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One— Living the Kitchen Life

图书名称:Kitchens:The Culture of Restaurant Work
图书作者:Gary Alan Fine    ISBN:
出版社:Berkeley: University of California Press    出版日期:1996年

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 maître 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 maître 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.[1] 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.

The Routine Grounds of Restaurant Cooking

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.

Personal Organization As Coping

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.[2] 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.

Easing the Way

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.

These techniques differ in the degree to which they do violence to the final product—whether they affect the quality of the finished dishes. Tricks of the trade are generally less noticeable in the final outcome—thus, we label them "tricks"—than shortcuts. Approximations, depending on how approximate they are, may have little or great effect. These terms are used in professional restaurant kitchens with similar meanings although without distinguishing between tricks as knowledge held within the boundary of the occupation and shortcuts as accessible knowledge.


Some occupations demand precision. Yet, all produce "slop" with which workers can mess. Few occupations require the microscopic precision of draftsmen or machine-tool operators, but even for these workers there are micromillimeters of choice. To permit approximation is to provide autonomy. Entering through the portals of a commercial kitchen, a home cook may notice a lack of precise measurement. The head chef at the Blakemore emphasized that he stresses conceptual, practical working knowledge:

The basic recipes are in the book. As a matter of fact, when we were in school we didn't figure this out 'til [final] quarter. In first quarter everyone expected that this is how we make whatever it was. Salisbury steak. This is how we make it. It got to second quarter, they said no, this is how you make it, and they gave you a new recipe. Third quarter they said this is the recipe we're going to use. You thought to yourself, "What kind of education are we getting if they can't even decide how it works?" By fourth quarter we finally figured out that what they were telling us is that if you took all three recipes, the base is going to be there. Hamburgers and vegetables are your base. Whether you put in oregano, basil, tomato juice or tomato paste, that's your option.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

Although cooks have recipes, they ignore them, interpret them, and move beyond them to creative autonomy. Recipes are suggestions, not orders, although many home cooks follow them. Restaurant cooks have a different perspective:

BARBARA: I think there's a lot of common sense in knowing how to interpret a recipe.

GAF: What do you mean "interpret a recipe"?

BARBARA: It just seems to me that when I read a recipe and I see certain instructions how to fold something in, but common sense tells me that I have to do that very gently in this specific recipe because of the ingredients that are in it.

GAF: Beyond the recipe?

BARBARA: Yeah. And I've seen people make all the same recipe at the same time, and you have five different results, anywhere from disaster to marvelous. It all was dependent on whether that person was paying attention to what they were doing and whether they were concentrating or whether they had common sense to realize how that should look at a certain stage.
(Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre)

Dishes can be prepared in many ways; the skill is to decide which preparation should be used so the food is consistent and fine. Even here the knowledge is from memory and experience. When Jon asks Mel whether he has a recipe for making crepes, Mel replies: "I just mix things together." No more specific instructions are given, and Jon's crepes turn out well.

Because it is difficult to recall specifically how dishes taste, cooks work "by the seat of their pants." Much cooking involves adding approximate amounts of ingredients. While this might surprise those who imagine the cook must follow a recipe precisely to have the food meet an ideal standard, it reflects practical cooking. Adding ingredients in this way not only saves time but also allows the cook more autonomy.

Perhaps the best example of the use of approximation is the production of stock, the basis of sauces and soups. The stock has been described as the key to haute cuisine. The great chef Escoffier believed: "Stock is everything in cooking. At least in good and well-flavored cooking. Without it, nothing can be done. If one's stock is of good flavor, what remains of the work is easy; if on the other hand, flavor is lacking or merely mediocre, it is quite hopeless to expect anything approaching a satisfactory result" (Crocker 1945, p. 109). Cooks at the Owl's Nest and La Pomme de Terre are proud that they prepare their own stock, avoiding canned broth or powdered stock, but, despite its crucial quality, they do not follow a recipe. What is added to the stockpot is a matter of convenience, rather than planning:

Paul, the head chef, prepares beef stock for brown gravy. He tells me that he usually lets the stock cook for forty-eight hours, but Mel needs the vat tomorrow, so it will only cook for a day. . . . Later Bruce dumps egg whites and shells into the vat. Larry comments: "Sometimes it's just the garbage can." The stock vat is located right under the water faucet, so excess water falls in the vat.
(Field notes, Owl's Nest)

GAF: What things in the kitchen do you think a layperson would be most shocked by?

DIANE: The stocks, how gross it looks to look in a stockpot. The first time I ever saw them I thought it was just repulsive. I think . . . for a layperson they think, "Oh, my God, don't you just throw that away."
(Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre)

Stocks and soups represent instances in which workers' choices may seem arbitrary if, indeed, they are conscious decisions. We may have confidence that we know our work, and that everything will be fine, and it usually is. The fact that the stock cooked on Monday differs from the stock on Thursday doesn't affect the evaluation of the meal—it tastes close enough for unknowing, mortal tongues, just as cars, surgical operations, and cowboy boots can pass muster despite their microdifferences. As the ingredients are approximations, so is timing (as discussed in chapter 2). When the Owl's Nest prepares gravlax (smoked salmon), they marinate the fish for anywhere between twenty-four and forty-eight hours, depending when it is needed.

Approximations are so integral in the work environment that cooks josh about the significant margin of error in their work: "Mel pours a dash of vinegar into the salad dressing and jokes to me: 'It comes out perfect every time'" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). The nice thing about many foodstuffs is that no matter what one does to them they taste "the same" to most customers. They are "forgiving." This doesn't mean, of course, that they taste identical, but our memories of flavors are not so precise as to distinguish between tastes not dramatically distinct. Although we may be more sensitive to textures, cooks can get away with a world of imprecision that would not be possible if their customers were able to engage in comparative tasting. To be sure, customers make judgments between good and bad dishes (and dishes that are better and worse), but most consumers accept the expertise of the cook and do not have sophisticated or educated palates. The evanescent character of cooking, distinguishing it from most other arts that are either material or can be captured in a written, auditory, or visual record, allows for imprecision that is not possible elsewhere. Memory is a capricious judge.

To the degree that workers use forgiving materials, they have flexibility and opportunity for error denied to others. This, for instance, gives psychiatrists an edge over anesthesiologists in malpractice suits although, as the latter practitioners are aware, bodies can stand a range of gases. One illusion that "professionals"—or those who claim the label—demand for themselves is that they work with unforgiving materials while they hide their secrets. It is trying for workers to perform before a knowing and critical audience, but even here the knowing audience may be unaware of the script, and some errors can be rescripted into the drama (Goffman 1974).


While preparing meals, home cooks make many decisions outside the rules of the recipes they follow (Tomlinson 1986): do you fry bacon for a crumbled topping or just add Bac-O-Bits; should your whipped cream come from a mixer or a can? Similar culinary trade-offs characterize professional cooks. Any competent food preparer would be aware of these techniques but might not select them because of their effects on the outcome. Some shortcuts have noticeable consequences as when instant whipped cream is used instead of cream whipped by hand; others have minor effects as when a food is defrosted in a microwave, rather than at room temperature. Of course, what constitutes a significant change in sensory quality is a matter of personal judgment and collective construction, rather than objective fact. The representation of a dish is engraved in a customer's mind, but the means by which a presented dish is judged in light of this representation is complex, affected by cost, the reputation of the house, sophistication of one's palate, and the spirits consumed. The contextual understanding of objects is critical to their evaluation (Dickie 1974).

Audience awareness and demands determines what constitutes an acceptable shortcut. Each occupation has its own audience, but all are evaluated by someone. The question in each work sphere is not whether to limit quality, but how to do so. If the client will not notice the difference, does a difference exist? A difference exists in that the cook knows that he could do "better," and this affects his occupational self-esteem; yet, other pressures may make this trade-off necessary or desirable. Like all service workers, cooks have at least three audiences for their products: (1) themselves and their peers, who strive for high subcultural standards as long as they can be reasonably met with appropriate effort; (2) management, which demands profits by keeping labor, material, and fixed overhead costs low, and by having customers return to the establishment; and (3) customers, who insist on what they define as high quality, but who are possibly unaware of what quality consists of, and who also demand "good value" (low profit) in the given market niche.

The culinary challenge is to balance these demands. These are not personal standards but demands built into the structure of the setting and the expertise of those evaluating. How dishes are prepared, while grounded in interaction, is also constrained by a set of external and communal standards.

In order to ease their burdens, workers often cook a large quantity of a food at one time and then reheat the food as needed:

The mushroom mousse is cooked halfway through. As Diane tells me: "It takes a long time to set. So we do it this way to save time." They also do not cook beef Wellington to order but reheat slices when needed.
(Field notes, La Pomme de Terre)

The cooks prepare prime rib by putting it in the hot au jus sauce to heat up, after having previously cooked it to certain degrees of doneness. Al comments: "It's not really the best way to do it, but here [he shrugs] it's what we got to do."
(Field notes, Stan's)

Cooks also reuse pans to prepare most dishes, only briefly wiping it out to remove some of the previous flavor. Doors of walk-in coolers remain ajar because they are too much trouble to open dozens of times a day. Likewise, all food is cooked at the same temperature. Kitchens do not have enough stoves to vary temperatures. All food that needs to be floured is dipped in the same flour—whether shrimp, scallops, or onion rings. There is not enough staff or energy for cooks to do differently. These techniques are practiced in home kitchens and do not presuppose extensive knowledge. Anyone is capable of choosing these techniques, even though many customers have idealistic views of backstage life in a kitchen.

Convenience Foods

The most compelling balancing of values and outcomes can be seen in the decision to serve convenience foods. In theory, all who work in, or are served by, a kitchen object to convenience foods. Customers desire food made from scratch, or what is the point of dining out? Likewise, managers do not want the public to know they serve convenience foods, scarring their reputation. Cooks dislike convenience foods, which diminish their role in the kitchen, transforming them from skilled craftsmen to manual laborers—culinary de-skilling. The chef at the Owl's Nest commented that his goal was for the restaurant to be a good "scratch house," preparing food from "scratch." Yet, each restaurant served some convenience foods although "more" convenience foods were served at Stan's and the Blakemore Hotel than at the Owl's Nest and La Pomme de Terre, and their staffs seemed less defensive. With the exception of La Pomme de Terre, each restaurant served instant mashed potatoes, and La Pomme de Terre used canned tomato products, which could have been made from scratch if the chef desired. The issue is not whether to use convenience foods but when . Every occupation engages in shortcuts; the question is what kind, and how will their use be justified rhetorically.

Instant mashed potatoes demonstrate the value of convenience foods. Few customers consider "real" mashed potatoes glamorous, and, thus, these spuds have little economic value. Yet preparing them is labor intensive. As a result, cooks admit the utility of instant potatoes: "Some chefs will say, 'Well, only fresh vegetables, we'll stick to that,' and that's good. And others will . . . use boxed vegetables or canned vegetables. There's a quality difference. . . . Stuff like mashed potatoes, it's unrealistic to cook off eight thousand tons of potatoes and then mash them. Instant is so much easier" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel). Yet, there are limits to what is legitimate. Cooks who rely too heavily on convenience foods are scorned by others. They have chosen to be de-skilled:

One cook complains about the current chef: "They shouldn't have any canned, I'm not real big on frozen vegetables. . . . They had a chef [previously] . . . he didn't even like dry garlic powder. He was picky. Denver likes everything in cans. . . . They use too much fake stuff, too much canned stuff. They ought to use real stuff."
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

The head chef describes the adjustments that he instituted when he took the job: "Probably the hardest part of the whole thing was retraining, to reestablishing things and getting back, doing things the basic way, cutting out the shortcuts, incorporating as much as possible fresh items as I can. Getting back to a good basic cooking."
(Personal interview, Owl's Nest)

Cooks resent those who use too much convenience food, but they recognize that they themselves indulge. The decision about when and where to use convenience foods is not personal but organizational, with policy set by the head chef or the manager, who responds to imagined customer demands. Rather than operating under rules shared by the industry as a whole, each restaurant has its own cooking traditions, in which the proper use of convenience items has been negotiated and then established.

Shortcuts are inevitable but are troubling reminders of ideal standards and the distance between reality and these standards. They measure what could be achieved given ideal conditions. The time-space limits of the kitchen direct the kinds of dishes that come forth.

Tricks of the Trade

Like all workers, cooks rely on techniques that make their occupational lives easier but are not widely known to the public. These tricks of the trade are subcultural in character. One cook asserted: "It takes a degree of skill to be a cook, and it takes a greater degree of skill to be a good cook. If a new man were asked to make something . . . he wouldn't even know how to cut. He would use a layman's method to cut something, not a chef's method. Also he wouldn't have the knowledge of the materials—the meat, produce, staples, and other things" (Schroedl 1972, p. 184). The novice cook must be socialized to acquire the "operational knowledge base" of the work (Bishop 1979). Just as some tasks are imagined to be easy and are not—preparing mashed potatoes or consommé—other tasks seem difficult but are easy. Preparing a tomato peel in the shape of a rose ("a tomato rose") looks complicated but with practice can be done in seconds, even by a clumsy sociologist. Omelettes have a frightening reputation but are easy to prepare: "Denny, the day cook, prepares a mushroom omelette by cooking one side, adding the mushrooms on top, and broiling it for thirty seconds, then folding it. He pokes with his fingers to prod it into an 'ideal' omelette shape" (Field notes, La Pomme de Terre). A key skill is knowing those techniques that transform a difficult, time-consuming task into one that is easier, without a loss of quality: "Ron is preparing a dish that requires chopped orange peel. Denver, the head chef, explains that he should grate the oranges rather than chopping the peel. Ron immediately recognizes that this is more efficient. Denver replies: 'That's why I get the extra nickel'" (Field notes, Blakemore Hotel). To melt sticks of butter, cooks casually toss the wrapped stick in the pan. When the butter melts, they remove the paper (Field notes, Blakemore Hotel). At one restaurant, cooks wash parsley in Dreft, a dishwashing liquid. A cook explains that soapy water "perks up" the parsley (Field notes, Stan's). As a potential customer, I was shocked at this cleansing ritual; the cooks were amused at my reaction. The techniques are simple enough, but the boundary of knowledge is real. All occupations have tricks that are unknown to outsiders, and which collectively constitute socialization.

Some tricks of the trade involve misleading customers. A thorny problem is preparing meat to a requested degree of doneness. For buffets, cooks employ impression management skills to encourage the cooperation of customers: "Denver tells Ron that one technique to satisfy buffet customers is to illuminate the roast beef with red light, making the beef appear rarer than it is. If a customer doesn't want rare meat, the chef holds the sliced meat away from the light" (Field notes, Blakemore Hotel). These techniques ease the life of the cook, without, in theory, affecting the taste of the food. Of course, the customer may not receive what he or she expects, but that is the lot of the client in a mass-service organization, particularly when the client has a loose tie to the organization and none to the worker.

Restaurants sometimes sear steaks on the grill to add the distinctive grill marks and then bake them in a conventional over. From the lack of complaints and the routine use of the technique, it seems that most customers cannot determine that their meat hasn't been grilled.

Tricks of the trade are not only used to make hard things easy but also to correct seemingly uncorrectable errors. To work is to err. Whether a doctor who misses stitches in surgery, a scholar who makes an erroneous citation, or a carpenter who places a screw poorly, every worker requires slack and the means to cope with that slack (Hughes 1971; Bosk 1979). Cooks acquire techniques for coping with inevitable mistakes. It is the ability to deal with errors, not the ability to avoid them, that characterizes the skilled worker. The following incidents are typical:

Paul is frying eggs for hash, and an egg yolk breaks and begins to run. Paul quickly picks up the pan, holding the point of the broken egg over the flame, sealing the egg. That side of the egg will be served face down.
(Field notes, Owl's Nest)

Howie tells Barbara, the pastry chef, that he mashed one of her cakes when he pushed a dish into the refrigerator. Barbara isn't upset, saying "That's all right, I can cut it down to a smaller portion."
(Field notes, La Pomme de Terre)

The cracks that appear when cakes and tarts are baked are hidden by covering those areas with topping or whipped cream, with customers blissfully unaware (e.g., McPhee 1979, p. 94)—a technique known to barbers and realtors. Cooks serve the more appealing side of a piece of meat or fish face up—giving them two chances on every dish, just as a photographer has two profiles from which to select. The competent cook can manage the inevitable problems by advantageously using subcultural knowledge of cooking science and customer psychology. To be "professional" is to transform a disaster into a culinary triumph.[3] As Orwell recognized, the final product is judged, not the backstage process that produced it.

Doing Dirt

When backstages become front stages, workers face a challenge of cleanliness. Production leaves little time for amenities. Kitchens, like many production lines, are dirty. We recognize this from our own kitchens, but in such settings it is personal, known dirt, under our control. In restaurant kitchens dirt is anonymous; diners wish to believe that the backstage of restaurants is as spotless as the front stage. Alas, the real kitchens of restaurants are not like the "display" kitchens that some restaurants use to entertain their customers.[4]

Coping with filth is a classic instance of what Everett Hughes (1971, p. 343) speaks of as "dirty work": "Dirty work of some kind is found in all occupations. It is hard to imagine an occupation in which one does not appear, in certain repeated contingencies, to be practically compelled to play a role of which he thinks he ought to be a little ashamed morally." To prepare food in a dirty environment is potentially identity smudging.

I asked all the cooks what in their kitchens would most upset the public. A strong plurality cited the mess and dirt:

There's times if you don't know the business and you don't have to do [things], you don't know what it's like to get hit. I guess I'd be upset if I walked back into the kitchen, and there was meat sitting on the board and a fish over in the sink, and the cooler door was open, and there was a couple of buckets sitting on the floor. That would upset me.
(Personal interview, Owl's Nest)

DENVER: Fifty percent of the American public, if they saw what goes on inside of the kitchen, they would never eat out again.

GAF: Give me some examples of that.

DENVER: Chicken laying out for a couple of hours while you're panning it up [for a banquet]. When it sits on the table and you're in the middle of doing something else when it came out, and so it's sitting there for a while. . . . As a matter of fact, my brother-in-law was in here the other night and was absolutely appalled that someone was cutting chicken on the cutting board and didn't sanitize the cutting board again, which the health department really would get you for.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

These seemingly candid comments echo Hughes's insight that while this dirt is "structurally" necessary, it is undesirable and seen as embarrassing by the workers. In their values workers are not so different from their customers, except they eventually must take dirt for granted. As one cook stated explicitly: "You want it to look nice, but, you know, it's so busy that you can't possibly clean it" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel).[5] The demands of the front stage limit sanitation: "[I]f those serving find it difficult to provide quick service and maintain standards of hygiene, it is poor hygiene which can be readily concealed. Many examples arise; for instance, reusing unwashed dishes, using spittle to clean cutlery, wiping china and cutlery with a serving cloth that is dirty through over-use, handling food to test how hot it is, and so on" (Mars and Nicod, 1984, p. 42).[6] George Orwell's observation cited above does not reflect how food is treated in these restaurants. His horrifying "traditions" have been largely erased as governmental control over health and concerns about germs have increased; still, the challenge of cooking efficiently and pleasantly while maintaining standards of hygiene is a trade-off, even if it is not always explicitly recognized.

Observing kitchens, I became inured to sanitation "problems"—from not refrigerating sauces for hours—letting bacteria grow—to using filthy towels to wipe pans to touching food with sweaty hands. Perhaps the most salient problem is what to do when a piece of food gets "dirty." People are fumblers, and food often falls from plates and pans. Food costs money and takes time and energy to prepare. While cooks do not want to waste, they prefer not to serve what they would hesitate to eat.

Among the criteria used by culinary workers in their decision to dispose of "dirty" food is whether it is prepared or "raw" (untransformed). The latter is less problematic—it is believed that heat cures all ills, particularly as the customer will never discover the mishap: "I get Bruce a dish of escargots from the freezer. One of the snails falls on the floor, and I ask Bruce: 'Can we use that one?' Bruce assures me: 'Sure. They won't know'" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). Even when prepared food lands on the floor, the cook must not be overly fastidious—wiping or reheating will solve any problem:

DIANE: Once when I was doing Sunday brunch [at another restaurant], and this was during the French toast day, [another cook] dropped a piece of French toast on the floor, and he picked it up and wiped it off and put it back on the plate. He didn't have time to do another piece.

GAF: Does that ever happen here?

DIANE: If it does, we usually wipe it off. A lot of people have dropped a piece of meat on the floor, and you pick it up and wash it off with hot water from the sink and throw it back in the pan, and it's fine. I really don't think that anything creepy-crawly got into it in that amount of time.
(Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre)

The fact that the customer never learns justifies the worker's doing what is easiest. Workers have too much work to do, and customers can rarely trace a flaw (or illness) to a hidden event. Doctors, for instance, like cooks, know that the iatrogenic illness that they cause cannot be traced.

The emotional tension of accepting sanitation standards below one's professed values is implicit in joking, grounded in a need for role distance, that takes place when food does fall on the floor and others notice:

Al drops a steak on the floor and serves it after quickly putting it back on the grill, warming both sides. He jokes to one of his fellow cooks: "What's that saying, Gene. You'll serve it off the floor, you won't eat it off the floor. That's how we professionals do it. I'd like to meet a germ that could live off that floor."
(Field notes, Stan's)

Bruce drops an order of spaghetti on the floor and mutters: "Son of a bitch." Roy, the maître d', jokes: "Just pick it up and wash it off. Who'll know the difference?" They don't, but the remark suggests staff solidarity.
(Field notes, Owl's Nest)

Dropping food on the floor is a mistake, but one that, on account of work pressures, can hardly be avoided. Cooks must make the best of what they have despite shared values with customers. Customers are partly responsible for being served dirty food because of their desire for reasonably priced food, rapidly prepared. As I describe in chapter 6 when considering the aesthetic structure of food, temporal and economic constraints affect what is served.

Workers are frustrated in responding to those who do not know the "practical accomplishment" of the job—or who pretend not to know—professional outsiders such as journalists or government regulators. In the kitchen this is evident in the attitudes of cooks toward health inspectors, who are a source of annoyance and not taken seriously:

I ask Jon about the report of the health inspector who had been there a few days before. Jon says that he hadn't read the report, but "he always finds something to write. There's something sitting on the floor, the ceiling's dirty. They'll always find something." Inspectors regularly complain about Mel's ashtray. He smokes in the back alcove of the kitchen, even though regulations require a break room.
(Field notes, Owl's Nest)

DENVER: [The health inspectors] and I have never seen eye to eye. If you did everything their way, you wouldn't be able to run your operation at all. I went to two of their seminars, and I was really appalled by their ideas because they just aren't working. You're taking advice in the kitchen from people who have never been in the kitchen other than to scream at you for doing something wrong.

GAF: For example?

DENVER: Like spaghetti sauce. They want you to put it into a two-inch-deep pan to cool it. If you're making fifty gallons of spaghetti sauce, do you know how many two-inch-deep containers you would have? A lot of them, and you don't have room to put those things.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

Fortunately for cooks, but perhaps not for patrons, local governments do not enforce their rules effectively and do not constrain kitchen activity much. A smart restaurant can agree to change and then return to cooking as its culinary staff wishes. The loose structure of government oversight, in which visits are infrequent and often inconsequential, permits the cooks more leeway than would be possible with a government that took its assignment more conscientiously—and funded more inspector positions. Semiannual inspections, with options for corrections and appeals, permit kitchen workers latitude to cook as they wish. Thus, although government inspection could be a major concern, directing behavior, in reality it has little effect. The structure of government oversight permits a range of activity that might not otherwise be tolerated.

For governments as well as cooks, sanitation is a trade-off. In principle, everyone believes that kitchens should be clean, but keeping them clean may cost more than the cleanliness is worth, particularly in the absence of an immediate health threat. Epidemics of food-borne illnesses—such as hepatitis or salmonella—are infrequent. Responses to such threats occur only after rare, major, publicized food-poisoning scares. Routine poisonings, however often they may occur, are ignored by cooks, inspectors, and journalists. They are part of doing business and dining out, and rarely can be traced. Closing down an independent small business is not something that a government that embraces capitalism wishes to do. This oversight is similarly light in hospitals, nuclear plants, chemical refineries, poultry plants, and high schools, suggesting the limits to the intrusions of ideals enforced on dirty work practice by external agencies. Organizations depend on the trust of regulators and clients. This trust is typically well placed; but even when it is not, it is difficult to monitor without increased commitment.

Dividing Labor in the Kitchen

All occupational work is grounded in collective action and a division of labor (Becker 1974; Strauss 1991). Cooks in large kitchens are no exception, even when their work appears chaotic to the untrained eye. The haute cuisine French restaurant in this journalistic account differs only in degree from the restaurants I observed:

The pressures mount to a peak. The orders are like a barrage of machine-gun fire. One has the vague feeling of a crew of white coated seamen trying to keep their ship afloat in a hurricane. The blare of noise, the figures rushing hither and thither, the irresistible chaos of enticing smells, the heat and spitting of the frying, the clang of pots, the bloomp-bloomp of chopping knives all beat down with enveloping force until one feels dizzy. Yet, in reality, everything is proceeding normally, everyone is efficiently absorbed. A boy is quickly shelling a bowl of beautiful, pink crayfish. Michel is adding a shower of bright-green sorrel to a brilliantly yellow sauce. Andre is making patterns with peach halves on a tart shell. Pierre [the head chef] watches everything and misses nothing. He could take over any job, from anyone, at any moment, and do it better. Everyone knows this and the effect is both disciplinary and exhilarating.
(De Groot, 1972, p. 246)

The same system operates in modified form at the Owl's Nest as the head chef explains: "Everyone knows what everyone is doing. Because you work together, you begin to think alike. Three people become one person. The only time I go around the kitchen is if there's a problem or somebody calls for help. Otherwise, I work at the kitchen" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). This chaos consists of "the fitting together of lines of action" (Blumer 1969), particularly when cooks collaborate on the same plate (e.g., one preparing the meat, a second, the accompaniments, and a third, the garnish).

An ideal-typical instance of the division of labor is the preparation for a banquet, which because of the number of customers to be served simultaneously requires fine-tuned organization, overseen by authority. The head chef at the Blakemore Hotel described the banquet setup at a large hotel at which he had once worked:

I was in the banquet kitchen. It was a fantastic setup. . . . The people who worked in the evening would come in, and they would set up the entire breakfast and the entire lunch for the next day. And put their meals out for that evening. You came in the morning, your eggs were cracked, your bacon was set out, everything was ready to slide in the oven, to put on the plates. And then you would set up the dinner for them in the evening. So when they came in, their vegetables were ready to be warmed up, they may even be half-cooked. It was just a matter of putting them in the steamer for six minutes and get[ting] them back to temperature and out they'd go. The steaks would all be scored off and on a tray.[7] Another example of banquet cooking: When you cook up a banquet with steaks, you go to your broiler which you have for à la carte, but instead of cooking it, you just score it, put the lines on it. You put them back on a sheet pan and put them back in the refrigerator. Then fifteen minutes before they're to be served, you slide them in the oven to finish cooking to get them back to the temperature.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

Even though some might see cooking as a solitary activity only mediated by the food itself, professional cooking, like many occupations embedded within organizations, demands teamwork and coordination, particularly in restaurants that attempt complex presentations. The work team is as much the unit of analysis as is the individual worker.

The division of labor is not a given but must be negotiated with more or less strain. Flexibility is, of course, desirable, but when interests diverge or when communication is ineffective, tension results as workers have different ideas of what is expected of them and their colleagues.

Flexibility in a Community of Interest

One means by which a division of labor becomes flexible is through explicit or implicit expectations of direct and reciprocal cooperation. Even though a division of labor exists in midsize restaurant kitchens, this is negotiable in practice. As noted in numerous descriptions of the informal organization of occupations, workers perform each other's jobs and cover for each other. They do so willingly because they assume that later this cooperation will be reciprocated. The articulated structure of the kitchen need not be repeatedly negotiated, because of an unstated assumption that others will be available for future aid. Flexibility is built into institutional relations of co-workers. Cooperation is required, and when it is not easily given, there is surprise and tension. A lack of cooperation demands an account. For an occupation to operate efficiently, a community of interest is assumed, which makes patterns of aid flow through a network without a specific debt and obligation incurred.

In smoothly functioning organizations, workers are socialized to believe that asking for help is both expected and desired. In kitchens this is explicit in occupational rhetoric, but elsewhere mutual aid may be more sub rosa. As the head chef at the Owl's Nest comments to his workers, "Don't be afraid to ask for help." A fellow cook chimes in, "It's always easier to ask for help before you get in the shits" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). When describing the kitchen as a work community, I note that this instrumental cooperation is tethered to expressive friendships and perquisites—cooks getting drinks from the bar, dishwashers being served steaks, and servers eating fancy desserts. A "favor bank" operates in most occupational worlds.

Perhaps cooperation in the kitchen is most dramatically evident in the surprising reality that cooks regularly work unpaid overtime to help peers. Day cooks often choose to finish tasks that they have not completed during their paid hours to prevent inconvenience to the evening staff. Evening workers routinely remain until everyone has finished cleaning up, even though only one of them—or none—is paid for that time. A breakfast cook at the Blakemore Hotel regularly arrived an hour early to complete his assigned work. A norm of community lightens the establishment's labor costs, but this norm can disintegrate if workers believe that management is consciously manipulating their fellowship for profit.

The Tension of Division

Although cooperation is far more frequent than the lack of it (Gross 1958, p. 387), anyone who has worked in kitchens can attest that they are not settings of eternal harmony. Yet, in my observation, emotional displays are rare, not the rule. As a result, whereas emotional outbursts in kitchens are notable when they occur, they typify the scene for outsiders.

In one tense restaurant a kitchen staff meeting diffused much interpersonal annoyance through negotiation and clarification:

The structural positions of the cooks were clarified by the chef in response to the complaint of Larry, a cook, who claimed that "we used to know what was expected. . . . I got upset. I walked off the line. I was upset about what was happening. . . . People don't know what they should do." The problem was a function of role ambiguity: the role of the "middleman" (aka the "slouch cook," or "swing cook")—a "backup" for the other cooks. After Paul, the head chef, detailed how the middleman should collaborate with the broiler cook and the stove cook, the tension lessened. That evening every cook made a special effort to demonstrate publicly that [he or she] could cooperate. Each man pointedly commented to me privately on how effective the meeting was. As Larry explained, by the end of that evening: "I felt a lot more relaxed and a lot more free. Jon [the cook with whom he had been annoyed] understood. . . . It's funny that's all it takes, fifteen minutes of talking and everything's different. It's the way it should be every night."
(Field notes, Owl's Nest)

The point is not that cooks always work harmoniously, but that—in American kitchens (and much of American culture [Stearns 1987])—an ideology of harmony prevails.[8] Americans believe that cooks should be able to get along with each other, and that if anger is evident and full cooperation absent, the organization is "dysfunctional" and needs help. A therapeutic model applies to organizations as well as persons. Cooperation is a central ideological tenet of the lived experience of work.

Being a Cook

To understand the experienced reality of cooking as a practical activity, we need to address how cooks and chefs see their work, how they perceive public attitudes, and how they were recruited to kitchen work. Occupational identity is tied to the pleasures and pain of work, and the imagined responses of the "other," the consuming public.

Cooking is demanding work; it is experienced as hard labor. Like athletes, cooks must "play" in pain; like a policeman, a cook only rarely has the luxury to call in sick. Those cooks employed by small organizations find their presence is required daily. One cook described his severe back pains, necessitating physical therapy, but continued cooking (Field notes, Owl's Nest). I was often told that cooks must work no matter what:

I ask Mel if Paul will be in today. He seems surprised by the question and tells me that as far as he knows Paul will be here, adding "In this business, you don't get sick. You're either drunk or shacked up. You gotta drink or shack, so you better decide which. When I was young and working at the Lexington, I called in sick one day, and the next day the manager called me in and said that to me. Cooks don't often get sick."
(Field notes, Owl's Nest)

Paul, Jon, and Mel joke about one of Jon's absences. Mel is cracking eggs, and Paul tells him: "You should let Jon do it. He was the best breakfast cook we had [at the hotel at which they both worked]—when he would come in." This is a reference to one occasion on which Jon didn't show up; Paul jokingly accused him of shacking up with someone. The cooks then talk about the excuses that cooks use, including one who said that he was late because his mother tripped over the cord of his alarm clock. This joking colloquy has a strong element of social control.
(Field notes, Owl's Nest)

This reality would surely be disconcerting to customers, who might be horrified to realize that all too often the cooks are sniffling, sneezing, exhausted, hungover, distracted, or bleeding.

The Downside

In addition to being required to be "iron men," other structural drawbacks mark cooks. They face challenges of time, pressure, working conditions, and a lack of personal satisfaction. Food preparation, although currently a trendy job for children of upper-middle-class baby boomers, will never have wide appeal.


Those in some occupations labor while their clients play—restaurant workers are among them. As the head chef at the Owl's Nest notes sarcastically, "What an exciting way to spend a Saturday evening!" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). Some cooks like least "the long hours, weekends, holidays. . . . Everybody else is out having fun, and you have to work" (Personal interview, Owl's Nest). Others most dislike "having to be here when you'd like a little time off to do some of your own things. Take time to be with your family. Things you should be doing, but you can't be. Being involved more with community things, home things, PTA meetings, kids' baseball games, and stuff like that. You have to forfeit a lot" (Personal interview, Owl's Nest).


Even at its best, cooking is not known for its calm placidity. It can be a draining, pressured occupation—low paid, poorly regarded, and hard (see chapter 2). As one cook explained: "it wears you. Try to cook the way I [do] now, and I'd be dead by the time I was forty" (Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre). Another emphasized he wouldn't be a cook for the rest of his life because "I don't want to be forty years old and grouchy" (Personal interview, Owl's Nest). Cooking is a young man's game.

Working Conditions

A kitchen is a hot, dirty, close place—no expansive office with flowers and big picture windows. Over time this reality affects cooks. For some the prime frustration is the ill-fitting uniforms or hair nets; for others, the odors. One told me that cooking "gets into your pores. When I go home, my kids can smell me. I'm told by a lot of people that 'you smell like vegetable soup'" (Field notes, Blakemore Hotel). Leaving the steak house, I was perfumed by cooking oil. Other cooks mentioned the stifling heat from standing over stoves and burners, and the pervasive dirt and grease. Although restaurant work is cleaner than some outdoor blue-collar jobs, it is far from the white-collar life that some desire.

Personal Dissatisfaction

Cooks feel unappreciated, which translates into a general sense of despair. One cook at the Blakemore reported a motto on a button that she found symbolically relevant to her situation: "The Torture Never Stops." She joked that being fired might be the best thing that could happen to her. Another cook commented that "my job is worthless. There's so many incompetent people there. It's like a big joke" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel). Although her view is not universal, it is a feeling many cooks have experienced.

Public Suspicion

However cooks may judge their own work, they must cope with a widely shared belief that the public does not respect them. They are, of course, not alone in this concern. Even such a high-paid professional as a lawyer, or a credentialed one as a doctor, must cope with what may seem a tide of public scorn. Most, if not all, occupations are challenged by outsiders. Every occupation develops strategies to cope with public attitudes. If one asks cooks, one will hear that the public, often ambivalent, does not give them the respect that they desire. The images of the drunken, ignorant chef and the artistic chef may be superficially contradictory, but they can coexist. Genius and deviance are, despite their distinct images, compatible.[9]

The public frequently sees restaurant kitchens as brutal places. One cook felt this lack of respect especially deeply:

AL: I think people should know how cooks feel. They're human beings and some people treat them like they're robots, and they have to do this and that. They should have more respect than what we get.

GAF: Do you think that if you had more respect, you might continue to be a cook?

AL: Probably. I don't know. . . . Working at a place like this, a lot of people say you do a good job, but you just don't get the respect that you want.
(Personal interview, Stan's)

Many cooks felt that their contacts just didn't see their career as suitable for someone who could get a "professional job," or who could be a success:

GAF: What do you like least about being a cook?

LARRY: Right now the feeling of not being respected as much as being a doctor. Right away when you hear someone say, "Well, he's a doctor," you think, "Well, he's got money; he's got a nice house, and a nice car, and a really nice family, and an airplane and a cabin." I'm a chef. "I bet he's got a dumpy apartment, and he's not married. His plants die on him. He's a loser. He's a high school graduate. He's just a dummy." . . . "Well, what do you do?" "I'm a cook." "What are you going to do when you get out of school." "I'm going to keep doing it." "Really? Is that all you're going to do. You're not going to go [to college]?" There are times when I feel that when people ask me what I do, I'm not going to tell them. I just say, "Well, I don't know. I'm just doing it for now, so I can get through school." I think it's a respectable job, and I'll stand up to anybody and say that I enjoy what I do.
(Personal interview, Owl's Nest)

This cook reveals the ambivalence within the occupation—the beginnings of an embarrassment bordering on self-loathing, revealing pride mixed with defensiveness. Cooks are unsure of how they appear in others' eyes—the stigmatized others are too polite to insult, like African Americans in a society that does not tolerate public racism. Cooks wonder about the thoughts beneath the veneer of toleration.

The Bright Side

Balancing the problems, satisfactions are an integral part of kitchen work. While one's reaction to work is a function of individual needs and what we label "personality," several components of cooking are frequently mentioned as benefits, including employment options, self-satisfaction, and the potential for pleasing others.

Employment Options

Throughout the 1980s, the restaurant and hospitality industry expanded rapidly. Americans increasingly ate outside the home, particularly as the upper-middle-class had more disposable income and more women were in the paid workforce. Since entry-level positions didn't require extensive training and positions were opening rapidly, opportunities to work where they wished arose for cooks. One cook explained that "you can always change [jobs]. It's so easy to find another job if you're good; if you have the skills" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). Several mentioned that kitchen work satisfied their desire to travel. They could relocate and search for a comparable position with the confidence that one would be readily available. One cook remarked that job security was no problem, even though restaurants frequently closed: "In my job hunting I wasn't that worried about finding one. I knew I would eventually, and now that I'm here in Minneapolis, and I do have a job, I think that even if La Pomme closed, I would be absorbed into another place real fast. Once you get attached to an area, established, I think it's pretty secure. One of the few jobs left that there's a need for, you always have to eat" (Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre). Job mobility permitted cooks to decide where they wanted to be. By changing restaurants, they could climb the industry status ladder.


Cooks are producers. They create products that can be beautiful and appealing to the senses. Anyone who can produce such things has the "right to feel proud"—to recognize his or her accomplishments. Skill is associated with an occupational identity (Grzyb 1990, p. 176). Cooks gain a sense of identity from their work, and from this they learn to identify with their occupation (Hughes 1971). These workers produce within an organization, and these organizations attempt to generate assumptions about the proper identity of workers—why they should feel satisfied despite limitations on autonomy, wages, and benefits (Leidner 1993). Many cooks commented that their prime satisfaction derived from pleasing customers. In the words of one cook: "That gives me a real feeling of satisfaction that I know that I've pleased someone" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel). For others, it is the ability to cook up to one's "internal standard" (Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre). For still others, it is the ability to know what one can do with food, and that one can control a situation that would be impossible for those outside the occupation: "It's interesting that guys come home, and there's nothing to eat in the house, and I come home, and I look around and throw all this stuff together, and I can make a really nice dinner. They don't even realize that it's possible to do that. . . . It's really an accomplishment thing. You feel like you've accomplished something when you're a cook. Like working at the [display kitchen]. Ron, when he has 160 people in there, he might be really tired out, but he can handle it. He was in control of the situation, and he could feel the accomplishment" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel). Through these skills and their public display, cooks persuade themselves that they matter in an institutional order that sometimes disregards them; they are worthy of self-respect and honor, achieving things of which others only dream.

Public Acknowledgement

Although cooks typically do not have direct contact with customers, they do on occasion; often these relations are mediated by servers who routinely inform cooks of a significant compliment. Many cooks are young men without much training or education, and it is understandable that they marvel that "it's amazing people are eating what you cook. It's really self-satisfying, but it's also amazing that people will pay eighty, ninety dollars a meal" (Field notes, Owl's Nest). When this is combined with stroking—public recognition—one's satisfaction is complete. Seeing the smile is important, but having the smile verbalized can be equally significant: "The reason that chefs don't make good food and beverage directors is that being a technician [i.e., a chef], you need stroking. You need a pat on the back. You need somebody to say, 'Hey, this is a really good meat loaf.' You need that stroking. . . . You make something, and 'That was a wonderful table,' somebody would say. 'You really outdid yourself. That was a wonderful meal. That was great.' That's what you're here for. You're not here for the money. You need the money, you want the money, but there's more to it" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel). Workers judge their satisfaction both internally and externally, and they need both internal and external positive feedback to be satisfied.

When workers gain this satisfaction, they feel that they are making a difference, and that they are competent. This feeling increases the likelihood that they will remain in the kitchen.

Recruitment and Socialization

All cooks were at one time outsiders to their trade; they were members of the general public. As is true for many occupations whose practitioners are youthful, first entrance occurs early, often in one's teens.[10] One either stays, transforming work into a career, or exits. With the growth of fast-food restaurants and informal family dining outside the home, the hospitality industry has become a major employer of adolescents. This easy entry emphasizes the lack of "professionalism" evident in many corners of the occupation.

Entering the Kitchen

Several paths lead to the kitchen, but, in my sample, few admitted to a childhood yearning to become a chef, as some youngsters dream of being scientists, political leaders, or doctors. While some believed that they had a knack for cooking or enjoyed working with food, often recruitment was mundane. Some informants were helped by older chefs, but in no case did a formal apprenticeship occur, which used to be common in the grand European restaurants. Recruitment to kitchen work in my sample is through family connections, social networks, promotion from related occupations, and chance connections.

Family Connections

Family connections are important for many European chefs—often fathers or grandparents had owned an inn or were otherwise involved in the "hospitality industry" (Wechsberg 1980, p. 36; Wechsberg 1975, p. 36; De Groot 1972, p. 244; Kimball 1985). While family involvement was not as prevalent in my American sample—here children are not encouraged to follow in their father's footsteps, and personal connections for occupational involvement are not as prominent—in some instances parents set children on the road to the kitchen. Typically this meant that a child acquired a love of cooking from his or her parents:

DIANE: My father was an excellent cook.

GAF: Did he teach you how to cook?

DIANE: I guess so, just from watching him. Also we had maids. It was very customary in the South, black ones. They did all the cooking. I watched them, and that's how I think I learned how to bake pies and make collard greens, fried chicken. My father was also a butcher. He'd get some game and bring it home and put it in the backyard and slice it open and let the blood drain out, and I was just totally fascinated. It just intrigued me. I was exposed at a very young age.
(Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre)

Only in one instance did a cook enter the occupation because of a family member. Doug's grandmother cooked at Stan's for twenty years, and while in high school, he was hired as a busboy through this connection and later promoted to dishwasher and cook. After leaving to attend the University of Minnesota, he discovered that he preferred cooking. He has worked at Stan's for over a decade, finally becoming in charge of the kitchen (Personal interview, Stan's). While relatives may influence one's interest in cooking, within American society this linkage is attenuated.

Social Networks

Friends are much more likely than family to help the future cook actually land a job. As Mark Granovetter (1974; see Prus and Irini 1980) suggests, acquaintances or weak ties are important in one's job search. These connections were most prominent at the three freestanding restaurants, perhaps because the personnel office at the hotel made personal ties less significant. The networks of chef-teachers at the trade school proved valuable for some workers in that these men could vouch for their students' ability: "After I started school, I didn't work for a while . . . but then the instructors were real good about [making connections]. Employers would call in and say we're looking for a cook. Just about like that you could get a job if you're in the vocational system" (Personal interview, Owl's Nest). This cook eventually wound up working for one of his former instructors, and this led to meeting his current boss.

Relatives play a role in hiring through their networks, more than providing direct motivation: "I ask Barbara, the pastry chef, how she got her job at La Pomme de Terre. She answers that her husband had known Brandon, the owner, when he worked [for his previous company]. Brandon suggested that she might try cooking, and she attended trade school. He then offered her a part-time job at the restaurant, which eventually became a full-time position" (Field notes, La Pomme de Terre). Acquaintances are probably the major source of recruitment, particularly if these friends recommend the new employee:

I had an old roommate who worked at La Pomme de Terre as a waiter, and he said he'd get me an interview with Tim [the head chef].
(Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre)

One lady was a waitress at Primos. . . . She was getting new furniture, and I was moving at the time, and she said, "Do you want some chairs?" and I said, "Sure." I went over and picked up the chairs, and she said, "Well, what are you going to do for a living now," and I said, "I don't know. I haven't decided yet. I think I'll take a little vacation." She said, "Well, I know somebody who's looking for a cook," and so she called up the guy, and he came over with a twelve-pack of beer, and we sat there and got drunk, and he said he'd hire me.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

These network connections occur at each stage of the career and are as valuable for head chefs as for those entering the occupation.

Promotions within Restaurants

Restaurants differ in the likelihood of internal job mobility. In all kitchens employees are promoted within their occupation line, but at better restaurants little opportunity exists for promotion across work lines—for instance, for dishwashers to become cooks.[11] This promotion was most common at Stan's and other lower-status restaurants:

JON: I started when I was thirteen at Country Kitchen right across the street. I was a dishwasher and busboy. Then started to be fry cook.

GAF: How did you move from being a dishwasher to a fry cook?

JON: Promoted and some people quit. I was always there, and I was always watching, and I showed interest, so I knew I could move up. I didn't want to stay a dishwasher all my life. I also knew that if I showed interest, I would move up the ladder. It is better pay.
(Personal interview, Owl's Nest)

I never really decided to become [a cook], I don't think. I think that decision came as simply as I was washing dishes one night, and [my boss] came up to me, and he said, "Tim, you're pretty responsible. How would you like to become a cook? I'll give you a twenty-cent raise."
(Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre)

I started as a dishwasher [at Stan's]. Then I became a swing cook, and now I'm up to a cook. . . . I didn't really decide to be a cook. I was just looking for a job, and he had an opening for a dishwasher, and he gave me that job, and a couple of cooks quit, so I got pushed up.
(Personal interview, Stan's)

If workers are perceived as interchangeable and training derives from observing kitchen happenings, job transfer is readily arranged. Frequently financial concerns motivate the switch although those who remain in the kitchen must find the work somewhat appealing.

Chance Connections

It is rare for adolescents to make definite choices early; often they fall into their work by chance and through unplanned opportunity. Book publishing is a good example of such an "accidental profession" (Coser, Kadushin, and Powell 1982, pp. 99–101). Few publishing careers are planned; so it is with kitchen work. Editors and cooks who see their work as relatively permanent are "hooked" by the work and have set aside plans to leave.

Some cooks who enter the occupation through trade school made their program selection by happenstance without careful consideration:

GAF: Why did you decide on the cooking program [at trade school]?

DENVER: I didn't cook that much at home, but when I did I enjoyed it. When we were down there, they were really working doing wedding cakes, and I was really impressed by that. It was just kind of a whim. I thought that would be fun, and so I just went into it.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

When I figured out I was wasting my time [in college], I went to vocational school and took the test to see what field I should be in, hoping that they'd tell me, and they said I could do anything I wanted to with the aptitudes that I had. The first three choices that I picked they vetoed. One because I didn't like to read, one because I didn't have any art classes, and one because I couldn't spell. We had an interview session, and I told them I had some interest in cooking but thought I was only [interested in cooking] because my best friend had gone through the program a year prior. They told me to try it, and I liked it.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

Some cooks find themselves in the right place at the right time, even though they lack culinary background: "It was an accident. It was completely by accident. I didn't choose it. I was working for Macalester College at the time, and I was a custodian, and I was going to train and get my boiler's license, and I was working on a Saturday morning, and a couple of cooks didn't show up, and since I got along well with the manager of the kitchen, and they asked me if I could fry up some french fries and some other things, and I said, 'I don't know nothing about that.' He said, 'That's OK. We just need the help.' That's how it started" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel). This cook entered the occupation because he was a warm body. When the pay, conditions, and satisfactions proved adequate, he continued and made the work his career.

Cooking lacks a routine career trajectory; the career depends on unpredictable contingencies. To have contacts, to move up from low-status jobs, or to be where one is needed opens the door. Whether one will enter and stay is a personal choice, hard to predict in advance. Work choices depend on the satisfactions that emerge from one's personal experiences and one's incorporation into the community. In a long-term career a series of contingencies and opportunities affects one's ultimate position in the occupation and one's decision to leave, resign, or retire. Some depend on conscious choices and hiring decisions—how jobs are supposed to be allocated—while others occur by chance.

Socialization to the Kitchen

A key indicator that a novice has become a competent cook is the development of a professional stance: a set of public behaviors and attitudes that validates that one shares the abilities and values of one's fellows. The techniques by which one presents oneself as a professional reveals the presence of socialization. Professionalism is a strategy for the display of self, and socialization involves proper display (Manning and Hearn 1969), even if that display blinds one to the economic-instrumental aspects of the occupation (Dickinson and Erben 1984). One cook explained: "There are only four things that are important in this industry to be professional, and that's determination, drive, and common sense, and attitudes and heart. Your heart's your work" (Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel). These concepts are symbolic representations of what must be revealed in practice. When individuals do not demonstrate these components of community and competence, they must be separated from their position, preferably by being "cooled out." Just as careers are constructed, so are terminations (Faulkner 1974). For example, the cook fired during my observation was defined as lacking "professionalism." She explained: "The way that Tim explained it, he thought that my work was good, and I was really meticulous. [Food was] very pretty when I got done with it, but that I never did pick up the speed. . . . They really didn't give me any feeling that this was coming, but I understood it, and I know that that's his way too. I had never been in this kind of position in that kind of restaurant, and I was afraid of disturbing him by asking too many questions. . . . Tim told me he thought I was really cut out to be a hobby cook, not a professional" (Personal interview, La Pomme de Terre). Even though this young cook had talent, she was unable to convince others (or herself) that she was a professional, and so she had to be terminated. She had not learned subcultural techniques through the three standard methods: watching, formal education, or being trained on the job.

Learning by Watching

Entering a kitchen, one encounters a booming, buzzing confusion. Everything happens simultaneously; nothing makes sense. If one has attended a cooking school or has a mentor, entrance is easier, but even with these advantages one must imitate others' actions. One is expected to acquire rapidly the unstated rules in the kitchen. It becomes painfully obvious when these rules are broken (Schroedl 1972, p. 184). One watches and learns to cook "by feel." The novice observes, errs, and learns from those mistakes so as to avoid them: "Practice makes perfect." A dishwasher, eventually promoted to cook, explained: "As a dishwasher, you sit and watch what the cooks do, and what the shrimp should look like, what color it is, and when it's done and stuff like that. When you're cooking, you try it out, and you get to know it" (Personal interview, Stan's; see Herman 1978, p. 33). This technique, prominent at low-status restaurants, is also evident in higher-status establishments, where the ability to watch trained professionals offsets modest salaries (Waldemar 1985). A cook at the Owl's Nest explained: "I've only been there for a couple of months, [but] I'm really learning. . . . I would like to come in on a slow night with just [the chef] and I, and let me work the sauté station, and he can work the broiler" (Personal interview, Owl's Nest). The circulation of cooks and chefs spreads techniques throughout the industry. Cooks learn informally from each another and share their techniques with new colleagues:

Tomorrow we do a salad which we haven't served here since I've been here, which I stole from the other hotel. . . . That's why chefs move around so much. I mean, I can sit here for two years and get everything I know. While I'm here, I can pick up a couple of new things—just from other people who have worked here. I'll leave here just because I'm drained out, and I've got nothing new to offer. I'll then go to another establishment and give them what I already learned, plus what I've just learned here, and things that they have never seen before, and they're happy, and I'm happy because I get to show off what I know. I learned a few things that they were doing differently. Take all that to the next place. In the meantime, you're just expanding and growing.
(Personal interview, Blakemore Hotel)

The informal side of socialization is crucial in any occupation but seems particularly salient in locales, such as kitchens, in which formal models of education are weak, and where some assume that the job can be mastered by anyone with sufficient motivation. If socialization is assumed routine and painless, little provision is made for acquiring knowledge, even though the cost for not learning properly is high. Cooks have, in the words of Wilbert Moore, "a fellowship of suffering," in which all are attempting to master difficult and unpleasant tasks through role modeling, coaching, and peer support (Bucher and Stelling 1977, p. 268).

Formal Training

Increasingly, cooks learn their craft in institutes such as trade schools (Fine 1985)—some state run, and others private or proprietary, such as the famed Culinary Institute of America. Of the thirty cooks interviewed, eighteen (60 percent) were trained in public trade schools; none of my sample were trained in private schools. Programs in Minnesota required students to attend classes daily for either eleven or twenty-two months. Students learned basic cooking techniques, quantity cooking, restaurant cooking (line cooking) and service, and specialty techniques, including bakery and some ethnic cuisine. These skills are acquired in the artificial environment of the trade school, where students are rarely pressured, overworked, or sharply criticized. While they acquire technical skills, some claim they graduate ignorant of the culinary "real world."[12]

Because of this artificial training environment, some chefs fret over hiring trade-school graduates, in absence of information that they know how to prepare food in restaurant kitchens:

I ask Tim, the head chef at La Pomme de Terre and a trade-school graduate, if he likes to hire students with a TVI [Technical Vocational Institute] background. He tells me: "Not really. If they have common sense, I can teach them how we cook. I look for their ambition."
(Field notes, La Pomme de Terre)

Denver explains to me that "TVI is a great little institution, but there's more to industry than they can teach you. I don't want to belittle the school, but it's a rude awakening when you come out of school. The industry doesn't work like that. There's no way that they can teach you to improvise. There's no way they can tell you to get along with waitresses."
(Field notes, Blakemore Hotel)

Trade school builds expectations for which the real world is a "rude awakening." Some consider trade school to be a "dream world." Cooks agree that while trade-school training is not worthless, it is not an adequate introduction to the skills that they need when hired by a restaurant. Industry lacks a safety net.

Being Taught

American industry does not rely—at least in this century—on apprenticeship. This applies to virtually every occupation, including cooking. Contrasted to European, particularly French, culinary traditions, American cooks either learn by observation or formal schooling (Fine 1983). Even though American restaurants do not rely on apprenticeship, a fortunate cook may gain a mentor, an older cook or chef who takes the young worker under his or her wing and teaches culinary techniques. The respected cook-teacher Anne Willan writes:

I think it is almost impossible to learn to cook completely on the job. Sure, if you have the quite extraordinary luck to find an outstanding chef who's willing to take the time to teach you, then perhaps in that exceptional case, you can get really good training on the job. . . . very few chefs have the ability, the time, and the willingness to pass on everything they know to young people who are working in the kitchen. It just isn't practical. You're under pressure; you want to go and do the orders for tomorrow's food; you've got someone on the telephone; you can't spend time saying to somebody, "Don't chop like that, chop like this." . . . Chefs, quite simply, don't want nice boys who are totally inexperienced messing around as unknown quantities when they have to pay them a sort of basic wage. It's becoming more and more an idealistic thing to pass on skills to the next generation, rather than an economically reasonable one. . . . So some structured instruction is almost indispensable.
("Cook's Interview: Anne Willan" 1985, pp. 18–19)

While in some sites, those to be socialized are resistant to or ambivalent about the staff's goals (Becker et al. 1961), novices are often enthusiastically supportive of these goals, more than willing to conform (Garnier 1973). Whereas much research on occupational socialization describes schools, the same process occurs on the job, with less opportunity for resistance. If one chooses to resist, the easiest option is to exit and move to a more congenial location.

Novices are typically delighted to learn at the knee of their superiors as a means of self-fulfillment and advancement: "Lured by its reputation as a standout on the local culinary scene, he landed a lowly post at the New French Cafe. 'It was like a breath of fresh air,' he recalls. 'Before you went there, you knew you weren't going to get paid [much], but it's like going to graduate school'—with lessons in beautiful food handling. . . . He started at the bottom. . . . 'I'd work like crazy so I could get up and watch the chef. He'd show me certain things, then let me do them'" (Waldemar 1985, p. 154). Cooks in my sample had similar role models in their early work—men whose concern and teaching transformed them into sophisticated cooks:

You take that guy like that Frenchman. He took me right underneath his wing, and I'd do anything for him. He liked you, so he'd take you back in the corner and explain to you what you were doing wrong. One of his instructions to me is that I'm going to show you once and tell you once, and that's all. So I've got a little blue address book that I used to carry in my back pocket, and the minute he'd tell me to do something, and I didn't think I could remember it, I'd write it right in that book.
(Personal interview, Owl's Nest)

GAF: What do you like most about being a chef?

PAUL: Being able to take in people and work with them. People who are really anxious to learn. Jon's a real good example, He's a hardworking young kid that wants to learn. He's so excited to learn something new. Teach him how to do this or how to do that. I reflect back and see my own excitement about the first time that I was able to do this or that. It was fun; it was an adventure.
(Personal interview, Owl's Nest)

The chef who chooses to mentor adopts that role in addition to his other duties as an act of altruism, which may be dangerous because some managers replace high-paid workers with low-paid ones. Although mentoring relationships are ideal and produce dedicated and well-trained cooks, they are serendipitous: a chance encounter that makes a life.


1. In this book I use the word servers to indicate those who might otherwise be termed waiters or waitresses . In most restaurants one gender or the other predominates in the service staff. I find the gender-neutral terms waitron or waitperson gangly and discordant.

2. To sheet pan a steak is to bake it on a sheet pan.

3. Craig Claiborne comments about his friend and collaborator, Pierre Franey: "I have known and interviewed countless chefs over the years but I have never known any chef with such an extraordinary capacity to improvise and rectify when working in the kitchen as Pierre Franey. He is a veritable Merlin when it comes to changing failed sauces into triumphs, in knowing precisely how to make a culinary catastrophe into a thing of genius. It may be as seemingly simple as turning a curdled hollandaise into a masterpiece of silken homogeneity or whisking in a little cold water to revitalize and reconstitute a mayonnaise" (Claiborne 1982, p. 215).

4. Cooks on display have the challenging Goffmaniacal task of looking like cooks while cooking. As a result, they are far less efficient than their colleagues who cook behind closed doors, and often they are helped by those behind the doors.

5. One cook, who was the head chef at a health food restaurant, made the opposite case: "I have a good stomach. . . . In fact I take a definite perverse pleasure when I run into an irate customer who found a hair in the food. I tend to be, you know, diplomatic about it, but inwardly I'm laughing that he's offended by a hair" (Personal interview, Minneapolis).

6. Americans seem more fastidious about bodily fluids than are their European counterparts and do not spit on cutlery or reuse unwashed dishes; yet, in American restaurants dirty serving cloths and touching food are common.

7. "Scored off" refers to the technique whereby steaks are placed on the grill in order to put grill marks on them. After that, the steaks are baked, which is easier for cooks. break

8. There is some anecdotal evidence that this same emphasis on cooperative teamwork is not found in the great European kitchens. One German chef is quoted about his work in America: "I learned a great deal in America, especially how to treat people. I learned respect for those who worked with me. In Europe there is little comprehension of what Americans call teamwork" (Wechsberg 1980, p. 36).

9. Cooking, like other occupations, is internally divided, with segments of the industry valued differently (Bucher and Stelling 1977). One goal of socializers is to direct the "right" students to the "right" section of the industry while providing some indication of the forthcoming public responses (Manning and Hearn 1969). This connects to theories of "social reproduction," as mediated by an internal occupational hierarchy. The culinary elite has always had high status, and this exalted views of chefs may be spreading among the population, particularly with the development of city centers by those with cultural capital, such as yuppies and gentrifiers (Zukin 1990, p. 1). Not all cooks agree that attitudes have changed. For some of these working-class males in the Twin Cities, for instance, cooking is viewed by friends and relatives as an occupation "for girls." In most working- and middle-class homes wives cooked, and husbands ate.

10. As a function of societal values and economic necessities, these age ranges are subject to change. In France during the nineteenth century, children as young as ten were hired in kitchens (Charpentier and Sparkes 1934, p. 16).

11. In a few instances cooks became servers, and the reverse happened at La Pomme de Terre, but this was only true for those who had been previously trained in the kitchen. Anyone with good manners and personal presentation could become a server. There is also some evidence that there may be movement from various performing arts into restaurant work, particularly, though not exclusively (Wygan 1981, p. 23), for servers (Zukin 1990).

12. This is modified by the fact that cooking students may have been employed by restaurants in the evening or on weekends, or may have had "real-world" cooking training before they entered trade school.

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