Life in a Restaurant: Week 6

 
 
 

"There's a bond among a kitchen staff, I think. You spend more time with your chef in the kitchen than you do with your own family."

 

 

FRIDAY

"I'm taking you to a cocktail event we're catering at your university today.  It's just going to be me and you!"

"Shit."

I remember my response exactly - it was the obligatory “Oh great!” that one is required to say out of politeness, but marred by sheer panic in my head.  Don’t get me wrong - I was excited to be out of the kitchen, but the idea left me scared shitless due to the simple fact that I’m still eminently intimidated by the chef.  (So intimidated, that I’ve refused to even type out her name in writing, like some sort of a culinary version of Lord Voldemort.)

It's not because she's some terrifying Gordon Ramsay persona you might be accustomed to imagining an executive chef to be, but more because I wonder to this day why the hell she hired someone with absolutely zero experience to work in her kitchen.  There's been this underlying, looming expectation I've been secretly making for myself to somehow prove that she didn't make an asinine choice in picking me over stacks of resumes I've been seeing her reject over the weeks.  After packing a cooler with ice, deli cups of tartare dressing, mixing bowls, lamb, and a handful of silver spoons and utensils, she casually tossed me the keys to her silver Subaru and lit a cigarette for the short car ride over to the campus.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an awkward guy: I forget people’s names within a second of meeting them, forming a coherent sentence can be an anomaly (which I concede is a terrible problem as an aspiring writer), and I especially loathe racking my brain for things to talk about during a five and a half minute car ride.

“I moved to the states when I was eighteen,” the chef started (much to my relief). “I was just supposed to visit my aunt and uncle while I was in law school but I ended up staying in the states. I enrolled in college here - but it was too easy. They kept giving me A’s.”

“What a hard life,” I chuckled.

“That’s what you think right!” she interjected, momentarily pausing from her cigarette. “You might be thinking what a hard life, but it was all bullshit!  I wrote sentences that 100% didn’t make sense but they were probably thinking, ‘Poor little French girl can’t speak English’, so they just gave me an A.”

“Don’t be afraid to question everything,” she heartily concluded, staring out the window.  “Don’t just accept anything that someone tells you.”

As we parked on campus, she lit another cigarette, taking in the red brick and concrete buildings that made up the place I called home for four years. I was impressed- equally by her blatant disregard for political correctness on the eco-friendly, tree-hugging campus, but also by the unexpected wisdom one wouldn’t normally find or expect from someone of that age, let alone one who had spent her life in an industry known for its impetuous and brazen inhabitants.  She began gesturing her half finished cigarette in the air, gusts of smoke now trailing behind her impassioned hand movements as she continued to dole out more amusingly blithe comments and life advice. I couldn’t help but reminisce about those very same hand movements from the very first time I met her six weeks ago.

Other restaurants and chefs in the area were also invited to cater the cocktail hour in honor of a presentation by the CEO of Whole Foods (“He’s probably going to spew some bullshit to cover up their price hiking that everyone will mindlessly eat up,” the chef quipped.)  The other people in the room were stock images and stereotypes come to life: white males all in chefs coats, with their names impeccably embroidered in gaudy cursive above each breast pocket. Obedient sous chefs in immaculate whites stood by their side like the utmost trained german shepherd.

The same “I don’t belong here” feeling on my first day of work returned to punch me in my gut.  Here we were: the chef being the only female in the room, dressed in a slightly weathered black t-shirt and half apron tied around her waist, her black hair in a trademark untidy, casual bun, and bangs side swept against her face.  I felt positively diminutive in comparison to everyone else, with their magisterial, almost Emeril Lagasse-like presence, as they interacted so effortlessly with the dazzled, white-collared guests who began shuffling in, no doubt romanticizing the very career I was trying to comprehend and untangle. It seemed like out of every other restaurant in the room, we were more informal, reserved, and somewhat unassuming - the antithesis of what they were trying to portray.  We were the anti-”chef”.

(I say “chef”, because if you say that word to the average person, they conjure images of Emeril in a white jacket, or perhaps someone wearing a tall French toque.  People will also blindly label anyone who cooks for a living as a “chef".  So while technically the chain-smoking person I was standing next to is a chef in regards to that she is the executive of the restaurant’s kitchen, she is not the tv personality, buttoned up, Thomas Keller “chef”, most people might be imagining...  Everyone under her command for the most part, including me, are simply line cooks, not "chefs".)

In the public spotlight, the chef was incredibly quiet, low key, and steady- the last person anyone I think would expect or envision as being an executive chef of her caliber.  Unfortunately the fact she’s female probably has a lot to do with it, although part of me sometimes wonders if she also ever uses that misogyny to her advantage in order to get out of small talk.  So while she would occasionally smile and converse with an adoring person who had just taken a large bite of tartare, she seemed much more content and at ease when continuing to methodically clink the two metal spoons in her hands back and forth, churning out perfectly formed teardrops of lamb, choosing to reflect all compliments and questions to Jo, the new manager who thankfully took over all formalities.

As soon as the cocktail reception was over, we hightailed it out, the chef lighting another cigarette the moment we stepped outside the automatic doors. “Who the hell invites restaurants to cater an event on a Friday evening?” she joked to the other restaurants, handing them leftover tartare before leaving. “Don’t they know we have restaurants to run?”

While I drove the Subaru back to the restaurant slightly more relaxed and comfortable around her, the experience couldn’t help but slightly reinforce my conjecture that I was in the presence of an omnipotent being.  Over the weeks I keep discovering more and more about this wonderfully nuanced character who, while able to psychoanalyze her kitchen staff to an unnerving degree, also has an incredibly misanthropic edge, refusing to meet the countless diners clamoring to meet her every night in the dining room out of sheer shyness and introversion.  (Many of the customers who desperately want to meet the composer behind their dinner are frequently told that she is busy in the kitchen and wouldn’t have time to meet them).  Oh, and she also happens to churn out masterful food.

It was a fact: she was most certainly a badass.

___

The rest of service that night went very well.  Despite my previous warning to myself about bar hopping with Jeff, I couldn’t help but oblige to his invitation that night, and we showed up with the rest of the front and back of the house staff (chef excluded, of course) to one of the numerous college bars vacated due to summer break.  I ended the night earlier than everyone else, choosing to get dropped off at my apartment in a blissful stupor (no doubt induced by each shot of painfully cheap liquor thrown back that night), with another bag of Taco Bell in hand, happy and confident about what was to come the next day.

 

SATURDAY

Even though we were a still a few hours until service, walking into the kitchen that afternoon was strikingly similar to seeing the library the Sunday before finals week at school.  Everyone was focused and working in a skittish demeanor, trying to hide the anxiety they were feeling as much as they could, accented by a sense of impending chaos penetrating the veal stock scented air.  The chef was starting on trimming an entire rib eye loin for dinner service while Bigwood and Jeff scrambled to get everything they needed packed for an off site catering event.  Codi was conspicuously absent, but seeing the frustrated, irate look on the chef’s face as she asked me to set up the pantry station as soon as possible, I didn’t bother to delve further into why she seemed to be tackling everything herself that day.

As the (hungover) front of house staff began groggily shuffling in and polishing racks of stemware, bits and pieces of gossip would slide its way past the pantry station about why all of a sudden Codi, seemingly one of the most reliable and important members of the kitchen, decided to just not show up on a Saturday.  I can’t help but put the guy on a pedestal - Codi was the person who willingly walked my naive, obtuse, and oblivious self through how to perform basic functions in the kitchen.  He was given the arduous task of teaching someone who knew nothing about cooking in a restaurant how to do things that I cringe about not knowing how to do now, like learning how to write a prep list for the next day, or how to break down a station at the end of the night.  The only reason, I surmised, that he would willingly decide not to work at such a fantastic restaurant anymore was due to something out of his control.  Did he have the existential quarter life crisis I myself have been going through and decide cooking wasn’t for him anymore? Was he the victim of some freak accident and now permanently disabled?

While all of this was running through my head, the chef was in the background muttering about how if one hundred percent of her line wasn’t prepped for service she would feel off the entire night.  Hearing this made me feel as useless as ever, as I didn’t know how to do half the tasks she desperately needed done for service, such as dismantling whole black cod into perfectly portioned fillets and trimming hanger steak clean of its gristle and excess fat.

Aaron, our dishwasher, also called in “sick”, meaning that in order to find a cutting board, one had to dig under a pile of used stockpots, various chinois, and greasy deli cups before finally being able to properly clean and sanitize it, shaving at least ten minutes off of your already preciously dwindling prep time.

Upon 5 o’clock no one seemed at all ready for the front door to open, but without fail tickets began to ruthlessly ring in just as Cheyenne came in after working a full shift from her other job to take Codi’s place.  It was by far the busiest night I had experienced in my five weeks of working.  Orders continued to keep buzzing in and there was not a single point during service where I didn’t feel helplessly behind in keeping up with the tickets, as did everybody else.  The graceful dance within the hotline the chef was so used to doing with Codi without thinking was thrown off as she was forced to waltz with her new partner, who was still getting her footing after working the line for about only a week.  Their rhythm was clumsy and off beat as they struggled amidst the ever growing serpent tail of tickets trailing off the printer, which refused to stop hissing in new tables to the under-prepped kitchen.

Stepping foot from the jovial, serene dining room where every seat was filled into the back of the house territory was like crossing into a scene from the movie 300.  It’s funny, the mindset that occurs during a frantically busy night. You feel like you barely have time to breathe, and an intense anxiety wells up and latches onto your chest like this ten pound tumor.  It’s not the good kind of high I’ve been comparing cooking to - it’s a different kind of adrenaline that you desperately wish would come to an end, dragging you down as you do your best to carry on despite knowing that the odds are absolutely not in your favor.  I wanted desperately to catch up with my tickets so I could help wherever I could, but I could never keep up with the orders that were buzzing off of my own station - a 5 top would ring in with each cover ordering their own salad just as the same time the second course for table 114 got fired.  But you better start that dessert ticket for table 105 that just rang in though, lest they be waiting unnecessarily long for a strawberry crostata and for them to sign their check.  Wait, triple that kale salad you’re doing, because two more just rang in.

Prepping things on the fly for the hotline also became a common theme that service, and any line cook’s nightmare during a busy Saturday night rush.  The rare, brief intervals of free time I had were spent making an emergency batch of raita, or stuffing whipped burrata cheese into finicky, delicate zucchini flowers that would tear open at even the most gentle prod, as the flowers we had on hand were as limp as soggy tissue paper.  It was one thing to be as busy as we possibly could, but it was also another to be dreadfully unprepared - everyone seemed to be waiting for 10:00 PM when the front doors would be locked.

It wasn’t just the kitchen that was struggling, but the understaffed front of house as well, as the few servers for that night scrambled in a frenetic scamper between table to table, kitchen to dining room, making sure that their tips for the evening would compensate for the amount of anxiety and stress they were experiencing.  As I picked up on the occasional comments and panicked chatter throughout the night about the absence of Codi, the real reason he wasn’t here slowly sank in - he was just too hungover from last night’s outing, and decided not to show up for work on a busy Saturday, leaving the chef no other choice but to fire him.  The ten pound tumor I was carrying doubled in weight when I finally figured it out. While he made an incredibly stupid decision, I was silently mourning the loss of what I thought was an incredibly talented cook.

I really couldn’t tell what was going through the chef’s mind - she hid whatever she might have been thinking masterfully behind this indomitable expression on her face as she did everything in her power to win back control of her restaurant, despite all of the bombs currently being dropped onto it.  The board above her station where she kept all of the current tickets was packed with an absurd amount of overlapping receipts, in addition to the trail that was still growing from the printer that everyone by now so secretly wanted to just unplug and take a meat pounder to.  It was almost unbelievable seeing everything that she was able to do at once: firing two new ribeyes, remembering which tables the cod she just put on the expo table were for, walking Cheyenne through how to properly plate octopus, reorganizing her board while filling it up with more tickets, to even checking up on how I was doing.  Even in the midst of my own busy board, I couldn’t help but take a moment and watch in awe as the care-free, buoyant, and ever so facetious chef I was talking to yesterday transformed into this unshakable commander in chief of the kitchen, calling out ticket orders and instructions to the kitchen with such determination and certainty that one couldn’t help but feel confident that we would somehow make it through the night.

____

We didn’t leave the restaurant until nearly 1:00 AM, despite everyone clocking out several hours earlier, choosing to instead help the last minute dishwasher that was called in finish cleaning, before quietly sitting in each other’s company, occasionally retelling anecdotes and battle stories of the night to each other while eating the leftover chocolate tortes that I had once again, overbaked.  As I finally left the restaurant, I shuffled by the walk-in that was in a state of shambles - partly from everyone rummaging through its every crevice and then hastily plopping ingredients back indiscriminately due to the chaos of the night, but also because keeping it in its usual, fastidious state was something that Codi was always on top of.

 

 

SUNDAY

Everyone came into work just a little bit earlier, even though Sundays can be the slowest day of the week for the restaurant industry.  There’s this unwritten sense of responsibility and camaraderie silently telling you that even if something is not your fault at all, it’s still in your job description to be responsible for it anyway.

I’m slowly learning that the other tacit bullet point in the job description of a line cook is that you will always, always, have a chance to try something again, whether you like it or not.  For instance, if you have once again, somehow pissed off the french god who made the chocolate torte recipe you’ve been constantly fucking up, you have yet another day to get it right - to whip the eggs to the perfect, angelically light froth, and to fold it into the chocolate base as meticulously as possible, and finally checking on it constantly after the forty five minute mark, knowing that’s the point to which it might begin to collapse and that it is exactly the point where you went wrong yesterday.

I was wondering when the hard realities of the industry would finally disillusion me and knock me in the face like it did last night.  It couldn’t be entirely composed of the kind of glamor every single person wanted to believe at the “Let’s Schmooze the Whole Foods CEO” cocktail event, where everyone jokes about how cool it is to “Be a chef like on TV”, and to live your passion, along with a slew of other trite commentary. Perhaps I’ve grown slightly (okay, very) cynical, since entering this profession, but I can’t help but wonder why anyone, myself included, shows up to work week after week in the face of all the stress, physical pain, and emotional heartbreak that occurs, including having to say goodbye to an exceptional cook because of a hangover (which, as it turns out, is a pretty common occurrence in the industry).

Bigwood taught me how to shuck my very first oyster today, a skill I’ve always wanted to learn, but as a home cook never found an occasion to try.  Struggling with the oyster knife before finally being able to wedge it in, and shackle open the rugged slate-colored shell to reveal the cushion of briny flesh more than made up for all that had happened this weekend.  I guess that’s what is the thing that makes me want to show up each day - being forced to learn something new in the kitchen you never would have done at home. That is the glamor I wish people would talk about instead.