Between salads and sauces: Behind the scenes in the canteen

Chopping, stirring, frying — not just for one family but for several thousand employees. Every day. My name is Antonia Schumann, and I’ve been employed as a cook by the catering company Daimler Gastronomie GmbH since September 1, 2016.

Before I had worked at various hotels and restaurants, where my daily work often consisted of 12-hour shifts. Eventually I simply wanted to once again have more time for my family and friends, so I decided to quit my hotel job. However, I wanted to continue working in the food service sector, because for me cooking is an absolute passion.

Fixed working hours, free weekends

In spite of the fixed working hours and free weekends, the switch to communal catering required a process of adjustment, because it was absolutely new to me. Instead of small pots and pans, my kitchen equipment now included tilting frying pans and kettles with 100 to 400 liters of capacity. The work processes are similar but ultimately different, and the distances we walk are longer because everything is simply bigger.

There are days on which my pedometer has already registered 10,000 steps by 9 a.m. Although I’m on my feet all day long, I strike a balance by going jogging after work. I think you simply have to be born for the catering trade, and I guess you also have to be just a little bit crazy.

What I especially enjoy is cooking with fresh products, such as fish, meat, and vegetables. I also like to organize things in the kitchen, coordinate work processes, receive incoming goods, and train new colleagues. Every day brings new challenges that we deal with together as a team.

All of us sometimes do someone else’s job, so that if there’s a shortage of manpower we can substitute for one another. We also need tremendous flexibility, for example if a supplier is late in delivering goods. When that happens, all of us pitch in, and if there’s a crisis we work together to find an alternative.

A woman in a male preserve

Today, the chef’s profession is still a male preserve. It’s not unusual for a female chef to be the only woman on a kitchen staff. That’s also what the communal catering staff looks like here at Daimler. In our kitchen there are five male chefs, and then there’s me.

However, I quickly learned to assert myself, to show who I am and what I can do. As you might expect, the tone here can sometimes get loud and abrasive. But even if you sometimes get verbal abuse thrown at you, if it’s between colleagues it’s not a problem.

In our kitchen, the lights go on at 6 a.m.

We put on our aprons and chefs’ hats and get to work. We take short look at the recipes for that day and discuss who will be responsible for what. At the Daimler canteen, we divide things into the categories Pasta Buffet, Daily Specials, Soups/Sauces, Side Dishes, Salads, and Desserts.

After that, we have our daily meeting, with the obligatory cups of coffee. Here we have a team discussion of general matters, including quality, taste, sales figures, complaints, and the current staff situation. After that, we cook for practically the entire morning. While we work, we generally also make our preparations for the following day.

At 11 a.m. there’s a service meeting for all the members of the team. We talk about the meals to be offered that day, and whether there are any special considerations to keep in mind — for example, what kind of meat is in the Bolognese sauce and what kind of filling is being used in the vegetarian cordon bleu.

Everything has to be ready by about 11:15 a.m., because our first hungry guests will be arriving at around 11:30 a.m. By then the serving areas have been stocked with food and the salad buffet has been set up. All of us know what we have to do and to which positions we’ve been assigned. Depending on my assignment, I’m either responsible for replenishing the food supplies in the serving area, cooking in the Daily Specials area or, once in a while, working at the serving counter. And then the lunch break begins for everyone but us.

“Lentils please, but without any pork belly — I’ve already got one.” I still like to remember this quip from a customer, which I heard during one of my first days at work. We still hear it quite often.

Jokes like these make our sometimes stressful job more pleasant. We often joke around with our guests. However, in many cases you have to tactfully find out how much joking is permitted, because not everyone has a sense of humor. But there’s always a little bit of humorous banter going on between colleagues in the kitchen.

There are lots of odd and funny happenings. I could write a whole book about them. Once somebody asked us, “What are these square things in the soup?” That day, the soup of the day was bouillon with cubes of egg custard. I think the guest who asked that question had expected the pieces of egg custard in the soup to be round and had looked for them in vain.

Most of our colleagues who have lunch in the canteen are very pleasant and understanding, even if they have to wait in line for a few minutes. Exceptions prove the rule, but everyone has a bad day once in a while.

While the food is still being served, we cooks can’t relax for even a second. There are days when everything runs smoothly, and other days when the lunch hour is very stressful. That’s simply because you never know ahead of time who is going to eat what on any given day. Sometimes the food we’ve prepared is not enough, because there’s such a huge demand for it. When that happens, all of us have to react fast. But I really enjoy being forced to improvise every once in a while.

Personally, I’m always really glad when our guests tell us something was delicious directly after they’ve had lunch. Unfortunately, people don’t take the time to do that very often. Of course criticism is important, and we like to receive it, because that’s the only way we can keep improving our performance. Really positive feedback, for example regarding the daily specials, does us a lot of good.

For us on the kitchen team, the lunch break starts when all of our guests have finished eating. At 1:20 p.m. all of us sit down together at a table and enjoy our lunch. Incidentally, we eat the same things that everyone else has to choose from. I don’t really have a single favorite meal. But I like to eat meat and fish, and I never pass up dessert.

After our lunch break, we do a few small errands, such as checking the cold storage depots and doing the final clearing up. Finally we go through the restaurant area and make sure that all the equipment is switched off, among other things. At about 2:10 p.m. we end our work for the day and go off for a well-earned rest.

Requested dishes, trendy dishes, regional and seasonal products

Everyone can put in a request concerning the menu. Traditional dishes such as lentils with spätzle, curry sausage with French fries, and “maultaschen” are always popular. But even in a canteen kitchen, we want to offer some variety and enable people to look beyond their traditional favorites and try new dishes. For example, our meal plans may include requested dishes that people can vote for online. At the moment we offer our guests the opportunity to request special dishes once every three months.

Of course we also orient ourselves to the season and offer seasonal products such as asparagus, squash, and strawberries — our guests enjoy that. Incidentally, our fruits and vegetables are delivered fresh every day by our supplier. For example, we get our lettuce from the Stuttgart region whenever possible. Of course it always depends on the time of year and on the weather. The vegetables we use in our dishes already come to us precut or pre-chopped according to our orders — simply to save time.

Frankly, I don’t mind doing that. Who could possibly look forward to peeling 30 kilograms of onions and cutting them into thin rings? Trendy dishes such as Buddha Bowls and pulled pork burgers also provide us cooks with some variety in our kitchen routines.

Of course all of our guests have their personal preferences, and unfortunately it’s not always easy to cater to everyone’s taste. But we always serve our guests to the best of our ability.

At our canteen in Building 128, we serve between 2,500 and 2,800 meals every day. Sometimes it’s a mad scramble, but at the end of the day we’re glad if all of our guests have left the canteen happy and satisfied.


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Antonia Schumann is a chef at the Untertürkheim plant in the company restaurant 128 and has worked for Daimler Gastronomie since September 2016.

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