're going to do and when" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). Crucial to culinary success is to segment projects and to know their proper order. Without this ordering, what is doable becomes disastrous. The challenge of cooking (and much work) is less what is done than the relationship among acts: "Things seem to fall together really easy for me.... When I have twenty-five different things that I have to prep up, I can usually. I know how to organize things" (Personal interview, Owl's Nest). After my first day in a restaurant kitchen I wrote: "Each action in the kitchen requires but a few seconds. It is almost as though the cooks are working on twenty assembly lines simultaneously—each requires a different action. It also requires remarkable coordination among cooks" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). The skill is to order multiple tasks under intense pressure—even if they are unable to specify the rules for what is to be done when. Each task is relatively unproblematic if provided sufficient time, but the sum is nearly impossible for the inexperienced. The nearly impossible is routine because cooks are experienced enough to adjust their speed and sequencing to meet demands of the arc of work—the totality of tasks. Perhaps the greatest challenge for cooks is when they fall behind or lose track of their tasks. The arc of work assumes detailed behavioral monitoring. The finely tuned system can fall apart, to which anyone who has had their focused concentration disturbed can attest. Cooking under pressure demands attention to an internal agenda. When I asked a cook at the steakhouse about his greatest frustration, he shared concrete instances that confirm the salience of concentration: "Falling behind on your backup supplies like your sour cream and your tartar sauce. Just not having the time or the manpower to recuperate" (Field notes, Stan's). The desire to keep pace means that cooks attempt, whenever possible, to "get ahead," incorporating slack time into the process. Particularly when dealing with cold food (e.g., salads, sandwich fixings, or desserts) that does not spoil, cooks may prepare more than actually ordered (e.g., Whyte 1948, p. 3)—they have the luxury to overproduce for later use.

One means of facilitating this organization of work is to limit the options available to customers and, hence, the degree of organization needed by workers. This is output control of kind, not quantity. To control the work pace, restaurants may provide limited menus or incorporate the same elements in a large selection of dishes (the latter practice is common in Asian establishments). Restaurants with extensive menus have either simple preparations or a large staff. Repeatedly preparing the same items is easier to organize than offering a wide range of choices: flexibility can go too far in an industrial workplace. As a result, large parties are given restricted menus to ease the chores for the cooks: "A party of seventy-five will arrive for dinner at 7:30 P.M. They are given a choice of two items. Charles, the manager, tells me: 'We'll sheet pan the steaks. We'll seer the steak, then bake it. We must be restrictive with them. That's how all restaurants which serve parties do it.... It comes out nice.' Charles admits that he can taste the difference" (Field notes, Stan's). A limited range of selections effectively controls the enormity of the task. This limitation, however, may provoke dissatisfaction among clients, who if they do not find choices to their liking may patronize other establishments.


Every occupation has informal, sub-rosa procedures that make work tolerable: techniques labeled "the underside of work." Despite the "official" practices that workers are expected to follow, the practical accomplishment of the job encourages other techniques that lighten the burden of work.

I classify these sub-rosa techniques into three classes: (1) approximations, (2) shortcuts, and (3) tricks of the trade. Approximations are techniques that deny the primacy of formal rules, suggesting that workers have the autonomy to make choices around a zone of acceptable practice. Every cook has the option to make decisions, and, in fact, measuring and timing devices are never so precise that approximation is absent. Professional cooks take these approximations as necessary and natural, whereas some home cooks (and novice professionals) attempt to avoid it, unsure of the effects of their choices. Shortcuts are techniques accessible to all those who know the task: options of which every cook—professional or amateur—is potentially aware. These involve making "improper" choices that bend or break the rules of production, but that save time and effort. Tricks of the trade are primarily known within the occupation, whether in an individual establishment or in the industry as a whole, and are contained within the boundaries of the occupation as subcultural knowledge. Unlike shortcuts, these need not be formally improper but are easier techniques of reaching a desired end.


Excerpted from Kitchens by Gary Alan Fine. Copyright © 1996 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"Oozes with first-hand accounts of pranks and mishaps. . . . Fine's book entertains as it enlightens."—North By Northwestern

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Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University.

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