"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.
"What is more mortifying than to feel that you have missed the plum for want of courage to shake the tree?"
–Logan Pearsall Smith
When I first started shopping at farmers markets for the restaurant, I was almost always met with the same warning: “Watch out for Maria. She’s a spitfire.” Maria is a short filipino lady, around five feet tall with dark skin and long black hair. Sometimes she’d let her hair flow freely all the way down to her waist while wearing a knitted beret, and other days she would weave it into a loose braid with stray strands sticking out here and there. Her face was wrinkled and somewhat leathery, but her brown eyes always twinkled in the most mischievous way, as if she came to the market specifically with a plan to somehow play a practical joke on you. You either loved and looked forward to seeing her at farmers or did your best to avoid eye contact. It was always equal parts impressive and comical seeing her lug 50 pound crates of whatever she was selling, from baby bok choi to vermilion colored cara cara oranges, while still maintaining her sometimes hot pink nail polish as she scrambled to get her display ready before the whistle blew. Her table would be somewhat precariously overflowing with sweet potatoes, ginger and various aliums, and fruit sitting on tupperware lids, with signs and prices handwritten on scraps of cardboard.
I always made a point to stop by her stall first, to take as many of her sweet italian peppers as I could before anyone else could get to them. We were going through them alarmingly quick, charring them until they were blackened and smoky before tossing them with heirloom tomatoes, herbs, vinegar, ginger, and sesame oil. They had this fantastic ombre shade depending on the time of summer, ranging from a pale jade chartreuse to a rich, thick, blood red. “Aye yai yai mijo,” she would joke. “You’re taking all of my sweet italians!” Other days once she saw me park she’d utter “How much are you going to rob me today? Don’t you be stealing all of my bags mijo; you trying to start some trouble?!” I always admired how blunt and unswerving she appeared, and very quickly learned first hand how she got her reputation as a bonafide, spitfiring dragon.
"Life, people learned, was not easy. Life was not cake. Life was not a carrot cake."
My parents often recount to me their “first times” with classic American gastronomy – their first time going to a Western grocery store, their first time getting a bucket of fried chicken from KFC, and among others their first time eating the countless number of American sweets so different from the desserts of Southeast Asia. Everything from Oreos, bread pudding, packaged Hostess pastries, and especially their primary encounter with carrot cake.
“THE TABLE WAS COVERED WITH FOOD LIKE ROAST CHICKEN, ROAST POTATOES, ROAST PARSNIPS, ROAST TURKEY, ROAST LIQUORICE AND, THE CENTREPIECE, A ROASTED KNIGHT.”
- ELIAS ZAPPLE
I’m not entirely sure what more one can write about roasting a chicken. What is there to talk about? It’s untouchable – pulling a roasted bird from an oven is a religious and sacred culinary act. It’s a sacrament of proficiency for every burgeoning cook.
Once you say you’re serving a roast chicken, all outside judgment is removed – any perceived lack of effort for not hand rolling pappardelle or folding egg whites into a souffle is thrown out the window because no one dares criticize a chicken. No one questions the cook when the roasted fowl is resting on its cutting board, sitting there for adoration.
"The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play."
Arnold J. Toynbee
NOV. 2 2016 - NOV. 9 2016
2:00 PM: I look at the prep list for the day, consisting of hastily scribbled notes from the night before. While not necessarily the shortest list, it could be worse. Our front of house manager comes in and tells us the reservations for the night – it’s Friday, and it looks like it’ll be pretty busy.
2:15 PM: I’m glad I went on a run earlier today. I wolf down a pistachio cake layered with rosewater lemon curd while I simmer kombu for seaweed butter.
2:30 PM: I realize that I need to make another batch of dressing for tartare, a painstaking, laborious process that includes finely mincing shallots and segmenting limes. Wishing I came in at one today. Meanwhile, every possible inch of cook top is taken up for the hotline prep.
3:00 PM: Still segmenting limes.
3:15 PM: I ask Joey to help me out – he trims a hanger steak to use for steak tartare. Limes are almost done and I just need to roast chiles to finally finish that damn dressing.
3:30 PM: Our wine bartender Dan arrives. By now all the lines in the kitchen are set up, with each prep fridge packed with nine, six, and third pans filled with mise en place. Our dishwasher arrives and begins clearing the mess we’ve made in the dishpit.
4:00 PM: Getting ready for a weekend service is a huge theatrical performance. Ask anyone getting ready for a Friday night when the books are completely filled, and there’s this stage fright we feel as we’re getting ready. It will be inevitable that the board will be filled and for a hellish thirty minutes you will be behind with the expo breathing down your back. One too many courses will be fired and you don’t know when or how to keep up.
An hour before the front door is unlocked is when we are either confident or panicking. Maybe we got all of our prep done and now have an hour to get backups for all our other backups. Either that, or we’ve realized we probably should have been a bit more serious during that first hour instead of eating pistachio cake and making dick jokes.
We rehearse, get everything in place so that our performance – firing risotto, grilling octopus, plating tartare, can happen smoothly. Either that or it’s a shit show where we fool everyone else that it’s going smoothly.
4:15 PM: The restaurant doesn’t open until 5, but we have happy hour starting at 4 with a complimentary bar snack, which my station regrettably is in charge of. The first 4 top rings in – we were given a sack of free Pacific Gold oysters so that’s what the lucky bastards are getting today with their glass of wine. Most of the front of house staff has arrived to get ready for their part of tonight’s performance. Tables are set, wine glasses are polished to the umpteenth time. Any specials and menu adjustments are copied down into their notebooks for the night.
4:30 PM: I go over my prep list making sure everything is actually checked off. There’s nothing worse than having to run and get chives to mince on the fly once the first order comes in because you forgot.
4:45 PM: Time for a last minute bathroom break. If I smoked, I would join the other line cooks on the rooftop.
5:00 PM: Doors are unlocked. Having to shuck oysters keeps interrupting my last minute tasks of whipping cream and frosting meringue on top of passionfruit tarts.
5:30 PM: More oysters. Wishing I just made a large batch of miso popcorn to dole out mindlessly, but I will say with confidence I can shuck an oyster quite easily.
"She swallowed and looked down at the artichoke petals piled neatly on the side of her plate. Her center certainly felt like it was melting, growing soft and wet just from the rasp of Mr. O'Connor's voice. Why should a man already devilishly handsome also have a voice that could charm birds from the sky? It simply wasn't fair."
It wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered the marvelous world of artichokes outside of a dip saturated with spinach, mayonnaise, and cheese. (Disclaimer: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a dip saturated with spinach, mayonnaise, and cheese). Yet, does it not make anybody else a tad frustrated knowing many a shopper will only see artichokes as those beige squeaky things that come out of a pop top can, a cohort I was all too recently a part of?
"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon."
Salads admittedly get an unfair reputation in this apartment, mainly because they’re often lumped into the “bagged lettuce tossed with cupboard and refrigerator leftovers” category. Ask me if I’d like a salad, and I’ll conjure up an oversized bowl of semi-wilting leaves, whose lack of heft will leave me digging for a pint of ice cream soon afterwards. Salads are supposed to be the compromise for when you’ve had three too many brownies last night, not because you want to treat yourself to something special for lunch. Where the term 'salad' is mentioned, more often than not does the word 'deprivation' follow in close pursuit.
"If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world."
On Fridays I make sure I’m extra prepared before walking into work. I double check there’s a pair of sharpies in my satchel, make sure I’ve saved my favorite work shirt for the weekend, and have my watch latched to my burn-scarred wrist to track ticket times. That’s my Friday ritual.
Except I have Friday off today – a rare occurrence no doubt for someone in the restaurant industry, and instead of my favorite black v-neck I’m putting on my charcoal suit for the first time in over five months. Stiff dress shoes have replaced my well worn, patchy but comfortable Nikes. I feel a lot more stuffy – both physically and figuratively – than when I’m wearing my frayed pair of Levi’s and the black v-neck.
I was a campus tour guide in college – one of those elitists whose blind, obnoxiously unwavering adoration for their school made us either the most charismatic or most insufferable person in the room. Ones who invite you to a reunion celebration on a weekend, something I found mortally inconvenient until I remembered 99% of the population has weekends off. When I put on a black chef’s jacket for the first time I felt a certain kind of confidence and assurance. Putting on the suit jacket made me feel more like a phony, and I couldn’t help but think how much more comfortable I would be hiding behind an apron as I walked out the door.
Each stage of your life is accompanied by a series of questions you’re constantly being asked. Junior High: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” High School: “What do you want to study?” College: “What are you going to do?” Post-grad: “So what do you do?”
This was my first cocktail mixer of real life, where I’d finally ask and be asked that last question. Armed with a glass of wine as a social lubricant, I heard people proudly proclaim, “Senior manager at this consulting firm. Structural engineer! International marketing professional based in Switzerland! Diplomatic Security Engineering Officer! And you?”
Thit kho is a dish very much akin to bolognese - everyone and [literally] their mother has a different methodology for making what they believe is the best caramelized pork belly. Of course, every mother – mine included – will proudly flaunt this fact in front of her children, reminding them how important it is to keep her cooking up on a pedestal.
I remember vividly almost fifteen years ago one of these moments. We were watching our ritual after dinner tv show in the garage, back when cathode shooting ray tv’s with the antenna were still technologically advanced, when my mom came in with a humble stainless steel bowl.
“TRY THIS!”, she demanded. It was filled with rice coated in a sticky brown substance, dotted with chunks of pork. It wasn't the succulent meat itself that drew my attention, but the caramelized sauce it was glossed in. It was stuff that you would ask second bowls of rice for because all you wanted to do was swirl and mash it together into the world's best side dish. Whereas the thit kho we’d usually have would be swimming in a dark broth and hard boiled eggs, this version was glossed in a sticky glaze – an unctuously sweet elixir. The braising liquid was reduced until pork fat and sugar formed a sticky, bubbly mess, and the meat is (here I go), fried in savory caramel.
There are some cherished dishes that you forget just exist sometimes- food that has either fallen out of fashion due to some upstart diet fad or is just so seldom seen in your area that it falls off of the memory banks of your tongue. (Ask a transplanted Angelino to find a decent California burrito in San Luis Obispo and you get the picture). If you have the misfortune of being a part of the latter group, you’ll run into the following scenario: