The kitchen is constantly full of chatter. There is never not noise. Whether it be the sound of fat popping in a pan, the hiss of steam releasing from a kettle, or the sizzle of meat as it hits the grill. There is never a quiet moment. In most work settings there is a background noise that the ear becomes accustomed to. You know it’s there; it becomes almost soothing at some point. If it hums on long enough it suddenly become inaudible to you and you no longer hear it until it ISN’T there, and then you notice just how much that sound prevails over all else in your daily work.
To us in a kitchen, the sound we hear constantly is twofold. Yes there’s the standard sounds of cooking but each one of those is studied and attended with infinitely close attention. If a cream sauce is bubbling away on the range we listen to that because there is a point where the sound will change and if we are not watching it will break. Or when you cook down sugar, you listen to when the bubbles are in a rage so you know if you are at the candy stage yet or if you’ve taken it all the way to caramel; or worse yet, burned it into oblivion.
And then, of course, there’s the sound of the kitchen printer. This is so prominent that when you start in a kitchen you have nightmares about the kitchen printer. It never stops rattling away in your head. You can be in a dead sleep and the sound of that buzzing line of ribbon will wake you in a cold sweat. You can be in another room in the restaurant and still hear when a new ticket comes in. These are the sounds that are in the front of our minds all the time.
The two sounds we hear constantly that become common place are first and foremost, the ventilation hood. It drones on all day long, from the time the door is open to the time the door is closed. It spits out air drawn from outside and blows it down so that all the smoke and steam coming off the stoves, grills, and fryers is pulled up into the hood as opposed to filling the restaurant with blinding, choking smoke. It’s the biggest expense and the biggest requirement any restaurant will ever have. It hums away, all day long, and the only time you realize it’s making noise is when it stops. And it almost never stops.
The other sound we hear, that is constant and only acknowledged when we don’t hear it, would be the yells of the kitchen. These are words and phrases we shout out, or mutter under our breath, to each other as we go about our day. Just like the hood system, it is constant, it is invaluable, and the only time we don’t listen to it is when it’s not there.
What follows are some of those phrases we call out to each other so that you can get an idea of what we’re saying back there the next time you hear us all shouting at each other. This will give you some insight into how we all keep moving so smoothly and it’ll also allow you to realize that we’re not always back there talking about you…most of the time.
Behind! – This little beauty is said at least 700 times in a night. When you are behind someone in a kitchen you have to let them know so that they don’t turn in to you with a sharp knife, a hot pan, a forty pound brick of pork, or a bus tub full of greasy dish pan water that you will never ever be able to wash off yourself no matter how hot of a shower you take.
Behind is the constant call and becomes so ingrained in your brain that you say it no matter where you are in relation to another human being. When you are beside them, when you are two feet away from them, when you are crawling under them to pick up your tongs that you dropped, when you take those tongs to the dishwasher to throw them in the soak sink and you come in beside him to drop them. Behind is said at least five times in that whole interaction and each time, it is acknowledged.
The long time players in the kitchen become so accustomed to this that we can’t turn it off. If we are in a grocery store and we are trying to get around you, we’ll say behind. If we are in a car in traffic and we need to pass you we’ll say behind. You may give us a funny look and think there’s something mentally wrong with us, and you’re right, there is. But at least we’re polite about it.
Heard! – This is the second most repeated phrase in the kitchen. When you say behind, the party you said that to acknowledges with a loud Heard! They do this to let you know that they understand you are behind them and they are not going to take a step backward to crush you, get stabbed by you, be burned by what you are carrying, or just get in the way of your progress.
Heard is the acknowledgment of anything ever stated in a kitchen. When a new ticket is called out, the response from the rest of the line to the expeditor is always “Heard!” Unless they didn’t hear, and then they’ll lean over to the ticket rail to see what it was that they missed. This acknowledgement allows the expeditor to continue on about his business, in our kitchen it’s also the grill position, and not have to worry about everything else getting made and coming out to the table at the same time. Once you say heard, the responsibility lies on your shoulders.
Heard, once you’ve said it enough, becomes a common response to anything in your everyday world. I respond to all text messages sent to me with Heard so that the sender knows I got it. And no, I didn’t physically hear it, but it’s no different than the old CB radio conversations that ended with 10/4 so that the sender could let the receiver know that was the end of the transmission.
I now say Heard to my mother when she tells me something. I said Heard to an insurance agent when he was going over the details to automotive insurance. I said Heard to the grocery store clerk, the bank teller, and the accountant all in the same day; and they looked at me like I had two heads. But I knew they knew that I got what they were saying.
Hot! – You call this out in a kitchen when you take something from the oven. There doesn’t have to be anyone around you or near you at this point. It’s not like Behind. Hot lets everyone in the kitchen know that sometime in the next ten seconds something scalding hot will be passing through their vicinity so it’s time to find a wall and press up close against it. Once you call out Hot, you are no longer responsible for the searing scars that are achieved when hot metal touches soft flesh. Now the thing about Hot, you have to call it out as soon as the oven door is opened. You don’t get to say it after you’ve already burned someone’s arm. In one kitchen I worked in a line cook accidentally touched a full sheet pan to the back of another line cook’s neck. After the second cook cried out in pain the other cook said, “Hot! Behind!” At that time your insurance policy is void and the responsibility is on you. Expect salt in your water bottle at some point after an interaction like that.
Door! – The kitchen is full of doors and drawers, though it may not seem that way when you look into them. The truth is that the oven door, cooler door, meat drawer and fryer door can all be open at the same time; setting up an obstacle course that would make any Olympic hurdler weep over its impossibility to achieve the finish line unharmed. I have stepped into oven doors, on oven doors, over oven doors, and around oven doors many times in my life. My shins barely register feeling anymore. But when you yell Door, those of us who are kitchen will step closest to the flattest surface we can find and make sure we do not move until we hear something close.
Corner! – There are blind corners everywhere in a kitchen, many of them impossible to see around even if you are peeking before stepping into them. Calling out corner allows you to step away from the blind spot and directly into someone’s line of sight. This usually means you jump directly into their way, but it also means that once the two of you see each other you can respond accordingly and the law of physics takes over that says the one carrying the larger, heavier, hotter object gets the right of way. Corner becomes common place and also adapted into the outside world. People who work in kitchens will usually call out, if not at least mutter under their breath, Corner, when they round the aisle in the grocery store. Some of us are so dedicated we even do this while driving even though saying it does no good for anyone out on the road.
Corner is always followed by a modifier so you know what you’ll be leaping in the way of. Corner Hot means you’re coming around with scalding liquid and a hot pan and you’d best keep your arms in. Corner Sharp means you’re coming around with a knife so that you don’t stand directly in the path of a blade moving at high speed. Corner Now means they are coming around the corner on a dead run trying, most likely, to grab the cream that is the next step in the dish they are cooking and moving too slowly will scorch the butter, burn the garlic, and break the sauce putting a lot of hard work and effort to waste in a very short stretch of time.
Clear! – The call out after any of the above mentioned shouts. Once you hear Clear, you can step away from the wall, put your feet back on the floor, pull your elbows from their tucked in position, stop sucking it in, and go on about your business. Clear means that whatever was a hazard is now safely in its position and you are no longer in danger.
I once worked in a kitchen with a very shy young man who refused to call out anything because being loud, in any capacity, was not in his nature. He once rounded a corner to head into the basement while carrying a knife. Not having announced himself the person climbing the stairs had no idea that anyone was about to swoop down on them. As the two met at the top of the stairs, the point of the knife rested at about an inch of distance from the climber’s eyeball. An incident, thankfully a harmless one, that could have been avoided by the call of Corner Sharp. This young man would never call out Behind either. And after being slammed into ovens, grills, and pan catches to the point of being bruised and battered more than a tumbling downhill skier, he finally decided that maybe he’d better find his voice. The night it happened he was washing dishes and as he leapt for the pan catch another line cook was turning with a hot pan at rapid speed. Our young friend called out BEHIND! and instead of being slammed into the grill again, he was spared and able to collect his pans and disappear into the dish pit without harm. From that day forward, he always made his call outs.
There are other things that we call out in a kitchen, but you have to work in kitchens to know some of them. And some of them you’re better off not knowing anyway. But the above mentioned ones will save your life, your pride, and occasionally your shins should you ever find yourself in the world of steam and fire.
And while kitchens are noisy places full of the drone of overhead ventilation systems, frying meats, and clattering pans, you’ll always hear us calling out to each other because we care about the safety and wellbeing of those around us. We yell because we care.