Tag Archives: culinary

What They Made Me

As I was cooking breakfast, I was reflecting on everything I’d learned while being a professional. Though I feel I can’t return to the kitchen, I do feel it is part of my soul. My last gig convinced me (though not a unique experience, by far) I have the heart of a chef, but my body just won’t cooperate. I do not mean that I have earned my stripes to be a chef already (which literally means boss, and too many people call everyone who cooks “chef”), I mean that if I didn’t have so many physical limitations, I would have bagged all my other ambitions and gotten the experience I needed to run my own kitchen.

It’s not just the work that calls to me, it’s the lifestyle. I would finish in the kitchen around 11, then come home and write late into the night. I’d sleep until noon or one, then do it all over again. It fits my circadian rhythm perfectly, because truly working overnight just about killed me (I once worked at an IT help desk with customers in the UK, so we were open 24/7). I was fine until about 0400, but even if I napped my entire lunch hour, staying until 0800 made my body scream for mercy.

What made cooking different is that it never drained me. It gave me energy rather than taking it. Putting the perfect plate of food in the window to give to a customer always made me smile inside, and it showed. 1d3d025b-e006-47e8-a9b7-8bd71b0ce971_screenshotMy coworkers literally compared me to SpongeBob Squarepants…. and I’ve worked in three different pubs, so the comparison is not unfair……

But my chef’s heart didn’t start beating until I got some menu control over the brunch program at the first one, and then did Cajun fine dining for a while, where I worked with higher caliber ingredients and people (in the professional sense- everyone has personally been fine). At Tapalaya, both the chef and the sous had been to culinary school, and were impeccable about teaching everyone else.

In terms of what my chefs made me, it is that I wouldn’t even be the same person today….. and also jambalaya, which Chef would present me at the end of a long shift with an Abita Purple Haze. He found out on the first day that I liked it, and the moment the restaurant closed, one would magically appear. It was just one of the ways that Chef showed me he cared, both as a boss and a friend (we were friends before I worked for him and still friends today). There’s also one moment between us that will seem so small that it is insignificant, but even thinking about it makes tears come to my eyes.

Working in the kitchen is a meritocracy. You start at rock bottom and work your way up, even if you’ve been to culinary school. If you have been to culinary school and think certain jobs are beneath you, it is literally the quickest way to get fired. The moment I’m recalling is that Chef asked me to taste something and tell him what it needed. I took a bite and closed my eyes. “Salt. It needs a little more salt.” He dropped some in. No big deal, right?

It was everything. Absolutely everything. It was the first time in any kitchen that I’d won enough merit to have an opinion, like getting into a doctoral program, because that’s generally when you’re allowed to think for yourself (in publishing, anyway). And if you ask Chef, he’d tell you that you were right. It was no big deal.

Yes, it was. It was the moment I realized I was really good at my job. Where the problems start happening is technique, never palate. With enough time, I can do anything, and in a professional kitchen, it’s the only thing that’s never on the menu.

I’d worked with my ex-wife, Dana, and she allowed me to have plenty of opinions, but never because she was compelled. At work, I deferred to her judgment, because she had been to culinary school and I hadn’t. It was that she had seen me cook for years, both at home and at work, and trusted me. Our joke was that with my palate and her technique, between us we had a complete culinary education.

For instance, she would often start a soup and then come to me and say, “fix this.” And it wasn’t that it didn’t taste good originally. She just knew I would “put it up to 11.” Those moments were fantastic, but I can’t put them on the same level with Chef. It’s not that I respected Dana less, it’s that she was my family, someone I didn’t see as having as much objectivity as someone unrelated…. like not believing I was actually a good singer until I was well-received by people other than my mom. Everybody’s mom thinks they’re a good singer. Everybody’s spouse thinks they’re a good cook if they think they’ll be sleeping in the backyard if they don’t. 😛

I made the connection early on that cooking was like driving a car with a manual transmission, and that analogy carries me, because it applies to nearly everything.

For instance, let’s start with mayonnaise. You put three egg yolks and one tablespoon of acid into a bowl (doesn’t matter if it’s citrus or vinegar), and then whisk it until it turns white (called the sabayon stage). After that, it is like the balance between the clutch and the gas, the egg and vinegar mixture vs. the oil….. the stallout being the sauce breaking (that means that the acid and oil have separated). Usually, this is caused by adding too much oil at one time. Three egg yolks and one tablespoon of acid will stretch to accommodate quite a bit, but it has to be added at a drizzle while you’re whisking like mad. Sometimes you can save it by continually whisking and adding a tiny bit of water, but most of the time, you’ll have to get the starter to turn over……………..

[As an aside, if you’re a home cook, you should really learn to make mayonnaise, because it’s the basis of every salad dressing ever. If it’s ranch or bleu cheese, mayonnaise is the base. If it’s a vinaigrette, there’s no mayonnaise, but the concept of balance between acid and oil is the same. Also, at home there’s no chef barking at you that you’re cheating if you use a mixer or a blender so you have a free hand to hold the oil steady. You can also make Hollandaise quite easily, extrapolating the concept by using melted butter instead of oil and lemon juice for the acid.]

The same stick shift analogy can be used with other balances, like adding an acid if something is too salty, or adding more sugar/fat if something is too spicy.

Once I learned the concepts behind palate, it didn’t matter what type of cuisine, down to the dish, that I was making.

Like jambalaya.

 

Dish

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Things in the kitchen haven’t progressed in thousands of years. Everything is done the same way, for good reason. The most important thing is that line cooks only have to be trained once… well, sort of. There are surface tasks that come with every new restaurant, but equipment is basically standard, and if you know how to clean one brand of range, oven, salamander, griddle, etc., you probably know how to clean them all.

What is different is staff personalities, and I am lucky in my kitchen that everyone gets along, even (unusually) the waitstaff and the cooks. There is not the back and forth blame game that generally exists between front of house (FOH) and back of house (BOH). For all you customers out there, never blame the waitstaff and stiff them if a) it takes a while to get your food b) something is wrong with the food. Neither of these things is ever their fault. It’s not like they’re lazy and just forgot to pick up your order.

Most likely, something was dropped, spilled, or otherwise ruined by one of my ilk and we’re not in the back trying to fix a mistake- we’re redoing it from scratch because nothing can ever really be “fixed.” I don’t think a customer has ever said “just pick it up off the floor… it’s faster that way.” It should be a comfort to you that we never do.

The other thing I’ve noticed that customers do all the time is tell the waitstaff that the food is fine rather than send it back. Especially in DC, food is expensive. I never want you to pay that much for a sub-par meal, even though I’ve done it because I’m sensitive to the kitchen- overwhelmingly so… even though I know that the cooks would be more embarrassed not to know that the food wasn’t great. Even if it’s something small, like the fries are cold, send it back.

Also, never blame the waitstaff if your drink is taking a long time unless you’ve ordered tea, coffee, water, or a soft drink. The bar is just as busy as the kitchen, and a table full of mojitos is manual labor. In fact, I would probably go so far as to say you should tip more for a martini, Old Fashioned, or a mojito than a beer, because the bartender has to take extra time just for you. Anything that has to be muddled or shaken takes longer.

Actually, let’s just put out the general rule that if you don’t have enough money to tip well, you don’t have enough to go out to eat.

Things in my personal life have also changed by going back to the kitchen. It feels overwhelmingly good, because the race brain of rumination has stopped. I love working with my hands for this very reason. As a writer and empath, I am all too often up in my head. The fast pace of a restaurant makes it impossible. I am only thinking about what’s right in front of me, and trying to anticipate what’s next. Before work, I have an amazing amount of caffeine and an anti-anxiety pill, because I need to be sharp and, at the same time, unfazed when I am ass deep in tickets. When there are 30-40 people waiting for food at the same time, I cannot afford to panic. The medication does not stop the feeling of being panicked, it stops the part where my heartbeat goes to 150 and I can’t breathe all the way down, can’t calmly do the math of what needs to go where and when. It’s worse in a pub, because in fine dining, people are seated in order, and though the pace is fast, it’s not the same as people seating themselves and literally fifty people ordering within two minutes of each other, all expecting food in the next 10. It is gymnastics, and we pull it off… I am still not sure how. All I know is at the end of the night, I feel like I should be standing on some sort of podium complete with a John Williams fanfare.

After work, I have a short adrenaline rush and then I can barely move, my brain leaking out of my ear. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I need to shower, because I’m covered in grease and maybe food. But I don’t have much luck in making myself. I walk into my room and see my bed and then it’s all over.

When I do take a shower, I have needed to change soaps. I used to use something non-drying that cares for my skin. Now, I basically need a degreaser, even on my face. I have not tried showering with Dawn™ yet, but it wouldn’t be out of place. I can just hear it now from my roommates…. “Leslie, why is there a bottle of Dawn in our shower?” “Oh, I worked fry station last night.” Every time I drop in French fries, taquitos, or anything else, a bit of grease splashes onto me. After six or eight hours, I have a vegetable oil facial…. which is actually not as much fun as it sounds.

I generally take an Uber Pool home, because the buses have stopped running. I get into the car and immediately apologize. “I just got off work and I’m really sorry if all you can smell is fried food.” Generally, no one minds, especially the driver, who’s just glad he didn’t come to a pub to pick up a drunk.

Although he might has well have. At that point in the evening, my mind works, but I have about as much control over my limbs as they do… my entire body feels like spaghetti and I can hardly lift my backpack, even when I’m only carrying my phone, wallet, knife (in its sheath), and shoes. I carry a different pair so that after work, the pressure points on my feet are different than my kitchen shoes. It helps.

I’m also wearing jeans in the kitchen until I can get my chef’s pants tailored, because I can roll them up and they’ll stay for about five minutes, and I can’t afford the time to keep rolling them OR to trip. If I trip on the line, I can easily take three people down with me. It’s a gift.

Well, the real gift is cooking altogether. I can’t think of any job I’d rather have, because while it is not known for making one rich, it is definitely known for making one happy. Even though I’ve said it before, I can’t think of anybody who has more complaints than a line cook… mostly about how much they hurt… but never, ever ask them if they’d rather be doing something else.

It’s, as Anthony Bourdain would say, “a tribe that would have us.”

And, like Bourdain, I am glad that I have a job that allows me to continue to write, because for all its flaws, cooking doesn’t have homework and there’s no tether to all my technology for e-mails that come in the middle of the night. Perhaps one day I’ll have that type job again, but for now, I can’t think of anything more perfect than a nice cup of coffee and a sit down, where I get to “dish.”