When I worked in French restaurants, the hierarchy was always very clear: most restaurants throughout France, and the world, reproduce faithfully Auguste Escoffier’s brigade system. Everyone knew who was the head of the kitchen – this person is appropriately named the head chef, or in French, simply, chef de cuisine. And everyone else’s role was also clearly defined, all the way down to the apprenti, or more and more often, the apprentie.
But outside the kitchen? Sometimes things weren’t so clear. In some of the larger restaurants, we’d have kitchen managers – people who didn’t actually work in the kitchen, but who would be in charge of organizing special events, like catered private parties. Sometimes these special events would happen outside the restaurant.
And that’s where things would go south. The problem wasn’t the events themselves – most were fun, and a great way to develop a sense of camaraderie among culinary and pastry colleagues, since working in a different setting would shake the routine. The difficult part? Getting information about the events from our supérieur hiérarchique, or manager.
Traditional cooking togs
I’d knock on our manager’s door with what seemed like a few (apparently a few too many) questions pertaining to the protocol for an upcoming event. Do all kitchen staff members attend this event? What time should we be there? Should we wear our traditional cooking togs (chef’s jacket, hounds-tooth pants, and those glamorous safety shoes)? Or would we be working in front of the people attending the event, necessitating black pants, white shirt, and a special apron?
The manager would start off by telling me all about the history of the event: that part of the monologue would last about 10 minutes. Then she’d go on to explain the former manager’s policy of attendance or non-attendance. My eyes would begin to glaze over, and I’d glance at my watch discreetly, hoping I still had time to finish the mise en place, or prep work and setup, before lunch.
Then my boss would tell me about what the event was like when she joined the team back in 1998. Finally, I’d leave my manager’s office, feeling absolutely frustrated, because I didn’t have answers to any of my questions. THAT, dear reader, is drowning a fish. Evasion of the question, clouding the issue, a snow job, avoiding the question, sidestepping the issue.
I just didn’t understand why this happened – politics have never been my strong suit. And as long as I tried to understand, the frustration continued. Then one day a colleague asked me why I kept going to our manager with questions when it was like talking to a brick wall.
Drowning the fish
It hadn’t occurred to me that I could just accept that I wouldn’t get answers, and live with the artistic blur (or flou artistique), or better yet, just ask colleagues instead. Once I decided I could deal with our manager not doing her job, it just didn’t matter anymore. Who was I to judge?
And I decided maybe this fishy business could actually be entertaining. After all, there’s always a bit of creativity involved in drowning the fish. So now, in any situation, when I hear the beginning of a long story in place of a simple answer, I just smile, take a deep breath, and think of eating fish for dinner.