Plates are sliding in front of you, one after another. Your movements are calculated and concise. You go as quickly as you possibly can and yet, you can’t go quick enough. You take a plate off the rack, burn yourself because those just came out of the oven and you forgot to use a towel. Place roasted veggies with the chicken and potatoes. Wipe down the plate to make sure it looks presentable. Add sauce. Put on a cover and put it in the warmer, which goes straight upstairs to get ready to be served.
Hot plate, chicken, potatoes, veggies, wipe, sauce, cover, warmer, upstairs.
This repeats over and over again; six cooks, two assembly lines, all working together to get everything plated and to the event. Six hundred people are waiting for their dinner two floors up and they don’t care that the sheer volume of food that is being made for them takes so much work. This is a side of food most college kids never get to see.
Preparation for an event like this starts days in advance. Food needs to be ordered, plates need to be counted, and maybe most importantly, cooks need to get their mind in the right place. On any normal day (i.e. when there isn’t a 600-person event to prepare for), there are a couple small events to prepare for so things are much more easy-going.
However, on an exceptionally busy day, there is too much to do and not enough time. But things have to get done so the atmosphere in the kitchen is more tense and focused. For a college kid, this kind of environment is exhilarating. The fast paced atmosphere kicks your brain into high gear and all you have time to think about is the food that you’re making.
Whether it is 600 chickens to stuff and cook, 300 tomatoes to slice, marinate, and roast, or 7 gallons of dressing to make, the cooks and chefs at NC State are behind it all. The food may show up in front of you, almost if by magic, but do you ever think about whose hands arranged the food you eat? Or who plated each salad, down to the last nut and sprinkle of cheese?
Maybe the magic of the food comes from the anonymity of the people behind it. If cooks do their job right, then the people eating the food shouldn’t notice the amount of work that went into it. After all, isn’t “you make it look easy?” a compliment?
I know all of this because I am one of the culinary inhabitants of The Dungeon, what we call the kitchen in the basement of our school. I am a cook and a student. But not a student of the culinary arts. I am a college student studying Biochemistry and also, a part-time cook. Most people don’t get it at first. They don’t know that it is possible for a student to be a cook at NC State or any university for that matter. I’ve worked at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course Restaurant on our Centennial campus, the 1887 Bistro in our student union, and now I am working in the main kitchen, prepping food for the our restaurants and catering events.
I’ve been a line cook, a prep cook, and most recently, a cook in a catering kitchen, which is a little bit of the first two. If you would have asked me at the beginning of my college career if I would be a part-time cook, I would have thought it impossible. Me? A college student, be a cook? Laughable, really. Or so I thought. Turns out, cooking isn’t only reserved to people with culinary degrees.
There are many students who cook for the university and the cool part is that the university is always looking for more. Being a student comes first and they know that but they also know that a lot of us need jobs so they are willing to make a schedule work for us. I’m not going to lie and say it’s always a piece of cake balancing all of the responsibilities of school and a job. There are times when I’ve been so busy with both that all I want to do is curl up in a pile of blankets and erase myself from the world for a few days.
However, those days are few and far between because I truly love what I do, both in school and in the kitchen. Cooking is a very valuable skill to possess and being able to impress your friends and family is an added bonus.
It’s time for the world behind the kitchen doors to be revealed. It is not a forbidden land or mystical realm that should be shut away or hidden from you. There should be no mystery surrounding your food because the more you know about where your food comes from, the more you can appreciate the people that make it for you.
Thank your chef the next time you have a really great meal. Sit by the kitchen and watch your food being made, if possible. Be more aware of how the end product arrives to you. If anything, recognize that a lot of work and thought goes into making the food you eat.