"Cooking is at once child's play and adult joy."
I may have made it seem like working in the restaurant has been akin to a daytime PBS Kids show, where I have muppets celebrating and singing the Rainbow Connection at the end of every shift. Working in a restaurant has been the only time in my life where I’ve felt at home at a profession, but I have also had admittedly crappy nights, channeling my inner Oscar when I come home near midnight and reach for the nearest (and sometimes non-existent) pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
I walked in on my third week ready for the marathon that was working the farmers market booth, mentally preparing to unmold hundreds of ramen burgers from their deli cup containers and preparing to drag the heavy cast iron grills down the street. We had barely finished setting up our booth, when the whistle signaling six o'clock and the start of the market went off. Within a few minutes we had a line a few dozen people long queuing for ramen burgers. As fast as I could empty my grill and hand over finished buns to Bigwood, he would be back looking for more buns to fill orders. I had suddenly become the bottleneck in the assembly line. I became more and more flustered as in my impatience I kept checking on random buns hoping they would be magically golden. The manager, who had been watching from the sidelines jumped into my station.
Now to be honest, up until this point besides being hired by him and in which I had a 2 minute interview, I’ve barely talked to the manager. Often times while I’m working the pantry station slicing raw scallops for crudo, I would see him interrupting the hot line to throw his dinner in the oven, and then see him retreat to the upstairs office. I was completely indifferent to him as a result, but within the ten minutes he jumped in to try to help me, he quickly became my most disliked person at the restaurant.
I had suddenly been relegated to the status of a fourteen year old, being lectured at by someone who I couldn’t really tell whether he was a seasoned restaurant veteran or micromanager who had never worked a single night on the line in his life. He sloppily slapped more buns on the cold edge of the grill where all of the oil was pooling. “You see, the more empty spaces that are filled, the more money I make,” he announced matter of factly. I was already feeling the impatience of Bigwood behind my back as the ticket queue kept piling up, as I cleared what finished food I had from the grill.
Now normally, as I remove food from one side of the grill, I’ll shift everything over so I don’t lose track of what items are nearly done, and which have just been fired. Before I could do any of that, he grabbed the spatula from my hand, dropping buns in random spots and sending the entire process into disarray. I spent the next hour having to randomly check which ones were done, further agitating Bigwood at my apparent ineptitude.
“Leave them alone! You shouldn’t have to keep checking which ones are done, you should know just by feeling,” the manager continued, who at this point had told me to step aside so he could take over.
At this point, I was both demoralized and irate at how condescending he was being, and became content to watching him struggle at his now disorganized, haphazardly arranged griddle, secretly smirking to myself when he would flip ramen patties over only to discover that they were underdone and still a shade of pasty yellow. He’d prod the buns with his finger, as if they were some sort of protein that would magically firm up like a steak once the underside was brown, so again I had a hard time hiding my satisfaction of petty revenge when he would keep prodding and flipping underdone patties, doing the exact opposite of what he was lecturing me on a few minutes earlier. I was trying my best to remain calm and act like I was actually learning from him when in reality all I wanted to do was wrench the spatula back, as we sputtered our way to the end of the market, eventually completely selling out five minutes before closing.
Working in a restaurant teaches you a whole host of skills- some related to being in the kitchen, and to a degree, some decently valuable life lessons: the importance of keeping your station clean every minute, making sure you’re 100% prepped before service begins, how to not lose your shit when everything seems to be going wrong, and even the correct way to clean. I never realized that there was a right and a wrong way to mop, let alone people with equally strong opinions about the matter. How to mop isn’t really something they teach alongside how to tie your shoes while in kindergarten. As I began wiping the floor, Bigwood walked by: “Not to be a dick, but have you ever mopped at a restaurant before?” To be honest, I couldn’t say that I did, as he walked me through his process.
As I restarted mopping the kitchen floor using Bigwood’s method, the only thing crossing my mind was how underappreciated the culinary artisan is. I could have instead gotten a four year degree that taught me how to build bridges as a civil engineer, and the world needs civil engineers. The world is not clamoring for yet another chef, so here we are, at 10:30 PM making only a little above minimum wage, struggling to pay our bills every month, reminded of the fact that while we are brilliant at our craft, and can do something that 95% of the population wouldn’t be able to duplicate (including a civil engineer), the world still doesn’t really care enough for it to notice. So we numb with cigarettes and after work drinks, because that’s what it seems like chefs do.
I was tired - more than just a ‘I just got back from the gym’ tired, but the same type of tired as when you wake up at 5 AM to make sure you’re first in line at Disneyland, and then stay until the park closes to get the most bang for your buck. It was the type of exhaustion where you ankles feel numb from standing on your feet for so long, and where you could care less whether or not your teeth are brushed or if contacts taken out of your eyes. I wasn’t just physically tired, but emotionally drained, frustrated, cranky, and depleted of my confidence from being belittled and portrayed as incompetent to the other cooks. I could’ve fallen asleep sitting in the lounge.
Every night the cooks and wait staff usually stay back for a shift drink, and to talk about what had happened during service that day- whether it be to gossip about a particularly rude and picky customer, or to just sit in silence. While a part of me always wants to stay and feel a part of the team, the only thing I want to do (and have been doing) is go home. Maybe one night I will, but not tonight - the only thing I want is to regain my sense of life outside of the restaurant. I walked in three weeks earlier with such a romantic and idealized idea of working in a restaurant, and now it was slowly starting to fade as started to trundle back home, utterly feeling defeated.
My single most favorite part of the restaurant is not the charcuterie and burrata bar that is the front and center of the dining room, or even the kitchen with its powerful ranges and industrial salamander. Even the pantry and dessert station, where I call home most nights fails to earn the title of my favorite part of the restaurant. That title, my happy place when I am at work, instead goes to the restaurant’s walk in refrigerator.
Like the kitchen, the restaurant’s walk in is dismally small for a place of its size. I frequently overhear Bigwood and Cody bitching at how small it was in comparison to the other restaurants they’ve worked in, and how disorganized it becomes despite their best efforts to induce some semblance of organization. Food and boxes are crammed onto the three shelves like tetris blocks, and if you need to access the box of avocados on the top shelf, crammed in the very corner, then you’ll be spending the next 10 minutes finding a way to get access to it, and chances are the two cucumbers you need are always going to be buried in the back, under 2 other boxes. But it’s small and cozy, just like the favorite fort you would build in the living room as a kid, and more importantly becomes the quiet, isolated reprieve to which I escape.
Pissed off at your manager for making you feel inept? Go spend some time in the walk in. Bored out of your mind during a slow weeknight service? Go kill time in the walk in. The walk-in, with its cool, 35 degree respite from the hot kitchen is this sacred space and sanctuary where you both literally and emotionally cool off.
There have been times when the pantry station is in the weeds, and I need to run to go frantically grab another bunch of black kale, and in those five seconds the cold air and silence reminds me to breathe amidst the chaos. But if it’s slow, or if I’ve finished with my prep early before service starts, occasionally I’ll slide the door shut behind me, and be surrounded in complete silence, albeit for the white noise caused by the whirring fans blowing cold air around my sweaty neck for a solid 10 minutes or so. It’s an odd place to take a break - there’s no place to sit, unless there happens to be a tall crate of pickled red onions on the floor, but as I’m surrounded by crates of fingerling potatoes, half gallons of heavy cream, and two lamb carcasses hanging from metal hooks that rub against my back that occasionally drip blood on the floor I enjoy this rare moment of solitude to myself. The walk in is the secret hiding spot to which I would hide from the world, something that I would do quite often in the coming weeks.