Cooks don’t get sick (except when they do)

For the second day in a row, I woke up wheezing, coughing and aching, tired from a night of tossing and turning. I called my boss to say I wouldn’t be able to make it.

Clearly, I’m not talking about my camp job.

After I hung up the phone, all I could think of were the words of Anthony Bourdain in “Kitchen Confidential” …

“A good line cook never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and injury.”

“A guy who shows up every day on time, never calls in sick, and does what he said he was going to do, is less likely to [mess with] you in the end than a guy who has an incredible résumé but is less than reliable.”

“Never call in sick. Except in cases of dismemberment, arterial bleeding, sucking chest wounds or the death of an immediate family member.”

This thing we do isn’t conducive for illnesses. A Food Network Magazine survey found nearly all chefs have come to work sick, even though the U.S. Food Code, state health laws and common sense forbid it.

It’s not something we like to talk about it. We just put our heads down, pray nothing drips into the soup and plow through our jobs, reciting Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

Those of us in small camps can only hope sickness waits for a slow week or an off week. Who will serve — literally — if we don’t?

Some thoughts to make it easier:

Engage volunteers who can follow directions: In three years, we’ve cultivated a core of a half-dozen old and young men and women who could, if needed, step in and put out a day’s worth of meals without breaking a sweat. That’s possible because we give them more to do than refilling salt shakers and folding napkins. We’ve had lifeguards grilling steak and counselors chopping vegetables and building salads. To paraphrase Patriots coach Bill Belichick, “the better you do, the more you can do.” A volunteer will always tell you if you’ve given them too much.

Keep written plans, even if you don’t think you need them: Perhaps you know that taco night always includes rice, beans and corn, but if you end up unable to perform, don’t assume you’ll remember it when hastily telling your replacement what to do. Write complete menus for yourself — right down to the mustard bottles that need to  goes with the kielbasa — for every meal, and design them in a way that you can quickly add cooking details if you need them later.

Always consider working ahead, even when you don’t need to: Baked goods and desserts can be prepared a day or two ahead with little downside, which will be a relief if you’re sick the morning you planned to make 200 cupcakes for lunch. Vegetables can be chopped, taco meat can be browned, gravy can be made, etc. Experience shows chili and soup made a day or two early always tastes better on the reheat. All will make it easier on you during crunch time, whether you end up working when you’re not at your best or handing off to somebody else.

Stock the freezer and pantry with low-cost emergency solutions: If you won’t be well enough to stand over the griddle for an hour to scramble eggs, volunteers could easily assemble baked-egg dishes using leftover bread, breakfast meat and potatoes you’ve squirreled away in the freezer. A stand-in easily could bake frozen sausage links, heat canned tomato sauce and boil pasta if you’re unable to spend an afternoon making lasagna. Kids dying for your homemade macaroni and cheese while you’re dying from the flu? A case of Tater tots will suffice, along with the chicken nuggets you claim you don’t have.

Even when you’re sick, try to stay around: Mope in the office, if you need to, but be around to at least answer questions and, if possible, inspect final plates. But don’t stop there. Head to the sink and scrub pots, or fire plates into dishwasher (let somebody else take them out). Organize the freezer. Be productive. Work hard while ensuring you’re still keeping your guests’ food safe and their experience enjoyable.


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