I Graduated College to Work in a Restaurant: Week 2

"Cooking is eighty percent confidence, a skill best acquired starting from when the apron strings wrap around you twice."

Barbara Kingsolver


Every Thursday, downtown San Luis Obispo plays host to one of California’s most renowned farmer’s markets, with local growers bringing in produce from all over the county including enormous beets, plump figs, and boxes of strawberries perfuming the air.  Businesses and the restaurants in the area also set up stalls hawking everything including touristy t-shirts, but more importantly dozens of food options, from roasted corn elotes to regional santa maria tri-tip and wood-fired pizza.  

The second week of work I walked in on Thursday, newly confident in my black chef’s coat and ready to fulfill my need for a kitchen high.  The chef came literally waltzing down the stairs, in her trademark relaxed yoga pants, blithely telling me, “You’ll be helping the boys at farmers, it’ll be fun!”  Sometimes I’m astounded at how buoyant she can be on a daily basis.  

I was soon introduced to another Kenny, whom everyone referred to by his last name, Bigwood.  Kenny Bigwood seemed to be the oldest and most seasoned member of kitchen crew (which isn’t saying much, as he couldn’t have been older than thirty), and lead the farmer’s market booth, and as such, I made sure to take in every word and piece of advice he said as scripture, as I picked the leaves off of mustard greens as part of the prep for that evening.  Bigwood had a deeply sarcastic sense of humor, and could easily compete against Phil Dunphy for the best (and worst) collection of dad jokes.  He was also known for his quirky collection of chef’s pants - today’s was patterned with flying pigs.

In 2013, Keizo Shimamoto, hot off the tails of Ansel Dominique’s cronut craze, unveiled to the world the Ramen Burger in New York City.  Our chef, ever so keen on breathing actual creativity into San Luis Obispo’s white culture, had struck gold when she began selling her own version of ramen burgers at the Thursday  night farmers market.  The second item on the prep list was consequently unmolding hundreds of small deli cups filled with patties of noodles that were formed with egg.  By the end of the hour, my fingers were crusted up with a layer of dried up egg, and the black chef’s coat I was so proud of was now dotted with dull yellow splodges.

We grabbed two of the waitresses to serve as a cashier and another as an expo, who helped us lug everything on a truck to move a couple blocks away including tents, two large portable flat top grills, icebox refrigerators, and a couple of folding tables in addition to the dozens of hotel plans of burger patties and ramen buns.  Drenched in sweat, all of a sudden the black jacket that I was wearing with such pride had become a tortuous straitjacket, intensifying how much I was already sweating.  Working farmers market was almost the exact opposite of the restaurant with its cool and calm demeanor in between tickets that give you time to collect yourself.  There was a constant line of people queueing for all the latest food trends smashed into a sandwich; in combination of constantly shuffling within the confines of the tent and manning an insanely hot cast iron grill to brown the ramen buns I had unmolded, the sandpaper thirst from last week returned, along with a constant cascade of sweat down my forehead I had to keep wiping off with my sleeve.  As soon as I would finish piling on finished buns, browned and crisp on the outside but still desirably chewy on the inside onto half sheet trays, Bigwood would dump them on his station, before topping them with the burgers Jeff was firing, along with cheddar, miso aioli, sriracha ketchup, pickled onions, and a gloopy fried egg, with its extraordinarily yellow yolk.

The constant rush of customers and onlookers taking pictures of the ramen buns did make time seem to move at an accelerated pace, and before long we were starting the long process of cleaning everything up, which didn’t alleviate the fact that I was still profusely bathed in perspiration.  Jeff, in his ever animated energy told me to follow him along with one of the expos working the booth to take a break.  We effortlessly walked through to the back of a bar, where he casually greeted the bouncer with a nod, and without having to even reach for the ID that was in my wallet, was greeted with a shot of Jameson.  For the most part, people who work in restaurants have life stories far more interesting and convoluted than 95% of the population, and as I sat hearing the adventures of everyone who worked at the restaurant, shooting back the shot of whiskey, I felt like I was being accepted into a rag tag gang, just as Linguine was in Ratatouille

After painstakingly lifting the heavy grills, ice boxes, and tables back to the restaurant and upstairs to the storage area in the office, I was as tired and sweaty as ever, with my back strained from improper lifting.   As happy as I was working at the restaurant, as I was walking home I couldn’t help but wistfully look at all of the bars and watch what people my age are seemingly supposed to do: be reckless, have fun, get drunk

The next day, I was back to working the pantry station, continuing to form quenelles of tartare, making small talk with the dishwasher as I tossed bowls and plates into the dish pit.  Our dishwasher is an odd-fellow: he’s a short, skinny twenty one year old, with glasses and tousled black hair that gives him the exact spitting image of either McLovin, Harry Potter, or the lovechild of the two, except with a sense of humor as dark as squid ink risotto.  Aaron was such an enigma to me that sometimes I wondered if he was fully there one hundred percent of the time.

However, as I soon found out, Aaron was also one of the most important extremities of the kitchen, and was probably more valuable than I would ever be.  The dish pit at the restaurant continuously becomes filled with not only countless plates and platters cleaned by happy patrons, but huge mixing bowls, cast iron pans that are screaming hot after searing a rib eye, sheet pans crusted over with either burnt sugar or burnt miso paste, and various parts of heavy kitchen machinery.  Ever so reliable, Aaron would do load after load of dishes, ferrying plates, utensils, and various items to and from the pit and the kitchen and the rest of the restaurant.  And when I’m finally done cleaning up the pantry station an hour after closing, Aaron is still there relentlessly cleaning dishes, spraying down every single floor mat, and taking out trash bags before mopping the entire dish area long after I’ve settled down in one of the lounge’s leather chairs to give my sore feet a much needed rest.  

When you work in a kitchen, it’s incredibly important to announce your presence when approaching another cook on the line.  There’s a lot things going on: metal sizzle plates are being withdrawn from an industrial grade salamander, knives are being shuffled around (and sometimes falling to the floor), or delicately plated foods are being transferred to the expo table.  The people working in the hot line are constantly pirouetting back and forth with reckless abandon from the ranges on the right side of the narrow galley kitchen to the prep counter on their left.  One of the first things I noticed was people loudly saying “Behind!” when approaching lest, they crash into the chef, Cody, or Kenny, turning around with a fire hot wok of asian greens.   There’s also a blind corner that leads from the dining room into the kitchen, where if you’re walking around it, it’s equally important that you say shout “Corner!”, lest you surprise an unsuspecting busser with your 20 pound pan of tomatoes.  

At first, I refused to do it.  It looks uncomfortable and feels pretentious when a twenty year old home cook who just jumped on board starts acting like he’s a seasoned veteran, so everytime I rounded that blind corner I prayed no one was bussing an armful of used dishes or carrying a heavy hotel pan of braised lamb back from the walk in refrigerator.  If I needed to access a tool or mixing bowl that was at the other end of the kitchen, past the hot line, I would purposely wait until I saw the chef and her line cook for the day pre-occupied with something before quietly darting in - probably the exact reason why shouting ‘behind’ was started in the first place.  Either that, I would mumble “Corner”, just for the sake that if something did in fact happen, I could justify that I had in fact, followed proper kitchen protocol.  

There’s another odd peculiarity that also happens I found working in the kitchen, which is during the eight or nine hours you’re at work, you never really eat anything.  From 3pm to sometimes midnight, as I obsess over cracking the perfect poached egg over a hillcrest of kale, for some reason hunger is the last thing I think about.  I’ve always heard that nicotine and drugs are good for suppressing one’s appetite, and to me, getting high off of cooking has been having the same effect, until I’ve sat down with my shift beer and suddenly realized that I haven’t eaten for nearly nearly 9 hours, and all of a sudden the adrenaline from being in the kitchen fades and I realize that I am in fact, fucking starving.  Here’s the catch though: when you’re walking home from the restaurant near midnight, in a small city where the average age seems to be 40 or older, there’s not a lot of late night food options.  Hell, there are no late night food venues besides fast food, the exact antithesis of the food and philosophy we serve and create.

As I sat waiting that night for my second cheesy potato burrito of the week at Taco Bell, amongst hoards of drunk college students that night though, I suddenly had a greater appreciation to the balding, slightly overweight, hispanic workers rolling burritos and grilling crunchwrap supremes: they’re doing the exact same job I do - taking already prepped mis en place and using them to assemble dishes, albeit in a much less glamorous environment.  Is there really that much of a difference between someone who works the 2AM shift at Taco Bell and a garde manger at a high end farm to table restaurant?  As I scarfed down the disappointingly addictive blob of spicy potatoes, greasy beef, and salty cheese wrapped in a chewy tortilla, those were the thoughts I said to myself as I ended Week 2 of working at a restaurant.