In today’s day and age, we turn on the television, explore the internet, or watch popular movies about the restaurant industry. We might see a beautiful ballet of white coats moving around a shiny stainless steel kitchen with precision and grace, each knowing their tasks so well that it seems like they are robots programmed for this very kitchen, or we may want to see a lion-faced chef yell insults and throw plates with a traditional British accent for shock value (not naming anyone in particular, of course). Whichever way you currently see the industry, I assure you it did not start out that way. The industry started hundreds of years ago after a violent revolution and an unexpected gift to the general public who, up until that point, relied upon their own efforts to put food on their tables. Yes, our journey begins after the French Revolution.
I will spare you the endless droning of the history lesson that led up to the French Revolution but give you the major points that you need to get the picture. Essentially the lower class was tired of the upper class telling them what to do and how much to pay in taxes. After seeing the wealth of the Royals and experiencing their own hardships, the scales of perceived fairness tipped, this ending with the destruction of the caste system and a few royal heads literally rolling. But how does any of this lead to me and my family going out to dinner on a Saturday night? Well, before this, the culinary craftsmen were employed solely by the Royals and upper class. With these employers no longer around the chefs of the day soon found themselves in the proverbial unemployment line. This is when chefs-turned-restauranteurs became a major driving force in the economy of the late 18th century.
Chefs who previously cooked for Kings and Queens now found themselves opening up the first sit down restaurants for guests who wanted to experience what had previously been inaccessible
In order for these chefs to create a new industry, they would need to hire a back of house staff that was diligent, trained, were familiar with a brigade system, and needed employment. But where would such an applicant be found? The French Royal Army fit just the bill and were very recently unemployed. You can see the remnants of this in the modern chef’s coat which hasn’t changed much from the old style of French military uniforms of yore.
These restaurants thrived and grew in number well into the 19th century and with the advancements in transportation, Europeans flocked to France to partake in these cafes that had solidified their reputations for food and hospitality. By the 20th century, more advancements in travel gave rise to luxury tourism and thus the evolvement of global dining as a destination. From these humble roots grew an empire that spanned the world and to this day is a driving force of economies across the world and takes up a large bandwidth of social media feeds.
Modern Kitchen Operations
Now that we have an understanding of where this industry began, we must now take a look at where the industry is currently. A kitchen is a space, when unoccupied, is a cold and dark room filled with stainless steel appliances and the soft but ever-present dull hum of refrigerator compressors. However, when a shift begins, the space jumps back to life as if awakened from a deep slumber and plunged into an industrious frenzy. The light switch is flipped and one by one the fluorescent lights stumble on, the oven fans buzz, and the fryer beeps as if it cannot contain its excitement for the tasks ahead, and the staff marches in to assume positions and await orders for the inevitable battle they will soon take part in. A calm before the storm.
The brigade system is the organizational chart by which the kitchen hierarchy is set. We will begin to explore these positions, the names, and responsibilities associated with each, and how this relates to general operations. This will be a broad overview that will be mixed with classic positions as well as those in a modern kitchen brigade system. Keep in mind that some positions that predate the modern age have become obsolete. For example; the once prominent butcher has been replaced by executive chefs ordering cuts of meat from vendors. Although this may be the case in most restaurants there are plenty of establishments that still rely on old-world techniques and craftsmanship to run a “from scratch” operation.
Let's take a bird’s eye view of the brigade system, starting at the top:
The executive chef (or more informally called “exec”) coordinates the kitchen operations of at least one but more likely multiple restaurants. A chef who oversees more than one kitchen may also be called a “corporate chef”. Some responsibilities of the exec include, but are not limited to; frequent communications with the owners/general managers, menu development, ordering the product, vendor negotiations, recipe cost control, labor percentage control, disciplinary actions for those under his/her prevue, quality control, and customer interactions. The exec is the face of the kitchen and will, most likely, have to represent the kitchen in the dining room from time to time. An executive chef should always have a clean white coat in his/her office to put on when out in the dining room.
Chef de Cuisine
A chef de cuisine (or informally known as the CDC) is a position that is more commonly found in establishments with European roots and where the executive chef is managing multiple locations and may not be available at all times. The CDC takes on all executive responsibilities in the absence of the exec and is able to make decisions without prior authorization.
Executive Pastry Chef
The executive pastry chef is responsible for all things dessert. The pastry chef will usually be in charge of creating menus, overseeing prep work, quality control, and at times customer service. This is a fairly autonomous role in the kitchen and as was told to me in culinary school, “dessert is the last course, and it’s what customers remember…this is a make or break moment”. Executive pastry chefs are highly skilled and specialized individuals who have honed their craft. They may work alone, or they may have pastry cooks working under them. This will depend on the size of the restaurant, the concept of the restaurant, and the volume of production.
This role is most commonly referred to as the “catering chef”. This position is typically common in resorts and hotels or large venues that cater to corporate meetings, weddings, or other client rented functions. The catering chef runs a department that is responsible for large scale food production and works closely with the front of house general manager or event coordinator to ensure food is presented on time and up to the standards of the client. A catering chef can intake orders from 20 people up to the thousands therefore the staff size working under this chef can vary greatly.
Executive Sous Chef
The executive sous, as it is referred to, is more common than the CDC and, in essence, functions in the same capacity. The executive sous is charged with assisting the executive chef with daily operations and to fill in when he/she is not available. This position is only necessary when an operation runs with an executive chef and multiple sous chefs. Typically resort hotels with multiple restaurants or restaurants that see thousands of people per day will rely on an executive sous chef system.
The sous chef is what is most commonly seen in the industry as the second in command. The “sous”, as they are informally called, act in the same capacity as the executive sous and may also be charged with training recently on-boarded staff members. It is not uncommon for the sous to walk the dining room in the absence of the executive chef or make executive-level decisions when needed. A good sous chef should be able to work every station below them in case a cook has called out or some unforeseen circumstance forces them to take over.
This station is more commonly referred to as the “pantry” the garde manger has had many roles throughout the years including making pates, terrines, charcuterie, hors d’oeuvres, and ice carvings. Today’s garde manger chef is responsible for a variety of cold preparations including salads and cold appetizers and oftentimes helps with plating desserts. Usually, this station closes down once all tables have finished with their first course and the timing usually coincides with the beginning of the busy start of the dessert station, hence the redistribution of duties.
This is a broad term that is a “catch-all” for this industry. Within this category, you find grill cooks (responsible for all grilled items), the fry cook (responsible for all fried items), Pantry cook (previously discussed under Garde Manger), breakfast cook (responsible for breakfast service), line cook (responsible for all dishes utilizing the burners), etc. Each of these station cooks has a specific job and menu items they are responsible for.
The expeditor, or expo for short, is tasked with receiving orders from the front of the house staff and timing each order according to the standards of the establishment. This is akin to an air traffic controller. The expo must keep communication open with station cooks and wait-staff and ensure food leaves the window hot and up to standards. They are the last line of defense before the food reaches the customers and have the authority to send back something that may be missing a garnish or isn’t properly cooked. The expo is also in charge of fixing any mistakes if a meal has come back to the kitchen. This is called a “re-fire” and the station cooks make this a priority.
This station is where most everyone starts. It doesn’t matter if you went to the best culinary schools in the world when you walk into a restaurant for the first time you will spend time in the “dish pit”. The greats started here and no one in the restaurant should be above rolling up their sleeves and helping a dishwasher when they need it. The dishwasher is in charge of maintaining the cleanliness of equipment including pots, pans, plastic equipment tops, blades, sheet trays, hotel pans, plates, and silverware. They are tasked with keeping a steady flow of clean equipment available throughout service to be used by station cooks. Without this, the service would come to a grinding halt. This is a hard job and those who have worked it never take their dishwashers for granted.