Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“Third pan?” I say to the dishwasher. He speaks little English but this he understands. He walks over and picks up a rectangular stainless steel pan.
- “In this furnace, everyone moves with speed; not a sound is heard, only the chef has a right to speak, and at the sound of his voice, everyone obeys. Finally, the last straw; for about half an hour, all the windows are closed so that the air does not cool the dishes as they are being served. This is the way we spend the best years of our lives. We must obey even when physical strength fails, but it is the burning charcoal that kills us.... Charcoal kills us, but what does it matter? The shorter the life, the greater the glory.”
- — French chef Marie Antoine Careme, 1783-1833
Behind the line at Gulf Coast Grill. “We’re going to start with the Cajun Trinity, that’s onions, celery, and bell pepper. Some chefs call this Louisiana mirepoix. So grab a colander and get enough for two cups each."
I liked the looks of Gulf Coast Grill the moment I saw it. It reminded me of some of my funky chic favorites in New Orleans: maybe a cross between dilapidated Uglesich and the elegant soul of Dooky Chase. So when I walked past it one day, turned around, entered, and announced I’d work for free for the experience, I only mildly surprised myself. But I may have startled the two men sitting at the bar, one of whom turned out to be the manager. He turned to the goateed guy sitting next to him and said, “That’s illegal, isn’t it?”
“Happens in San Francisco all the time,” said Goatee. “That’s how you break in at the good restaurants up there.”
There are four line positions: pantry, griddle and fry, expediter, and sauté.
“Let me introduce you to the chef,” said the manager.
In a few minutes, a young man emerged from the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron. He said he was only looking for experienced people now, but when the restaurant added a brunch service, he might consider me.
“I don’t have any experience,” I said. “Most people who walk through the door for a job don’t have any experience,” the chef said.
Here’s the irony: when I was a computer programmer, I was surrounded by people who’d fled the restaurant scene. They all warned me: the hours are bad, the work is hard, the pay is low. More ominously, “It’s not like cooking at home.” I was still determined to become the next Jacques Pepin. “You won’t become a chef overnight,” my friend Chas warned me. For years he’d been a waiter and bartender for the Chart House chain: in New Orleans, then Aspen, those great party capitals, and then finally Coronado, where they began to groom him as a manager. The prospect of a lifetime in a restaurant sent him off to Coleman College. He got a job with a corporation. He became a married man. He became a family man. For him, the change meant leaving the wild life behind.
I hung out with a crowd of restaurant workers for a while, and the celebration never stopped. When they weren’t working in their own restaurant, they were in another, at happy hour or the free evening buffet. Or one of the endless parties. Every day. Waiters, waitresses, cooks, managers, huge groups of them, from the Chart House, the Brigantine. They all went to whatever sporting event was current, not only baseball and football, but even golf. All the professional games, all the college games. The track in summer. Road trips to Baja for lobster. Bullfights. Street Scene. Belly Up. Anything involving Jimmy Buffet.
Now I was less interested in rejoining a floating party than avoiding the high cost of cooking school. So I turned in an application. Two weeks later, I got a call from the chef.
His office was the size of a closet, so the interview took place at one of the restaurant tables. He handed me back my application and said I forgot to sign it. I signed and dated it. “It says here you worked at Josten’s until 1997,” he said. “Their Human Resource department said you left in 1994.”
Uh-oh. I had forgotten I put down ’97. The truth is I hadn’t worked since 1994, living what I like to think of as a carefree Kramer kind of life (though others would see it as pure sloth). But one sin leads to another. “That’s a mistake. I was laid off in 1994 but rehired, then worked until 1997,” I lied like a sociopath. Then I made the mistake of giving him the name of my supervisor. She would give me a good recommendation, but she was too straight-arrow to back up my fraud; she was loyal to the corporation. I would give her a call anyway. He wrote the name down.
“We just want to make sure you’re not an ax-murderer,” he said.
I censored myself from saying, “Oh no, those days are behind me.”
“Now, you do know that restaurant cooking is not like home cooking,” he said.
“I do believe I heard that,” I said.
“I’ll introduce you to Phil. He’s down from San Francisco to help me out. He’ll, uh, check out your knife skills.”
“We’re making a gumbo,” Phil said. Oh, good. Right up my alley; that’s one dish I can make without consulting a recipe.
“We’re going to start with the Cajun Trinity, that’s onions, celery, and bell pepper. Some chefs call this Louisiana mirepoix. So grab a colander and get enough for two cups each. Onions are on the floor to your right, celery and peppers in the walk-in.” The walk-in refrigerator. I got my first whiff of the place, full of food, prepped and raw; it was not a bad smell, but there was something sinister about it.
I had thought my knife skills were pretty good. I was a lifelong foodie entering the restaurant business. Now, as I wash a head of celery, then peel off the stalks, I notice dirt inside. I wash the stalks.
Phil looks like he just put down his saxophone and stepped off the bandstand of a neo-swing group: he has the best-trimmed goatee I’ve ever seen. I recognize him as the guy who knew about working for free to break into San Francisco restaurants. I learn later that he worked at Chez Panisse, which maintains a long waiting list of people willing to work free for experience. And why not? Association with that legendary Berkeley establishment often led to instant foodie stardom: Jeremiah Tower, Phil Miller, Jonathan Waxman, Deborah Madison, Phil Peel, Joyce Goldstein all started there.
Phil demonstrates the knife technique. He cuts all the celery into long strips. Then he turns a stack of the strips sideways and, fingers of the guiding hand bent under, begins slicing the celery. Each piece of celery becomes a perfect little cube.
My turn to try. I cut one stalk into small strips, stack the strips, and begin the sideways dice. Phil stops me.
“I believe in the Henry Ford method,” he says. This will become a mantra. He means finish one step entirely before beginning the next. In this case, cut all stalks lengthwise before the dice cut. I do it, fill up the small hotel pan (a steam table pan), and begin on the bell pepper. He has a technique for that I’ve never seen, one of those secrets only chefs know. Instead of cutting it in half, the way all TV chefs do, he stands it upright and slices down all around, leaving only the core. I fill a hotel pan with those, using the Henry Ford method, then begin on the onions. I was feeling pretty good about my skills until the chef walked by, watched me for a few seconds, and began instructing me in basic knife technique. (I only watched Jacques Pepin’s technique videos; I never actually practiced.) I was doing it all wrong, gripping the handle of the knife with my whole right hand. One must grasp the knife handle with three fingers and hold the blade of the knife with the thumb and forefinger.
Damned if this doesn’t immediately improve my control over the knife. How did I miss that? (Later I rerun Pepin’s episode on knives. He, too, uses this three-finger, pinch-the-blade method, but he never mentions it.) I hone the knife to restore its edge. I begin cutting again. The knife remains dull. I’m surprised; my knives at home are much sharper than the ones here, and I haven’t sharpened mine in months. I mention this to the chef. “We have them sharpened professionally every two weeks. But you might want to consider bringing knives from home.”
Nothing is wasted in the professional kitchen. I had been told to save the scraps for soup stock. I have plastic containers of celery, bell pepper, and onion scraps. The chef dumps the onion scraps into the trash can. “These we don’t want,” he says. “They sour the stock.”
Phil returns and we start a big batch of gumbo. The stock bubbles away on the stove in a pot that looks like an old-fashioned washtub. I later learn it’s called a rondeau. Phil keeps up a running commentary as he works, describing what he’s doing, interspersed with critiques of restaurants he’s visited. “Okay. This is a standard fish stock, it’s got all that good shit in it -— shrimp shells, celery, onions, a bay leaf, peppercorns. Have you been to that new place in the Gaslamp? What’s up with that? I looked at the menu. Pure caca.” When the stock comes to a boil, he lets it simmer for a while, then carries it over to a work station. Hefting the big pot, he looks at me and utters what Danny Glover said in Lethal Weapon: “I’m too old for this shit.” He plugs in an immersion blender the size of a weed whacker. Into the pot it goes, ripping apart shells, extracting all that flavor. Then with a small ladle, the stock is pushed through a chinois, a cone-shaped fine-meshed sieve. I’ve got to get me one of those.
Now Phil has a stock for the gumbo, which he begins right away. “I made this in the first restaurant I worked for,” he says, “up in San Francisco. It was run by an old couple from Shreveport. We cooked everything out of the old Antoine’s cookbook, Chicken Pontalba, Eggs Sardou, Oysters Bienville.” (He pronounces it “Benville.”) “I used to think this was all fun then; I didn’t realize it was just drudgery.” Uh-oh.
There’s a regional Louisiana cookbook called First You Make a Roux, which Phil now begins. He puts a pound of butter in a large soup pot. When it melts, he adds two and a half cups of flour. Soon the aroma of peanut butter fills the room. He never stops stirring. All the cookbooks say that if black specks appear, you must start over. When the roux is a mahogany color, in go the onions, celery, and bell pepper. Nothing reminds me more of New Orleans than the smell that results when those vegetables hit the roux. Phil thinks it needs more onions, so he dices another cup. I notice he’s not using the secret knife grip that the chef just taught me. I ask him about it.
“It just never made sense to me. You don’t fire a rifle like this.” He mimics holding a rifle, both hands on the barrel. Time for my big opening.
“Ever been to New Orleans?’ I ask.
“No, I haven’t.”
“I go every year. I go to the Jazz and Heritage Festival.” He’s interested.
“Have you been to those great old restaurants? Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Brennan’s?”
“No,” I say, making a mental note to visit them all on my next trip. I wonder if this is possible on my new minimum-wage salary. I attempt a recovery: “Well, you know, I don’t think the Brennan family owns Brennan’s these days. I’ve been to their other restaurants: Palace Cafe, Mr. B’s, Commander’s Palace.” Triple whammy. I tell the story of my first trip to New Orleans in 1990. Plane delayed because of floods in Houston. Directly from the airport to the Garden District. Walk into Commander’s Palace with my suitcase, just as my friends are being shown to a table. I join them and order Crawfish Fettucini, my first New Orleans meal, and it is spectacular, especially since my last meal was five honey-roasted peanuts.
“How about Susan Spicer’s restaurant? Or Emeril Legasse’s?” he asks.
“Well, I haven’t been to Bayona,” I say, pronouncing it Buyona, the way I heard Susan Spicer say it. “But I used to go to another restaurant of hers, now closed, called Bayou Ridge. Haven’t been to Emeril’s but have eaten at Legasse’s French Quarter spot, NOLA [New Orleans, Louisiana].” Look at me, having a real foodie conversation with a professional foodie.
Phil has been ladling the shrimp stock into the roux and stirring. Then a quarter cup of fresh thyme. A pinch of cayenne. A lot of Tabasco. And an odd touch: a quarter cup of brandy.
“I know this isn’t typical. It makes it more like a bisque. I thought I’d just try it. Could you please get me a third pan?”
I walk to the back and stare at the rack full of equipment. Did he mean third from the left or third from the right? “Third pan?” I say to the dishwasher. He speaks little English but this he understands. He walks over and picks up a rectangular stainless steel pan. I later learn it’s called a third pan because three of them will fit in the standard 12- by 20-inch hotel pan. There are also half pans, sixth pans, ninth pans. The tall round stainless steel pans that look like pots without handles are “bain maries, ” usually called “bains” A couple of thousand dollars’ worth of high-level cooking education right there.
This all took about six hours. I’m still not sure if my knife skills are adequate (everyone around me is hacking and slicing at a furious pace). “Well, that’s about it,” Phil says. “Has the chef talked to you about scheduling?” No. But this sounds promising. “In the meantime, have a plate.” I order mustard catfish and eat it off to the side, away from the customers. One does not starve working in a restaurant (“Will work for food”).
Before I leave, I hear Phil and the chef planning what to do on their first night off in eight days. “Cindy Blacks?” “No, how about Laurel, I hear that’s pretty good.”
“You guys are hard core,” I say. “You spend all week working in a restaurant, you get one day off and you go to another restaurant.”
“We have to steal recipes from somewhere,” says Phil.
A few days later, I get called back. Having good knife skills probably means I didn’t seriously injure myself. I fill out the required forms. I’m offered minimum wage, which is, gulp, $5.75 an hour. “Can people live on that?” I think, but accept it. If you offer to work for free, you have no bargaining power. On the other hand, I know that when you pay $28,000 to go to the California Culinary Academy or $40,000-plus to go to the Culinary Institute of America, you spend a lot of time working every station in a restaurant. You will become a chef someday, but in the meantime you do prep, you work on the line, you wait tables, you bus tables. Of course, you do all this so you’ll understand a restaurant from every point of view, including management. But for now, I try to convince myself that I’m getting paid for an education that would otherwise cost me a lot of money.
I’m surprised when I’m offered a position on the line. The usual procedure is to start in a prep position before going on to “The Show.” And with an open kitchen such as this restaurant has, the line cooks are on display; it’s a level of show business a few notches below singing telegrams.
“The line” is where the cooking to order is done while impatient customers wait for their food. In this restaurant, there are four line positions: pantry, griddle and fry, expediter, and sauté. The expediter (usually the chef or the sous chef) jumps around the line and helps wherever he’s needed. I will be trained on Saturday night on the pantry station — presumably the easiest of the four. I tell everyone my new title: garde manger (the fancy French term for pantry chef; I think of having cards printed up). Traditionally this station does cold food items: salads, garnishes, some appetizers. With this small kitchen staff, the pantry cook serves soup, salads, and desserts.
The restaurant opens at 5:00 p.m., but the line cooks arrive a few hours earlier to set up their stations. When I show up on Saturday at 3:00, instead of being introduced to the pantry cook and watching the setup, I’m given an assignment: peel 25 russet potatoes. A prep cook is late; peeling 25 potatoes must be done now.
At home I have an upper-yuppie, ergonomically correct potato peeler. The potato peelers in the restaurant look like they cost 29 cents. I have a problem with them. After I’ve struggled for five minutes and peeled one potato, the scheduled prep cook shows up. He’s told he will get fired if he’s late again (this is the first time I realize restaurants are a volatile work environment). He grabs a peeler and stands next to me, using what I think of as the “army style.” He holds the potato over a trash can and begins slicing forward in quick small cuts. It’s a contest, and I’m losing. Out of the corner of my eye I judge that he’s doing three or four potatoes to my one.
Contest over, I move to the line where Julio will be training me. He seems pleased to have an assistant. I find myself in an awkward position; earlier the sous chef told me that Julio was not the best trainer.
First, the house chowder and soup of the day must be heated on the stove and transferred to a steam table. Small hotel pans (ninths this time) need to be filled with sliced strawberries, whipped cream, julienned carrots, julienned daikon, capers, pickled peppers, marinated onions, sliced endive, pumpkin seeds, candied pecans, six kinds of salad dressing, parmesan cheese, blue cheese. Greens must be available for a variety of salads. Right now we need romaine for Caesar salad. Julio leads me to the walk-in. The hunt begins. We find 15 heads of romaine lettuce. He cuts and discards the core and some of the top leaves. Then he makes crosswise cuts with a chef’s knife. (Later I will learn to make vertical slices so the lettuce will be bite-sized pieces. Julio is not my best trainer.) The lettuce from all 15 heads is rinsed and spun in an industrial-model salad spinner about the size of a large laundry basket.
Chives are needed for soup garnish. Once again, I observe knife technique. Tip of the knife on the board, the knife sliding forward in a cutting motion. Julio uses the knuckle of his left hand to guide the knife. He cuts the chives incredibly small—they look like green dust. (Julio will warn me of the dangers of knives; he shows me the stitches, ugly little X’s in the fleshy area between his thumb and forefinger. I wonder if I’m being trained by the right person.)
It’s time for the restaurant to open, and there’s more prep to do: all desserts must be in the dessert fridge: tarts, cheesecake, creme brûlées, bread pudding. Squeeze bottles need to be filled with caramel, ganache, strawberry, whiskey sauce. Goblets must be chilled and strawberries, cantaloupe, and pineapple diced for the fruit sorbets.
These tasks are not quite completed when the first customers trickle in. Gradually, then suddenly, the restaurant fills up. Now everything is done under the pressure of service: people are waiting to eat. Servers are waiting for their orders to be put “in the window” — not really a window, just a long open counter, but they still say “in the window.” They enter the orders by touching a chart on a computer screen, which causes tickets to spit out on a device in front of us that looks like an old-fashioned adding machine. Not all tickets are for the pantry station; separate appetizer orders must be shouted out to the griddle station.
Two of us work the station, and it’s still frantic. Tickets are spitting out. A new wave of customers order salads, while the first group settles down to dessert: three tarts. Two creme brulees. Two Caesar salads, with chicken, split. Three house salads, one split.
The problem is some of these orders take time. The raw sugar on top of a creme brûlée needs to be “burnt” with an acetylene torch. The house salad is composed: three endive leaves must be carefully arranged on the plate, red cherry and yellow pear tomatoes are halved and placed on the leaves, tender greens need to be dressed then carefully stacked in the middle to give “height” to the plate (tall food is in). Now two orders for today’s special appetizer pop out of the ticker, and 12 oysters must be shucked. I feel like I’m in the I Love Lucy episode in the chocolate factory; can I do this by myself?
The evening wouldn’t be complete without a spectacular disaster. I open the crowded dessert fridge and a paper tray of cheesecake begins to slide toward me. In an effort to save it, I reach for the tray and bat the whole batch down to the floor, where half the creamy, cheesy splooge covers my shoes. It wasn’t a full cheesecake, maybe three or four slices, but each slice sells for $4. That’s a lot of revenue on my shoes. I clean up the mess, but I’m blocking the passageway where the servers go to fill water glasses. Meantime, the ticker doesn’t slow down: two spinach salads, three tarts, six more shucked oysters. I’m handling this by myself now; Julio is in the back, slicing another cheesecake.
Before I know it, it’s 9:00 p.m.; the restaurant closes in an hour. It occurs to me that nobody has taken a break. I remember my days working in an office, where a poster provided by OSHA reminded everyone that the law requires two 15-minute breaks for every eight-hour work period.
The crowds wind down. The line cooks begin to shut down their stations. But we must be ready to serve until 10:00; if customers come in, we’ll all stay longer. The pantry station stays open the longest, because that’s the dessert station. Word comes from one of the waiters that we have just served the last dessert; it’s time to close up. Soups are put into bains and the bains into a sink full of ice: they are cooled down as quickly as possible to get them out of the temperature danger zone — between 40 to 140 degrees. The rest of shutdown involves plastic-wrapping items and putting them under refrigeration. I notice the cooks at the other end of the line are still working. Did customers come in at the last minute?
Several bowls of food are placed in the window in front of the sauté station. “Have a plate,” says Julio. This is my first “cook’s meal.” Now, here’s a tradition I can get behind and a chance to take a break. A few waiters are eating, the hostess has a bowl of pasta. Most of the cooks continue to close their stations, taking bites on the run. The sous chef says, “Most of these cook’s meals are godawful, but this one is pretty good.” These improvised dinners don’t represent the best the restaurant has to offer, often made up of product headed for the trash can. Tonight it’s seafood pasta and a “mystery dish,” a potato-shrimp croquette.
I will train two more evenings on this station before attempting it on my own. It’s the middle of the week, but it’s still busy. I will not be training with Julio. He did not show up, and he did not call in; this constitutes a resignation. No need to warn me about my new trainer’s competence. He’s 20 years old and has been working in restaurants since he was 15. He’s a dynamo; he never stops. If he stops, he says, he gets bored, so he doesn’t stop. I mainly watch: maybe not the best way to learn the station, but I don’t drop any cheesecake. I’m scheduled to do this Sunday on my own.
Sunday is an anticlimax. The restaurant is not busy. I paint a few plates with dessert sauces, I burn the tops of two creme brûlées. I assemble a few spinach-oyster salads. Then I’m clipped— sent home early, at 8:00 p.m. Half the wait staff is sent home too. This is a standard cost-saving procedure on a low-revenue night. Same thing the following Sunday. To pass the time, I play food word games with the sous chef, a former student at La Varenne, Anne Willan’s prestigious cooking school in Paris. He carries around a volume of Barron’s Food Lover's Companion. He tests himself by looking up a cooking term, then closing the book. He throws me a term: brunoise. I get it: small dice, about 1/8 inch. I give him one: beurre manie. He gets it: equal amounts flour and butter mixed together to thicken a sauce by whisking it in at the last minute. He gives me brandade. I know it’s something from Provence, but I pass. It’s a dish made of salt cod, olive oil, garlic, milk, and bread. The sous chef fills the idle hours by trimming a case of haricots verts. The activity puts him into a Zen-like trance. He moves on to a case of yellow beans. After four hours, I’m clipped again; I go home at 8:00 p.m.
In the meantime, I work some prep shifts. On Saturday morning I sense a more laid-back atmosphere in the restaurant. One can sip coffee, engage in conversation. In this more casual atmosphere, I get to know the morning crew better than my fellow line cooks in the evening, where the normal mode is panic.
Shizuo makes all the desserts for the restaurant.. He was a salaried sushi chef in the Gaslamp; he left it, he says, because he was tired of lying to customers. He does a wicked imitation of an over-solicitous sushi master. “Oh yes, sir. That fish is fresh today. Just came in.” He laughs and tells me, “And the fish was at least five days old.” Predictably, he is highly skilled with seafood. I watch him clean grouper, which is served whole in the restaurant. He uses a homemade tool, which he fashioned by tying several bamboo skewers together with a rubber band.
The dishwasher, Ray, from the Philippines, is very young and homesick. He calls everyone “Sir.” Sometimes I notice an ironic edge to that “Sir.” I begin calling him “Sir,” which he finds amusing. I had no idea how much work a dishwasher did. I imagined it involved doing a few loads of plates and silverware during dinner service. But the dishwasher is there all day, cleaning mountains of restaurant equipment — washing all the pots and pans we prep cooks use (they pile up quickly), the hotel pans of all sizes, the rondeau, the huge stock pots, sheet pans by the dozen, large and extra-large mixing bowls, cutting boards, bains. Ray’s face is sometimes covered with a kerchief, like an old-west robber, probably to protect him from breathing chemical debris. While he’s on duty, we listen to KPOP-AM 1360. (When evening comes, it will be Mexican radio.)
Ray sings along to every song. From “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” he knows all the words. It turns out, this is how he learned English.
I am simpatico with another prep cook, Michael, right away. I should have guessed: he was an English major in college. If there’s a bizarre cult that hasn’t been recognized yet, it’s old English majors who never became teachers. We wander in a daze on the fringes of other professions, waiting for time to write the great novel. I tell Michael I work the pantry station at nights. “Yeah,” he says, “in a restaurant you start on the line and then spend the rest of your life trying to get off the line.” Uh-oh.
Not only are the mornings calmer, but prepping can be closer to actual cooking. I assumed that all those warnings about restaurant cooking being different from home cooking had to do with the large quantities. What really sets restaurant cooking apart is the Henry Ford method, the way every menu item is put on the assembly line. It is rare for one person to start and complete a dish. The mustard catfish is weighed by one person, portioned and put into half pans by someone else, who coats the fillets with a mustard rub, which has been mixed by someone else. At service time, a line cook will remove the fillet from a refrigerated drawer and put it on the griddle.
The satisfaction that home cooks get from planning an entire menu, then orchestrating a dinner party from start to finish, is missing in the restaurant. The chef may experience some of that creativity when he or she designs the menu, or maybe while putting together a daily special. But once the menu is set and a recipe is put in a plastic sheet and snapped into the blue-ring binder—the restaurant’s cookbook — it is now “product,” parceled out into several production steps.
Much of prep is like that. Saturday morning, I prepped for Sunday brunch. I cut grapefruit into wedges. I sliced loaves of bread and put the slices into plastic bags for French toast. I lined sheet pans with bacon. I precooked mushrooms and spinach for omelets. I weighed and portioned crab cakes. But I also did actual cooking. The restaurant features a chicken-and-corn hash, something like an American version of polenta. I can’t say I cooked the whole dish from scratch: someone else poached the chicken; a “Hash Kit” sat in the walk-in; some mystery helper had already cut corn off the cob, creamed some corn, diced onions, and parboiled new potatoes. But I tore up the chicken, then stood over a pot and stirred cornmeal into hot chicken stock with a wooden spoon, seasoned it with fresh thyme, a pinch of nutmeg, a pinch of red pepper flakes, added the “kit” ingredients and the chicken, cooked it until the corn-meal was no longer grainy, placed it all on a sheet pan to cool, weighed 15 portions, flattened them between wax-paper sheets, put the portions in a half-pan, wrote “Hash 15 Portions” and the date on masking tape and placed the tape on the pan. I put the pan in the walk-in, which is getting more crowded since brunch service was added. The hash would be reheated between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.
Something was missing. The eating part. Fortunately, after weighing the portions, I had three ounces left over. I shaped a mini-patty, browned it in a frying pan, and popped it in my mouth. Not bad, but not quite filling.
Good thing it was time for today’s “cook’s meal.” Chimichangas by Michael. I notice there are no rules for these meals: nobody gets, appointed to cook for the cooks. Someone just gets inspired. Chimichangas are a change of pace, because the usual cook’s meal seems to be Scrambled Eggs with Other Stuff. One memorable feast was Scrambled Eggs with Other Stuff over stale Corn-meal Patty Shells. I also remember Pasta with Other Stuff and Grapefruit Slices.
That was Saturday morning. Now it’s Sunday night, and I’m back on the line. Did I mention the hours were bad?
I had come to expect a slow Sunday, then getting clipped after four hours. This time, there was a lot of prep to do: most of the ninth pans needed to be filled. I toasted pumpkin seeds. Washed and spun greens. Whipped cream. Another slow night, 5:00 p.m. Filling orders at a steady pace. For some reason, I can’t remember I’m supposed to place three candied pecans on the Peanut Butter-Chocolate Pecan Tart. Perhaps I get caught up in the painted-desert plate design, making stripes with dessert sauces, then doing feather-pulls with a skewer. After reminding me for the fourth time, the waitress reaches over the counter for the pecans and does the job herself.
It’s slow. Now I’m trimming green beans in a Zen trance.
I have a cup of the soup of the day. It’s bad form to eat on the line, so line cooks hunker down and grab a bite like a catcher. I’m in the official crouch position when I hear the ticker start spitting.
Three fast balls. Slider. Two curves. Wicked breaking stuff. Every order is a little odd. Three spinach salads, split. (Haven’t done that.) Three house salads and three house salads, split. Two Caesar salads with chicken. Smoked Fish Plate (we make that at the pantry station, but it’s so seldom ordered, only once have I seen how it’s made.) I begin the spinach salads. I had filled all the ninth pans in front of me but forgot the one behind me, the one with cooked bacon for the salad. It’s empty; they must have used it all at brunch. I put a stainless steel bowl on the burner behind me to heat up mushrooms and the dressing. I make three regular salads then return to the burner. I put spinach on small plates. Something is wrong; it’s not wilted the way it should be. The burner doesn’t stay on. The butane tank is empty. Dessert orders are coming in now. The sous chef is expediter tonight, but it’s been so slow he’s in the back rearranging the walk-in.
Finally, he rescues me. He replaces the butane tank, dumps the unwilted salads I made, and gets in the zone. He works fast, yet remains calm. He even has time to instruct me, though waiters and waitresses are jammed up, waiting for their orders. He points out again the importance of presentation. Customers are paying for this, it needs to look good. He twirls greens around, mounding them on the plate. Methodically, dishes get put in the window with the appropriate tickets. The crisis has passed. Not really. The crisis has moved down the line. The sauté cook has a long row of tickets in front of him, and he’s hustling frantically. The expediter moves down to the sauté station.
It’s a good thing I’m not a jet pilot, or we’d all be dead.
It’s the first Sunday I don’t get clipped. I work a full shift. I have prep Monday morning at 9:00. The hours are bad.
Monday. I cook jambalaya. A “Jambalaya Kit” in the walk-in contains the Cajun mirepoix: chopped onions, celery, and bell pepper. Diced andouille sausage is added. I finish the dish and spread it on two sheet pans, which I put on the rolling rack in the walk-in to cool. Then I make the house chowder. And that’s it. Two projects, cooked from start to finish. It took six hours, and it was somewhat like home cooking, that is, home cooking for a large dinner party.
Thursday I work the p.m. prep shift, 3:00 to 11:00. I arrive a few minutes early. I put on an apron and check the clipboard, which posts tonight’s to-do list. I start with “15 breaded chicken breasts.” I get the chicken and breading from the walk-in. I whip seven eggs. I put Wondra flour in a stainless steel bowl. I’ve just slapped three breaded breasts on wax paper in a half pan when the chef says he’d like to speak to me. I start to follow him. “Better wash your hands first,” he says.
We sit at a table. The manager is there too. I’m still wearing the apron. July sunshine streams in through the front door. “I suppose there’s no better way to say this than to just come out and say it,” the manager begins. He’s sorry, but he just can’t afford to have trainees at this time. I thank them both for taking a chance on me and assure them I’m still a fan of the restaurant and will continue to be a customer. They seem surprised by my upbeat reaction. I tell the chef that I learned a lot. A week earlier, he scored live soft-shell crabs, which were hard to find last summer. I saw them in the walk-in, crawling around straw-filled wooden crates. The chef interrupted a busy stint on the line to show me how to clean them: cut out the mouth and the eyes. Lift up the carapace and remove the gills, the “dead men’s fingers.” Turn them on their backs and remove the apron, narrow in males, wide in females.
Friends have expressed concern that this recent experience would dampen my enthusiasm for cooking. On Thursday evening, I cook at home for the first time since working in the restaurant. Chicken pot pie. I make a biscuit crust, carefully rolling out the dough in even strokes with the rolling pin so the dough is 3/4 inches all around. I shape it so it fits my large gratin dish. I precook new potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers. I put them on a plate and into the refrigerator to cool. I realize I’m prepping my own dinner. And when I strain the gravy, I push it through a chinois into a bain, two items I just purchased at a restaurant supply store on Market Street.