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.