In June 2015 I graduated from college without a game plan or career. Now I'm on a mission to document my year working in a restaurant to see what happens when a idealistic millennial tries to follow a dream.
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
You have to be a certain kind of crazy to decide to pursue a professional cooking career. Whenever someone new decides to stage at the restaurant, one of the first questions I tend to ask as they shadow the pantry station is why they made the foolhardy choice to work full time in sweaty kitchen for a low hourly rate. 99% of the time, they always reply with some varietal of ‘I love to cook’, or ‘It’s the one thing I’m good at’, (a statement I myself blurted out during my interview), but truthfully the chef and I always joke that they also forgot to say that they’re insane, stupid, and/or slightly irrational. Cooks walk into the kitchen on a weekly basis to get their asses kicked on the line, only pausing to take an occasional cigarette break before going back for more. They end the night hunched over a mop bucket scrubbing grease and burnt caramel off of the floor before having an afterwork drink (or three), and then finally go home with sore feet and stained chef’s jackets only to do it again the next night. The life of a cook so far seems to be full of inane decision making that defy all reasonable logic, but yet at the same time have produced somewhat pertinent life lessons for me in the four weeks I’ve been at the restaurant.
Don’t be a poser
When you went to elementary school, people always looked forward to your birthday. Not because eight year olds at the time were genuinely excited at the fact you were now nine, but because we were greedy assholes who became delighted at the possibility that you were going to bring in a few dozen donuts, cupcakes, or cookies to share with the class to celebrate. For that day you were the most popular kid in your grade, especially if your mom had decided to hand bake seventy two oversized chocolate chunk cookies, versus buying a few plastic boxes of mini vanilla frosted cupcakes. You wanted to be the chocolate chunk cookie guy.
While I was visiting home this week, I insisted that my mom get a box of bo la lot for me to bring back up so I could share it with the staff - not because I was feeling particularly generous, but because I was still feeling like the insecure third grader at a new school. The one who needed to buy friends through bringing them snacks.
I spent a few hours before work that day, agonizing over how I should present the charred, betel leaf wrapped beef to the kitchen staff, before painstakingly pre-rolling a dozen spring rolls and then elaborately laying out the remaining food in a complicated display of rice paper, nuoc mam, herbs, and vegetables in a disposable foil tray. I walked through the hefty wood frame door, quivering in both anxiety and excitement, but after a brief (and albeit genuinely excited) response from Cody & the chef, who were in the middle of their prep list, it was awkwardly placed in one of the two door fridges for the rest of the week, me being too awkward and timid to remind anyone that they were there to eat.
Over a week went by and that tray of food still sat in the fridge, waiting for a nervous twenty two year old to encourage everyone else to try it. During cleanup one night, when I had a moment alone taking out the trash, I discreetly tossed the tray of wilting herbs and food in the trash.
Hold on to your self-confidence
‘I forgot to invite you to the staff meeting yesterday morning’, the chef said after I clumsily shoved the tray of food away. ‘We have a new manager, Jo. She’s awesome.’
When you put yourself in an environment and tell yourself you are the most inexperienced person in the group (no matter how true it is), one of the worst habits that forms thereafter is believing you don’t have what it takes, including how to fire a ramen bun according to a previously inept manager.
Jo is everything he wasn’t: proactive, but not in a boundary crossing manner, knowing when to let the kitchen staff to do their job, but always ready to offer support and assistance. Most importantly though, she never pretended like she was the master of cooking ramen buns.
But know it will still probably fuck you over a few times.
We have a flourless chocolate cake on the dessert menu. If there’s one adage that should be added to the collection of life cliches besides “Dare to be Different”, and “Not all who wander are Lost”, it should be “If you put a warm chocolate cake on the menu it will sell unbelievably well.” We move a lot of these tortes, topping them with macerated raspberries and serving them with a small pitcher of jalapeno creme anglaise on the side. As cliched as it might be, it’s a bloody fantastic dessert, but as I soon found out, equally finicky in its making.
You take chocolate, melt it over a bain marie with nearly a pound of butter, and fold in eggs that have been whipped into a frothy ribbon with sugar. Whip the eggs too much, and the torte becomes hollow and cracks on its dry top. Whip them too little, and your torte becomes a greasy, dense little puck. Fill the water bath with an inch more than it should, and the cooking time is extended by a half an hour, whereas too little and they’re over baked long before the timer goes off. The inner thigh jiggle of an underdone torte and the barely noticeable wobble of a perfect one have a hardly discernible line that spans less than 5 minutes in the oven, and separates something that is perfectly delicate and moist and the cliched monstrosity that is a molten chocolate cake.
As I was making the newest batch for the week, the chef, in her omnipresent tone of voice that managed to walk the fine line between persnickety yet supportive mentioned, ‘By the way, I don’t think it was the one you made, but that last batch of chocolate torte that was being sent out was really underdone.’ As I precariously placed my hotel pan of ramekins into the oven, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Those undercooked ones that went out this week were indeed, the batch that I had made.
Help out where you can
In addition to Kenny, the tall, jaunty charcuterie cook I met on my first night, there’s also another person who frequently works the station named Joey, who started just one week earlier than me. With a set of glasses that without them would leave him legally blind, and always some kind of hat on his head, he proved to be one of the most helpful people in the kitchen, provided his nerves didn’t get in the way of his performance. Even though he had years of restaurant experience that far surpassed mine, there’s still something highly comforting about having someone else by your side when navigating a new environment.
Joey is fanatical in what he does - to him charcuterie is much more than a meat and cheese board, and it showed in the OCD he channeled for every ticket, even if it caused the trail of papers hanging from the printer to steadily grow during Friday night rushes. One could see him jumping back and forth between his station and the meat slicer in a dazed, flustered panic, asking me to jump in if I had a free moment. That’s yet another irrational part of being a chef - as uncomfortable and stressed as it makes you, getting your ass handed to you during a service, where you have a paper trail of tickets hanging off of the printer gets your adrenaline pumping more so than any kind of recreational drug.
As I was helping Joey out one night, one thing he mentioned was that I got lucky landing a job here. I joke that sometimes working at a restaurant is like living out Kitchen Confidential in person, but in all reality this is a supremely watered down version of what Anthony Bourdain went through in his high volume, testosterone injected east coast kitchens. People here aren’t assholes. They’ll help you when you’re panicking and in the weeds, and are willing to refill your nine pan with more blanched asparagus or more burrata for you when you’re running low in the middle of service. I did get lucky here.
Take compliments in stride
I’ve always equated compliments about my cooking to being a contestant on American Idol. No average person ever tells you to you face that you’re food sucked, because it makes him a callous asshole after you’ve spent time cooking him food. As a result, you’re entire life you’ve been told that you’re an excellent cook, and that you should ‘definitely open a restaurant’, or ‘go enroll in culinary school.’ As a result, you’ve become so jaded by these compliments all your life that while you may think you’re this amazing cook, in reality you could be one hundred percent mediocre. It’s different however when that comment comes from a peer in the arena - it’s not your mom telling you that you’re talented, but Simon Cowell sitting behind the judge’s panel, telling you you’re going to Hollywood.
Codi, who made simultaneously cooking three orders of cod, roasted cauliflower, and a lamb biryani seem so effortless and like child’s play came up to see how my station went that night.
Even after a night where the restaurant was full and orders kept buzzing in, he made it look like as if he had taken a relaxing stroll on the beach. ‘Are you sure you still want to be a writer?’, he said to me that night. ‘You kick ass at cooking.’
I decided to finally stay back for a shift drink after work this week. The conversations that happen near midnight over a pint of beer are the few chances where I not only discovered who cooks really are outside of a restaurant, but reaffirmed to myself how out of place I am. An occasional DUI seemed to be a common thread amongst the group, along with the fact that half of the staff couldn’t afford a car let alone rent in the area. Stories of struggle and gritty life narratives littered the conversation, all tied around the fact that cooking provided a respite from everything that made life crappy. Even the chef threw in a joke about how broke she was going to be until her next paycheck came in. Here I was, a kid from the Republican pocket that is Orange County, who went to private school for over twelve years. Despite all this, everyone was happy- much happier it seemed than the peers I knew working overtime in a cubicle.
What was supposed to be just a casual after work drink (d)evolved into strutting into a local bar (at the suggestion of Jeff), and pounding back a beer and two shots within ten minutes. From that point forward, if there’s one singular important lesson I learned it’s that if you hand money over to Jeff, the person who seemingly knows every single bartender in San Luis Obispo, and someone whom you can never seem to reject his aggressive friendliness, be prepared to wake up hungover the next day. But despite the hangover I could feel coming on and later regret, that week I was cracking jokes and witticisms, and felt like I belonged here despite the fact that the foil tray of food was now sitting comfortably in the dumpster, and that many of my chocolate tortes should have been labeled the dreaded “molten lava cake”. I was no longer that awkward new guy, despite how in the back of my head, I knew I was completely different from them.
There’s still a lot of things that turn me off from pursuing cooking for longer than the one year timeline I gave myself. I think about it all the time as I’m lugging almost a dozen heavy trash cans to the dumpster each night, only to realize that the palm of my hand is now slicked wet with a brown mystery liquid that was sitting at the bottom. I’m still sweaty from grazing past the hot line, and my hands are always raw from gripping the steel wool I use to scrub crud off of sizzle plates. I’ve just spent the past ten hours on my feet, and then walk home when most people are still asleep, but even still everything about this work is so fantastically addicting, that I wake up the next morning, counting the hours until I return to do it all over again.