"Eating is a necessity but cooking is an art."
The day after my graduation, after my family had gone back home after getting buzzed off of one wine tasting, and after a majority of the people I had called friends for the past four years had gone off to start professional careers (most of whom I more than likely would never see again), I sent a text to the executive chef.
“Hi . Just a reminder I’m coming in on Thursday at 3.”
“Ahah! Awesome ;)
If you wish to come in earlier at 1. We could hit farmers together for a field trip :)”
At first I was taken aback at the winky face, thinking that I was about to undergo some sort of unspoken hazing ritual that new members of a restaurant staff go through, until I realized that her status as a native French speaker gave her a penchant of using winky faces without understanding the implied ramifications. I was like a thirteen year old girl when it came to getting ready for my first day of work: Completely self conscious at what others would think of me, and doing all that I could to make sure I could prove that I would be able to hold my own. I’ll never forget (for all the wrong reasons) what I decided to wear to that first day of work. Of course since I didn’t own any sort of kitchen uniform, I chose attire that hopefully would strike a balance that spoke “I’m cool”, but also conveyed that “I can get down to business”: a pair of jeans, some beige, faux-suede skate shoes I didn’t care about, and an bright, orange v-neck. As shallow as the following statement is, if there’s a truth about life, it’s that what you wear really is a reflection of who you are, and as I later found out that night it was naive, mildly oblivious, and completely unprepared of what a professional kitchen is really like.
I showed up at the restaurant precisely at 1, and just like the times before when I had my initial interviews I awkwardly stood around waiting for the executive chef, as if she were some sort of chaperone who needed to hold my hand from point A to point B, finally breathing a sigh of relief when she finally popped out from the kitchen and waved me over. She talked over a list of produce she needed, ranging from bok choy to golden cherries, before handing me a stack of cash to use, saying that I’d be tagging along with someone named Tylene to a farmers market up in Morro Bay while she prepped for dinner. I stood around the upstairs office pretending to fumble with the list while listening to conversations between the chef and the manager who had interviewed me a few weeks ago.
Tylene arrived a half hour later, slightly disheveled, with her frizzled dirty blonde hair sticking out in a few places but carrying a smile as equally warm and bouncy as the chef. What is with all the happiness in this place? I always thought people who work in restaurants were supposed to have some degree of schizophrenia or diagnosed anger issue, and to be honest I was somewhat hoping to experience some sort of Gordon Ramsey-esque personality emerge forth at some point. Tylene was the exact opposite : comforting to talk to, incredibly insightful, and extremely friendly. We rode in her broken down Mazda Protege that was clearly on its last legs, with hand crank windows, manual locks, and a non-functioning air conditioning unit, exchanging brief life stories as a form of small talk. It’s always interesting asking someone why they chose to pursue a restaurant life- you’re guaranteed to hear something along the lines of wanting to leave a deadpan office job or college degree, despite the notorious sacrifices that come with cooking for a living. If they were really lucky, some people figured the latter part out before they could even enroll in college or a white collar job. Tylene was no exception to this blueprint, having gotten a degree at the same university I just graduated from, but instead switching to a full time kitchen career after trying it out for a few days and never looking back. I bluntly asked if it was hard getting by on a cook’s salary.
“It can be, but it feels like I’m been on vacation, not working.”
As I clambered out of the car I was hit with a sharp jolt in my gut at how different and out of place I was, especially when I thought of the 2009 BMW I had been driving for the past few years in college. If there’s one thing the white collar working world can learn from a bunch of proletariats, it’s how to not give a damn. It’s not that any of these people lack ambition, but they simply knew how to be satisfied with where they were at in life, whether it be the manager of the farmers market we shopped at, who, in his early thirties was never seen without his trademark oversized straw hat, or the short, spitfire Filipino lady cracking offensive jokes before giving us a couple pints of free plums. After spending the last four years learning how to balance income statements and administer proper human resources policies, it was like I had chosen the red pill and entered this underworld that was being kept secret from the rest of society. There is in fact a route to a happy life outside of a STEM degree, and it’s amongst a group of people who couldn’t give two shits about having a corner office or a matching 401k. I was currently being paid (it might not be a lot, but money nonetheless) to shop at a farmer’s market and it was fucking magnificent.
Now I’ve been to farmer’s markets before, but it’s different in the context of buying produce on behalf of a restaurant. When you ask for a full flat of tomatoes, the farmer’s eyes light up with sheer pride knowing that the tomatoes they were taking care of for the past couple months were going to get their chance to shine in the spotlight at Rockefeller Center. It was like each piece of produce we picked had its own identity associated with the human who watched it grow from its infancy… It was almost too much too take in despite the fact I had only been at work for less than two hours. On the inside I was weeping in revelation as we loaded our shopping cart with golden raspberries, wild arugula, and strawberries. We blew through all of the money the chef gave us, and the sub-contact Mazda Protege suddenly turned into Hermione Granger’s infinite handbag, in which we somehow crammed in flats of stone fruit and oversized plastic bins of various greens and romanesco cauliflower, before heading back to the restaurant.
When we got back I was still painfully self-conscious about not looking like a blithering idiot, as I struggled moving the oversized produce bins onto a butcher block table. As I was mentally telling myself to not screw anything up, the lid I was holding onto suddenly snapped off, sending the free baskets of plums perched on top careening onto the floor in a barrage of dense splats. Damnit. I scrambled to pick up all of the splattered, ripe plums, after making sure that no one saw what had just happened (I’m pretty sure at least one cook did), before I dumped them in the trash, hoping that the next person throwing away onion skins wouldn’t question why there were a dozen plums resting on top.
For the next hour I helped the line cook for that evening prep for service. Cody was a tall, trim person who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than I was, with dark brown hair covered up by a baseball cap, a discrete pair of ear plugs, and minimalist tattoos of various starfighters from Star Wars imprinted on his left forearm. For a place of this caliber, I kept expecting to see formally educated chefs wearing starched aprons, but I was pleasantly surprised to only encounter people only slightly older than me (and way cooler than me for that matter) running the kitchen. I helped broil nectarines and trim vibrantly orange squash blossoms as he effortlessly filleted and deboned entire fish, a skill that I have yet to even try. He even went as far as letting me use his own knife, which for all intents and purposes would be like letting a newly licensed 16 year old drive a Mercedes SLS AMG. Again, what is with how nice these people are?? As I grasped the reassuringly solid hilt of the knife, in one swift motion the blade sliced through the delicate flower like it wasn’t even there in the first place - it was intoxicating. The only thing left was to get a squeeze bottle of fresh lemon juice ready.
A curious thing happens though when you walk into a restaurant kitchen after years of amateur cookery. You know that you know most culinary skills and techniques, but you become so riddled with self doubt that all common sense goes out of the window in the name of pride and in my case, not wanting to look stupid, and in doing so you end up looking like a moron anyway. If you’re asked to juice a half a quart of lemons, you should probably use a reamer or a juicer, but after not knowing where I would find one I proceeded to spend the better part of a half hour trying to squeeze the two cups of lemon juice all by hand, looking like an idiot, as I desperately glanced at the wall of hanging tools for a juicer, only to want to slap myself after discovering it below the drawer of squeeze bottles. I also began mincing chives, acknowledging but at the same time ignoring how unevenly large some of the pieces were, before being gently reminded by the chef to redo them. I felt like a total amateur, as I spent another half hour picking through the container. By the time I finally oriented myself, the restaurant had opened for dinner and orders started coming in via the unmistakable sound of the ticket printer, something that I would grow to both relish and hate at the same time. The executive chef came back down from her office, as bright as ever and looking like she was about to go spend the day at Disneyland.
Compared to the family restaurant kitchen I labored in as a kid, the one I was currently standing in seemed positively puny by comparison - it was a galley kitchen with 3 four-burner ranges on one side, and a prep refrigerator on the other that couldn’t have been longer than 6 feet, and magically housed all of the mis en place and prep space one could need. Further down the kitchen was a small table to expo finished dishes that probably couldn’t hold more than 5 plates at a time, opposite another small prep fridge and counter used as a pantry station for menu items that didn’t need heat. I awkwardly stood by the sink and watched as pinches of kosher salt were tossed through the air like delicate snow, each flake impeccably landing on golden eggs and perfectly grilled hanger steaks. Despite the fact that at most only three people could comfortably work on the line, there never seemed to be a shortage of space, with Cody, ever so calm with his backwards baseball cap, magically being able to perfectly utilize the limited room available, stashing hot plates in various corners, and expertly tucking ingredients away less than a millisecond after it wasn’t needed. I have always considered myself adept at multi-tasking when it comes to cooking at home, but I felt completely inept as I watched him and the chef foxtrot around the kitchen in syncopation when it came to fulfilling tickets and firing dishes, adorning whole grilled rockfish with green onion relish at the flick of a wrist, and smearing various sauces and compound butters around plates in a swift, single motion with the speed, grace, and precision of either a seasoned musical conductor or accomplished heart surgeon.
Each time the oven doors were opened a blast of heat radiated onto my face, and made me discover how much a kitchen can dehydrate you, with industrial ranges roaring at 450 degrees constantly, and pumping out tens of thousands of BTUs. I hadn’t thought of bringing a bottle of water, and as it was approaching hour 6 of my stint I hadn’t had a single drop to drink, but I wasn’t just about to interrupt the performance that was happening in front of me to ask for a cup of water. I suddenly realized, uncomfortably, at how much I stood out amongst the knife bag wielding experts who were clearly kitchen veterans. My bright orange v-neck was like an obnoxious spotlight amongst jet black chef’s coats, and my pinky toes were starting to rub uncomfortably against the stiff faux-suede of my shoes. I hate being the new person at a job, because it’s so blatantly obvious that you have absolutely clue what you’re doing. The only thing I could think of doing was occasionally refilling their stack of serving plates from the dish rack.
“Why don’t you go help Kenny in front at the Charcuterie bar? I’m super sorry I don’t have anything for you to do at the moment”, the chef said warmly in her thick accent, clearly picking up at my discomfort. The way she spoke made it seem like she had just gotten off of space mountain, and was raring to get back in line.
Kenny was a tall 6 foot 2 guy who had worked his way up from being a dishwasher at various other restaurants, but now found home at the open charcuterie bar, where diners watched him assemble charcuterie and cheese boards and plate various burratas. He had brown, unkempt hair, and a goofy smirk paired with an equally goofy chuckle that sometimes wouldn’t stop. He was all caught up on tickets, but gladly let me stay with him and teach me how to assemble dishes, to my very grateful glee, despite the fact that I was made more painfully aware of both my inexperience and ignorance by how my orange shirt contrasted next to his own black uniform, now that I was illuminated by the bar’s literal spotlights.
Once Kenny started teaching me though, it was like all of the nervous discomfort of experiencing the first day of junior high at a new school dissolved away. It was just me in the literal and figurative spotlight, placing two delicate lobes of burrata cheese, ever so plump from the cream injected on the inside, on a plate with shards of honeycomb before strategically adorning it all with salted marcona almonds, minced rosemary, and halved blackberries. At that very moment, I felt like an actual craftsman, piecing together separate building blocks until they amounted to something beautiful. It didn’t matter that I was so thirsty that it felt like there was a piece of 50 grit sandpaper lodged down my throat, or that I chose the worst possible shoes for the day. I became obsessive with every ticket that buzzed out of the printer, my ears perking up like a German Shepherd listening for the dangle of a leash and collar. So despite my out of place attire, the splattered plums, and mauled chives from earlier I was on this kitchen high much stronger than I have ever experienced before when working with food. I was experiencing stage one of substance abuse that night.
The only thing that could break my high and romanticized dreams of working in a restaurant was when when we started to clean up. I mean, clearly cleaning sucks, but after a long night of service the last thing anyone wants to do is scrub down an entire professional kitchen. The chef, again ever so eerily in tune with my train of thought, let me go home early. I walked home from spent, sweaty, and exhausted, but still very much alive. Seeing the string lights hanging from the trees up above was slightly cathartic, and if anything distracted from the massive corns my toes developed from being trapped in stiff shoes a size too small.
The first thing I did the next morning was find a place that sold culinary uniforms and bought a chef’s coat. It’s always equal parts amazing and disappointingly shallow how empowering an article of clothing can make you feel, but the moment I put that black chef’s coat on I was no longer simply just an obsessive home cook. I was someone who cooked in a restaurant.
I walked in much more confident wearing a more comfortable pair of old running shoes, and started on the prep for the day, which included grinding a massive 20 quart bowl of meat, charcuterie ends, onions, garlic, and spices to be used for meatballs. There’s nothing remotely sexy at all about using a meat grinder, and to this day it’s still my least favorite piece of heavy kitchen equipment to use. It’s a pain in the ass, because inevitably something will get stuck within its internal confines, and you’re forced to take the whole damn thing apart to diagnose which piece of pork but or stale piece of baguette is causing it to give up on you. Watching it struggle for a few seconds before ejaculating its contents vigor means that most of the time if you’re not careful it will completely miss the bowl, as I learned in horror when a stray chunk of ground meat flung itself off from my glove and magically into the chef’s purse lying on the staircase next to the prep table.
I worked the pantry station that night with Jeff, a gritty but incredibly sprightly five foot seven person who looked like he was in his mid twenties with short, curly, blonde hair, and was also covered with a number of visible tattoos on his forearm. As inevitable as it was to hear Kenny’s unmistakable laugh at one point in the night, one could also be equally sure that Jeff would refer to you as “brother” at least five times in a shift.
I’ve noticed a tendency that with any type of blue collar job you will never find out the last name of a person until you consider them a close friend. I only knew the kitchen cooks as Cody, Kenny, and Jeff, and nothing more; they were these three enigmas, whereas at a corporate office, you can find out someone’s last name the minute he or she sends you an email- it was like I had to work to see who these people really were. But there’s also a lack of pretension. For instance, if you introduce yourself at a company party and say you work in Human Resources, you by far will be mocked much more and less respected than someone who works in the Corporate Finance department. Here it didn’t matter whether or not you were taking octopus tentacles off of the grill, slicing calabrese salami, or assembling a tomato salad - you were always regarded on an equal playing field as everyone else.
I experienced the second stage of substance abuse that night, as we assembled the various cold dishes, including black kale salad tossed with walnuts, avocado, and Valdeon blue cheese imported from the Leon region of Spain, before cracking a soft sous vide egg on top, or goat tartare, in which you mix the elegantly subdued but still vibrantly crimson meat with a dressing of oil, shallots, lime, and chili before shaping it into three perfect little quenelles and dotting the plate with aioli and black garlic puree. I’ve never eaten tartare before, let alone one made with goat, but whatever reservations I had about eating raw land mammals, tasting that heavily seasoned mixture of raw flesh for the first time was like figuring out that roller coasters aren’t in fact terrifying, but brilliantly exhilarating. In the background, Cody and the chef were continuing their two-step from the night before on the hot line, fluttering foot long ribbons of pappardelle into boiling water and plunking rib-eyes onto well-seasoned cast iron.
I felt kind of corrupted at everything that I was working with. Going grocery shopping would never be the same again after cooking with food of this capacity - it’s not just that they were locally sourced, organic, and what have you, and while it may be a by product of all of the above, what I was working with was just better than what a home cook could ever find in a grocery store. Each ingredient was rare and singularly extraordinary, making everything I had in the cupboard and refrigerator of my apartment seem so plebian. The sad truth too though is that working at a restaurant itself would never even provide you with the kind of disposable income to be able to purchase ingredients of this range in the first place. It was this cruel, ironic, and bittersweet kind of feeling realizing that I would never be able to work with stuff like this in my own apartment.
Halfway through service the next night, the restaurant was uncharacteristically slow, causing the chef to ask if anyone wanted to take the rest of night off. Jeff excitedly jumped at the chance, despite her very valid protest that I had just started and needed more training.
“He’s got it all down; he already knows how to make a perfect quenelle!”
While internally I gushed at receiving a compliment already in the first week, a part of me also wanted to tell him “fuck you” at the idea of having to man the entire station by myself. Again, walking into a restaurant kitchen has a knack for sucking out all of your confidence and throwing it up the industrial vent hood. I was not expecting to do something like this so early, but at the same time being on the high of a kitchen can make one eerily composed and unflappable. Any further trepidation I had became drowned out by the steady buzz of the ticket printer, and I spent the night in an almost hallucinogenic trance, thinly slicing raw scallops for crudo, delicately picking the through a box of flowers for the most impeccable petals, and piping caramel onto coffee budinos with occasional helpful hints and plating tips from the chef. I once again felt like I was at home. The only mild fiasco that night was spotting a stray shrapnel of shell make it’s way into a kale salad after I cracked the egg on top, causing me to stop for 5 minutes to go hunt it down before sending it out.
As the night drew to a close and I began cleaning up my station, transferring all of the ingredients into dozens of infamous plastic deli cups, it had hit me. I had just ran the pantry station on my own for the night, and despite the hour of scrubbing down and cleaning up that lay ahead, I needed more of it. This was no longer experimentation, but a downright dependency I was forming. You would think that after working an eight hour shift that doesn’t involve sitting down at a desk the entire time and coming home near midnight would be taxing. Instead, it’s exhilarating, and no matter how much my feet felt like they’ve been spending the day at Disneyland, I couldn’t ignore the return of the shit-eating grin on my face when I walked home. I was hooked.
I wish I didn’t like it. Life would be a lot more convenient- I’d be able to hang out with my friends during weekends, and meet them for weekday happy hour drinks at 5:30PM. My corns are still aching from the first night of work, and despite excessive loads of laundry I can’t get rid of the faint smell of the restaurant. I understand now why for so many years I was forbidden to follow this particular career path, and honestly if I had kids I’d strongly discourage them too. And yet, it was only my first week and I had already expanded my knowledge about cooking much more than anything I have ever accomplished at home.
I had survived my first week working in a restaurant.