Writing Anyway

I don’t have much time to write today, as I have to be at work at 1700. So, this entry may be a little shorter or longer than usual. It’s hard to say. Sometimes I don’t have time to edit to make it shorter. 😛 I think Mark Twain originally had that idea, but it’s true for me as well. When words just flow from my fingers, since this is a blog and not formal writing, most of the time I just hit “Post” whether I think it’s perfect or not….. tpyos and all.

Today for work I am wearing two birthday presents from my sister. The first is a pair of black Bistro Crocs that have The Swedish Chef on the top. I’ve gotten an enormous amount of compliments on them, as I wore them yesterday as well. The second is a red t-shirt with a skull and “crossbones” (a knife and fork) that says, “GO CRY IN THE WALK-IN.” My old chef from Tapalaya says that it should say, “…and take the mop with you” on the back. Either way, it is perfection. I wish I could wear my “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” baseball cap with it, but unfortunately it is like, five sizes too large and therefore makes my ears stick out like an elf. I need to find a way to display it, because there’s no way I’m giving it to someone else. It is, again, perfection. Kitchen conversation is generally unprintable, and be grateful for that. You don’t know you don’t want to know, but you don’t. Trust me.

In other news, I’ve heard that Hurricane Florence has made landfall, and after having seen the devastation in Houston from Harvey last year, I am praying for all the people of The Carolinas. I wish there was more I could do from here- it is a very helpless feeling. Since my work runs Thursday to Sunday, if I had a car I would be there to help rebuild, but it’s not time yet. The storm isn’t finished, and the waters are still rising.

As for DC, we’re virtually safe from all this, save getting some thunderstorms. Old Town Alexandria was flooded the other day, but that’s about all the “badness” I’ve seen in this area. Mostly just a few broken trees. It’s always devastating when we truly do get a hurricane in this area, because things will happen like Mt. Vernon losing trees that George Washington planted himself…. no word on whether they’re cherry or not. But my relief at not being hit is not tempered in the slightest, because I’m too worried about those who have been.

Thoughts and prayers seem empty without shoe leather, but at the moment, it’s what I can do. I hope that the people who’ve been affected can at least feel the love coming toward them, because it is certainly there for them.

I also don’t own my own house, but if I did, those who are flooded out would be welcome to stay with me. Again, it’s a helpless feeling to want to do more, but to be limited in my ability. My only recourse is to stay busy, because otherwise, I would just spin out with empathy. I don’t compartmentalize well, except at work, where the pace is so fast that I am unable to think of anything else.

The thing that gets me the most is taking money from FEMA and diverting it to ICE just in time for hurricane season. It is stunning to me how little the United States government cares about that particular dumbass attack. Or maybe it wasn’t an egregious oversight, but that they truly don’t care- even more frightening. It’s already obvious how little the government cared about Puerto Rico, but at the same time, I doubt even President Trump knew he was their president, too. He doesn’t have that luxury now. I am not making excuses for the president’s behavior, only pointing out his utter incompetency. Maybe this time, he’ll throw out a few more rolls of paper towels. /eyeroll

That last sentence was very sarcastic, which I am trying to mitigate in my daily life. Sarcasm doesn’t seem to help much in the face of disaster, but sometimes it leaks out of my pores. I’d rather give my love and positive affirmations, but at the same time, when people are suffering it seems trite.

Or perhaps not. Maybe it’s what people really need. I just know that in the grief of my mother dying, trite sayings drove me up the wall. And, as long as people are safe, I know they’re just losing things, but that’s its own kind of grief. I know because I’ve been through a house fire. It taught me not to get attached to anything you could call “stuff.” But especially for people who are losing all their “stuff” for the first time, it’s difficult to let go, particularly photo albums that there’s no time to save, or if you’re able to go back into your house after the waters recede, seeing all your albums ruined with water damage. For instance, all the pictures we were able to save from the house fire either had weird streaks across them or smelled like smoke.

Our grandparents did their best to help recreate them, but I was grateful and devastated, because they were different memories than the ones we’d recorded on our own. Again, though, I am thankful that they tried so hard, particularly since I only have one grandparent left, and a lot of the pictures they gave us had them front and center.

So, my empathy comes from sympathy as well. Not only do I identify with their pain, a lot of it, I have worn on my own skin. I remember what it was like to evacuate from Galveston during Hurricane Alicia in 1983. I remember my house fire in 1990. I remember lots and lots of ruined pictures and journals from an air conditioner that leaked all over my closet in 1995…. a small thing compared to a storm, but water damaged pictures and journals never recover in either case. Some of the journals went as far back as 1990, words lost that were at times poignant… and terrible in the way that all tween and teen journals are.

I would have been a star at a show like Cringe if they’d made it. Pretty sure there’s a recording of some of those shows on Netflix if you’re interested. It’s basically people reading old journal entries and poems in front of a live audience…. insanely funny and touching at the same time.

And now, it’s time for one last cup of coffee since the kitchen is open until midnight on Saturdays, and since it’s open until midnight on Fridays as well, I am still dragging ass. All of this was easier when I was 25. It’s either Aleve, Tylenol, and get on with it…. or… GO CRY IN THE WALK-IN.


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.”

First Blood

My knives came yesterday, and the rite of cutting yourself with your own knife almost came too soon. You want it to be a story worthy of telling, not “I was getting it out of the package…” I have tentatively named her “Rachel,” because she’s as sharp as a Maddow takedown. That may change, because as your relationship with your knife grows, it tells you who it is. It’s not about anthropomorphizing an inanimate object. It’s about shorthand- one word to represent everything it is.

A chef’s knife isn’t just a knife, but an extension of their own hand… the only real tool we get to establish dominance over the ticket machine. Calling such a tool by a name everyone else calls it diminishes its importance in our lives.

Not only that, use a knife long enough, and you’ll see that they all develop their own personalities. It doesn’t happen in a week, or even a year, but as you begin to sharpen and hone the shape is different than when you bought it. It sits in your hand slightly differently, an adjustment you don’t notice because you’ve held it day in and day out…. even when you have a knife that cost $17.49, as opposed to the $300-1,000 range. I have used both, and I have seen no appreciable difference in function, just beauty.

This is because I am not excellent at sharpening knives. I would probably feel much differently if I was expert at restoring an edge. I would rather buy a cheap one, not to keep replacing it, but in order not to feel miserable that I just spent an hour honing in the wrong direction. There’s also no electric sharpener on the market that’s worth a dollar. Its only value is in not having to take responsibility for destroying your knife…. you didn’t do it, the machine did. Using an electric sharpener is like putting a FabergĂŠ egg next to a troll doll collection.

Because I’m not so good at sharpening manually, I’ll gladly pay someone else to do it, because yes, I could go out and buy another knife, but then I lose all the history I have with this one. The good news is that I won’t have to worry about it for at least a year. Chicago Cutlery is solid, though I can’t say I’ve used anything but their chef’s knives. In fact, even though my coworkers at Biddy’s (now the O’Neill Pub in Portland, Oregon) often had more expensive knives than me, mine became the favorite. Dana got a thousand-fold from Sur la Table (Lenore) that everyone liked, but seemed to lose an edge more quickly than mine… and the one axiom in the kitchen is that if your knife isn’t just sharp as fuck, you’re going to cut yourself ten times more often. It’s counter-intuitive, but dull knives tear rather than cut, and rarely go in the direction you want…. mostly right over your finger, no matter how good your fingertips are tucked under.

The other knives that came in the set are tucked safely away in a drawer, because I’m not putting those into our community kitchen. It’s fine with me for my roommates to use them, it’s just that I want to be in charge of what happens to them afterward- soap and water, never a dishwasher. To someone who treats a knife as “just a knife,” this won’t seem important. They don’t know they’re dulling the edge in a way you can’t get back, and don’t see why it’s a big deal.

It’s a big deal.

Also, I’m not so impressed with using a different knife for every application. Pretty much the only concession I’ll make is an oyster knife. Everything else can be done with a chef’s knife or a bread knife. For instance, tomato and pepper skins will dull a chef’s knife quite easily, so it’s much better to use a serrated edge. If you must use a chef’s knife for a pepper, cut once on the outside, and put the skin against the cutting board, because you’ll have an easier time slicing the “meat” itself.

Cutting tomatoes reminds me of having to cut five or ten pounds at once for sandwiches, because I’ve never had worse acid burns. It’s worse if you’re wearing rubber gloves, because the acid gets trapped on your wrist and drips down into your palm and fingers. I have a love-hate relationship with safety regulations, because I agree that customers need to be cared for, but it often comes at the expense of keeping cooks safe in the process. I’ve mentioned this before, but wearing gloves while over a griddle or an open flame causes the latex to fuse to your hand, creating so much worse an injury because then it’s hard to get the glove back off to treat the wound… taking a layer of skin with it.

With the exception of making cold sandwiches, any heat applied to food is going to kill bacteria. There’s no need to add latex to the equation. I sometimes think that these rules are made by people who either haven’t been in the kitchen for a long time, or were never cooks to begin with. Otherwise, they would see that gloves take an injury and make it much, much worse. Hot plastic and rubber is a recipe for a trip to the ER…. which no cook will ever forgive you for because you got hurt to the point where you had to leave the line.

There’s no excuse for it, ever. Burned? Stick some Silver Sulfadiazine on it and get back to work. Cut? Super Glue. Ill? WHO THE FUCK CARES? Managers who send sick people home put targets on your back, as if it’s your fault. Even if it’s a bad injury, you’re expected to suck it up and deal, including the invariable nicknames that will arise. Dana had a coworker who cut himself breaking down a fish (salmon, I think) and they called him Filet o’Finger for years.

And as the story of your injury gets further away, the story gets bigger, jeweling the elephant. In three years, a one cm cut becomes a three inch gash that was spurting blood all over the kitchen.

In the time between now and my first shift, I need to work on my snappiest comebacks, mostly about my coworkers mothers, in Spanish.

That’s the other thing. In a kitchen, don’t count on there ever being an HR department. The best defense is a good offense. Words definitely come easier to me than cooking, and I’m pretty damn good at it…. well, in terms of palate. Technique could use a little work. I’m always striving for excellence, because I’ll never achieve perfection.

I suspect that no one ever does in the eternal war with the ticket machine. It is relentless, even with Rachel at my side.