While Fleeing your hot kitchen this summer, be thankful for eatery staff stuck in theirs

Today it was 85 degrees at 7 a.m. And the air conditioner broke last night. So there is no way I want to cook.
Scrolling through Instagram I see images of my chef friends in their kitchens, showcasing their beautiful breads and pastries and creative dinners, and I am reminded of how horrendous it is to work in a professional kitchen in a heat wave. It’s right up there with dry cleaning, construction and Caltrans sign work. No one wants to cook at home when the weather is like this, so up-and-running restaurants are essential. I wanted to take a minute to remind you about these steadfast workers the next time you throw in the kitchen towel in favor of a night out in an air-conditioned restaurant.
First of all, it’s hard for anyone to look good in the heat, and your waitstaff is suffering more than most. Hustling from table to table makes one break a sweat even in the winter, so imagine what it’s like in August. They know that a clean, pressed waiter gets better tips — no one wants their meal served by a sweat monkey. So when the temperature spikes, your servers need a chance to cool their jets. In a heat wave there is no relief in the kitchen (which, on a good night, is 15 degrees hotter than the dining room), making it unavailable as the preferred spot to hide from customers. The only option is the back alley, which usually smells like cigarettes and dumpster.
Not a respite.
The walk-in refrigerators and freezers shift from being the place of clandestine rendezvous to being the de facto break room for the kitchen staff. That leads to a lot of opening and closing of the big door, which raises the temperature and makes its primary job (keeping food from spoiling) that much harder. I once had to make a run for dry ice in a heat wave because even the freezer could not set my panna cotta.
Not efficient.
And any kind of baking is particularly difficult in the heat. A shiver just went up my spine from a memory of reaching in and out of a deck oven to rotate a batch of baguettes on a hot day. In a hot kitchen the buttercream gets runny, yeast doughs ferment too fast and chocolate melts prematurely. Laminated doughs are particularly challenging. If you have ever tried to make puff pastry at home, you know it’s already anxiety-inducing. Now add volume and heat. We know y’all want your breakfast croissants, but folding layers of butter into dough in triple-digit weather is messy at best. Each layer needs to be chilled extra long, which makes the process longer and strains the fridge even more.
Not worth it.
By far the worst place to be in a heat wave is over the grill. Flipping burgers and patty melts is always a hot station. It’s not like your backyard, where you get an occasional breeze as, beer in hand, you tend to your four steaks. The grill station is a full-time job. It’s an entire shift of blistering heat. Dunking a neckerchief in ice water offers temporary relief, but the only real solution is to go back to school and get a degree, so you never have to do that again.
Not really always feasible.
I have never been a fan of the chef uniform, but it is extra awful in the heat. It protects the cook from fire and grime, but unless you are the boss sporting a special summer coat made of Egyptian cotton, it is usually long-sleeved and polyester. Even worse, uniforms are usually communal. “Lucky” cooks work in a shop with a linen service that provides a clean jacket every day. But in my experience, you are only really lucky if you have the early shift, when the regular sizes are available. Afternoon workers are either floating inside an XXXL coat or stuffed into the XS like an andouille sausage. Liberal kitchen managers allow tank tops and shorts in a heat wave, although I wouldn’t recommend it. Bare arms expose the cooks to injury and diners to our sweat and body hair. An unappetizing thought, I know. I wore shorts in a heat wave only once. My apron was longer, so I looked pantless, and at the end of the shift my bare legs had taken the brunt of spills.
Not a good look.
In a heat wave the ice machine is at a premium. Ice not only cools your beverage but also chills stocks, stores fish, shocks blanched veggies and keeps your crème anglaise out of the danger zone during service. On more than one hot night I have had to run out for auxiliary bags of ice.
Not economical.
The heat also tends to drive pests inside. In food service, that’s a code red. Ants are particularly ruthless and will go to any length to get to the sugar bin. (I would counsel against ordering anything with “poppy seeds” in a heat wave. They might have legs. I fully expect to find a line of those industrious bugs zigzagging through the kitchen every morning during a hot spell. But insecticides wreak havoc on the palate, so I have tried everything from chopped mint to magic ant chalk to keep them at bay. The only thing that ever really worked was moving the sugar to the walk-in (which hogs up precious breakroom space).
Not ideal.
There are times — many of them — when I miss restaurant life and question my decision to retire. But not in the summer. Not in a heat wave. I understand the inclination to dine out in this kind of weather. And you should, because these folks still need to make a living, even when they’d rather stay home and sit in a backyard kiddie pool. But I implore you — remember their suffering when you tip. Give ’em a little extra bump. They’ve more than earned it, just by showing up.