9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Chefs

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We think we know chefs. We eat out multiple nights a week, watch chef-centric reality TV shows, and consume gossip about their personal lives. But they aren’t all the hot-tempered characters we see on TV. In fact, the successful, high-profile ones rarely are. They’re in the kitchen to feed people, to surprise diners and make them happy. They’re there to work. Mental Floss spoke to chefs across the country to learn what really goes into their jobs and lifestyles—and why they all seem to love fast food burgers.

1. MORNINGS ARE THEIR QUIET TIMES.

Cooking in a restaurant kitchen is taxing, physical work—so many chefs start their mornings with exercise and a healthy breakfast to prep their bodies and minds for the day.

Daniel Humm, executive chef and co-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad in New York and Los Angeles, dedicates his mornings to getting outside, since he’ll spend most of the day under fluorescents. “Most days start with some activity: a run in Central Park, a yoga session, a bike ride around the city or along the Hudson,” Humm says. “It sets me up for success and gives me space to get away, to wander in my thoughts and clear my head.”

Chefs who do dinner service are usually working in the kitchen until midnight or later, and mornings provide the best opportunity to spend time with their families. Erling Wu-Bower, executive chef and co-owner of Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, spends mornings in the garden with his son Max. “Then I get in the car, roll the windows down and listen to sports radio while I drive to work,” he says.

Michael Solomonov, executive chef and co-owner of Zahav and CookNSolo restaurant group in Philadelphia, says every day for him is different. “But it consistently starts off by drinking too much coffee and then working out, or dropping my kids off at school and then working out,” Solomonov says.

2. THE HOURS ARE BRUTAL.

An overly busy restaurant kitchen
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If you see a chef in their restaurant, that's usually because they're out in the dining room, possibly delivering a theatrically prepared dish or shaking hands with VIPs. But that’s a tiny fraction of how they spend their days. Chris Shepherd, co-owner and executive chef of One/Fifth and Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, gets to his restaurants around 8:30 a.m. every morning and then works until closing time. Sometimes that means 16-hour days. (In the industry in general, 70-hour work weeks aren't uncommon.)

“I don’t think people know the hours that go into the job,” Shepherd says. “It’s long. It’s definitely a labor of love: the hours, the money, everything. I always feel like I’m running late for something.”

3. SUCCESS REQUIRES MUCH MORE THAN JUST BEING A GOOD COOK.

While expertise in the kitchen is obviously required, there are many other responsibilities and skills that go into being an exceptional chef: hospitality, time management, even communication skills. Wu-Bower says that now that he’s a restaurant owner as well as a chef, he’s picked up a variety of other roles: amateur plumber, handyman, and glass polisher, to name a few.

And then there's being a good boss. “A successful chef needs to be able to lead a team, to inspire, to critique and to praise,” Humm says. “It’s about managing people just as much as it is about putting together a menu and having the ability to cook delicious food.”

Wu-Bower says he focuses on being a mentor and teacher on a daily basis. “There is a team behind every chef,” he says. “I work with a big network of farmers, purveyors, designers, dishwashers, cooks, and so many more every day. They all contribute hugely to what our guests taste on their plates.” In other words, a chef's ability to cultivate relationships might just show up in your dinner—whether in the form of a difficult-to-find ingredient or an extra-sparkling plate.

4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT TIMING.

How do a chilled ceviche and a hot bowl of soup arrive to the table at the same time at the right temperatures? It's all a matter of communication between the chef, cooks, waiters, and diners, which is facilitated by an expeditor, or kitchen liaison. “The expeditor orchestrates the timing of everything that happens in the kitchen,” Wu-Bower says. “It’s a dance choreographed in the moment.”

Dishes are often prepared at different stations, or designated areas for certain types of food. The stations vary in required serving temperatures and length of cooking time; for example, a cook working the grill station needs a different amount of time to prepare a dish than a cook on a salad station. “Communication is essential between the kitchen and the dining room,” Humm says. “Without it our timing would never work. Our team knows the cues for when to get dishes ready, how long a dish may take to prepare, and there’s a constant conversation between the kitchen and dining room to ensure we don’t miss a beat.”

5. THEY DON’T MIND IF YOU SEND A DISH BACK.

A chef staring intently at a dish of salmon
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Chefs are perfectionists. If a dish arrives to a diner's table and he or she doesn’t like it, chefs don’t get angry; they want to make it right. “First is understanding why [they sent it back]: Did they dislike it? Was there an aversion? Was the temperature wrong?” Humm says. If a diner doesn’t like the flavor, Wu-Bower tastes the dish right away to find out what is going on. Then the chef decides if the dish can be recovered—cooked again, correctly—or if the diner would prefer something else entirely.

“It’s never a time to be defensive, but always an opportunity to make improvements,” Humm says. “We think of how we can recover that experience for the guest and get them back on track.”

Sending a dish back may actually affect tomorrow’s dining options. Solomonov says he encourages candid feedback from guests and servers so they can adjust their menus. “It’s an opportunity to assess our dishes and see what needs to be changed or improved,” Wu-Bower says. “We treat it as a learning experience.”

6. THEY TEND TO CARRY KITCHEN TOOLS AROUND WITH THEM.

Humm always has a fish thermometer. Wu-Bower has his peeler, fish scaler, and a mini spatula. Shepherd has kitchen spoons, palette knives, and blue tape. “Spoons for stirring, plating and, ‘hey, let me get in on that,’” Shepherd says. “Palette knives are for picking things up and moving them around. And you got to have the blue tape. You got to label everything.” Solomonov also has a good spoon and a small, offset spatula. “I think carrying a knife is maybe illegal?” he jokes.

7. THEY HAVE TO CONSCIOUSLY SCHEDULE MEALS.

A chef slicing pickles to put into a wrap or taco
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It’s hard to find time to eat as a chef. They may take meetings over a midday meal—Shepherd tries to have lunch with one of his chefs every day—and they taste items while the food is being prepared, using single-use plastic spoons to check seasonings, sauces, grains, and desserts. But that’s about it if they aren’t careful.

The hardest meal to schedule is dinner, because after 3 p.m., it’s usually crunch time at a restaurant. It’s hard for everyone to stop what they’re doing and eat, even the pre-service “family meal” that kitchens usually prepare for their staff members before the rush begins. (Such meals might feature new dishes, staff favorites, or simple, comforting food that might not be on the menu.) “Even if you bring food in for them, you see them run off real quick and jam it in their face and then go back to work,” Shepherd says. “That’s part of [working conditions] that need to be addressed at some point.”

8. THEY DON’T COOK AT HOME MUCH, UNLESS IT’S FOR THEIR KIDS.

Chefs have demanding schedules and are around food all day—and they’d rather spend their free time doing other things besides making elaborate meals.

Shepherd cooks breakfast at home a few times a week, but only cooks dinner once a month. “Not enough!” he says. He makes sandwiches, or rice and beans, or grills some chicken thighs, chars some corn, and tosses together a salad for himself and his girlfriend. “I always cook simpler at home because I don’t like making messes. I’m a one-pot guy.”

Humm travels a lot and doesn’t have much time to cook at home. “But when I do,” he says, “I enjoy a quiet meal of roast chicken or a simple pasta and salad. I also love to cook breakfast for my daughters when they’re visiting.”

Other chefs also enjoy cooking for their children. Wu-Bower and his son make pasta together. Solomonov says he goes through phases. “I really enjoy home cooking; I find it very therapeutic,” he says. “But also incredibly satisfying to get my kids to actually enjoy my food.”

They also need to be health-conscious. Chefs don’t have a choice in what they are tasting throughout the day, but can make their own dining decisions at home. “We’re not eating crap late at night after service,” Shepherd says. He’d prefer to just have yogurt after work. “Inevitably if you go have a couple of drinks, you’re like, ‘pizza sounds really good, doesn’t it?’ You always end up regretting it and kicking yourself the next morning.”

9. THEY STILL LOVE TO EAT OUT.

A group of friends clinking glasses over a meal
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When dining out, chefs aren’t necessarily looking for five-course meals, but they are drawn to cuisines they don’t cook in their kitchens. Humm likes to dine at Asian restaurants, especially sushi. “I’m really quite open, though I do like to order what’s in season or specific to a city or that restaurant’s specialty,” Humm says. “You want to get a taste for the place you’re in.”

Wu-Bower doesn’t need to go far to get a diverse dining experience. “I live in a neighborhood in Chicago—Pilsen—that’s really exploding with new restaurants and it’s been fun to try them all,” he says. His favorites? Thai and Vietnamese. Solomonov also reaches for sushi, Thai, and Vietnamese when he’s out. “And hot dogs,” Solomonov says. “Because America.”

Chefs also do have a reputation for enjoying greasy fast food when they get the chance. “I just slammed a corn dog and it was delicious!” Wu-Bower says.

But like any other restaurant guests, it’s the surprise on the plate, the hospitality they receive, and the time with others that they really love. “My favorite thing about eating out is enjoying a moment with friends or family,” Humm says. “The convivial spirit of sharing a table, hands reaching for dishes, and the conversation that ensues. That’s what I love."

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

Buckingham Palace Used to Have a Bar For Its Staff—Until They Started Getting Really Drunk

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a member of the royal family to enjoy some of Buckingham Palace’s spectacular perks. According to Insider, the staff has its own gym, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, choir, book club, and 24-hour confidential counseling services.

They even used to have a private bar, but management was forced to shut it down after staff members kept getting too drunk. Insider reports that Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press secretary, shared the not-so-posh tidbit in a new documentary called Secrets of the Royal Palaces, which is airing on the UK’s Channel 5 this month.

It’s not clear if a few irresponsible employees ruined it for everyone or if there was reckless over-imbibing across the board. Were the famously stoic Buckingham Palace guards among the guilty? We’ll probably never know—Arbiter kept his comments on the matter concise and rather vague, explaining that staff had gotten “too worse for wear,” so “they had to get rid” of the bar.

Though it’s highly unlikely that the 93-year-old queen was tossing back tequila shots with her ladies-in-waiting, she has been known to enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Her drink of choice is gin mixed with Dubonnet, and her former chef Darren McGrady told CNN that she also occasionally indulges in a glass of German sweet wine with dinner. “Just in the evening,” he emphasized. “She certainly doesn’t drink four glasses a day.”

Perhaps the possibly brief, definitely wondrous life of the Buckingham Palace staff bar will be covered in a later season of Netflix’s The Crown.

[h/t Insider]

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