The Heat of the Kitchen

The Heat of the Kitchen
Donovan Cooke 'fires up'
Photographs ©Tony Knox 1995

Anybody can open a restaurant; all they need is money: knowledge and training are irrelevant. We know because we did. With wild enthusiasm we leapt in the deep end and said, between large gulps of water: Look I can swim! As time passed we realised that there was more to swimming than just getting the occasional breath of air instead of water.

What follows is a glimpse of a few of the things we learnt about kitchens and cooks as we progressed from floundering to floating to being able to decide our own direction.


It was 1974 and our first busy night at the original Mietta's in North Fitzroy. Nonchalantly Tony opened the kitchen door to ask after table X's meals. A plate whistled through the air, added a new wave to his hair, and smashed into a million pieces on the wall behind. Darkness fell as plates of all sizes, cups, saucers and kitchen utensils flew through the air, obscuring the light. Through the gloom, it was possible to see that these objects were emanating from the eye of the storm, where stood Jules, our partner and the chef. He was angry. @!?&%@, he said, or rather shouted and kicked the oven door. Jules, Tony remonstrated gently, what's the matter? They're all waiting for their food out there.

I can't get another @#%&@ thing into the @$%#@ oven, he screamed and kicked the oven door again, harder. Clearly no food was leaving the kitchen until the meals in and on the range were served -- another twenty minutes.

The lessons were threefold, first don't ask questions of a chef who has a pile of plates within reach; second, one six burner range can't produce fifty orders simultaneously and third menu design must consider the equipment and staff available. Forget creativity, forget talent, forget youth, art or anything else -- a kitchen is governed by its finite physical features and the physics of cooking.

Nothing, can change cooking time except abuses of the cooking process like deep (not pan) frying schnitzels or banging your prime ingredients in the micro or some other such time honoured shortcut. And, once cooked, food must be plated, if the kitchen takes sixty seconds to serve one dish how many can it serve in an hour? If one hundred and twenty customers arrive within fifteen minutes, when will the last dish be served? Not soon enough, is the answer.


Phillip Searle at Mietta's. Photographs ©Tony Knox 1995

Dishes for Courses

A menu must also be technically possible to manufacture on demand and Murphy's Law as it applies to restaurants states: if its possible to order it, it'll be ordered in the worst way possible.

If the kitchen had a large grill plate but only four burners and six orders (from the one table) arrive for the glorious omelette creation of the chef, they cannot be cooked at once and as omelettes deteriorate rapidly (the egg keeps cooking) the whole table can't be served simultaneously with the perfect omelette; at the same time your large and expensive grill is sitting there unused.

Phillip Searle instructs Phillipa on how to plate his 'eye balls'. Photographs ©Tony Knox 1995

So, as we couldn't afford more equipment (or staff), Jules had to develop a range of dishes that could be done with what we had. His constraints were the aforementioned six burner range and the assistance of only one other cook (his girlfriend Lorelle) and a restaurant that could turn over a hundred if busy. Delicate pan-frying was out. Stir-fry was possible -- it was quick; but the mainstay was the oven -- gammon of bacon (a thick cut of bacon, roasted), the ubiquitous rack of lamb, osso buco or manageable stove-top dishes like sesame chicken (chicken braised in a soy stock and finished with fried sesame seeds and Chinese mushrooms). In all these dishes the final cooking was simple, the effort went into preparation and correctly made sauces. These dishes also shared another characteristic -- they were simple to serve. It was appropriate food for the busy bistro we ran in the early days and was priced accordingly.

Equally importantly, even given our limited resources, it was possible for the dishes to be consistent. In other words, regardless of the level of business, the gammon of bacon you ordered could always be the same. Consistency of cooking and presentation is one of the most important aspects of a kitchens performance. The French, ever obsessive, would sooner sacrifice occasional quality for reliability. Many years ago before we opened for lunch we used to visit a local Italian cafe, sometimes the food would be fantastic. Excited we would return the next day, inevitably it was a disaster. Well it was cheap. However, if a restaurant has aspirations towards quality, and is priced appropriately, it must present what the menu proposes, otherwise it's like a used car dealer selling a car with a dodgy diff.

Waste Not Want Not

Bistro style food uses many cheap ingredients and in those long gone days our food costs were less than 25% of gross takings. A well-known Melbourne chef (even then a hard man on a Heineken) said, I wish that I could use cheap ingredients like you but I'm cooking haute cuisine and my food costs are over 40%. It eventuated in later conversation (towards the end of the third bottle) that wastage in that restaurant was a problem. For example, his menu's only use of chicken was the breast, so he threw the rest of the bird away.

If this particular chef had spent enough time in kitchens to learn what haute cuisine was, it was extraordinary that he hadn't learnt the rudiments of menu planning, too. It is not compromising high standards to use other parts of a chicken beside the breast; it merely means more work for the chef. You can make a terrine that incorporates the less elegant parts of the bird, or a ballotine (a leg that has been boned and stuffed) or, if all else fails, staff meals or stock. But, you don't throw half a chicken away every time you serve two breasts -- waste not want not is a cliche ignored at the restaurant's cost.

Purchasing can be as costly as throwing away chickens. The chef must be sure that the quality of the produce he, or she, buys is as it should be and that the price is fair. Clearly, if a restaurant serves 500 to 1,000 meals a week an extra dollar a kilo on a fast moving ingredient costs the establishment hundreds of dollars a week. Even more important is the quality of the check-in -- are the goods up to scratch or should they be returned? If the produce is not up to standard it could mean several hundred dissatisfied customers weekly.

Craft and Artistry

While all this is going on, what about the cooking? The hallmark of a cook is precision under the pressure of the heat and mess of a kitchen, where the floor is often so greasy it's almost impossible to walk and the cook's tools of trade are razor sharp knives, foaming deep fryers and red hot ovens. Most cooks have burns from wrist to elbow (the hands are too heat toughened to mark, and the jacket protects the rest), often they also favor a cut finger swathed in a plastic sheath -- its all part of the job.

Its from the survivors of this nether world that the myth of the talented young chef emerges. This superhuman being, high on adrenalin (and hopefully, nothing else), thrives on the excitement of it all: takes pleasure in the pain and pride in his, or her, ability to attend to the quality of the cooking too.

But, these are the skills of a cook -- not a chef.

A cook works as a subsidiary member of a team, alone, or in charge of a small brigade (say three people). A chef works on a larger, more professional scale. A chef's stock in trade is organisation. If your chef can't organise and delegate, get another. If you are a chef patron and can't organise and delegate, hire a chef who can and spend some quality time out front with your customers. You should hire a chef to ensure the quality is constant and that the food served is appropriate to the business being run (restaurants, after all, are a business) and that the kitchen runs efficiently. Without this solid base creativity and talent burn themselves out leaving the cook(s) destroyed and the business in a mess.

Tony Bilson considers what action to take.
Photographs ©Tony Knox 1995

The Abuse of Staff

The problem of staff management in the kitchen is the chef's province. Some aren't good at it. One of our chefs was particularly savage under pressure. He seemed to take a sadistic delight in the destruction of the more fragile members of staff. Something that's easy to do under the relentless pressure of a busy kitchen.

One day the youngest of the trainee waiters, jack of the abuse, saw chef go into the cool room, with a speed that belied his normally sleepy appearance he slammed and bolted the door, shutting in the chef. Resuming his normal mein he shuffled back to the dining room. The kitchen braced itself for the explosion -- could the coolroom withstand the blast? Seconds passed, then minutes, breath was cautiously exhaled. Still nothing happened. Dead silence. No shouts of merde! Nothing. Had he had a heart attack? No one dared to find out. Eventually, one of the cooks casually opened the door as if nothing had happened. Perhaps, it hadn't. Chef, shivering slightly, walked out as though nothing had. Maybe he was used to spending the odd hour in solitary confinement at four degrees celsius. Nothing was ever said -- work continued as usual and tempers were controlled for a time: even chef's favourite target, the Malaysian chef who was that little bit too good, was left in peace on the fish section.

The Complete Chef

A chef's first responsibility is to the organisation of his, or her, kitchen. The extension is that it is not possible to get great food out of a kitchen that is not so organised. However, that is not entirely true. Superhuman effort and enthusiasm can produce a very exciting product -- for a time. Given, the enthusiasm of food writers for novelty (at the cost of consistency) the rewards for flash-in the-pan brilliance are considerable. But, as food writers get special treatment from restaurateurs, it is likely that they get the brilliance, while you, the public, get the rest -- near misses or even outright failure.

A burnt out young cook isn't much use to themselves or anybody else -- its a brutal waste of talent. That is why we place such emphasis on knowledge, organisation and planning -- then effort is not squandered on unnecessary hardship but conserved and used to design and cook great food, consistently.

Magical food flows from magisterial control of the kitchen (and its menu) by an executive with great taste. The quality of a restaurant's food is the product of the chef's taste, technique and tenacity.

These three qualities must be in balance. For example, if the chef has too much taste but too little technique the results are unacceptable delays, high costs and the destruction of other staff as frustrations are vented. The combination of great tenacity and little taste is as horrible to contemplate as technique without taste, while taste and technique without tenacity is a reasonable definition of dilettantism.

Great food depends upon back-up -- organisational, personal, emotional and financial. Making sure you have that is the contribution of experience.

Mietta O'Donnell and Tony Knox, founded Mietta's in 1974, brought the Queenscliff Hotel (in partnership with Mietta's two sisters) in 1978, moved to their central Melbourne premises in 1984. They closed the restaurant on New Year's Eve


Cheong Liew instructs.
Photographs ©Tony Knox 1995

Tony Knox
October 1993
©1996 Mietta's