Life in a Restaurant, Week 30 - Are We Human, or Are We Masochists?


"Nostalgia is masochism and masochism is something masochists love to share"

- Andrei Condrescu


I got my ass kicked at work tonight. It’s weird how comfortable cooks are throwing throw these kinds of phrases around: I got my ass kicked. We got wrecked. I got the shit beat out of me. Look at this burn I got! Now let me post a quote Bourdain meme online explaining why I still love back of house life anyway!

I don’t think people would openly want to admit they have somewhat masochistic tendencies, but there’s no career where it’s more prevalent than working a busy Saturday night on the line. Maybe we need to make the point that not many people can do our job, and it’s true – the average person can’t. But sometimes (and it could just be me talking), I think it’s so we can dispel the perceived judgment that comes with working an hourly job full time as a full grown adult.

Really well rounded, competent cooks, can take getting their ass kicked very well. They find it fun, and can ignore the line of receipts hanging off the printer and proceed forth with their night, plucking tickets off the board like flower petals off a deranged gerber daisy. I’ll gladly confess to you I’m not there yet. I panic. I try not to stutter and choke up on the inside. I get flustered and sweat more as my cheeks become flush with frustration as I fight the inner voice asking if I can actually pull this off.

This was all but confirmed during restaurant month, what I now view as the most dreaded time of the year. “3 courses for only $30! Pre fixe menu! Limited time only!” One just needs to throw out a specific set of words and all of a sudden people are interested in your restaurant. (I liken it to this clip from Family Guy & undecided voters). After a certain point all the restaurants sound like a chorus of Applebee’s commercials, and while restaurant month is indeed effective at bringing in new customers, for the first year line cook still finding his bearings in the world of professional cookery, it sucks. You’re stuck making the same pre fixe course over and over again and all of a sudden you feel like you’re working a corporate chain restaurant catering for the senior citizen bus that just came in for Golden Girls trivia night. And unless you’re sourcing all your food from Sodexo, it’s hard to think the profit margins are very high for a restaurant offering three dishes for only thirty dollars.

We were already having a decent Saturday: my ticket rail had a healthy number of slips, front of house was busy but not frantic, and the ticket printer was being pleasantly drowned out by blues guitar coming from the kitchen speakers. I overheard one of the waiters dropping dishes off at the pit: “My ten top all just decided to order pre fixe! My night is so easy right now”, he gleefully chuckled.

Sure enough, less than a second later it rang in: a long receipt with ten identical lines - pre fixe salads. (We’re still on the pear and endive salad phase, another compromise you deal with at a restaurant. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick of something, because if customers like it, you’re stuck with it. I’ve written exhaustively about this salad: How I’ve cut my thumb making them, how I’ve fallen behind when they all ring in because of how tedious they are.)

I was working on four other tables with pre fixe covers; after a quick read of the board it meant I had twenty two salads all day. I bite my lip in frustration, because on a good day making a decent salad takes around two minutes. Multiply that by twenty two and you’re already at forty five minutes for people waiting for their first course, which doesn’t count all the tickets that ring in within the timeframe of 7:30 and 8:15, our busiest rush.

I run across the kitchen to grab the largest bowl we have, almost 3 feet in diameter, and it engulfs my entire station. At this point, I’m not even keeping count of how many heads of endive I’m separating; those five tickets for twenty two salads hang in the front of the ticket queue, hogging up all the space and mocking me until I’m done. I try to make it seem like I gave two shits about making each one, wiping down every plate and precariously plating the tumble of ingredients into a fragile house of cards supported by nothing more than the curve of each leaf. Transparent shavings of comte and pops of pomegranate go on top, and I snap at the food runner to take everything out so I can regain some sense of control.

Ten half eaten salads come back momentarily – too salty, they said. At this point I’m half livid and half crestfallen: I always taste each plate before it goes out. I angrily grab a canoe of endive to see and it tastes absolutely fine. The Chef takes a bite, and then a more thoughtful one from the bottom of the plate. “Looks like all your sea salt fell to the bottom”, she notes, almost apologetically. Automatically seeing my frustration she grabs the giant bowl and begins dismantling new heads of radicchio. I try not to knick myself on the mandoline again as I shave more pears before realizing I have to go cut off another wedge from our twenty five pound wheel of comte. The only way I know how to get through this is to put myself in a trance about how while some nights I hate cooking, I wouldn’t be anywhere else, and how I’m glad I don’t have to sit for eight hours a day at a desk (which is ironic because that’s what I’m doing right now as I write this).

We push the ten top out again, and The Chef casually swings back to the hot line as if nothing happened. I’m behind on everything else that had rung in during the interim, and juggle plating desserts, the steak tartares I missed, and roasted beets with sesame brittle and grapefruit creme fraiche. Another ticket rings in: a long receipt with eight identical lines - all pre fixe salads. The dishwasher, god bless him, already cleaned the 3 foot bowl and has it ready to go. I traipse past the hotline to grab it once more.

So during the ritual after work glass of wine at the bar, when everyone asks how each other’s night was, I give myself the leeway to say, “It sucks. I got my ass kicked. Another glass of Malbec please.” There, I said it. I’m just another stereotypical, masochist cook in the kitchen.