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.

Long Days, Short Nights

I find that the longer I work at the pub, the stronger I get. This is naturally what’s supposed to happen. You can’t carry stuff that heavy and do what’s basically a cross between Zumba and hot yoga for six to eight hours at a clip and not feel a change in your muscle mass. Although I will admit that though I’ve been tempted, there’s been at least twice where I just wanted one of the guys to take over. I couldn’t bring myself to ask.

I’m short, and I have trouble dead lifting 50-60 lbs over my head. I also have trouble admitting that men have better upper body strength and are taller, because what comes to me first is that women can do anything men can do, and I’m just admitting weakness and proving to myself that they can’t. Simultaneously, I would kill for someone to say, “that looks heavy. Let me carry it for you,” while I am thinking ” I would legit fall over and die before I admit defeat.” I feel I am forgetting something important- that it’s not my femininity that’s the problem. It’s that I personally am short and weak after long years of computer butt. To my credit, the “I would legit fall over and die before I admit defeat” part of me won, and I muscled through. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of working smarter and not harder. The walk-in refrigerator is set up the way it’s set up. There’s nothing to lever, pulley, or otherwise physics into being. It’s just mind over matter. If I think I can or I can’t, I’m generally right.

It makes me feel good to see these changes in my body after such a long dormant period. Even working in an office is physically lazy, though I mean no offense. It is mentally taxing to an enormous degree. This has changed due to Bluetooth, people bringing their laptops to you on battery power, and wi-fi, but when I was low on the food chain in IT (late 90s, early 2000s), I did get workouts from climbing under desks to fix cabling and the like. In IT now, you barely have to get up.

Even with the relaxed atmosphere physically, depression and anxiety build up for two reasons. The first is that you tend to see the same problems every day, sometimes from the same people… every day. The second is that they’re always mad about it, and no matter what they did, it’s all your fault. I had one person get mad at me because their thesis disappeared- they’d stuck their floppy disk onto their refrigerator with a magnet and of course, had no backups, because why would they?

For me, the difference between working in IT and working in a restaurant is that with cooking, it’s always fresh hell instead of stale. It is also a proven fact that movement is an excellent treatment for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. None of my own mental problems were caused by working in IT, but if you’re already feeling all of these things, being mentally taxed and not physically makes it ten thousand times worse.

People haul off and call you a piece of garbage and you’ve agreed with that for years, despite the fact that you cannot help them fix their computers while their computer is on their desk at work and they’re out driving and just thought to call you from the car. I am sure that now it’s possible with remote desktop, but not if their computer is off and they’re in New York and you’re in Oregon. I’ve often been sorry for not being able to plug a computer into the wall from 3,000 miles away.

You might laugh at this, but I guarantee it’s a sad place to be, because the feeling is so helpless. You couldn’t do anything to fix the problem and even though you’ve just spent 15 minutes on the phone with a total idiot explaining in three different ways why you’re useless, it gets to you. You live for the moments when all you do is walk into a room and press one button and the entire office thinks you have magic powers.

IT jokes about idiot users conceal deep, deep rage for the very scenarios I’ve described… especially when the customer is always right and their idiocy has to come with an “I’m here to serve you” patois.

With cooking, there’s a buffer zone called waitstaff, and never think I’m ungrateful for it. While cooking is busy, it’s not nearly as abusive as working with the public.

It is, however, perpetually exhausting even as you get stronger, because I can’t speak for everyone in my profession, but my sleep cycles have gotten shorter as my body rebels against my natural circadian rhythm. If I don’t go to bed until 0200-0300, I’m still up by 0630-0700. Part of this is that there’s a ton of natural light in my room. Part of it still is that the rhythm of the world keeps going- traffic noise, lawns being mowed, construction… I try to nap, but so far, that isn’t doing anything for me. I just “keep calm and coffee on.” Because of the noise, even if I take a sleeping pill, it doesn’t keep me asleep. I just feel like I’m walking through a Jell-o mold at dawn.

Yet another reason why my shift drink is usually club soda with extra ice and lime. The sugar rush of beer keeps me up even later. I give in when I don’t have to work the next day, because sometimes a cold one after work is a good thing, and it is also important to say that I’ve at least tried our products…. I haven’t had a bad beer yet, and it is vital to me that what I’m drinking is local to my adopted hometown.

I have also learned the hard way that too much alcohol makes my medication less effective, and the last thing I need on earth is that happening. And, apparently, too much alcohol, for me, is having a beer every night… something lots of people do, and I joined them until I had my own epiphany about it. Too much for me is different than most people, and I’m okay with that.

Plus, beer doesn’t have ice in it, and by the time I get out of the kitchen, it is the first thing I want. I could take a bath in ice and it wouldn’t be too much…. and in fact, might be a good idea given how badly I have osteoarthritis in my back and hands.

But for all my aches and pains, I never think about what’s happening mentally with me. I just act on instinct. Childhood trauma and adult chemical imbalances mean nothing to the ticket machine, which, for me, is all about saving the waitstaff from customer abuse. In a way, it’s giving back to all the people who’ve helped me along the way.

I do get a break on Memorial Day, though. It’s up in the air as to what I will do, because there will be several parties going on that I don’t want to miss, giving toasts to the fallen… with extra ice.

A Whirlwind of Activity

Every time my sister comes to town, it’s a whirlwind of activity. I half-kid her that I see her more now that I live in DC, because when we both lived in Houston she worked for the city. It made her practically unavailable. In her last job, she was working on different states’ bills, and Maryland was one of many in her territory. I absolutely loved visiting her in Annapolis, but in her current job, she’s working on federal legislation.31793386_10156075683775272_8143610859139104768_n Today we met up in front of the Supreme Court and walked to Nooshi (Capitol Hill/8th St.). A friend of Lindsay’s joined us for dinner, and then Lindsay said that she wanted to go back to the same restaurant she went to on Tuesday night just for the dessert.

Since we were in the neighborhood, said friend and I convinced Lindsay that she should branch out and come with us to Ted’s Bulletin. We all got adult milkshakes- mine was Bananas Foster. Lindsay also ordered the homemade version of a Little Debbie™ Oatmeal Creme Pie (they also offer homemade Pop-Tarts™). She only ate a few bites of it, and I hadn’t eaten all day. I unashamedly ate the rest, after having an entire order of chicken wings, several pieces of sushi, and 7-Spice Tofu Fries… not to mention the milkshake bigger than my head. I’m currently on the “I Don’t Have a Car” diet, which basically means I eat anything I want, any time I want, because I have to walk it off whether I want to or not. I enjoy this plan so much that I may upgrade it to the “I Don’t Want a Car” diet, because I’d like to continue to eat like a frat boy at all times. Don’t get me wrong, a car would be nice to have when going to the grocery store, but I found that driving around DC made every single part of my day sedentary unless the parking garage closest to where I wanted to go was full.

Tomorrow, I’m going to work out even more. The reason I look so happy in the above photo is that I got a call from Jorgé, the kitchen manager at pub near downtown Silver Spring, wanting to know when I could do a stagé. I’m not nervous- it’s basic bar food- but I do feel weirdly self-conscious that I don’t have chef’s pants. I found a shop on Fenton that might have them, so I’ll check mid-morning. I just can’t picture being able to move well in Dockers or jeans. I do, however, still own my Bistro Crocs…. however, mine are basic brown and I flipped out at the new designs, so I may have to upgrade my kitchen shoes if I get the job. I really like the skulls and crossbones made out of eggs and bacon, and the black with chili peppers are just classic. You can knock on Crocs all you want, but there is no substitute in the kitchen. “Bistro” is a different designation. You won’t even slip if there’s frying oil all over the floor…. it’s a completely different tread, and no holes for ventilation lest you “drop it while it’s hot.”

Speaking of “hot,” Lindsay warned me not to burn myself, and I said, “oh my God… I have so many burn stories….” She then got super worried about me and told me to be careful. Since the last time I cooked, I lived in Portland, she didn’t see me when I looked like a Hell’s Angel…. just cuts, bruises, and burns EVERYWHERE. It was the best time of my life.

I was, as Anthony Bourdain said, a member of a tribe that would have me. Because I spend so much time in my head, working with my hands was such a blessing. I didn’t have time to worry about anything else but slicing onions correctly…. which is why a pub is the perfect fit for me and not fine dining. With monocular vision, I am not fast and accurate at the same time. When my field of vision changes, so does the direction of my knife. In that vein, the best part ever is that they want me as a line cook because all the prep positions are full. So basically, someone else has to worry that the batonets are perfect.

I am still going to interview with UMD if they ask, and will probably take the job if it is offered because I can’t think of a better way to pay for school. But I can’t worry about next week or the week after that. I am living in the moment, and what this moment is telling me is to enjoy the hell out of myself tomorrow. During the phone interview, it was like I’d never stopped being a cook. This was the funniest part of the conversation:

Me: How many covers a night?
Jorgé: I don’t want to scare you.

He also laughed until he choked when he said that most customers order the same thing and I said, “french fries with ranch?” If you’ve never worked in a bar, that joke is ridiculously funny.

When I got home, I sent an instant message to Pati Jinich and told her that I had an important stage coming up and could I have a blessing? She wished me luck and told me to wear good shoes. I was walking to the Metro when I got it, and just had this big, dumb grin on my face the entire way there…. actually, I think I’m still smiling.

For those of you just joining us, I met Pati when she did a cooking demonstration at the Mexican Embassy in 2017.22550261_10155565072125272_809704913041301676_o My dad had actually bought the ticket, but gave it to me when he didn’t end up making the trip. He and my stepmom have had this running joke that Pati is “his girlfriend,” so I told my dad that if he didn’t come to the cooking demonstration, I was going to steal his girlfriend away from him.

I told Pati this story at the beginning of the night, and we took a picture together at the end. The reason I am doubled over with laughter is that I thought she had forgotten all about our conversation…………. She reached over and kissed me, saying, “well, you asked for it.” It was just one of those jokes that was completely unexpected. I walked right into it, one of the funniest things that’s happened to me in DC.

I am so glad that the photographer (whomever he was) got just the right moment, because it is refrigerator-worthy. I think I’ll print out a copy for my Kindle case, which carries all my “important documents.”

I cannot close this entry without thanking my ex-wife, Dana, who got me interested in cooking in the first place (and helped me get my first cooking job).

I’d also like to thank Drew, Knives, John, JMSK, and all the other people who helped me along the way. I think I have a pretty good shot at turning an audition into a job, but no matter how badly it goes, they’ll still feed me (and possibly give me a beer). Seriously, what have I got to lose? I get to spend an evening doing what I love, with a tribe who would have me.

Every time Lindsay comes to town, it’s just a whirlwind of activity.

How I Cook

I have cooked professionally for several years now, and here, in no particular order, are the things I’ve learned:

  • Making a mayonnaise-based sauce is not about technique. It is about art. Some people have it, some people don’t. I have it. You have to treat mayonnaise the same way you would drive a stick-shift car, because the balance between the eggs and the oil is very much like finding the equilibrium point that moves the car forward. The other thing that will help is to add more egg than you think you need, and less vinegar. That is because the egg will bind extra oil and will give you a little more wiggle room before the sauce breaks altogether. If it starts to derail, add a fourth cup of water and keep stirring. It also helps to be as Zen as you can, because invariably, one of those times, a sauce will break and you’ll want to beat yourself with your own whisk. Most people don’t make mayonnaise by hand anymore. I only do it to show off.
  • I never measure anything unless I’m baking (at home, that is). Here’s how to get to a point where you can cook without instructions.
    • Get a basic cookbook that teaches fundamentals without fancy recipes. Then, read it like a book. Note recurring themes and flavor profiles. If you spend a few weeks doing this, you’ll learn which cooking methods are natural extensions of each other, such as searing a piece of meat in a skillet and then transferring it to the oven to braise. Eventually, you’ll learn the rhythm of making things taste good.
  • If you get frustrated after all of this, please just use recipes. People think it’s cool to throw things together, but if you don’t have the palate for it, use someone else’s. Taste, especially making your food appeal to more people than just you, is especially hard. I got lucky in that I’m naturally good at it, but many people aren’t and feel like failures in the kitchen. Don’t sweat it. Every time you want to make something, look it up on FoodNetwork.com. People that come to your house to eat will think you thought up an incredible meal, when in reality, all you did was execute a recipe perfectly. Executing a recipe is just as important as taste. Don’t feel bad because you need some help in the flavor department.
  • Knife skills are overrated
    • People like to watch me when I’m chopping, because I’m extraordinarily fast. However, I am not in any way accurate in the slightest. Because I have monocular vision, my knife doesn’t ever connect to the cutting board in the same way twice. It’s one of the reasons I’m a great pub cook but suck at fine dining. I know that since I can’t correct my problem, you might think that my advice is coming from that place. But no. If you’re cooking at home or in a restaurant that cares more about french fries than plating, just get the mis en place DONE. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to get the perfect julienne or batonnet. It will take you far more time than it’s worth. Believe me. In an extreme case of loss-of-confidence, I once spent 45 minutes on three carrots. Was it worth it? The salad was perfect, but it took 45 minutes!
  • Make foodie friends
    • Learn to cook well for free! Dana was trained at Cordon Bleu. I was not. I got a $20,000 education taught in my own home. Surely you have a friend that can show you a few things… like a perfect mayonnaise, julienne, or batonnet. 😛
    • Bring food into your conversations. This will often lead to your friends telling you what they made for dinner. You can always file it away for later.

I am sure that I will come back and edit this document as I think of more things to say. But here is a pretty good start.