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. 😛 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.

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 FabergĂ© 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.

Hot.

Writing’s just as natural to me as getting up and cooking breakfast.

-Dolly Parton

I think getting the stage at the brewpub has given me a new lease on life. Whether I take the job or not, it is a huge ego boost. I feel something unfamiliar as of late. To quote Miss Hannigan from Annie, “do I hear….. happiness… in here?” Though I’ve had a few laughs, this mood lift has lasted, when normally, as soon as the laugh is over, I retreat back into my head.kcstr I went downtown and bought some chef pants and some white t-shirts that I can wear with pretty much anything, because I don’t know if there’s something special I have to wear once I get there. These clothes are pretty standard. If I get there and find out I can wear crazy pants, there are some mirepoix prints waiting for me at Fenton’s Uniforms. Yes, wearing pants (and maybe a coat, depending) will be hot AF in the kitchen… but you’d always rather be protected from all the food that inevitably splashes all over you than bare any skin. Also, touching the stove, griddle, or oven hurts less when there’s fabric in between you and them. Mario Batali always wears shorts, by which I am mystified. It would only take one pot of boiling soup spilling down my front before I decided that was a bad idea. I take that back. It’s a bad idea just thinking about it.

I also need to check out their knives, because if I don’t find one that fits my hand perfectly, I’m going to need my own. For the longest time, I preferred German, because they are heavy in my hand, and the heft feels good. Then, I tried using a heavy knife for eight hours at a clip and I wasn’t so impressed anymore. I’ve been to Sur la Table and tried just about every knife on the market, and I swear to God, I didn’t find anything as good as the one I got from Chicago Cutlery on Amazon for $15. I didn’t even have to sharpen it for a year.

And speaking of knives, I’m feeling one right through my chest, because Dana’s not here. I know that there’s not a chance in hell I won’t hear her voice in my ear all damn night. It’s been a minute since we’ve cooked together, but I’ve never had a better partner. Being so intimate with your kitchen partner is a plus, because you know each other so well you can have entire conversations with one look each, and every second counts. I just took a Klonopin.

My best wish for myself is that I find someone I can dance with tonight. Drew and I literally danced to Aqua in the kitchen (as Doctor Who fans, it took less than a second for “Dr. Jones” to become “Martha Jones”), but what I mean is that the entire night is a series of movements, not unlike ballet. What’s running through my head is that I hope I remember the most important thing…. communication with the others.

  • Behind you (with a knife)
  • Coming down the line hot
  • Coming around the corner (or just “corner”)
  • Heard, Chef
  • Answering “what do I need all day?”
    • That means looking at every ticket and counting items across them for the uninitiated….
  • Work clean

The most important, therefore listed first, is “behind you with a knife.” The way you carry it is blade down, and if someone bumps into you, you are way more likely to cut yourself than them. The reason that this is more of a ballet than at other restaurants is that things are not divided up by station. Everyone picks up everything, from sautĂ© to pantry to fry station.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to have my professional tools back. There’s nothing like having the right ones, especially a large griddle and scrapers. My favorite chore is cleaning the griddle at the end of the night. I can make it shine like the top of the Chrysler building! I am not kidding myself. Even if it is just a stage, if we get slammed, no one is getting cut, and it’s Thursday. It’s how I know that the kitchen manager wants to literally throw me into the fire. Easing me in would be a stage on a Monday.

Please send good thoughts, energy, prayers if you are a God person, black magic prayers if you are not. I need to be at the top of my game, because when I’m on, I’m ON. I want to walk into the kitchen like I own it, because I know I’m capable. But there’s a chance that everything will be overwhelming and go to shit within an hour. A small chance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t overthink about it.

I think I’m going to meditate and stretch now. It’s been a long time since I’ve put this much pressure on my knees, and I need to concentrate on everything within my control going right, knowing that not everything is. Now that the Klonopin has kicked in, I no longer feel the knife in my chest. Dana is my guardian angel, and I know I can call on her when I need her. She’ll sit on my shoulder until closing time if I ask.

Just like in Eat. Pray. Love., I’m creating a contract to do well and having people sign it. Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain signed it. Chef Dana signed it. Julia Child signed it. James Beard signed it. Pati Jinich signed it. Vivian Howard signed it. Andy Ricker signed it. Auguste Escoffier signed it. The Two Fat Ladies signed it. Gabriel Rucker and Naomi Pomeroy  signed it. Michael CordĂșa signed it. JosĂ© AndrĂ©s signed it. Now, not only do I have one angel on my shoulder, I have a lot of them.

All of the sudden, I am at peace. I got this.

Depending on what time I get home, let’s get together and post-mortem. I am sure I will have a ton to say, depending on whether all the energy in my body has leaked out of my ear. Alternatively, I may be a live wire, adrenaline coursing through my body. It’s anyone’s guess.

Stay tuned.