Life in a Restaurant: Week 5

 

“If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it's the restaurant business.”

- Anthony Bourdain

 
   

 

 

It’s hard not to think about work outside of work. Ordinarily, you’re supposed to spend weekends doing activities that make you forget about the white hairs you may or may not have grown during the past five days, but yet when I’m home on Mondays, staring at the sea of cottage cheese that is my bedroom ceiling, that pantry station is the only thing that I can think of. There’s no such thing as subtlety when you’re a cook. When I sat in class earning a degree in business, I was taught to be reserved, calm, and in control of my emotions, but it seems like the minute you step foot into the kitchen you’re given permission to become a raw (or medium-rare, while we’re on the topic of food and puns) human being. You’re allowed to get pissed when you realize you just burnt a tray of crostini (or even worse, a pound of marcona almonds), or cranky when you realize that you’re out of cigarettes, or even gloat to yourself when a server comes back with a glowing compliment from a table. The kitchen is equally fueled by emotional energy as it is by the hands shuffling back and forth from the hotline, and I’m finally now starting to understand the trance and the irrational allure of a career in cooking. I haven’t been writing nearly at the capacity I ever intended to, because while I have so much to vomit into words about cooking and the experiences of being in a professional kitchen, they just remain in my convoluted head - overtaken by thoughts of how much prep work there is to do tomorrow and drowning in a sea of abstract conceptualizations of how I can more artfully plate tomorrow’s order of goat tartare.

Joey’s roommate, Cheyenne, staged the pantry station with me this week. She was everything that I wasn’t on my first day of work - poised, confident, and somewhat overcompensating (let alone dressed up in proper chef’s attire). When she was walking through the line, she would call “Behind!” with such conviction that it made me all the more self conscious and aware about the mahogany burn that was still throbbing on my arm from making chicken at home that week. You see, there’s a certain amount of confidence that’s required when starting out in a new kitchen - you never want to be underestimated by the veterans (I say that loosely - if you’ve lasted more than a month, you’re a veteran), but at the sametime you also have to walk a fine line where you don’t come off as a conceited ass. Rarely have I seen someone successfully tread that tightrope without falling off to one side. You have no choice though - when cooking becomes your livelihood, you suddenly become hypersensitive to how you perceive your skills in comparison to everyone else around you. You’re ability in front of the stove is the one thing you know that you are definitively better at than the average human, otherwise you would still be sitting in a bullpen auditing income statements, or in the basement trying to fix IT queries, so a gleaming compliment from a kitchen peer is akin to experiencing the peak high of a drug overdose, whereas getting reprimanded for overcooking a $45 ribeye feels like getting slaughtered, making you want to shut off the world around you. The inane group of people that decide to cook for a living have everything to prove during that initial stage, making me all the more insecure about trying to teach someone with several years more experience than I do. To me, I’m not just the “new guy”, but also “the new guy who’s never worked in a restaurant before.”

I’ve always viewed San Luis Obispo, population 40,000, labeled by Oprah as the Happiest City in America, as a saintly bubble. Little did I know that it also has a small little underbelly of pirates who swear, drink, and smoke with reckless abandon, before repeating the entire process over each day. Ones who, while certainly not the first group of people I would invite to my wedding, still have the patience to show me how to make aioli by hand after the one I started in the VitaMix kept separating, before finally throwing me in the dish pit for the first time.

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Aaron, our dishwasher disappeared during the middle of Sunday service, complaining of a mysterious stomach pain. I knew that a dishwasher could make or break a restaurant, but everytime I walked by the now vacant array of sinks, watching them accumulate and grow in mass into a pandora’s box ready to unleash hell at any moment, I couldn’t help but grow more and more antsy. Finding a microplane to create a dusting of cured egg yolk comes nigh impossible when it’s been buried underneath stacks of platters and racks of wine glasses dripping with with an eclectic array of various fluids. I can’t exactly say that I’m happy that I learned how to use the dishwasher. The high pressure spray used to scrape crusted on food inevitably splatters excess residue onto that fancy black chef’s jacket you just invested $20 in, and submerging your hands into a hot sink where blistering cast iron pans recently landed induces a surprising amount of sweat. By the time I had wrapped up, I once again found myself tired, hangry, sore, and ending the night with yet another bag of Taco Bell in hand.