Spanked

From the moment I walked in today, I was in over my head. But it wasn’t just me. It was all of us. I arrived at 1500, which is generally the break between lunch and dinner. There’s a ramp up into chaos. Today, there wasn’t even a step. I hadn’t changed into my kitchen shoes before orders were being yelled at me. Thankfully, I heard them all, and got to work fast. In a kitchen, the conversation runs thusly:

Chef: That’s popcorn, pretzel, three mac and cheese all day, one with bacon.
Me: Heard, Chef
Chef: Thank you, sauté.

And then, while all that is firing, there are five more orders, and then five more, and then five more, and then five more, etc. We didn’t slow down until 2200, when I was cut, and then it was time to break down my station and clean up while the other cook transitions to the late night menu. As I walked out, there was a cover band in the beer garden playing The Backstreet Boys. I was going to skip the shift beer because I had eaten so much…. all the beers on our taps feel like drinking a loaf of bread at once… but the atmosphere was nice and I wanted to be a part of it. Generally, I strike up a conversation with someone. Tonight, I just played with my phone.

The only thing that truly went wrong was that I was asked to heat up some beer cheese for the pretzels, and when I was transferring it over to the line, I dropped it. I tried to save it, but someone had put the cold pan on the range so that the edge to pick it up was hot AF without telling me, so when I picked what I thought was a cold pan back up, it was a thousand degrees and I burned myself worse than I ever have before. My arm is missing at least three layers of skin, and I shrank back in horror… not because my arm hurt, but because beer cheese is expensive and time-consuming. It was a major fuck-up, and I own it. I could go on about how with better communication, I wouldn’t have burned myself, etc., but the buck ultimately stops with me. I took my eye off the range for ten seconds, and that’s all it took for the pan to superheat.

Other than that, though, I had a shift of which I can be proud. The prep cooks will have my ass in the morning, though. I don’t even want to think about it. Dirty looks that can’t be misconstrued even with a language barrier. They won’t care how busy we were. I guarantee it.

But that’s just how restaurants go. Prep cooks that never step up to the line have no concept of line time, and just how fast it moves, and how the pace trips everyone up at one time or another. The best of us have had their dumbass attacks, praying no one saw it. I was lucky enough that everyone and their dog was in the kitchen when the pan slipped out of my hand. I will never live it down. Five years from now, they’ll still remember that I dropped the beer cheese that one time in ’18. It’s just our nature. War stories are our jam…. and if you only make one mistake in a shift, consider yourself lucky.

Tomorrow is my dreaded dishwashing shift, then back on the line at 1600. I used to like being the dishwasher more than I do now, because I liked being left alone to my own devices. Now, it just feels isolating, like kitchen jail. The prep area and the line feel so far away, literally and metaphorically. However, when I feel down about it, I remember that anyone else in the restaurant could walk out except for me, and we’d be fine. I am the key to the whole operation. When Jesus said the last will be first, I’m pretty sure dishwashers are who he meant, because you can run a restaurant down a cook, but you can never run a restaurant without a dishwasher.

Write it down.

The thing that I do like about the dish pit is that when it’s the craziest on the line, I am off in my own little world. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Occasionally, I’ll get called up to the line if there’s more work than two cooks can reasonably do, but on a Sunday, that’s rare.

Cooks are notoriously suspicious people, so pretend I didn’t say that. I probably jinxed us for the whole day.

We’ll probably get spanked.

Talented

So far, I have four kitchen jobs under my belt. Though I’ve enjoyed every single one, something is different at this restaurant. I have a feeling it has come from age and experience, as well as taking a break from cooking and then jumping back in. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter where I worked, I’d be more dialed in to my body and my emotions than I have had the ability to be previously. To make a very long story short, my stomach used to be in knots all the time with “stuff” left over from being a kid, and now it’s not. So maybe that’s the biggest reason I’m at the top of my game now. I’m not constantly thinking of something else, allowing me to be more present…. a double entendre because it’s a gift to be able to show up for my own life.

The knot in my stomach was so severe that it’s been staggering to me how much brain power I’d been dedicating to it, and how big life is without it. Not necessarily to the point of being a totally different person, but not the same, either. More like carrying forward the pieces of me I liked, and saying goodbye to the ones I didn’t.

The biggest difference I notice now is reaction time. In the kitchen, it’s extraordinarily fast, because everyone already has my attention and they don’t have to work for it. I’m not constantly distracted. In my personal life, my reaction time is much slower, in terms of genuinely thinking deeply before I speak. I am no longer on the “think it, say it” plan. Hey, it worked really well right up until it (really, really, really) didn’t. But that was then and this is now.

I think the proof in the pudding is that my lead line cook says that I’m talented. I have thought I was talented at a lot of things, but I wouldn’t necessarily have put cooking on the list… and by that, I don’t mean flavor. I mean the absolute insanity that is a professional kitchen. I do have a laser focus that I didn’t have before, as well as better living through chemicals (Klonopin). Why is medication important? I have anxiety naturally without adding on cooking dinner for 2-300 people a night. It has physical side effects, such as shortness of breath and heart/brain race. While the medication doesn’t solve emotional issues, it does keep me from getting physically worked up, which is a lot of the battle with anxiety. I know I have trouble continuing to churn out food when I feel like I can’t breathe and I’m going to pass out…. wouldn’t you?

I have proven to myself time and again that it’s not the medication that’s making me a better cook. I don’t have to have it… as in, it’s not an emergency if I’m out or I’ve forgotten it that day (not true with my other drugs)…. that being said, I do feel that it’s very helpful on a Friday or Saturday when the sound of the ticket machine is interminable… like being put into a football game when the other team is already fifty points ahead and it’s only the first quarter…. or for the readers outside the US, like being put into a football game when the other team is nine goals ahead in minute 10.

Medication allows me to win by minute 90, because I am not intimidated.

I’m not intimidated by much anymore. Losing my mother is probably the worst thing that will ever happen to me, save losing anyone else in my family. Definitely the worst that has ever happened thus far. From that perspective, anything in the world that happens is probably better, so why be afraid? I lived through that grief, though I didn’t love it.

My friend Wendy coined that phrase for me years ago when she said, “Leslie, you just have to live it. You don’t have to love it.” I was in deep grief about something else, before I really knew what grief was. It was like hitting rock bottom and then finding out once I got there that it was false and there were still levels underneath.

The trick is using grief to propel you upward, which takes more time than you would think. Technically, if you’ve never lost someone close to you, but you think you know what it will be like and how long it will take you to recover, the reality will in all likelihood punch you in the face and you’ll lie on the ground dazed for twice as long as you thought you would…. wait, triple that… and then realize that you’ll never be the same person that you were, you’ll just have found a new normal.

Apparently, my new normal is being talented at cooking in a professional kitchen- something which I neither prepared for nor necessarily wanted. It just fell into my lap and I went with it. IT jobs weren’t forthcoming, and I knew I would have a blast, so why not? I expected to love it. I didn’t expect it to love me back… not to this degree, anyway.

Part of the love I have for cooking is knowing for sure that I facilitate happiness. There are very few get-togethers between friends that don’t involve food, and whether it’s friends gathered at my table or strangers getting together at my restaurant with their own loved ones, it makes no difference. The talent is the same.

 

Well, Damn.

I finally get a day off to relax with my friends, and I am too sick to move. I left a voice mail for Dan so that she’d know I wasn’t playing around. I wasn’t too depressed or anxious to leave the house, this was a real thing, complete with irritation in my voice. I haven’t lost it completely, but it’s going. I’m only awake because I’ve had two large iced coffees and am hoping to get to the doctor today, but I don’t even have the energy. Additionally, I’m not running a fever, which leads me to think it’s viral and there’s nothing the doctor could do about it, anyway. The only reason to go to the doctor would be to get cough medicine with codeine, and we’re not there yet. Regular cold medicine is doing just fine. I have to use narcotics sparingly, because Lamictal makes me nauseous and I don’t want to agitate that even more. Although once I’m low-key high on codeine, I might be nauseous, but I wouldn’t have the ability to care. 😉

What would be good is getting to the pharmacy and splurging on the good stuff, grape Delsym. It comes in orange, too, but if you choose orange over grape, I’m really not sure what you’re doing with your life.

It’s the same cough medicine that comes in things like Dayquil, just a larger dose. If nothing else, I’ll pick it up on the way to work, because coughing in the kitchen is “frowned upon in this establishment.” I do feel better today than I did yesterday, but that’s not saying much. I am still just out of it, despite not taking anything that would make it so. I’ve only taken some Aleve to reduce inflammation in my throat. To my knowledge, anti-inflammatories do not make one what my family would call “duh-headed.” Additionally, if I ever say in front of my family that I feel duh-headed, the reply is always “how would we know?” I suppose the shoe does fit someone whose head is constantly in the clouds. I know me. We’ve met.

I’m also “having the painters in,” which I only mention because it’s rough having to deal with two total pains in the ass at once. Being sick blows enough all by itself. I’m pretty sure that my lead line cook is patient zero, because colds are just “the gifts that keep on giving.” I am also especially susceptible to them, because my immune system has been sub-par my whole life. Years and years ago, I dated a teacher for a short while, and I got a new thing from her little snot factories every week. That was not, however, why we stopped dating. Totally unrelated. I still think about her once in a blue moon, though, because while we were not meant to be, we had an explosive connection and more humor than the law should’ve allowed. She was quite a bit older than me, so our humor was mostly directed at each other. To wit:

Her: I don’t think I had chocolate ice cream until I was older.
Me: Had it been invented yet?

I don’t remember what she said in reply, but I think it went something like “have fun with your Duplos, jackass.” If not, it should have. You shouldn’t throw shade if you can’t take it.

I love relationships that are a constant source of flipping each other shit. Someone was imitating me at work the other day, flipping me shit in Spanish, and when I said “I’m not deaf. I heard that.” in Spanish right back, you could have heard a pin drop, and then the entire room just broke up. I was not smart enough to know exactly what they were saying, but I did know it was aimed in my direction.

Imitation is the sincerest form of irritation.

But I was low-key high on the deliciousness of her quesadillas (family meal), so I didn’t care.

Earning a W

My Facebook Status tonight:

Let me tell you about the best part of my day. One of the waitstaff came into the kitchen to tell me that one of the customers said the food was incredible. It’s the first time someone has said that and I could prove it was all me, because I was working solo. 🙂

I was only supposed to work until 2200, but life had other plans. I ended up closing the place down, and I have to be at work again at 1000. I actually had a shift beer tonight, my way of quietly celebrating putting one in the W column. The W column is why I love my job so damn much. As I was telling a friend, being in the kitchen is where I feel the most alive. You can’t imagine how high I get on adrenaline (and, let’s not get stupid… caffeine).

It was especially humbling to get a compliment like that on a night where I really didn’t feel like working at all, much less staying two extra hours. Loving my job and needing time to rest are two separate things. I’m hoping to get that Sabbath on Monday, because I’ve made plans with Dan, Autumn, and Jaime. The only reason that I say “I’m hoping” is that when you take a job as a cook, you also take responsibility for being on a team, and when they’re a man down and they need you, it’s difficult to say, “I’m so sorry, but…” In fact, I know I haven’t ever said no at this job and I don’t think I’ve said no at any others, either. I just can’t remember back that far. Having Dana, my ex-wife, on my professional team made it where if I was sick and she wasn’t working, she’d handle it, and vice versa. She’s technically a better cook than me, so the restaurant got the better end of that deal, anyway. I mean technically literally- she’s Cordon Bleu certified, and I am, in a word, not. Our joke at the time was that she paid $20,000 for her education, and then gave it to me for free. The longer I live, the more I realize that this was not a joke at all. It’s God’s honest truth.

Where I shine, and don’t get to often, is palate. I’m not the chef, so I have no menu control. What I’m good at is looking around the pantry and the spice cabinet and making shit up.

Because I’m a writer, “making shit up” encompasses a lot of my life. Not that anything on this blog is fictional, except where explicitly stated. When I’m not writing on this blog, I have a wildly active imagination, which mostly inserts itself when I think I’ve done something stupid and I go off on these downward shame spirals that legitimately have nothing to do with reality. But when I’m really in the zone, I sometimes have a knack for character study. World building and plot escape me, which is why most of the fiction I’ve written is only a few pages. That’s about as much fiction as I can write before the writing gods say, impatiently, “don’t quit your day job.”

Or night job, as the case may be.

One of the things keeping me as sane as I get is one of our dishwashers. There’s a cook that only listens to Tejano music… and while I do like it, after six or eight hours, it becomes a bit grating. I prefer to skip around on genres. I thought I was being a racist for thinking it was getting on my nerves when said cook left and the dishwasher says to me that he HATES Tejano and all of the sudden, Til I Collapse by Eminem starts BLASTING on the stereo as we begin the cleanup process. The dishwasher makes me laugh, because he understands English less well than I understand Spanish, but he knows every word to both Til I Collapse and Careless Whisper by Wham!

Why I think this is hilarious is a mystery to me. I can sing in just about any language put in front of me, because I learn it phonetically. I’ve done everything from the Romance languages to German to Bulgarian folk singing to Hebrew to Suomi (Finnish). But when said coworker and I have spent days communicating through broken English, broken Spanish, and hand signals, tears of laughter come to my eyes, anyway.

What I have learned over time is that one-on-one, my Spanish is improving dramatically. The other person knows I need them to speak slowly and clearly. Listening to two people talking in Spanish to each other, I get lost quickly, because they tend to speak faster than my brain can process.

And on that note, I think this entry should come to a close, because my brain can’t process English anymore, either.

Maybe some Eminem or George Michael would help.

The Rock Star

Sometimes I can’t tell whether I’m a bad cook or a good one… and by that, I mean that I make delicious food, but my arms are covered up and down with burns and bruises. A lot of the burns look like cat scratches after a couple of days because most of them are from fryer baskets, and I know from past experience that I’ll be able to see the remnants for about five years. So are these badges of honor, the signs of my profession, or am I just incredibly clumsy? Wait. That’s not really a question. The answer is always going to be both.

The thing is, I don’t notice the brand new burns. Marks just mysteriously appear on my skin and yes, they do hurt once they’ve started scabbing over. But do I do anything about it? No, not really. If I think about it I’ll put on some Neosporin,™ but most of the time I just let them be and hope chicks dig scars, because I don’t have a choice. More than once I’ve been told I look like I belong to a biker gang, if bikers wore incredibly nerdy glasses and Dockers™ to work. My friend Scott gave me an invaluable tip- wear the black ones, because if you get bleach on them, you can fix it with a Sharpie.™ Words to live by, truly.

Last night was particularly difficult. My lead line cook was so sick that we closed the kitchen early, but before that, we were hit with about 50-75 tickets at once, and that may actually be an understatement. We were so submarined that I left the pub thinking I should find a new job, because I just wasn’t cut out for a restaurant this busy.

I walked in today and my lead line cook said, “you were a rock star last night. You busted ass.” My heart swelled inside my chest and all of the insecurity I felt on the ride home washed away. He said he even told the manager what a great job I did, and for a moment, I thought that cold medicine had affected his memory.

As soon as we were finished cooking, he left. One of the waitstaff was talking to us about how slammed we got, and my lead line cook said, “yeah… and Leslie shut this motherfucker down by herself!” Such pride and admiration in his voice was humbling as I doubled over laughing.

I then laughed quietly for another six hours.

It made up for the fact that today I’ve got whatever he’s got. I stopped at 7-Eleven on the way to work and got some cold medicine, because my Debra Winger voice is setting in.

I still haven’t heard anything from UMD, but I’m not worried. News will come when it comes.

I’m already a rock star.

The Inconsistent Vegan

First of all, I’m sorry for procrastinating on writing the next post on this blog. I know you’ve all been sitting on the edge of your seats waiting to hear what happened at The Big Show™ (that was a joke). My prediction about going into the interview calm and relaxed because I had nothing to lose came true. We all talked easily and laughed a lot. I wore black pants and a red and white striped shirt with a grey jacket (so DC), and the chairs in the conference room turned out to be gaming chairs, black with red piping. So I started the conversation by taking off my jacket and thanking them for buying chairs to match my outfit. The joke landed, and like that, we were off. I should know something one way or the other by next week, but even then, I will have another interview with the department head, which will be much more about HR kinds of things since I’ve already been given preliminary approval. And then the University of Maryland hiring process takes over, and that is state bureaucracy, so if I actually get an offer, it may be close to two months before I actually start. I’m not bothered by this- getting hired at University of Houston was the same way. It just comes with the territory of working for a state school.

The title of this entry comes from me committing to be vegan at home. I realized that with all the crap I eat (at work, dining out, etc.), at least some of my meals have to contain nutritional value. But the voice of Anthony Bourdain is always in my head. I remembered his treatise on the audacity of vegetarianism/veganism, and just how much I agree with it. Basically, he said that food is about hospitality, and when you reject someone’s food, you reject them. No matter what you’re offered, eat it. Choke it down if you must. It’s that important.

Maya Angelou once said (in an Oprah interview, I think), “when people show you who they are, believe them.” Nowhere is that more apparent than when someone offers to cook for you. If you sit down at their table, they are indeed showing you who they are. Food reflects both one’s self and family history.

I don’t have any food allergies, so when people ask me if I have any or if I have a preference as to what we eat, I used to say, “nope. Just the fact that you’re cooking for me is enough, because the last thing I want to do after hours of cooking for others is cook for myself.” Perhaps now I should say “make something that makes you happy.” I can think of several sub-par meals I’ve had over my lifetime (in restaurants, not at friends’ houses) that I remember as some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, just because of who was sitting at the table. I am guessing that the same is true for all of you.

Therefore, I just want to take care of my body when I’m alone. I don’t feel the need to make anyone else adapt for me, or preach on the evils of eating meat because I just don’t buy it. I have issues with buying meat where you don’t know your source, but other than that, I’m “game.” There are few people I respect more than Temple Grandin, and if you know her work, you’ll understand that to me, it’s not about giving up meat, but giving up the mistreatment of animals before we eat them. I believe in giving thanks for their lives, a nose-to-tail approach so that nothing is wasted, and eating lots of vegetables because humans weren’t meant to eat meat every day, a lot of what’s driving animal cruelty because the demand to do everything bigger and faster supports it.

Just being mindful is enough for me.

I will say, though, that I enjoy Quorn and Dr. Praeger’s meatless chicken a lot more than I enjoy poor quality nuggets and patties of the real thing. I have also discovered Dr. Praeger’s crabless cakes, and it was really hard not to eat the whole bag at once.

They’re probably vegetarian. I didn’t check. Baby steps.

But from now on, Pizza Night is one of those Daiya Supremes, because I can’t get enough of them. I was going to try and have it ready by now, because I’m working at 1800, but now I think I’ll bake it when I get home- note to all those who metaphysically show up at my house that dinner has been moved. I’m sorry if you don’t like vegan pizza, but if you get to show me who you are, then I get to do the same.

Choke it down if you must.

Pit Duty

Today was very long. I got up early and slammed two large iced coffees with coconut creamer, hoping I’d be awake before I had to show up at work. Sunday is the one day a week I’m scheduled as the dishwasher, where when I walk in the door, the amount I have to do is overwhelming. There is no “easing into it.” I clean all four bathrooms, mop everything, and then go into the kitchen, where the prep cooks have been at it since 0900, so the stack is usually above my head.

The one funny story I have about cleaning the bathrooms is that I don’t have children, and I’ve never had a niece or nephew (or babysat a child) who had a Diaper Genie.™ You cannot imagine how long I stood there, just dumbfounded and scratching my head at how to work it. There was no one else in the restaurant but me, so I have to get out my phone and YOUTUBE HOW TO EMPTY A DIAPER GENIE. And even then, I asked the prep cooks with kids if I’d done it right, and they told me they were too expensive and they didn’t have them, either. No one came up to me later and said that I broke it, so I guess it went okay. That was several weeks ago, and now I wish every trash can was a Diaper Genie. I want to empty all trash cans without having to touch anything. People are disgusting.

We weren’t terribly busy today, so there were a couple of times when the dishes were done that I got called up to the line. My lead line cook said, “that is a sexy, sexy plate.” He’s said it before, and I blush every time…. and yet, I also know he’s telling the truth. I do love making people feast with their eyes first. I know I’m not the first person to say that cooking is art, but I am a huge advocate. Of course I want everything to taste better than it looks, which means that I want every dish to be over the top delicious because the plate has already made you smile.

And now that it’s late and I’m getting ready for bed, I am starting to concentrate on what I’m going to do with my next two days off. I need to go shopping for a new outfit since I’m interviewing for a job on Tuesday at University of Maryland. I discovered this when I did all my laundry and there are still food stains on the knees of all my pants. All of them. You might ask how one manages to get food stains on one’s knees. That’s pretty simple, actually. Everything in the kitchen has to be scrubbed down at the end of the night, so I’ve had plenty of evenings end with my kneecaps in aioli (compound mayonnaise, generally containing garlic) as I’m soaping up the lowboy (I’ll be delighted if you think that’s something dirty).

Generally, because of the acrobatics involved with cooking, food, cuts, and burns magically appear in weird places all the time. The one time it was not so magical was dropping a two quart jug of ice-cold kimchi down the front of my shirt. Luckily, only the juice splashed everywhere, and the cabbage stayed in place…. but boy, did I smell delicious…. for days.

If I get the job at University of Maryland, it is unlikely that large vats of food will fall on me, but then again, I haven’t asked all the hard questions. They were very impressed at my first interview that I cook professionally, and unsurprisingly, ever since I’ve been able to say in any interview that I cook professionally, I’ve been the most popular candidate, but only if there’s an upcoming company picnic.

In the past, though, it’s been funny how fast I’ve been relegated to salads and desserts, because men grill. Period. The end. I have had my fair share of hockey pucks to know that this should not be a thing, and yet, it persists. Pro tip: if you grill at your parties and they offer to help, trust the people who do it for a living.

I expect no thanks or praise- tell them you cooked everything yourself. Just don’t make me eat any more burgers that could more accurately be described as a lump of coal. I’ll be thrilled.

Company picnics aside, I’m excited about the interview. I talked to my manager about it, and I’ve already told her I have no plans to quit at the restaurant- there’s just some scheduling we need to work out. So, it was easy to get the full day off on Tuesday because I didn’t give her a heart attack. It was actually really sweet of her- I have both Monday and Tuesday off this week, and I promise you that two days off in a row is an absolute luxury for anyone in the industry. My usual “weekend” is Saturday and Monday.

Tomorrow is about preparing my body and mind. New clothes, perhaps an eyebrow wax (so huge right now I could donate to eyebrow-less children at this point). I really, really want to get my nails done, but it’s illegal to wear nail polish in the kitchen and I don’t like regular manicures. I’d rather have nothing at all than go without acrylics…. mostly because I’d rather spend $25 and have polish that lasts for 10 days than pay $12 and have the paint chip that afternoon. I shall think about a pedicure. I could care less about the polish- the nail technician will massage feet that have never needed it more. I might even be able to walk without pain on Tuesday. I know I’ve said this before, but it really is embarrassing when I wake up and toddle down the stairs one step at a time, as if I am hurling myself toward my dad for the first time.

The thing is, though, even in my thoughts he’s right there to catch me.

I don’t know if I’ll have time to write again before I go into The Big Show.™ It’s at 1300 on Tuesday and will last approximately three hours, because I have to meet each and every person I’ll be working for and with, plus a few interns that will be working for me. Thoughts and prayers, even the black magic variety, are welcome. Knowing you’re out there cheering me on is just one more thing that makes this easy.

Easier than figuring out a Diaper Genie.