Whenever someone finds out I cook for a living, the first question I'm asked is never "What culinary school did you go to?" or "What restaurant do you work at?" Instead, they give me a sly grin and say, "What's the worst thing you've done to someone's food?"
My answer is always the same: "That's an elitist myth, sorry. But I do have lots of cool stories about gruesome kitchen injuries."
I've been cooking professionally for five years. I have worked in all levels of the food industry at award-winning restaurants, a bed and breakfast — I've even dipped doughnuts at Krispy Kreme. And I have never seen anyone do anything remotely fucked-up to a meal on purpose.
Yes, I know your aunt found a hair in her gravy at Cracker Barrel, but that was probably an accident. And I'm sure saw a news story about a dude who jacked off on a fast-food burger. But there's a reason that story made your local news: these kinds of incidents are rare. The truth is, if every cook contaminated every food item ordered by someone who was kinda an asshole, no restaurant would make it past their first week.
This is due to the fact that we cooks serve a cruel and merciless god. We call this entity the health inspector.
Part government official, part Krampus, tales of the health inspector start the moment one begins working in restaurants. The health inspector is coming, we tell young cooks. We never know when he will come, and if we offend him, he will punish us. A health inspector's job is to monitor everything from the temperature of our dishwasher to the cleanliness of our can opener. He rates our cleaning skills on a scale of zero to 100; any restaurant that scores below a 70 will be automatically closed.
It's actually not that hard to lose points on these inspections — a single towel left next to the stove is minus five points. I once got an 80 because my awful new fry cook thought he could get away with not wearing gloves while preparing food. What do you think would happen if a health inspector walked in on a kitchen crew reenacting the steak scene from the film Waiting?
The cooks-spitting-in-your-food fantasy usually starts with a customer being bitchy to a server. That does happen, but why would I, a cook, give a shit? A typical "day at the office" for me entails cooking between eight and 22 meals simultaneously; how you act in the dining is your server's problem. Not that they care either. No professional server is thin-skinned. Think about how big of a jerk you are when you're hungry; now imagine dealing with 20 of you a day.
But the main reason I will not hock a loogie on your entree is I care more about that steak than I do about you. I love food. Even though we've had our issues, food is still at the center of all my sweetest memories. Ingredients weave a magic spell that can transport me through time, give me unfathomable joy, and wake the dead.
I also love my job. I love chopping onions. I love the heat, the smoke. I even love mopping the floor. These simple tasks are all part of the ritual of cooking. The truth is, if I were to get caught desecrating someone's meal, there's a good chance I would never get a job in a kitchen again. Word spreads fast in our world. Residual crabbiness from your week-long commitment to eating like a caveman or you acting like a dick because your stressed about work are just not factors to me.
The guys who works at your local corporate steakhouse franchise love food, too. The bakers I worked with at Krispy Kreme made between $9 and $15 an hour. They loved their jobs and wanted to keep them.
I want you to be nice to your service, and I also want you to like everything I cook for you. If you're genuinely unhappy with what I made, don't be afraid to send it back. I'll be eager to make it better, not worse.