What It's Like to Be a Cook at Temple Square


I got sick of making fruit trays, but all that practice helped me to make them quicker. 

When I was 19  years old I was contemplating going to culinary school, but instead I got to learn on the job when I got hired as a banquet cook at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in the heart of Salt Lake City.

It definitely wasn't a formal education and I was paid just a few cents above minimum wage, but learning how to cook on the job was a dream come true. My mom, having been a server for a catering company, was a little nervous for me. She imagined a typically hot-headed chef, outrageously long hours, and mean coworkers. I think she was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved my first culinary job.

Not all catering companies are great work places, so I totally lucked out. Over time, I learned how to make gorgeous fruit trays, cheese trays and even sushi! I learned how to concoct a few sauces, how to "pocket" or "butterfly" a chicken breast. I learned how to make vinaigrette, brie torte, numberless kinds of hors d'oeurves, and pesto.

Brie torte and cheese display with candied nuts and tomato rose garnish. 

After hours and hours of repetitive practice I got pretty good at chopping, slicing, or dicing anything: tomatoes, onions, other vegetables, and huge watermelons. I learned how to make Italian bread salad, prime rib, chicken manicotti, fillet mignon, hollandaise for eggs benedict. I got to make dauphinoise potatoes, all kinds of aioli, the best vegetarian lasagna, fancy flavored butters, the perfect guacamole and cocktail sauce made from scratch. I practiced making pretty garnishes like tomato roses and orange sunbursts.

Nearly everyday at work I had opportunities to learn, practice creativity, and to teach new cooks.

Outside the kitchen, the building was gorgeous! There are many rooms with crystal chandeliers and breathtaking views of the city. We usually ate lunch in the smallest banquet room adjacent to the kitchen. While in my chef's coat I ate while looking down on the Salt Lake Temple or the LDS Conference Center. The gardens flourished almost year-round and in December, all the trees on the temple grounds were aglow with millions of Christmas lights.

I made friends with people in every department. I simply learned the names of people in the bakeries and the servers and greeted them with a smile. Often, even if I was just passing through and I'd say "Hi" to someone, they would offer me extra pastries or creme brulee. I sometimes asked for an extra treat to take to a friend in the kitchen. This was the case for pretty much everyone who worked there. Servers would come in looking for extra food we could give them and we would chat for a little while. And if the servers or bakery had anything to offer any of us, they wouldn't hesitate.

A tomato rose garnish on a cheese tray. I wish I had more and better quality pictures from that time. 

I had the opportunity to work with so many great people. One of my supervisors, Vuong, was a Vietnamese septuagenarian who has left me with my favorite stories from that job. I remember the time he set the kitchen on fire and it was just him and me in there. He tried to put it out by throwing handfuls of cornstarch and flour on the flames! He told the funniest stories and he was a very hard-working yet very laid back supervisor.

I made good friends with Ranko from Yugoslavia and always said "hi" to his wife, Milka, who worked in one of the bakeries. I loved it when I would come into work and Elsa from Guatemala would say, "Kaiti!" and greet me with a big smile. Chan from Laos was the cutest ever and I never minded getting heavy things off high shelves for her. She always looked out for me as did all my other coworkers, including Mr. Ahn who is Vuong's brother-in-law.

Best of all was my boss, the head chef. Don and I still keep in touch and he has long since referred to himself as my work dad. When he left the JSMB banquet kitchen for another job I followed him and even though I didn't like working at this other company, I stayed for a while longer because I was so loyal to him. He was the biggest tease and yet the sweetest guy. He always gave me a hug when he handed me my Christmas bonus. We had some sweet and meaningful talks, the memories of which still impact me today. He was the best boss I could ever ask for. 


This was one of my two favorite jobs and I worked here longer than any other company. I miss it but it was time to move on. Like all work, this job wasn't just rainbows and sunshine.

I didn't get paid very much, especially at first  but it was an entry level job, and an awesome one at that!

Even though I was rarely required to come in to work earlier than 7 am I almost always worked on the weekends, but I didn't have to work Sundays!

The work itself was often stressful and of course, there was always the occasional drama between my coworkers. But for the most part, work relations at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building were pretty chummy.

I mentioned earlier the practice I got through repetition. While this was very beneficial to my cooking skills, including my knife skills, this type of work could also be exhausting and mind-numbing. I remember seemingly endless days of chopping zucchini, peeling and cutting up pineapple and watermelon for hours at a time, or peeling buckets and buckets of potatoes with a paring knife.

This was the kind of work that I dreaded in my early days as a cook. And whenever I was stationed on vegetables for the day I would look on while other cooks were jumping from one short-lived, creative task to another.

I enjoyed the creativity of making fruit displays but after about two months of doing this everyday I felt I never really left work at the end of the day because I dreamed about slicing fruit all night just to wake up and do it all again at work.

True, it was tedious, but sometimes I got to have long conversations with coworkers who had already finished their work and came to help with my load. We had some great times sitting on overturned milk crates gathered around a box into which we sent our masses of potato peels.

After months of doing primarily mundane tasks, I was assigned a variety of jobs more and more often. And near the end of my career at the JSMB I found that those mindless jobs offered a great break from the constant running around that had become the norm for me.

Sometimes the kitchen was so hot, I would take a short break to stand in the chill-blaster for several minutes. And still, I would go home a mess.

Working with food also meant making sure the kitchen and walk-in refrigerator were in pristine condition. I can't count how many times I had to clean out the fridge, throwing away pans of week-old food, sweeping, mopping the floors, and thoroughly wiping down all the shelves. I was often assigned to rearrange the produce so that the oldest was at the front because the seasonal workers couldn't be bothered to put it away correctly in the first place.

The stoves and flat-top and to be completely de-greased on a regular basis, also cleaning out the fryer was always an adventure. I spent hours scrubbing walls, ovens, every surface in that kitchen. We sometimes had to take all the shelves out of the walk-in, take them from the tenth floor to the basement, and clean them. We had to clean the massive kitchen hood from time to time too.

I remember taking inventory of every single ingredient throughout the kitchen at the end of every month. And cleaning the sink where we thawed raw chicken was a daily chore. We wiped down every surface every night, gathered the garbage, cleaned out the food-warmers, and swept and scrubbed the floors every night. I remember sometimes wanting to scream at my coworkers who were obviously exhausted and wanted to go home already, but refused to help clean so we could all go home a bit earlier.

I loved the days when I took public transit to and from work and I could relax with a book or stare out the window after a long day. But man, did I always have the worst hat hair, and I could just feel the greasiness on my face and the dried sweat on my skin. I was often self-conscious riding the train in public after work, but I sure loved my job.

Hi! My name is Kait. Follow this link to learn more about me and my blog.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Kait. Enjoyed the read. Plus, I think your blogs will be an awesome gift to pass on to your posterity.


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