Dos Lenguas

I continue to be mystified by Spanish, and I am quite tired. I wish I had a Matrix-like existence that could just load the language instantly, because I would be in much better shape. This has nothing to do with my coworkers, but with me not wanting to be THAT white girl….. the one who insists that everyone speak English. I’m the outlier. I need to learn. Immersion is the only way, but right now, my phrases are limited and my comprehension equally so. I can have short conversations, and I was proud of myself when I said, que necessitas (what do you need)? and they answered seis zanhorrias, I understood that meant six carrots.

I only ask people to speak English if they are trying to explain something to me technically, and yet, there are only three people in the kitchen that can do so. Tonight I worked with two people who knew no English at all, and to say I was lost most of the time is an understatement. I am barely above “Spanglish” at this point.

The good thing is that in a kitchen, people say the same things regardless of what language they speak, and reading their facial expressions tells me most of what I need to know. But speaking so little Spanish is isolating to a tremendous degree, and I am trying to learn as quickly as I can. It would be nice to be able to contribute to a conversation that doesn’t have to do with camping or bears that go shopping (Why High School Spanish is Useless, by Leslie D. Lanagan).

The good thing is that Rachel (my chef’s knife) and I had a breakthrough in our relationship. When I got there, I was immersed in prep for a private party, and my knife callous finally came in… after seis zanhorrias, four shaved red cabbages, and 20 pounds of Brussels sprouts. The pain has stopped, and the fun has begun. I’m faster than I used to be, and people have noticed. Until my knife blister healed and rough skin covered it, I was in pain with every cut. It didn’t show in my technique, just my speed. Tonight I was called an “honorary Mexican,” and I believe I have never been more honored in my life. Keeping up with any Central/South American line cook is often a lesson in futility…. but I did it, and I did it well.

Nothing prepared me for shaving those red cabbages like being tutored by Anh Luu. I worked at Tapalaya for a bit, and was assigned to the salad station. As the then-sous chef, that was her area, and she was going to make me good at it if it killed her. If she has any grey hairs, I’m pretty sure I gave them to her.

Anh is easily the toughest sous chef I’ve ever worked for, so two things about that. The first is that I am not surprised in the least she’s the executive chef and owner of Tapalaya now. The second is that I understood from the beginning that her toughness was to make me better, and it did. In my head tonight, all that ran through while I was chopping were the things she said to me, when I was just a baby at fine dining (and will never make it past that due to my monocular vision, I’m afraid). If I was having trouble, her words would lift me up, and I’d get better and faster almost instantaneously.

I also got the break for which I’ve been wishing, which is it being my job to clean the griddle. I made it look brand new two nights in a row, and I think I am close to being asked to please stop. đŸ˜› In fact, I was so proud of myself last night that I took a picture, just to remember over and over again how proud I was of myself…. that there is something in this kitchen that I can do better than everyone else.

Also, my new Crocs are really working out. The advice to buy a size smaller was crap, because even though they make my feet look like boats, they aren’t uncomfortable after six hours in the heat, when my feet have swollen in the clear message that they are not having it. Not at all.

It feels so good to be back in the kitchen. I feel like I’ve won some kind of award because if I can hang here, I’m truly worth my salt.

And that’s all any line cook really ever wants to know about themselves.

The best moment of my cooking life involves salt, and even though it’s tiny, it makes me choke up. If you’ve ever been a line cook, you’ll understand why. The rest of you will wonder what the big deal is. Trust me when I say this is a very, very big deal indeed.

Let me preface this by saying that people tend to call all cooks chefs. This is not so. Chef literally means “boss.” They are the eyes and ears of the entire kitchen, the voice of God as far as you’re concerned.

My chef asked me to taste something, so I did. I said, “it needs salt.” He put some Kosher salt into his hand and sprinkled it in, and I had a hard time not tearing up.

The chef asked for my opinion, and trusted it. So, you see, something that seems minute, is, in fact, enormous. It is a moment I will never forget, not in any lifetime.

And hopefully, eventually, I will remember it in dos lenguas.

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