It's my 23rd birthday this weekend! There's a lot I have yet to learn in life, but I've picked up a few lessons this far, including:
Side note: Four years ago for my birthday, I wrote about 19 things I learned in 19 years. You can read that here!
1. My place is in the Kitchen
I hope everyone finds their thing. The thing that makes their strengths shine and be used to their fullest potential, making them think, "this is what I was made to do!". Modern-day feminists may be mad, but I've found my place - and it's in the kitchen.
The whole story can be found here, plus as you read you’ll get to experience what it’s like to be me for one Saturday night.
2. A 90 hour work week is not sustainable
Been there, done that.
3. How to cook a steak
And how to cook 18 steaks at the same time with different cuts, ranging from still mooing to shoe leather, while you yourself are going on medium-rare having stood next to the grill for so long.
4.Don’t be afraid to be the only one of your “kind”
I’d only ever seen men work ski resort mountain ops jobs, but I didn’t bat an eyelid when I saw the chance to work park crew at my favorite terrain park. Overall the job was a blast! I ended up working my way to supervisor in the department of 30 men and one woman (me) by the end of my second season. It wasn’t easy (understatement), but I’m happy I had that experience, as it helped me out in the kitchen, where the guy/girl demographic is similar. Stop waiting around for representation and get out there and be the only one, whether it’s about gender or something else. And don’t ever let that difference hold you back.
5. how to run a chainsaw
And a bunch of other saws too (skil saw, band saw, jig saw, saw-zaw, pole-saw). Who knew there were so many ways to cut things!
6. How to be a wife
Love keeps no record of wrongs, don't keep score to make sure it's 50/50, cause it won't always be. Basically don't keep track of things, including your wallet and keys if you're Gavin.
7. How to be a friend
Ask lots of questions, even if you're one of those awkward people like me where this is not natural and you feel like you're a spanish inquisitioner. And don't be afraid to be the one to do the reaching out and making plans.
8.You cannot mess up God’s will.
I met a guy who was a Christian and a snowboarder (my only 2 criteria), and never got his name or number. Now that we’re married I realized God will have his will played out whether you think you missed your chance or not! Don't worry - YOU do not have that power. Full story here.
9. God's Work Isn't Always Glamorous
Two summers ago, I interned with a local organization that fights to end sex trafficking in Nevada. Sounds like I had a pretty epic job, right? Going into the trenches, snapping up victims and working directly with them in their recovery. But no. My day-to-day activities included Wal-mart runs for supplies, getting oil changes, and cleaning bathrooms. Trained professionals could now have more one-on-one time with the victims, the food supply at the drop-in center was always be stocked, cars ran smoothly, and the victims were able to use a clean bathroom. These are the kind of things that are overlooked, but still important. Jesus never said his work would be glamorous!
10. “Love what you do and you never have to work another day.” Is a lie.
Yo. I love what I do. But I work my ass off. Loving my job as a cook and one-day chef doesn’t exempt me from working back-to-back-to-back fifteen-hour shifts or scooping the gunk out of the bottom of the dish pit after a Friday night service. Yes I love the rush of a busy service and I love it when I see clean (like, licked clean) plates coming back to the kitchen, but I can’t leave my job when four people call in sick, both ovens break, and I end my Saturday night scrubbing dried fish batter off the wall. Love what you do and you’ll work even harder because you care, and you’ll be even more fulfilled.
11. I am my Own Worst Critic
I still remember that rare steak I overcooked on Friday, August 2nd, 2019. Chances are, nobody else does. At a recent open mic night, I got up on stage and couldn't read the chords, fumbling my way through a performance I thought would have Freddie Mercury rolling in his grave, yet still people were telling me I had the biggest applause of the night. People have the tendencies to over-analyze themselves, but realizing that tendency will help a lot. That steak tho. UGH!
12. Injuries and “setbacks” are what they are
Life doesn't have a ctrl Z button, so I can't sit around wishing it did. Breaking myself off while snowboarding, needing surgery, and being sidelined for months in all areas of my life sucked. But I couldn't do anything about it so I tried not to get bitter, thinking what if I didn't take that last lap, what if I took a different run, what if....... To be honest, I still have not found positive outcomes from the situation, but I've done my best to roll with it. Also through it I learned......
13. How to Ask for Help
I still don't like to, but I've learned it's not a sign of weakness, and can actually give others the chance to shine.
14. God is like that one guy from your group project in High school
Seems like he's just kicking back and procrastinating, but pulls through at the last second, saving the project. Whether it was finding a job, planning an outdoor wedding in snowy May, or scoring housing in Tahoe, God seemed to work last-second miracles, and I’m learning to roll with it.
15. If you can't Handle the Heat, Stay there till you can
Don't give up because you aren't an instant prodigy. I'll always remember my first lunch rush as a restaurant cook. And the second, and third. For over two months I spent my weekends completely scattered, serving up food that was somehow simultaneously cold and overcooked, taking over 40 minutes for some orders, and wondering if I just wasn't cut out for it. Now I couldn't imagine working any other job.
16. Don't take yourself too seriously
My co-workers and I are the biggest goof-offs you may ever witness. From saying "anything for you baby" in a weird voice to every single server who asks us for something, or all of us bent over laughing at absolutely nothing during a Sunday brunch service, or talking in my best Julia Child voice. We never let our goofing off get in the way of work, but we don't let having to work get in the way of having a good time.
17. Having the most experience doesn’t always make you the best at your job.
About a year and a half ago, I walked into the Lobster shack with ZERO restaurant experience or culinary school, and they gave me a chance. Now I'm holding it down on Saturday nights on Sauté section at a fancy restaurant, hopefully on my way to executive chef one day. They could have overlooked me as unqualified, but they saw I was willing to work hard and learn. I'd rather work with the dishwasher who doesn't speak much English who I just taught how to make a reuben than with the guy who's been there 10 years doing the bare minimum. I hope anyone reading this who is an employer of any kind will consider the people who don't have experience. Certain skills can be taught. Hard work and drive cannot.
18. Grocery outlet is the bomb.com
Same high-quality brands, like 1/5 of the price. #notsponsored
19. How to ask for a raise/promotion
I'm still working on this one, but I've learned to just do it. Show them with your actions, then all you have to do is bring it up.
20.Don't Knock it Till' you Try It
I thought cooking professionally would make me hate cooking and squash all creativity. Boy was I wrong.
21. Failing to Prepare Doesn't always mean Preparing to Fail
Sure you want to do your best to be prepared for anything, but when it's 7pm on a Holiday weekend night, you work at a seafood restaurant, and you've run out of shrimp, there’s still a chance to pull through if you are able to think on your feet, handle pressure well, improvise, and most of all, find a little humor in it.
22. There’s something to be learned from everyone
Even the seemingly stuck-up, arrogant cooks who I have worked with left me with a few new skills before they quit because they were "too good" for the job. Sure they spent most of their time man-splaining things to me I already knew, but at the end of the day, I still learned a thing or two. When I had to train the dishwasher on the line because we were so short-staffed, I learned something from him too. Be open to learning from anyone, even the stuck-up ones, or the person you're supposed to be teaching.
23. There are more people than you think out there just winging it.
Let me end this list by telling a quick story from the few months I spent working at a butcher shop. I’m not really sure how I got the job, as I had no experience, but next thing I knew, I was somehow trusted to run the front counter by myself while the others prepped in the back. I had learned quite a bit since I had started a few months back, but was by no means a master butcher. Then this lady and her friend walk in.
“I would like a beef tenderloin roast”
Easy, I thought. I’d taken apart enough tenderloins at this point.
“But Butterflied flat so I can stuff it and roll it up,”
Id’ seen my boss do it like once before, but he wasn’t there, and I knew it was more of a “master butcher” kind of task. You just take the knife and kind of go woosh! And there, what was once a log is now a flat square of meat.
"Hold on a second," I said as I scurried to the back to get someone more qualified. The boss wasn’t there, but surely at least one of the other guys would know how to do it.
“I’m pretty sure you just take the knife and go woosh! But yeah, I haven’t done it either," they said.
No more enlightened than I was before disappearing to the back, I returned to the front counter, where, of course, the customers were watching, ready for the professional who knew exactly what she was doing to prepare their 37-dollar-a-pound filet. I tried to pretend I hadn’t just disappeared off to ask someone how the heck do you do this.
Now, remember, this was filet mignon, so you could say there was a lot at steak.
I knew I couldn’t just sit there and stare any longer. Sooner or later they’d figure out that the person behind the counter was highly unqualified for the job. I took a deep breath and plunged the knife into the tenderloin.
Everyone watched as the master butcher made precision cuts. Little did they know that behind the counter was a clueless young girl who had, about a minute ago, considered going onto youtube and typing in, “how to butterfly a tenderloin”. So there she was, just taking her best guess.
And next thing I knew, the log was now a flat piece of meat. It wasn’t perfectly smooth like that one time I had seen my boss do it, but to my amateur eyes, it was close enough.
I walked over to the customer and held out the flat piece of meat.
“How does this look?” I said, wincing,
Her face lit up, “That’s so beautiful! Where did you learn to do that?”
“Oh, you know, the owner showed me a while back.”
Pleased with the filet, she paid and left, and that’s when I realized that what I had just done was pretty much a metaphor of what adulting really is.
When you’re a kid or a teen, you think that adults have it figured out - That they take every step knowing what they are doing, and are trained professionally in their field. But as you grow up, you have a lot more “they didn’t teach this in school!” moments, and realize you just have to wing whatever you’re doing.
Isn’t that what adulting is all about?
This is a story about a woman who found her place in the world, written to bring the reader on the line next to her for an average Saturday night at one of the busiest restaurants in her town.
Cooking a steak to perfect medium-rare is a simple task, once learned. I think anyone is capable of doing it. Now let’s throw a few more things into the mix. Not only do I have to nail one perfect medium-rare rib-eye, but two more rib-eyes, four filet mignons, three New York steaks, eight burgers, two salmon filets, and 15 chicken skewers, all while running two deep fryers, and listening to a waitress cuss out the expediter and two other cooks argue over which plate had the sauce on the side. Of course all these aren’t put on the grill at once, but at different times, so I have to remember which ones were put on when, what temp (“temps” referring to rare, medium, etc.) they were ordered, and if the burgers were beef patties or bison (they look exactly the same by the way). Oh, and also different sections on the grill run hotter than others, so I have to take that into account too. And the ticket printer, letting off new orders with a robotic screeching type of sound, won’t. Stop. Printing.
. . .
Earlier that summer, I decided I wanted to go to the busiest restaurant in town, get a job there, and find out if I really wanted to cook for a living. So here I found myself, behind the grill, on Saturday at 7:19 pm, wondering how I got here, and why I EVER thought that would be a good idea. Like an adrenaline junkie looking for the next cliff to BASE jump off of, I had surveyed the streets of my little mountain town, trying to find a place where I could get my ass handed to me every day and truly push my own limits. There was one place, a casual-but-not-too-casual American restaurant, on the corner of the main intersection in town, which fit the bill.
“Yeah, I can handle the line. I can totally handle the line. I thrive off the rush. I was born ready for it. Molded by it. I am the Zen master. That’s why I want to work here. It’s always busy.”
“Well you’ll definitely get that here,” he said, “and you need to be able to stay on top.”
We talked for a few more minutes. I somehow managed to dodge having to confess that I couldn’t cook a steak to order to save my life, or that I’d never been to culinary school and had barely been working at restaurants for one summer, or that I had absolutely no clue what “mirepoix” or “the five mother sauces” were. People had told me I was a damn good home cook though, so I had that going for me.
“Can you start on Friday?”
I showed up on Friday, eager to work and learn the long menu of everything from burgers, to fish tacos, to seared ahi with citrus beurre blanc sauce, to orzo primavera. This place was a huge step-up from the itsy-bitsy lobster shack I had come from. It had multiple walk-in fridges and freezers (plenty of room to go in and cry on a Saturday night), two separate kitchens, and three to seven cooks on at a time. Most things, like sauces, pizza dough, and salsas, were made from scratch, and meat was butchered in-house.
“Are you a busser? Food runner? Prep cook?” Said the current dishwasher, upon seeing the fresh, new hire.
“No, she will be on the line, next to me,” replied the chef who was training me that day.
A wide, intrigued grin went across her face.
“Goooood luuuuuuck!” She laughed, like I was getting up off the bench for the underdog team going up against the world champion.
At 11, we opened for the day. I thought I’d begin on prep or just watching, but I was thrown straight to the wolves on the line. One order turned into three, turned into seven. I felt like I had dyslexia as soon as we had more than three orders at once. I just had no idea where anything was or what goes with what, or heck – even how to organize the tickets on the rail. One of the other cooks, without saying a word, kept giving me this look, which said,
“What is this, your first day?!”
I had no idea who did what or what’s going on or where anything was and a server was telling me the bison burger for table 32 comes with aioli on the side but I snapped back “that wasn’t on the ticket”, and she shows me the ticket and yes, it did say aioli on the side, so I ate humble pie and re-made the whole thing. Only a few hours in, I began to wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to leave the comfort of my old job – where I had every menu item on point and knew that kitchen better than my home kitchen (where few things actually have a place).
We wore actual chef coats at this job. By the end of that shift, I felt as if I didn’t even deserve to wear one. The “Imposter Syndrome” hit hard, or maybe for chefs they call it “im-pasta syndrome”. I thought I had just talked myself up at the interview big time, using state-of-the-art trickery to make them believe that I, an inexperienced, quiet, young woman with zero culinary school and little experience could hold her own on the line at the busiest restaurant in town. What was I thinking?
“It’s so hot here,” complains a waiter on the other side of the window, as he fans himself with his notepad. I’m reaching over the grill and can feel the sweat dripping down the back of my neck. I look him dead in the eyes through the flames rising from the grill, inches from my hand, while the fryers steam behind me.
“Okay, I’ll shut up, it’s not hot here,” he says.
My entire shift so far has been an absolute scramble right from the get-go. I arrived at 3 pm and had exactly two hours until dinner service to get my mise en place (chef-an-ese for: get my shit together). It’s a Saturday, so there’s no separation from the lunch rush and the dinner rush. I knew the dinner menu began at 5, ready or not, but I had such a long list of things to do, while simultaneously helping the lunch crew on the line, that I lost track of time. Next thing I knew, I had orders coming in with dinner entree items and I realized I hadn’t even mashed the potatoes yet. Just in the nick of time, I was able to get the potatoes finished by 5:15 and jump straight into the madness of a Saturday dinner service, and that’s where I’ve been for the last two hours.
What’s that, another order? It’s for sliders – thin little things that burn easily. Better keep my eye on those. All 12 of them. After dropping three orders of fish and chips and six battered jalapeno poppers in the fryer, I watch a waiter come back to the kitchen holding food. That’s never good. He said the guy at table 12 ordered the ahi tuna entree, and didn’t expect it to be “so rare”. I find some room on the grill and cover it, and I better remember it because there’s no ticket for this. What’s that, something’s on fire? I definitely did not forget about that medium-rare rib-eye, a fatty cut of meat which when on the grill, drips oil and can set the whole thing ablaze. Luckily it’s still rare inside, so I make sure I remember to take it off in just a minute or two. A thin steak on the hot part of the grill might give a 30-second window between temps, and it’s not like there aren’t other things going on to distract me from a perfect medium-rare.
. . .
"If someone thinks that by telling a woman to get back to the kitchen is saying she’s weak and can’t amount to anything else, I dare them to find the busiest restaurant in their city on a day where the line is out the door, peek into the kitchen and watch. "
I’ve seen too many “feminist” ads and videos pop up in my social media feed putting down being in the kitchen, defending themselves against people who use “get back to the kitchen” as an insult, and I just want to get this straight. Can we get rid of this telling-women-they-shouldn’t-belong-in-the-kitchen nonsense? As if a woman being in the kitchen is some kind of mark of weakness and a slap in the face to ‘real’ feminists? Like cooking is an easy task for some kind of domesticated, patriarchy-supporting pansy? Neo-feminists will try to distance themselves, wearing their inability to cook like a badge of honor. “Look at me, I’m a real feminist because I can’t cook or clean! Look at me, I burnt water!” Want a difficult, male-dominated, high-pressure environment that creates tough people? Look no further than the commercial kitchen.
If someone thinks that by telling a woman to get back to the kitchen is saying she’s weak and can’t amount to anything else, I dare them to find the busiest restaurant in their city on a day where the line is out the door, peek into the kitchen and watch. They might not even see any women, and if they do see one, they better believe she’s tough as nails.
It’s 8:07. The manager and head chef walk into the kitchen. They are telling me that I have passed the 15-minute ticket time on table 57’s order. Like way passed. They want to know why. They’re nice people, good bosses, really, but are probably reflecting some of the anger coming from the hungry diners waiting behind those swinging doors. The other seven plates are in the window (dying under heat lamps), and I’m dragging a medium New York steak. I try to explain that the steak is still rare, and they ordered medium, and there’s little I can do, but they’re not having it. Meanwhile the sauté cook is yelling at me because he said I never told him about said New York steak, and now he has to scramble to make the sides that accompany it. The line cook up front pulls a string of new tickets from the printer and begins calling out even more items I need to start - and remember.
Few people can cook nowadays, let alone want to hold down the line at the busiest restaurant in town for a living. There’s just so much more easy money out there.
Only a few weeks into the new job, they began trusting me to work the grill. Remember how I couldn’t cook a steak to save my life? They eventually found this out, but it wasn’t a problem because they knew it was a skill I could learn, and they taught me. So there I was - me and one other guy holding down the entire kitchen while the July 4th week crowds flocked to our area by the tens of thousands like an angry mob. Restaurants aren’t always staffed-up to meet the demands. It’s a transient industry in a seasonal town, and turnover is high. Few people can cook nowadays, let alone want to hold down the line at the busiest restaurant in town for a living. There’s just so much more easy money out there. Whether there’s two cooks or four, when that dining room fills up, I still better put out perfect food. Every time. Every order. I’ve heard too many restaurant workers say things like,
“People can’t tell the difference between med-rare and med-well anyway. Just put more sauce on it.”
“Most people want their fish overcooked.”
I call B.S.
If you’ve ever paid for food at a restaurant that wasn’t up to par, I am sorry, and I really mean that. I’m not just screwing up your dinner. I’m screwing up your anniversary date night you saved up every penny for, your graduation party, or your night out with the guys. To me, it’s more than food.
I am not a perfectionist in most areas of my life, but if a customer orders a medium steak you better believe I want it to be perfect. This particular night, we were so swamped and understaffed, I was sending out some things that made me embarrassed to leave the kitchen in uniform, in case someone put two-and-two together and muttered,
“Hey look, there’s the unqualified schmuck who messed up our dinner!”
Slightly burnt but passable sliders, burgers ordered medium that were a solid med-well, and charred burger buns left the kitchen while one member of a party of eight watched their group eat and sat without food because the kitchen misread their ticket. To top the night off, the manager came back in and slapped down a cut-in-half filet mignon I had just sent out.
“They ordered this medium.”
With no defense, I slunk my way back to the grill and put the steak back on. If Gordon Ramsey were there, he would have yelled,
“It’s RAAAAAWWWWW you Donkey!! Now where’s the Lamb SAUCE?!”
If you’ve ever paid for food at a restaurant that wasn’t up to par, I am sorry, and I really mean that.
The next day I’m back at work. The entire town is ramping up each day as we near the 4th of July. I begin prepping for service – cutting and roasting parsnips, reducing demi-glace sauces, and saying my final prayers that I would keep my sanity before the hungry masses arrived. Somehow, I ended up on grill again. Things seem to be running smoothly, until a server comes back to the kitchen and says, with a hint of disappointment in his voice,
“Hey, who’s cooking steaks tonight?”
The whole kitchen went quiet and all eyes were on me. My heart sank as I tried to hide the fact that I was standing by the grill, tongs in hand. I was 100% sure he’d say that they were all going out wrong. Very wrong.
“The guy from table 11 who ordered the med-rare filet mignon told me to go to the chef right away and tell them he just had the best steak he’s ever had in his life!”
I blushed, or maybe I was just red from the heat of the kitchen, standing next to the grill for five hours. Or both. I had the biggest smile for the rest of my shift, as the four of us continued to work in harmony and encourage each other while we crushed the rest of dinner service. I encourage everyone to give their compliments to the chef if the food was great. Maybe they’ll just stroke an ego. Or maybe, there's a struggling line cook out there, desperate for a sign that they are in the right profession.
"I encourage everyone to give their compliments to the chef if the food was great. Maybe they’ll just stroke an ego. Or maybe, there's a struggling line cook out there, desperate for a sign that they are in the right profession.
I need to pee but I can’t leave the line with a rail full of tickets. It’s 9:14 pm and there’s no signs of the rush slowing down. Of course I’m also keeping track of all the modifications the diners have made, because one does not simply order menu items as they come. One rib-eye orderer wants it medium-rare with no mashed potatoes and the demi glace sauce on the side. Another rib-eye orderer wants medium, but no asparagus. One of the medium-rare bison burger eaters wants no bun and no onions, and another wants medium-well with no bacon and aioli on the side. I try to keep my flow while bending my brain around which order has which temp and which modification, but it’s not easy.
I finish plating up the ticket’s final bison burger at the same time the guy on sauté carefully brings over his salmon entree, trying not to disrupt the perfectly squeeze-bottled dots of pomegranate reduction and basil oil on the plate. Let me tell you there are few feelings as satisfying as slapping that plate down in the pass and handing the expediter that completed ticket for a table of eight. But I can’t revel in that moment for even a second, because that filet mignon ordered rare ain’t gonna be rare for much longer. Oh, and the ahi tuna is ready too... And my sliders are burning.
. . .
When one of the brunch cooks called in sick one Saturday morning, I figured it could be my time to shine, so I stepped up and said I’d work his sauté/egg poaching/fryer/waffle station. I’d never run that station before, so I took five minutes to learn how the waffle maker worked, had a quick hollandaise sauce making lesson from the chef, and began service.
I was almost waiting for the moment I’d be overwhelmed and have to ask one of the more experienced guys to step in and take over my station. I was running 12 stove burners, four waffle makers, and two deep fryers all on my own, but as the tickets kept rolling in, I was able to stay on top. Every order was going out on time and nothing was being sent back.
“Nice work, boys!” Said one of the waiters as he picks up the food for his table.
Without skipping a beat, the head chef, who’s on the line next to the rest of us, says,
“You’re going to have to start saying ‘nice work boys and girls’ now!”
That was one of the many little moments where I began to feel like I fit in – like there was a chance that I, an inexperienced, quiet, young woman with zero culinary school and little experience could hold her own on the line at the busiest restaurant in town. Maybe I wasn’t an im-pasta after all.
. . .
It’s 10:05, and our team has put out 450 cooked-to-order dinners in the last five hours. The kitchen closes at 10, but they’ll extend it if people are still waiting outside, and they are. Just when I get one second to breathe and think about potentially taking a bathroom break, I hear the printer again. I want to punch it off the shelf, but instead I watch the ticket keep printing, and printing.
“Sorry,” says the waitress, sheepishly as she walks into the kitchen, “I didn’t warn you about the table of 12 that just ordered. We just sat a few more tables too.”
I call out the ticket so the guy in the back on sauté can hear, then I put six burgers and three steaks on the grill. It doesn’t matter if it’s my 450th plate of the night, I still have to make it the best damn steak I’m capable of cooking. I finish up that order, three more orders, and then the manager finally tells us the kitchen is closed.
. . .
I’ve had many overwhelming days besides the ones I’ve written about in these pages. Maybe one day I’ll stop feeling like I'm getting chewed up and spat out by the dinner rush, or maybe great chefs never stop getting their butts kicked but have learned to roll with the punches. There are days I have the life drained out of me, and I finish my shift feeling like my brain had been fried in the deep fryer. There are days where I feel like I lost my soul somewhere between 7 and 9 pm, vowing if I ever have to see another filet mignon ever again, I’m punching a hole through the walk-in door. I’m not invincible because people say I can “handle the heat”. Many of us turn to drugs to handle the pressure of this job, but I’ve chosen not to. We all need some way of coping with the different pressures of life, whether we work in a busy restaurant kitchen or not. Writing this piece, and many other pages that will probably never make it out into the world, is one of my ways.
. . .
I actually felt as if I had come alive that night. Sure I was tired as all hell, but that feeling of giving something my absolute all was truly satisfying."
It’s 10:45. I think we did a good job on service, but I don’t know if people liked the food or not. The only dishes sent back were the “too rare” ahi tuna, and a perfectly good chicken dish that the customer thought just looked weird, and almost all dinners made it out in 15 minutes. Not only did nobody throw any plates across the room like they do on TV, and not only did no one retreat and cry in the walk-in, but I actually felt as if I had come alive that night. Sure I was tired as all hell, but that feeling of giving something my absolute all was truly satisfying. I’m not going to say the last few hours were handled with grace and ease, but dammit, we had handled it!
Then the chef walks in with the only piece of feedback I’ll receive on the entire night’s service.
“A customer said their rare steak was closer to medium-rare. They didn’t send it back, and they ate it, but try to take it off the grill sooner next time.”
The other 449 dishes? Who knows, maybe they were perfect, maybe they weren’t. It’s a mystery and will always be. This is what I have to base my entire performance off, and judge whether I’m good at my job or not. Constructive feedback is a good thing, but if I lose faith in my own overall ability, it’s over. I take note to pay more attention next time somebody orders rare.
I know I need to wake up early tomorrow for Sunday brunch, which is usually even more brutal than Saturday night. I leave the kitchen and begin squeezing my way through the labyrinth of drunk, dancing partiers bouncing up and down to some sub-par live music. I may as well be invisible in my whites (well they were white but now they look more like a Jack Pollock masterpiece of buffalo sauce and char). Nobody cares about me as I make my way to the utility room to get the mop bucket, as the lead singer of the band wails off-key. It doesn’t matter if I can put out all those fine foods. I’m not above mopping the floor, and I never will be.
We work in a pressure cooker, and few people become diamonds, and in the fast-paced craziness of my new work environment, I was beginning to see my true potential. I realized I wouldn’t want my workplace any other way."
I had come to work at the busiest restaurant in town to find out if I really wanted to cook for a living, and had, at many moments, wondered why I EVER thought that was a good idea. As I’m scrubbing dried batter off the walls that night, I realized it was a good idea, because I ended up finding an answer.
I was only planning on staying for a summer. Turning a childhood passion into an actual career? Impossible. No one does that, and if I try, I will end up hating the thing I used to love. At least that’s what people say. But when I went from cooking at home to cooking for work, something clicked. It wasn’t just cooking that I liked. I had grown to love the rush of a busy service, the potential to learn and eventually create new ideas that would bring a light to people’s eyes, and the camaraderie shared among people who have the same passion and work hard together. We work in a pressure cooker, and few people become diamonds, and in the fast-paced craziness of my new work environment, I was beginning to see my true potential. I realized I wouldn’t want my workplace any other way.
Modern day feminists may be mad, but I think I’ve found my place – and it’s in the kitchen.
I finished my last writing on “my life as a chef,” begging the question, “Can I handle the heat, or should I just get out?” This day happened soon after posting that piece, and was the first time I felt I got the hang of this "working the line" thing. This short piece was originally written as part of a longer piece about working in a kitchen which is still in progress, so stay tuned!
It’s Labor Day weekend, Sunday night, September 2nd. Weekends working at any resort town are pretty crazy, and holiday weekends are like normal ones, but on steroids. The head chef had worked the morning shift and was on his way out, and so was the only other more experienced cook there. I was left with two guys – one Romanian seasonal employee I had trained, and one part-timer who had started close to when I did, about two months ago.
You know when things start getting out of control so you look to find an adult but then you realize you are the adult? That’s kind of what it was like. As expected, people began pouring into the small seafood restaurant and soon the line was out the door. But we had our game faces on. We thought we were prepared. Key word: Thought.
As I was finishing up making my sixth crab Louie, as well as a table of 12’s order, I heard the Romanian exclaim,
“Ah! We are out of shreeeemps!”
He had to run to the back and get some more shrimp defrosting because we hadn’t even prepared any, meanwhile I used up the last piece of fish for fish and chips (our most popular dish), and had to grab the butcher’s knife mid-rush and start cutting filets of Haddock.
The main “Front of the House” guy came up to me and asked what the wait time would be so he could tell customers. I looked up at the rail. We had tickets out the Wazoo. My brain said definitely at least 45 minutes, but out of my mouth came,
“I dunno, maybe 20 minutes or so?”
“Okay, 20 minutes, I’ll let people know when they order,” he said.
What did I just do, I thought as I continued cutting lettuce on the line because we had failed to prepare enough before the rush. Then, we ran out of batter for fish and chips, but good thing those are easy to make because we pre-measure and prep the dry ingredients, and all we have to do is add beer. Well, we looked in the place where we keep said pre-prepped bags, and whaddaya know? We didn’t even have any of those! In a crazy, frantic rush, the foreign guy ran to dry storage to begin getting the ingredients to make the batter completely from scratch.
“Not all heroes wear capes,” I said as he returned to the line with a fresh batch of fish and chips batter. Meanwhile the other cook had to scramble downstairs because we had run out of those little cups we used for condiments and coleslaw. After running out of a few more items, it seemed as if we had everything under control, despite the ten un-called tickets still hanging from the printer (Some cooks call this “growing a tail”). That was until I heard the foreign guy again,
“We are out of shreeeemps!”
“Again?” I said, in disbelief.
You know that moment when a stressful situation becomes a comedy? Like things are so out of hand all you can do is laugh and roll with it? That was us. At around 7pm on a holiday weekend evening, there we were, laughing at ourselves for being completely and utterly unprepared. As he ran back to the freezer to get more shrimp, we continued working through the rest of the tickets until the rail was almost empty.
Towards the end of the rush, as things began slowing down and you could count the orders left on one hand, I began looking at the time shown on the ticket (when the order was placed), and comparing it to the time we sent it out. Lo and behold – almost no one had waited longer than 25 minutes for their food! The three of us had overcome all odds and delivered what we promised – not sacrificing time for quality, or quality for time. I felt alive, on a high, almost, like I had reached some kind of milestone in my 2-and-a-half month career as a restaurant cook. That night, I learned that although failing to prepare means preparing to fail, there’s still a chance to pull through if you are able to think on your feet, handle pressure well, improvise, and most of all, find a little humor in it.
It was on Saturday around 1pm that I realized that I was in the middle of having my ass handed to me, and that being a cook for a living maybe, just maybe, wasn’t something I was quite cut out for. I wanted to crawl inside the walk-in fridge and put a bucket over my head and disappear, but I didn’t have time. I didn’t even have time to pee.
I had cooked at home almost every day since I was 12 years old, even making some extra money as a teenager selling cooked meals to my parents’ coworkers and friends. My first summer out of College, after a winter working at a ski resort and getting married in the spring, I needed to find a job, fast. Knowing I was able to cook well at home for family, friends, and myself, I figured I would try my hand in the restaurant industry for a season. I heard it was stressful and busy, with long hours and low pay, but I was craving a challenge. Despite having no professional experience in the field, the summer job market in the heavily touristic Tahoe Area where I live was in high-demand, so I actually ended up having a few options for actual cook positions to choose from. I settled on a small, hole in the wall place called Morgan’s Lobster Shack in Downtown Truckee, because seafood is basically my favorite thing, and I figured I might as well enjoy the food I put out. My first day was a Sunday in mid-June, and they put me straight on the line. The “line” is where all order, manners, and sanity go out the window. Rather than prep areas, it’s the place in the kitchen where meals are cooked-to-order. Quickly, I learned all the menu items by heart, and I became familiar with the ins and outs of working in a kitchen. Soon, I was able to follow their recipes, prep, open, close, and work the line on my own.
Anyway, back to said ass-handing Saturday. I’m staring at the hoards of people lining up at the cash register to order their food, and the almost-as-long line of tickets on the rail above me of people who were waiting for their order. Apparently, the entire city, their moms, and step-sisters’ second removed cousins once-removed decided to show up at this restaurant at the same time. It’s a small restaurant, with only enough space in the kitchen for two cooks at a time, although sometimes a third will squeeze in if it gets really crazy.
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, not only would serving elephant get the health department to close you down, but 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.
Apparently, women belong in the kitchen, so I went to work at an actual kitchen. There were no women. I had yet again, after a season in the ski industry, found myself in a completely male-dominated field. There is nothing “domestic” or “easy” or “feminine” about cooking. (I mean, knives and fire? Don’t see anything soft and fru-fru about that). They say, “if you can’t handle the heat, get out!” The “heat” not only refers to the physical heat (which can get intense, surrounded by grills and fire and what not), but the stress, and the absolute chaos and mayhem that is a restaurant kitchen during a service rush. On that Saturday, and on a few other crazy weekends, I had found myself asking, Can I handle the heat? Or should I just get out?
When I first began my job, I had lots of doubts. I was surprised I was even hired as a chef in the first place, thinking everyone always had to start as a dishwasher or a waiter. I felt like that guy from the movie Ratatouille - unqualified for the job and not too sure how I got there or what to do. Only I didn’t have a rat controlling my every move. I remember about a week or two into my job, a server came back into the kitchen and said,
“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 erupted into an enormous flame, which gave a California wildfire season a run for its’ money, 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, “How did I walk-in to this pickle?”
Working in a kitchen teaches you a good lesson on humility. Sometimes, you get to do the cool stuff like work on the line where customers can see you cooking their meal. You get to take the credit for the perfectly cooked piece of salmon, or you get that adrenaline rush from working a busy Saturday. Sometimes, however, you have to do the “crap work”, aka the stuff that just needs to get done. I’ve learned that no matter how well I can cook, I’m never too good to mop the floor or get my hands covered in shrimp guts peeling and de-veining hundreds of shrimp.
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.
And at the end of the day, coming home smelling of sweat and fish, with the sound of that darn printer still ringing in my ears, and a few new burns on my hands, everyone in that long line got their food, and I did not retreat to the walk in and put a bucket over my head - not that Saturday or any other day.