The Hours

I’ve gotten a lot more hours at work, about which I am incredibly happy. More money never hurt anybody. But at the same time, my life is exhausting. Not to the point of wanting more time off, it’s just a cook’s life that when you get home, everything hurts. I know I’ve said this many times before, but I’m really feeling it today. This is because not only do I ache in my bones and muscles, my arms are still recovering from being burnt to a crisp. Thanks to Dan & Autumn, this will stop somewhat, but it doesn’t help the burns that are already there. Once they start scabbing over, they hurt even more than when they’re fresh, especially the ones that start out as bubbles full of serum. I’m beginning to think I need to buy stock in the company that makes Neosporin.™ The kicker is that all of them are my fault, generally from moving too fast.

I know I have also said this before, but it bears repeating. Working in a pub is different than working in a restaurant. In a pub, there are no waves of seating. We are sometimes hit with 25 tickets at once, and we don’t want to make some people wait 15-30 minutes for their food. As a result, the kitchen is utter chaos, grabbing things from the fryer before they’re cool, etc. It’s the baskets that get me the most. When I’m taking things out of them, invariably my arm will touch the edge, resulting in burns that actually look like thin cuts. The rest of the time, I have no idea. Burns just happen, and I don’t notice them until long after the fact. I suppose that the silver lining is that I don’t have to deal with cuts as well. My knife skills are solid. I haven’t even gotten first blood on either of my chef’s knives, which in kitchen folklore means we are bonded to each other, and I’m not stupid enough to make it happen on purpose. Fingers, even when cut lightly, bleed all over the place.

The other thing about being a cook is that you’re so tired, you tend to sleep right up until the next shift begins, because your muscles need more time to recover after a job that’s so physically demanding. This turns out to be gross negligence in terms of taking care of yourself. I mean, why take a shower every day when you’re just going to get horrifically dirty again an hour afterward? Just please be reassured that in the kitchen, I scrub in like a surgeon multiple times a shift and wear gloves constantly. The only time I really get “all dolled up” is when it’s my day off and I have plans with friends. Yes, it’s disgusting. It’s also real talk. You also have little time for laundry, so I do several weeks’ worth of clean underwear and don’t care if there are stains on my shirts and pants. I’m just going to get more of them… to the point that when I had a tech interview, I had to buy a new pair of pants for the occasion, because every pair of pants I currently owned had food stains that wouldn’t come out in the wash, even the black ones, where the stains aren’t as noticeable. I do wash my clothes, just not as often as they need it…. and as high as my wage is, it’s still not high enough to afford a maid so that all the crap I have to take care of is done once I get home. I also don’t have a partner to share the load, as it were, so everything falls to me. But don’t think I’m not grateful for being single.

I am incredibly introverted, and being single affords me only as much human contact as I want. Though with a partner, there is no need to be “on,” there is still compromise and difficult discussions and a whole lot else I’m just not prepared for in the slightest… maybe not ever, but for sure not right now. I’ve been single for, oh, I don’t know exactly how long, but sufficed it to say it has been multiple years, and I’m okay with that. Sometimes I daydream about the kind of partner I want, and joke that the perfect girlfriend for me would be that since I live in Maryland, she should live in Virginia. That way, in order to get together, we really have to want it. Really.

Another bonus is that because I’m not busy with a girlfriend, I have so much more time for my friends. They’re people I love like sisters and brothers, so it’s important to me to stay in touch and available for whatever they need. That being said, we’re all so busy that life seems to be a series of text messages and DMs on social media. I am positive that this is normal for adults our age, especially for people with children. Alternatively, I am not the type that likes to go out in a major way. I don’t need clubbing excitement. I am happiest sitting on the couch and chatting or watching a movie. I think this is also normal for people my age. We’ve already done all the stupid shit we’re going to do, and have little patience for it. I feel like I’ve done all the stupid shit I want to do, or have done by accident.

If I get invited to do something I would consider “wild,” I just give them a dumb look and say, “I’m 40.” The wildest thing I like to do these days is occasionally have a shift beer after work. The rest of the time, the pub has this Mexican cola that is so good it’s on my chef’s game “Last Meal.” I would much rather have it than anything else.

One of my favorite restaurants, Cava, has started carrying a sugar free version of the same brand, and I am not ashamed to say that I generally drink four in a row, especially since they have the good ice. Diet soda is my last vice. Just give me this one. Nothing helps beat the heat of the kitchen than a soda with ice. The pub doesn’t carry sugar free soda, so I generally drink seltzer water the entire time. You’d think I’d be stuck in the bathroom every thirty minutes, but I stand in front of a gas stove, a 500 degree oven, an open flame grill, and a 350 degree griddle and two fryers. My body is constantly using that moisture. Every once in a while, it is a blessing to be sent to retrieve things from the walk-in refrigerator. It only takes about 20 seconds to cool down, because it’s cold enough to keep ice frozen for hours before it even thinks about melting.

But the very heart of my work is that I do not have any Anthony Bourdain “underbelly of the kitchen world” stories. We are clean and efficient, we all get along well, and for the first time in any restaurant I’ve ever worked, there is no “war” between the waitstaff and the kitchen. If front of house drops something, it’s a quick re-fire with no judgment. In a fast-paced kitchen, everyone messes up at one time or another. “Stuff” happens. We just roll with it. Plus, the waitstaff doesn’t get angry at us if ticket times are slower than normal, because all their customers are drinking and have no concept of time, anyway. We just try as hard as we can not to test it too much.

The only thing that really trips us up is an order with a whole bunch of modifications or substitutions, and that’s in all restaurants. It interrupts the dance we’ve created not to ever be in each other’s way. Not that we won’t do it, of course, but from our perspective unless you have a genuine food allergy, we’ve created the recipes so that everything complements each other. Change that and you change the way the food is supposed to taste. Maybe you don’t, say, like pickled onions, but you’ve never tried it mixed with our perfect aioli. Give it a chance- be surprised. Branch out. You might discover you like something you thought you didn’t before. Additionally, don’t add salt and pepper before you’ve tasted what we’ve created. If you think it needs something afterward, don’t be shy. Make it to your own taste. But at the same time, trust us first. You don’t do this for a living. We do.

My whole life revolves around cooking, and doing it well. Especially since I’ve gotten more hours at work.

As 41 Approaches…

My birthday has gotten started a bit early. My dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said, “a new phone.” So I picked one out on Amazon, and I am ridiculously happy with it. It’s a Samsung Galaxy, my go-to in terms of new phone purchases (I’ve had three in various versions). This is because I download a LOT, and iPhones fill up fast with no way to add extra space. My current phone is, I think, 32 GB, but I added a 128 GB expansion card. I haven’t added my music to it, but my library of podcasts is extensive. I download them all because most Metro stations are underground and reception is spotty at best. Pro Tip: buy a refurbished phone and pay outright so that you are not on the hook with your cell phone company in terms of paying it off. There are also different variations of the same phone… for instance, you cannot root into mine (nerd alert- no need to carry the nerdiness further by explaining why), but I didn’t want to, anyway. Not my bag, baby.

Back to the cool stuff about extra space. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime will let you download movies and TV shows, which can take up plenty of room, especially if you are downloading a whole season at once. Prime has a limit on the number of downloads in terms of things that are temporarily licensed to them, but you can download anything and everything they produce themselves… For instance, on my last phone I had every episode of One Mississippi and The Man in the High Castle. Invaluable waiting in the ER, the DMV, the Metro during outages, etc.

The only thing is that it is such a powerful computer that you must have a battery saving app to go with it. My former go-to was Juice Defender, but for some reason, the link to the professional version is still live, but it says you need the free version to get it to work, and when I clicked on the link to grab it, I got a 404 error. I got Google to refund my money and bought a subscription to Kaspersky Battery Life: Saver & Booster instead. So far, it’s been magnificent. I highly recommend buying the professional version, because even though the free one works, it is inundated with annoying ads, and it’s not that expensive.

I have only bought two apps in the entirety of my smart phone-owning life. The second is Alarm Clock for Me. It looks like an old school digital clock radio, but it has some amazing features when you unlock the professional version, like waking up to your own music, a gentle lead-in feature where the alarm starts out soft and gets louder over time, weather report in the top corner, and something new- perfect bedtime, which tells you what time to go to sleep in order to wake up refreshed for said alarm. If you hate waking up, might I suggest a military grade phone cover for when you feel like throwing it against the wall? 😛

You would think the birthday surprises would end there, but wait! There’s more!

I think I genuinely frightened Dan with all my burns. They do look pretty gross, to be honest. So, she pulls out a package from Amazon and says, “open it.” Inside are Kevlar cuffs that prevent burns and cuts. I was told specifically to take a picture in the kitchen with me wearing them.

Yes, ma’am.

I didn’t have time tonight, but I will before the week is out. They were actually Autumn’s idea, because she’s worked in a kitchen before. Apparently, they also come in gloves, but I definitely wouldn’t wear those. I would be mortified if my grip on pots and pans was even more loose than it is right now…………… I’m sure they’re helpful for both chopping and taking things out of the oven, but they picked well. They’re yellow, so I look like Wonder Woman.

I was half hoping that I would make a mistake cleaning the griddle tonight and accidentally slam my wrist down like I’ve done a thousand times before (the griddle brick has a mind of its own) just to see my cuffs in action. Alas, tonight went perfectly, so no dice. I am sure I will have other dumbass attacks in the future where they will save my bacon, though.

On Sunday, we had our end-of-summer company party, where the flyer said that significant others and children were welcome. I decided to ask Dan if she wanted to come, because we’re good friends, and therefore, she’s significant to me. No one gave me any grief about it, but if they had I was fully prepared to say that I’d just adopted her.

She got to meet my whole crew, who said some extraordinarily nice things about me, and not just because Dan was there. My lead line cook says every shift that he’s not going to turn me into the chef he wants me to be, but the chef I want me to be…. that inside of a month, I’d be ready to run this kitchen, and inside of two, I’d be ready to run my own. I am growing to accept this praise at my ability, because there were so many awkward and embarrassing moments in my past cooking jobs that I still see myself as a n00b, hanging desperately onto Dana’s coattails. Now it’s time to get on board with the fact that I don’t need to fill her shoes. I brought my own.

In fact, one of my managers brought his girlfriend to the party, and he introduced me as their most dependable employee, and that it was embarrassing how many times I’d bailed them out of a jam. Let me assure you that you don’t even have to be that great a cook for a compliment like that to carry you very, very far in this industry. You can be the best line cook in the entire world, but showing up is even more important. This is not an industry known for emotionally stable, responsible workers. Egos clash. Brown bottle flu happens, as does “I didn’t know I was working today.” But the team I’ve got now has none of those problems. We love working together, and it shows. I am being rewarded beyond my wildest imagination. People have started to call my lead line cook, me, and our most experienced expo “The A-Team.”

It really is amazing how even though I’ve been working on internal validation for years, I’ve grown exponentially with some external praise. It’s not required, but it is definitely changing the way I see myself. I am not sure that I ever want to be a chef, but that’s not the point. The point is that someone believes in me enough to say that I’m capable of it.

Quick aside for people not in the know….. I get called a chef all the time, because people who don’t work in kitchens tend to call all cooks “chef.” But chef literally means “boss,” and there can be only one. For most of us, it feels disrespectful to be called a chef when we haven’t earned it, but we also don’t expect everyone on earth to understand the inner workings of the culinary world. So, we might be a little internally irritated, but we won’t say anything. However, if I do earn the title, you’ll be able to hear me scream from coast to coast. Fair warning.

Because of jumping back into the kitchen, my 40th trip around the sun has been an incredible year of self-discovery, reaching heights I never thought possible. It has allowed me to become less self-deprecating, which you do when you believe in yourself. I mean, I still tell jokes at my own expense, but they aren’t deep jabs. They’re actually funny.

Which has been another hallmark of my 40th year…. giving myself permission to be funny again, after years of grief and loss. Though losing my mother has reworked my version of normal, I am glad to see that with the passage of time normal hasn’t been stolen from me altogether. The only time that I really feel punched in the stomach is when I can’t do things like call her up and say, “you won’t believe how amazing I’m doing at work. I’m even having trouble.” Through our long relationship, though, I know exactly what she would say…. “I certainly can believe it. You can do anything. Just remember to wear your Kevlar cuffs, because those burns look like they hurt.”

Yes, ma’am.

New Territory

For the first time in what seems like eons, I am up and drinking coffee in the morning. It is currently 0700, but I’ve been up for at least an hour. My shift today starts at noon, so I did myself the favor of taking a sleeping pill early and getting rest that coincides with my circadian rhythm. I slept deeply, without dreaming, and as a result, I am not in as much pain as I am when I stumble into bed at 0300 and hope for the best. I actually made a whole pot of coffee yesterday and drank one cup hot, then turned off the heat so I could drink the rest this morning over ice. It is delicious, even black. I do love coffee with cream, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t been to the grocery store in two weeks.

They feed me at work, so it hasn’t been a problem… but I do miss all the delicious plant-based cooking I’ve been doing lately. One cannot live on pub food alone. It’s time to go to Whole Foods and restock… cheaper now that I get a discount for being an Amazon Prime member.

Regular grocery stores don’t generally have all the things I’m looking for, like rich vegan cheese and the veggie dogs that have sustained me for the better part of four years. My favorite toppings are vegan cream cheese and Sriracha. More than eating vegan is my excitement at learning to work with vegan alternatives, and making traditional recipes my own with vegan substitutions. It takes work, but that’s what makes it an exciting part of cooking. I’ve already learned how to create the perfect marinades for meat and seafood, the secret to the perfect bechamel, Hollandaise, etc. (the funny part being no matter how perfect I make Hollandaise, I still don’t like it). Basically, the foundations of French cooking are no longer a mystery. Excitement is stretching my mind in new ways, like mushroom paté and olive oil-based (or cauliflower) crusts for pizza (among other things). Pasta with nutritional yeast and Alfredo sauce made with cashews (plant-based bechamel with nutritional yeast rather than parmesan). Coffee creamer made with coconut fiber milk (Almond is too watery for me). “Pudding” made with coconut milk, Splenda, and chia seeds…. anything that gets me away from the things I’ve already mastered.

For instance, I would like to learn how to make vegan mayonnaise at home, because I could make regular mayonnaise with my eyes closed. For those not in the know, here’s the recipe:

Take three egg yolks and a tablespoon of vinegar and beat them with a whisk or put it in the blender (cheating). What you’re looking for is the acid turning the beaten egg yolks white, which in French cooking is called the sabayon stage. Slowly add oil (slowly)… too much at one time will make the sauce break. Switch out the oil for butter and that’s Hollandaise, as long as you use lemon juice for the acid. From here, when your mayonnaise is complete, it’s ready for sandwiches. Add ingredients like ketchup and pickles and you have Thousand Island dressing. Basically, the foundation for all cream salad dressings is the homemade mayonnaise I just described. White vinegar makes mayonnaise taste more like Miracle Whip,™ for all my American Southerners out there. Using olive oil makes your mayonnaise lower in saturated fat. It tastes a little different, but in a good way.

Because I don’t like Hollandaise, I’m much more fond of Bearnaise, which means sautéing shallots and tarragon in a bit of salt, oil and white wine to add to the Hollandaise you’ve already created. The reason I just can’t with Hollandaise is too many brunch shifts washing an egg pan with lemon dish soap, which smells frighteningly similar in a vomit-inducing kind of way. Plus, as Anthony Bourdain once said, any cook’s fall from grace will still land you a brunch gig, so Hollandaise is the smell of failure. That being said, a cook who can make mayonnaise and Hollandaise by hand with a whisk is no slouch in the kitchen. I can even tell when it’s perfect without tasting it. The secret is treating the mother sauce like driving a stick-shift car, using the analogy of egg yolks as the clutch and oil as the accelerator. Too much oil, add an egg yolk. Too much egg yolk, add some oil.

Touch and go, touch and go.

After a while, you won’t need this analogy. You can just tell by looking what it takes to be successful. The same touch-and-go can also be extrapolated to bechamel, the foundation of both Alfredo and macaroni and cheese. You start with a roux, which is adding flour to fat and stirring until incorporated, then adding milk or cream and letting the heat rise until it reaches the “coat a spoon” stage. Then, take it off the heat and add your cheese. It beats the hell out of store-bought.

Rarely do I create marinades for beef. I just use a dry rub of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. If the meat is not marbled with fat, I add olive oil. If it is, the fat in the meat is enough to let it confit, French for “cooks in its own fat.” The advantage to using a marinade with vinegar is that if you are using a tough cut of meat, the vinegar will break down the proteins so it turns out tender. I suggest red wine vinegar or lemon juice for this… lime if you’re making fajitas.

Actually, with fajitas, I start with a fresh lime margarita marinade, tequila and all. Then I add chili powder, cumin, paprika, and a tiny bit of cayenne pepper.

For vegans, you can marinade hard pack tofu and grill it, but tofu takes twice as long in the marinade as meat protein. In either case, it helps to have a Food Saver to get all the air out. Meat, especially, will marinade in half the time (still better to leave it overnight). ZipLoc bags will do in a pinch, just make sure to let all the air out of those, too.

And speaking of Food Savers, they’re wonderful for cheeses, because air is their natural enemy. Same for guacamole, although you can stave off the brown by putting cling film directly on top of it rather than just sealing the container.

Another great tip I’ve learned is that acid neutralizes salt, so if you’ve over-salted something, squeeze a lemon on top (if it will enhance the recipe, like a white clam sauce). A great salsa will do the same thing, as well as adding heat for those who like that sort of thing. I take an acid reducer, partially to neutralize tomatoes, alcohol, and coffee, but mostly so I can add enough heat to unstop my nose without burning off my culito (little ass, in Spanish). Habanero and any kind of fruit salsa is my favorite. Peaches or pineapples are a great place to start. You can also add fat with a bit of diced avocado, another way to stave off gastrointestinal distress.

Peppers are rated by heat using what’s called the Scoville scale, and Scoville units refer to the amount of sugar water it takes to kill the burn. Therefore, fruit salsas are the best way to support enormous amounts of heat, and why fruit sodas are popular in regions where the food is incredibly spicy. Cream sauces with lots of heat work as well, because the more the fat, the more the sauce can handle large amounts of cayenne, red pepper flakes, etc…. Probably why red pepper flakes are so popular on pizza (just get extra cheese- an invaluable tip from me to you).

So, as you can see, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to what I’ve already learned. Becoming vegan (at least at home, where no one has to accommodate me) is the next step in boldly going where I’ve never been before. It’s the new territory in which lots of chefs/cooks are afraid to venture. My excitement exceeds my trepidation, because if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.

I’m just trying to stave off boredom in my own kitchen, and so far, it’s working out nicely. However, this post is not about vegan evangelism, just my own journey. If it speaks to you as well, all the better. You don’t have to change your whole life to enjoy a plant-based meal once in a while. You’ll probably enjoy it for what it is- a break from the monotony of cooking the same things ad nauseam.

I would say that I’m only trying to strain my brain, but my smartass chef friends would say I needed a chinois for that. They’re just so funny…. and unlike me, generally predictable…. exactly the rut in which I’m trying to escape.

Monster

First, a recommendation. I used to use the WordPress editor to create my entries, but I’ve switched over to Brackets, an open source HTML editor put out by Adobe and community supported. It’s fantastic, because when you switch over to HTML on the WordPress web site, it does not color-code tags so you can see them easily and quickly. Ironically, it does in the app for iOS and Android, which is only useful when I’m writing on my tablet. If and when I get my own server space or upgrade to WordPress premium, I’ll also be able to create my own style sheets.

Right now, though, I’m happy with what I’ve got, because I don’t really care to get into back-end development. Focusing on writing entries is enough. That being said, Brackets has a TON of extensions, both for creating WordPress themes, beautifying code, word count, autosave, spellcheck, etc. Often, community organizers on GitHub can fix bugs faster than waiting for Adobe, which makes it just that much more awesome. It also has SFTP for publishing directly to a live server, which most HTML editors have, and I am too dumb to use successfully. I always find the most mistakes by going live. Much better to upload to production first…… Something which I’ve learned through many experiences involving extreme gut-wrenching pain.

Let’s start the show, now that business is out of the way.

There’s nothing better than overhearing a conversation about yourself when people are saying truly nice things about you. I was walking past my lead line cook, who was talking to our expo. He said that he was glad he’d taken me under his wing, because in a month, I’d be running this kitchen, and in two, I’d be ready to run my own. Sometimes, I feel that level of confidence. Most of the time, I don’t, but I’m glad to hear that he believes in me to that degree. He’s no slouch in the industry- he belongs to the American Culinary Foundation. Therefore, I feel like he knows what he’s talking about, even if I have trouble believing it. I was so touched I burst into tears. God, I am such a girl. 😛 My lead line cook told me there was no crying in the kitchen and I needed to “man up.” So I cried in the walk-in, something I should have thought of beforehand. At least I know now that dropping the beer cheese was not a career-limiting move.

I think that sometimes I become too tied to my past mistakes, when I wasn’t half the line cook that I am now. It’s hard to take in that much change at once. However, it is true that I am not the same cook now that I was when I started. My lead line cook has told me himself that he thinks I’m going to be a monster chef… whatever that means. He’s already said that when we introduce blackened fish tacos to the menu, he wants me to run point on it.

Being a Texan and having lived on the West Coast, I can do that easily. Tacos are one of the foundations of Mexican and Texan culinary influence, but to be perfectly honest, I prefer Californian Mexican food…. black beans, lime, and pico de gallo as opposed to lard, beans, and cheese. I prefer anything that tastes fresh and acidic…. there is always a time and place for junk food, though, but I go to Chuy’s for that. It’s nice I don’t have to take a flight back to Texas to do it- there’s one in Rockville, MD, and several in Northern Virginia (NoVA…. “doesn’t go” in Spanish…. hahahaha).

The only thing missing from my DC experience is that there used to be a Texan restaurant called Austin Grill, and while they might still be around, the last time I went, they didn’t have the only thing I wanted- Amy’s Mexican vanilla ice cream. In the early 2000’s, it was the only reason I went there. In fact, looking through their menu, I don’t see any desserts at all. The steak chili is pretty good, though…. just no way in hell am I trekking all the way to Springfield, VA for it. It’s not THAT good.

At my own restaurant, our taquitos and churros are an excellent substitute, especially if you order the churros with dulce de leche sauce. Also, the taquitos come with a very flavorful slaw, for which I’d be a prep cook for a day just to steal the recipe. #nolie Speaking of which, I think I have a prep shift tomorrow…………. Game. On.

I said something the other day that I need to walk back. My Klonopin is just as important as my other drugs in the kitchen, because I am just not as relaxed and focused without it. I’ve been out for over a week, and I can sense innately that I have a shorter fuse and less concentration because I can feel the anxiety building, and am more likely to pop off at people who I think are treating me unfairly. This has happened my whole life- I can’t imagine how much more calm I’d be had I been taking said drug since I was first diagnosed. My sense of justice is just over the top. In terms of INFJ, I put the J in it to an overwhelming degree. With an anti-anxiety drug, the bile rising in my throat as I am called out for things that are definitely not my fault stays put. I own every mistake that is entirely mine. I even own mistakes that are only partly mine. But when other people do not take responsibility for theirs and put their own mistakes on me, anger is unavoidable. Klonopin takes it down so many notches that sometimes I don’t even care. Let’s just move on, and we’ll talk about it later, when my hands no longer want to wring your neck and I don’t want to say things like, “get bent” or “bite me, doughboy.” Technically, I do say that last one all the time, but only in jest. My lead line cook and I have that relationship, flipping each other shit the entire shift. Working with him is the best part of my job, and lead me to say “I get to go to work today,” rather than “I have to.”

In other news, my dad and sister are planning on coming up for my birthday (9/10). I hadn’t made any plans with friends yet, so it works out perfectly. My dad said I should have planned a surprise party for myself. I told him that I am so damn busy it probably would have worked. I did make tentative plans with Dan for a ridiculous dessert, but it doesn’t have to be on my actual day. Hell, let’s celebrate all month. There is nothing I love more than a ridiculously rich dessert, which I often deserve after running my ass off in the kitchen (not that I had much to begin with…….). Every shift is hot yoga crossed with acrobatics, especially since I’m sauté. I stand in front of a range, a 500 degree oven, and an open-flame grill. By the time I’m done, I feel like I need a cool-down workout…. generally the best I get is the ability to use the bathroom.

I get paid tomorrow, and I told my dad I was excited to get a check for so much blood, sweat, and tears. He said that everyone puts blood, sweat, and tears into their paychecks. I told him that few people mean it as literally as I do. To be fair, though, I haven’t cut myself with a knife once, and only twice in the entire time I’ve been there on a mandoline. The only thing that really bleeds are my burns once they’ve scabbed over and then the scabs are ripped off in a different shift. I wear gloves because of it, both a safety issue and a liability. As I have said before, injuries are much worse when you burn yourself wearing gloves, because the latex fuses to your skin. Alternatively, I am protecting myself and others. It’s a double-edged sword. But even then, I hurt myself more while cleaning than I do while cooking. Grills and griddles clean so much faster when they’re still hot. I enjoy getting things done with less effort, but if I make a mistake, generally my hand or my arm get singed in a hurry.

This seems to be the only downside of cooking, however. Injuries are nothing compared to the high I feel after a five hour rush. In fact, I am so high on adrenaline that it keeps the burns from hurting until I “come down.”

Speaking of cutting myself with a knife, one of my coworkers (I don’t know who, and it’s good I don’t) bent Rachel’s tip to a degree that it can’t be sharpened to perfection anymore. Because I never got first blood, we weren’t bonded, so I went ahead and ordered a new one, which I will never leave for the other cooks ever again. They can use the one they broke. One of the prep cooks was making fun of me that I ordered a new knife because the other one was only a little bit bent. My lead line cook told her to be nice. That is some version of what I was thinking……….. She thought I was being an entitled spoiled brat. Maybe I am, but what cook wants to use a knife someone else fucking ruined? I took Rachel to the knife store in Union Station, and they told me it was too bent to fix, and when I’m chopping Japanese-style (front of the knife, as opposed to French, which uses the back), the bent point will not do. I don’t expect her to understand. I don’t expect anyone to understand. But I thought a professional cook would. My mistake.

I’m superstitious about telling anyone her name until I’ve had her for at least a year. Maybe by then we will be bonded, and we’ll have enough history together that I don’t feel like I could lose her at any moment. I know I have a better than average chance of it happening if I don’t let the other “professionals” touch her. I do let my lead line cook use her, though, because his knife skills are better than mine, and I know she’ll never clatter to the floor, which I think is the culprit of Rachel “getting bent” in the first place.

In terms of Rachel’s health and wellness, I think I am rightfully angry, instead of just having a short fuse. The new knife is also Chicago Cutlery, but it’s not Rachel’s identical twin. She has a bit of a spongy handle, important because it matters after five hours. She’s also light and perfectly balanced, another important factor, because with home cooking, I like the heft of a Wüsthof or similar, but when I’ve used them in the kitchen, after a while it feels like my shoulder is going to drop off. I didn’t think she would be an upgrade, just the same knife with a different handle, but she is. I know that for people who aren’t cooks, they’re probably confused with anthropomorphizing an inanimate object. Let’s put it this way- how much importance would you place on an extension of your hand? How much respect? Having a name and being bonded by blood are just part of kitchen folklore, something that has been done for ages and not likely to change anytime soon. The name of your knife is generally female, like a ship, but not always.

One of my readers charmed me when she said, “I bought a Rachel based on your rec. Will it make me a better cook?” I said, “God, I hope so- otherwise, it wouldn’t be a very good recommendation, now would it?” I told her to watch YouTube videos on knife skills to make her faster and less likely to cut herself. Nothing is more important than learning to cut away from your body and the finger position of “spider on a mirror.” Always better to knick your knuckle or front of your finger rather than your fingers lying flat and open to getting cut to the bone, because with a deadly sharp knife, deep cuts can happen before you feel them. But, a sharp knife is still better than a dull one, because it is less likely to slip and slide. Another important tip is putting a wet tea towel under your cutting board, so it won’t slip and slide, either. Also, it really hurts if you cut into one of your fingernails…. worse in the kitchen because you’re not allowed to have acrylic reinforcements. In those moments, you just swear uncontrollably, because “gosh darn it” won’t cover the half of it.

Although if you spend much time in a professional kitchen, you’ll start to swear both uncontrollably and more creatively than ever before. It’s just one of cooks’ charms, and most of the reason we hang out with each other, not fit for polite company. I’m going to have to start a swear jar when the twins get older. I’ll probably be able to retire in less than a month.

Especially as I become a “monster.”

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.