The old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”. For big, overwhelming tasks, you should approach it one small step at a time, from beginning to end. Well in the kitchen, you absolutely cannot take things that way. When it’s rush time, you might have 15 orders (ranging from 1-15 items per order) in front of you and only one other cook at a time. Taking tickets one at a time will cause people to wait all day for their lunch. You can’t put the salmon on the grill and stand there and wait for it to cook before starting the next item. You have to put the salmon down, drop fries, dredge shrimp, sprint to the walk-in to dead-lift a 50 pound bucket of cut potatoes for fries, remember to turn the salmon for those *perfect* grill marks on your way to drop the dredged shrimp in the fryer, drop more fries, take the next ticket out of the printer only to realize it is attached to five more tickets you haven’t even looked at, dip fish in batter, make three salads, then suddenly remember you have to flip the salmon over, only to realize you forgot about the shrimp in the fryer which are now overcooked, and you have to re-start them, then you turn around and collide with your co-worker who didn’t say “behind, hot!” and now you have a nasty burn on your arm, which should probably be iced, but you don’t have time because you have to take that salmon off the grill before it passes that really fine line between undercooked and dry and chewy, then re-do the fried shrimp, prepare 10 plates for that table of 10 who has been waiting for half an hour, salt the fries, plate, and get that order out, only to continue working on the other 12 tickets which are already in progress.
I remember asking my parents at 14 or 15 years old if I could get a live lobster and bring it home not as a pet – but as dinner. They thought it would be too cruel. I thought it would be fun. A few weeks into my new job, one of my childhood dreams was fulfilled. Someone had ordered the whole lobster.
I took the top off the lobster tank. About 10 dark colored critters scuttled around inside. A few days ago, they were chillin’ in the cool waters of Maine, and suddenly, they were uprooted and overnight-shipped thousands of miles to get to Truckee, California, in a little tank in the kitchen of a small restaurant in downtown.
With my bare hands, I reached into the water and grab whichever one I touch first. Claws tied with rubber bands, they are completely defenseless. Lobsters have personalities too. Some fight back real hard, kicking their tails and waving their claws. Others seem to accept their fate, and we have to do a double take to see if they’re still alive.
On the counter now, its tail curls between its legs like a sad dog. The pot boils behind me. Do lobsters see? Do they have logic? Do they think? Can they connect the dots?
While I waited for the steamer to boil, some kids (maybe the children of the guy who ordered the lobster dish) see what’s going on in the kitchen. The see the lobster and rave about how cute it is, and get a chance to touch it and said they waned to take it home as a pet.
“Is he alive?”, he said.
“He is at the moment”
When the water boiled, I took the lid off, and in one quick motion, put the creature in the steamer and put the lid back on, then placed a weight on top to prevent any escapage.
10 minutes later, the deed is done. It’s actually kind of anti-climactic. Once dark and speckled, the lobster is now that familiar pink that everyone knows lobsters to be. What happens next is the lobster is pulled apart into pieces and served on a bed of fries with coleslaw and melted butter.
The stove and the cutting board are right in front of the lobster tank. When I’m done hacking the lobster into pieces, I see all the other lobsters cowering in the far corner of the tank like they understand everything that just happened.
“Who made the fish and chips?”
I did it. I had made the fish and chips, even making the batter from scratch that morning . Oh no, what did I screw up this time, I thought. They must be undercooked, or too salty, or the fries must be soggy, or maybe I forgot the tartar sauce. Reluctantly, I admitted that I had made the fish and chips.
“They want to give compliments to the chef for the best fish and chips they have ever had!”
That was like my first boost of confidence. I finally had a glimpse of hope that maybe I got this cooking thing down.
Then there are moments when I feel don’t got this. Like when making clarified butter turned into a big fire that almost set off the alarms - get this - twice. Or when I spilled egg whites all over the floor and knocked a 22-quart bucket of pickled onions and juice over in the walk-in, both in the same day. I remember being on my hands and knees in that big fridge, mopping up all that pickled onion juice from all the little nooks and crannies, thinking, why am I so clumsy and messy? Real cooks don’t make such a mess all the time.
You get your satisfying moments too, like finishing the last ticket of a rush and giving high-fives all around. Working in a open kitchen, I get to hear the guy rave about that killer seared ahi tuna I just sent out, or the lady come back and say she just had the best sandwich of her life (Not just the best Lobster Reuben, but the best sandwich). Sometimes, it’s the little things that make your day, like the lady who came in after a busy Friday night and said she had come there to celebrate her friend’s cancer-free results.