9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Chefs

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iStock

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”