Wilted

I started my morning by making coffee and a “kitchen sink” wilted salad with over medium eggs on top (I am a vegan who cheats. A lot. #noguiltever). By “kitchen sink,” I mean I just threw in whatever fruits and veggies were available.

I started out with sesame seed oil, onions, garlic, mushrooms, diced Granny Smith apples, and ginger. To finish, I added a mixture of shaved brussel sprouts and spring mix (red romaine, baby spinach, radicchio, green romaine, arugula, red mustard, red chard, frisee), then put some rice wine vinegar in the bottom of the pan and let it reduce, helping the to greens soften and mix.

When the veggies were ready, I pushed them to the sides of the pan, making a perfect circle for two eggs, spraying the pan with sesame seed oil again so nothing would stick. I was going to do sunny side up, but I didn’t have a lid for the pan, and I grew tired of waiting for the yolks to cook, because it takes so much longer without steam.

The dish turned out perfectly, and I am my harshest critic. I was hungry in a now sort of way, otherwise I would have served everything over wild rice and lentils as well.

I have a rice cooker made by Instant Zest, and it is the best kitchen purchase I have ever made, because it was cheap and has settings for white rice, brown rice, steel cut oatmeal, quinoa, and veggie steam (which I have also used successfully for soft/hard boiled eggs).

It’s actually been a few days….. almost a week….. since I’ve cooked, because I had to gather the courage to do it again.  I was cubing raw sweet potato, and I cut myself in such a spectacular way that I don’t think I’ve ever had a worse kitchen injury. It happened so fast that I’m not even sure where I made the mistake. I don’t know if the cutting board slipped, the knife went sideways, it wasn’t sharp enough for raw potato, etc. It could also have been something I wouldn’t have caught, like my monocular vision making me think I was cutting a straight line, but I was actually cutting diagonally. This is a problem that is as equally likely as an accident I would have seen coming. All that being said, no matter what the cause, the effect was the same- absolute searing pain and bleeding so severe that I should have gone to Urgent Care/the ER to see if I needed stitches, but I didn’t.

My kitchen training was just too ingrained…. fix the problem and get back to cooking. It took forever to get it to clot, even using a styptic pencil for vasoconstriction. Once it did, I put on some Band-Aids and finished what I was doing. Two days later, I was taking off the Band-Aids to change the dressing, and it ripped open again, which led to another half hour of trying to fix profuse bleeding. Though I’d bought a first aid kit and very advanced bandages, I’d forgotten to get the one thing that would have really helped, and is a staple in a professional knife roll– Super Glue. If I’d gotten some, once the bleeding stopped, I probably could have avoided ripping it open again. You can chalk that one up to #dumbassattack, and it won’t be happening again.

Believe it or don’t, this is the first time I’ve cut myself in many years. When I was working professionally, at home I ran on sandwiches and hot dogs. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was cook for myself…. so, the only time I used knives was at work, where everything is built for safety, even for short people like me. The counter is lower, the cutting boards are heavier and held in place by wet rags, at least one person in the kitchen has honing and sharpening tools, etc. I had plenty of injuries when it came to burning myself, but that was it.

It was funny the emotions that came up for me as soon as the knife went from sweet potato to the side of my finger and nail. I thought of all the professional chefs and cooks I’d worked with, including my ex-wife, Dana, and shame washed over me. I felt like I’d let them down. It was my own moment of feeling wilted.

For a home cook, it’s just an accident. For a professional cook, it’s “you were being a dumbass and whatever you did got you hurt. What the hell is wrong with you?” And believe me, with some chefs, that is the nice version of what they would have said. And if the chef wasn’t in the kitchen, your coworkers would do their job for them. For instance, Dana used to work in a high-end grocery store for the meat, sausage, and fish department. One of her coworkers sliced into his finger while filleting a fish, and the entire department called him Filet-O-Finger for YEARS ON END.

Speaking of which, the only time I ever got a nickname was due to no fault of my own. During junior college, I was on the waitstaff at my local Chili’s. It was a busy shift, and they hadn’t switched over to plastic mugs yet. So, this waiter broke one of the heavy glass mugs and like an idiot, just stuck it back in the rack. The manager made an announcement that the glass was broken, but I was delivering food and not there to hear it.

The way the mug was stuck down into the rack, you couldn’t see the broken part, so I came around the corner and it’s (of course) the first thing I pick up. Little shards immediately went into my pinkie at the knuckle, and it was definitely bad enough for stitches. The manager rushed me to the ER, and I didn’t go another day in that kitchen without being called “Worker’s Comp” by somebody. The reason that memory is still seared into my brain is that it’s been 20 years and the scar is still visible.

I have no reason to doubt that this cut will be the same. 20 years from now, I will still remember the day I was dicing raw sweet potatoes, because the cut is deep enough the scar will never fade.

So, today was about ignoring the fear I felt about cutting myself again so I could move past it for real. “Act as if,” you know? In fact, as everything was cooking, I kept cutting. I didn’t need but about a half of diced apple, so I cut the rest into very large dice, and did the same with another whole apple. It was enough to fill two Zip-Loc bags. With the first, I shook in a small box of sugar free cherry Jell-O powder, an idea my mom got from a magazine and is delicious with any flavor. A moment of grief washed over me, because I couldn’t remember the proportions and she wasn’t there to call and ask. She used to put Jell-O apples in my lunch box as a kid almost every day, so I knew she would know off the top of her head…… and Google is just no substitute.

It was yet another moment of feeling wilted, but due to the hopelessness of the situation, I just had to move on.

I figured I would learn on my own when I tasted them if I’d gotten it right or not, and moved on to the second bag, to which I added some rice wine vinegar to keep the apples fresh for cooking savory dishes or adding to a salad (Hmmmm…. there’s goat cheese in the fridge……).

The last thing I was thinking today is that my knife is so sharp that there’s no way it’s time to sharpen again, but it probably needs honing. I’ll call around and ask how much it would be, because I’ve never learned how to sharpen and hone a knife properly….. and no matter how much I spend on an electric honer/sharpener, it will not meet my expectations. I have seen the most expensive ones chew up a knife and spit it out, even if it worked perfectly before.

If it is more expensive than another chef’s knife from Chicago Cutlery, I’ll just get a new one and leave this one in the community block…. but I’m really hoping that it’s not, because this knife, since I hide it from my housemates, has become mine. I never got first blood on Rachel (so named since she was as sharp as a Maddow takedown), or the three knives before her. I haven’t named this one……..

It’s probably going to be “Worker’s Comp.”

That Moment When…

That moment when you feel like you’ve just run a marathon in the kitchen is one of the best adrenaline rushes on earth, but it is often thankless. Last night, it wasn’t…. a moment I want to record here for posterity. One of the waitstaff came into the kitchen after about a four hour run and said:

Ticket times were on point. You guys rock.

I swear to God I almost started crying, because emotions were already running high in a “we made it” sort of way. The bar was busier than usual due to the Washington Capitals game (which we won- go Caps), and to say it was relentless was an understatement, especially with only me, one other cook, and a dishwasher. It really helped that this same waitress took time out to help us expo, which is shorthand for calling out to us what she needed and in what order, because we had so much food to hand out. She was the real hero. We were just background noise.

Generally, on nights that busy, there is a permanent expo- another cook or the kitchen manager- but no one expected us to be that busy on a Wednesday. Generally, expo is reserved for the weekend. This particular weekend is all hands on deck, because it’s a holiday known for three days of Bacchanalian splendor. IMG_0024It seems to defeat the purpose of the holiday. I can’t help but give thanks for the veterans who made it possible for us to have picnics and beer in our American egocentricity, when we forget that we get all these privileges for which they died to protect.

I know that I have ancestors who have died in wars, but I don’t have any friends who have. Luckily, all my friends who have served have made it home in one piece… but not necessarily in one peace. Because of this, I believe Thank You For Your Service is required viewing in addition to all your hot dogs and beer this weekend. Not only is it about death during wartime, but the aftermath of what those deaths do to the living, and the absolute hell the survivors go through in order to get help for it.

So while I am slinging hash, I’ll be thinking about why. The above picture is one that I took at Arlington National Cemetery myself, surrounded by people ignoring the signs to be quiet and respectful.

This weekend, it’s them that deserve your praise. Being able to cook well is a distant thousandth compared to their bravery, even the cooks in the military. I haven’t done it, but I am assuming that cooking is even more stressful under the threat of the mess hall being bombed. It makes me grateful for everything I have, and everything I ever will.

My job is often thankless because I’m just doing what I’m paid to do. It’s nice to get thanked, but it is not necessary. I make good money to do what I do, and I am internally satisfied when it goes well.

If their job is thankless, we are not doing so well in the basic humanity department. So, no matter what you’re drinking this weekend, from Diet Cokes to margaritas, raise a glass to the fallen. It’s the least we can do because they allow us to drink them. If you see a veteran this weekend, make sure to say “thank you for your service and sacrifice.” This is because it ignores how they might feel about why they did what they did, and how they might feel about what the top brass asked them to do. It is a simple acknowledgement that when you sign on the dotted line, you serve and you sacrifice.. no matter the administration or the justification for the fight.

Yes, Memorial Day honors those who have lost their lives, but at the same time, it is not a bad thing to honor the living while we’re at it. Some soldiers suffer incredible survivors’ guilt, and though it is inappropriate to say so, you never know what kind of sacrifice you’re honoring that day…. and maybe, just maybe, it is exactly what that soldier needs to hear at the time he or she needs to hear it.

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.”

Oh, man…..

I was completely worthless today.

Everything hurt, even muscles I forgot I had. If the stage was successful and I am offered the job, it won’t be a problem. I’ll be doing those kinds of acrobatics every day. I ran my ass off last night (which is bad… I don’t have much to begin with). I worked out more in four hours than I have in the last five years.

I woke up with the allergy attack from hell, and I still couldn’t make myself get up and take a shower. My arms and legs just rebelled. When I couldn’t find my Zyrtec bottle, I took some Benedryl and Sudafed, then padded downstairs for some Peet’s French Roast. Then, I did what any sane cook would do. I got back in bed.

After about four hours, when my allergy attack still hadn’t gone away, I got in the shower. Sometimes it helps to wash my face, because usually I’ve got dust or pollen on my skin. I also thought that hot water might ease the strain on my muscles. I, in fact, thought wrong. It’s almost 2330 and I still feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.

It occurred to me that I’m not 25, or even 30 anymore…. but I don’t think that’s the problem. I think having computer butt is the culprit. Someone who spends most of their day at a desk or in bed with a laptop is not going to feel awesome after a kitchen shift, especially when orders are coming in relentlessly for hours.

And, like most cooks, I woke up in the middle of the night- panicked because the ticket machine was going off in my head and I forgot to drop the taquitos and the pretzels were burning and everyone else had disappeared, even the dishwasher…… I ran back and forth between the dish pit and dry storage trying to find César because I was up to my ass in tickets….. If you’ve ever wondered how cooks dream, this is it…. a series of nightmare scenarios….. even after a night where everything went perfectly…. because it didn’t happen, but it could’ve.

Having worked front of house, I know waitstaff has their own version of snapping awake. They suddenly think things like, “I never did bring them their ranch,” and their throats tighten.

What I’ve learned over years and years, though, is that I’ve never heard anyone complain more than line cooks, but never, ever say to them that they could always do something else.