In 1981, I worked as a dishwasher also brewing tea in a stockpot and preparing salad bar items. In 1986 I began working as a cook.
When I began working as a Cook, one could still smoke in the kitchen. I don't know if this was legal, but I will tell you how this worked. Cooks and Chefs were not allowed to smoke at their workstation, but could instead walk down to the end of a line (a long row of equipment such as ranges, grills, broilers, fryers, kettles) where a communal ashtray held smoldering cigarettes. Smokers could then take a drag or puff of smoke and quickly return to their station. Another system for smoking was to have employee locker or break area ashtrays very close to food production areas so workers could access ashtrays while working. As a last resort, Cooks could always visit a bar, waiter or waitress station for a smoke.
I remember when Chefs could smoke in their offices. When I first started cooking, a Chef’s office usually consisted of a shower, a large desk with an ashtray and a short microphone stand for summoning people to the office. Behind the Chef’s desk would be shelving for cookbooks and the most precious supplies such as Truffles, Porcinis, Morels, Saffron and liquors. A small refrigerator held very expensive Pate de Foie Gras and Caviar. Hidden in the Chef’s office were hazardous or outlawed ingredients like nitrates and sulfites. I worked in the largest, most sophisticated kitchens, where Chefs offices also included a smaller office with a secretary. The secretary’s office held filing cabinets, journals, a telephone and a typewriter. Computers were unsaid and only purchasing agents had dot-matrix print-outs as buying guides.
While smoking was still permitted in dining rooms and kitchens, I remembered being trained-in on selecting linen. Back then you could not just grab a serviette (napkin) or a mantle (tablecloth) but instead, you had to carefully select linen with the least amount of cigarette burns. Linen selection was also based on cigarette burns in the least obvious places which included the small; round cigarette burn patches the linen companies would iron on to try to remain profitable.Background Checks
Background checks, a legal option since the 1970’s, were still uncommon when I first started cooking. This meant working with some very paranoid people who could not stand to work with their backs to others. A Chef would escort one of these scoundrel Cooks to a work station and explain the work assignment. When the Chef had left, the degenerate would always reach into a pocket, toolbox or knife roll for a mirror. These mirrors came in many forms, mostly small mirrors, locker mirrors, cosmetic mirrors and centerpiece mirrors. The mirror was set up and positioned so that no one could sneak up, and in the mind of the paranoid, carryout revenge, make an arrest or serve a legal order. Before background checks became common, these “Mirror People” were regulars in the commercial kitchen.
Drug TestingDrug Testing was unheard of when I first started cooking. It was about the mid 1980’s that drug testing came on the scene, and only to be held up many more years by early Supreme Court challenges.
The first year I started cooking, different coworkers personally offered me free cocaine 4 times. Actually, there was a general call to partake of cocaine each night I worked when the expediter would announce “Its snowing out”. I politely declined these offers and to this day I have no idea what the qualities or effects of cocaine are.
I worked in more than one kitchen where Chef’s or Cooks would regularly throw handfuls of dry herbs on the griddle or flattop range and then yell out to passersby “What does that smell like? -Smells like pot, right?” These guys would then smoke genuine marijuana, stealthily, and continue to griddle dry herbs for passersby as a cover.
Violent, aggressive acts among kitchen workers were common when I first started cooking. I remember the police coming into kitchens quite often because a cook was chasing another cook with a knife. I remember when a Cook threw boiling oil on another cook, almost killing him. Actually, I never found out if the burn victim survived. The person responsible for throwing the oil fled the state and was later apprehended by the FBI. I would assert that the violence or aggression among kitchen workers years ago was mostly a result of illegal drug use and not so much from a lack of background checks. I have had two bosses (Chefs) and two coworkers (Cooks) arrested for large scale drug trafficking.