"The conversational overachiever is someone whose grasp exceeds his reach. This is possible but not attractive."
Starting from 7th grade all the way into my high school graduation, I was a quintessential A-type: the anal retentive, have to get it done, pull the weight of the team person who everyone was excited to be paired up with, because they knew if necessary, they could get away with only doing a modicum of the work. When I left my degree to work as a line cook, I thought those days would finally be over. I mean, there’s no group presentations, research reports, or any sort of special project to be done in the restaurant kitchen - you tackle your own prep list for the day, and man your own station. But unfortunately, the get it done, get it done well, and spectacularly overachieve mentality is a hard mistress to leave behind.
A busy Friday night can go two ways. The first way (and the preferred one), is that the restaurant has a healthy amount of reservations staggered throughout the night. The first table doesn’t come until six, giving the kitchen extra time to get ready, prepare backups of everything, and prepare for the rush. Orders buzz in at a fast but steady stream, and while the dining room is full, food comes out at an acceptable pace, tickets get stabbed with satisfaction, and while considerably busy, you never feel overwhelmed. One can walk out of the restaurant slightly buzzed from a shift drink and feeling like a badass for completing an excellent service.
The second way a Friday night can go, as I discovered this week, is that the restaurant still has a generous amount of reservations. They don’t trickle in at a steady stream though - they all decide to make a reservation at 5:15 PM, shortly after the doors open. They all for some reason decide to order the dishes that you are barely prepped for, causing you to mince more chives per order even though you really don’t want to. Dozens of people decide to casually walk-in at 7:30, thinking they’ll get a table and will be able to get a rib-eye within twenty minutes, resulting in a lot of impatient and nervous waiters breathing down your back as you realize two hours into dinner, you’ve already gone through all three of your backups despite the fact your board is still filled. An order for house cured salmon gets sent to the wrong table without anyone noticing, and the people that were supposed to get it end up waiting 45 minutes for their starter, precipitating a brief flipout by the chef in the middle of her flurry of tickets on the board. As you see another tartare ring in, to your horror you realize that you’re out of ground goat. All of a sudden, an entire leg of the stuff gets hastily unwrapped from the walk-in, and last minute trimming commences, all while more tickets still print in at your now abandoned station.
There were often times during the night where I again thought to myself that there was no way I was cut out for this - to voluntarily put myself through such manic anxiety and stress every weekend. My usually clean station was a blind mess at this point. I couldn’t tell if the adrenaline pumping through my cut covered fingers was something I was getting high off of, or if it was instead this poison that would finally subside once the front door was officially closed, and where my heart could finally beat at a normal rhythm. I fell asleep on the living room couch in my grease tainted work clothes that night, fingers reeking of salmon. I woke up at 6AM with the lamp still left on - I only meant to sit down to check my unread text messages when I got home.
Bigwood had a catering event the next day requiring over forty individual chocolate tortes (yes, that chocolate torte), where he needed to leave the restaurant by 11:00 AM. I clocked in at 9:30, vowing that I would also get all my other prep done well before service, idealistically thinking I could go home for a nap and later waltz in with my station all set up for dinner.
The A-type within me was giddy with delight looking at my extensive prep list and knowing I would seemingly have all the time in the world. Hauling what was left of our goat onto an oversized cutting board, I began trimming its meat, separating each muscle on the leg, piece by piece like a fresh surgical intern, and then taking great care to free the ruby flesh from its silverskin. I charred ten pounds of sweet italian peppers, where they then each had to be deseeded and chopped into rough pieces, before being tossed with a case of cut heirloom tomatoes, fish sauce, vinegar, and herbs. Two pounds of butter were cubed and put in the freezer to make pate brisee for plum and fig crostatas, while sugar was boiling on the stove for caramel. Still scarred from nearly curdling an entire batch of budino last week, I took the pot off the stove prematurely and discovered the custard was no more than a coffee flavored soup, so I had to then carefully reheat it up to temperature for it to thicken. My candied hazelnuts had once again, crystallized, and in an effort not to throw away such an expensive mistake, I blanched the nuts of their crumbly sugar and retoasted them so I could start over, before assembling tart dough into individual crostatas.
Before I knew it, it was 4:00, and I was still in the restaurant.
Service that Saturday was perfectly normal. It wasn’t a clusterfuck of swearing and there was no train of tickets hanging off of my board - all of the preparation I had done had led to an unremarkable night. It had been over 12 hours since I stepped foot inside the restaurant as we started breaking down the pantry station, and while I wasn’t necessarily tired, I was somewhat disillusioned. I had just learned one of the cardinal laws of a restaurant kitchen: your prep work will always fill up the amount of time you give yourself. Whether it be 2 hours, or 6 hours, prep will always be there to haunt you, magically filling up all the time you have available.
With my Saturday gone, I once again stumbled through the front door, intentionally ignoring my computer perched on its mostly vacant and sterile desk. In pursuit of being a well-prepared, excellent line cook, my writing has been left untouched for the most part. I keep walking past that unused computer desk when I get home, smelling of both walnut vinegar and exhaustion.