Just to recap I’ll give you the second to last paragraph then enter the kitchen…Watch out for “Crash”….he’s a pisser.
The cows that I knew and loved were replaced by a sometimes motley crew of half-assed cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, pot smokers, whip-it fans, coke heads, alcoholics, frat boys, sorority girls, party animals, degenerates, poets, drug addicts, philosophy majors, back stabbers, wanna be drug dealers, bookies and other assorted ass-clowns of the type and variety that you can only see in a mediocre restaurant, which is to say…a lot of them.
I told you about the farm so I could tell you this one…My first professional kitchen and all the grandeur and fame that goes with being a cook…Yeah just like being married, each day is better than the last…and more sex too! Looking to buy a bridge? By the way this one is a bit longer than my other posts so if you get scared or light-headed cause you had to read a couple thousand words feel free to sit down or pull over to the side of the road and get some air. If you’re reading this because you want to be a cook and you had a tough time…you may want to consider a career in astrophysics …cause this shit’s hard!
I changed the names around a bit to protect the guilty people involved…except for the first guy because I’m pretty sure the name I know him as, was not his “God Given Christian Name.” The guy on the broiler station was a former U.S. Marine named Crash, was six-four and rock solid from running and working out every day for five years.
His outfit was typically a Dead Kennedys or (insert other early 80’s punk band name here) long sleeve or three quarter sleeve shirt, suspenders, BDU Camouflaged Shorts or Pants, (compliments of Uncle Sam) Dr. Martens boots and a mohawk of no particular color because at any given minute it might change, and a dishwasher’s snap front shirt with the short sleeves ripped off.
Dan he was the head chef. I only knew him as “chef” and he did expo…he was slight of frame and average height and was very quiet, so quiet in fact that I can’t even recall anything about his voice except to say it was quiet mono-toned and steady. Dan was a good guy, a great leader and in control but he liked to drink A LOT at the end of his shift…like a lot a lot….so much so that they actually kept a bottle of vodka outside the doghouse so he could stay and continue to drink long after everyone decided to take the party elsewhere. Dan was sad and that was that…I never asked or knew why because I was immortal and had all the problems of a seventeen year old from a middle class upbringing…which is to say none. I could only assume everyone else’s world ran as swimmingly as mine.
We had a Mexican named Dave (well it wasn’t Dave but he called himself a name that was whiter than me!) working sauté who liked to sexually harass the wait staff(this was before sexual harassment was a “thing” and even today this thing is more rampant from both sexes in the restaurant world than in any other industry short of Porn), screw in the walk in, smoke weed with bill the dishwasher and at times sleep in dry goods when he was too high to drive home. I wished I could say Dave was a strong cook, he wasn’t. His cooking skills were augmented by his good sense of humor. Sauté at this restaurant wasn’t as glamorous or fast paced as it is at most restaurants today and as a result on slower nights Dave worked the fry station as well.
Jeff was on Grill and was even-keeled until the end of the night where last minute diners drove him to fits of rage to the point Crash had to hold him back and keep him from shouting out the back door at the “unwelcome” patrons who were taking “all the sweet fucking time in the world.” Expressing to them in his most sincere and heart-felt way “what a bunch of cocksuckers they were”….he was like Jekyll and Hyde at the end of the night, but during service he was rock steady and fun to be around.
These were the main players from the kitchen but there are a few worth mentioning. I mentioned Bill the dishwasher who Dave loved to smoke pot with, well aside from wash dishes I’m pretty sure that’s all Bill did was smoke pot and snap at the wait staff. Patrick who was one of the owner’s two sons who was my age, full of piss, vinegar and thoughts of revenge and anger towards his folks for making him be in this industry. Anyway had access to the apartment over the restaurant where the real debauchery would take place after the restaurant closed for the night.
There were the owners themselves let’s call them Bob and Hilda (as in Broom) who were rarely there and thank heavens as they were both about as much fun as a zip top baggie full of pig testicles. There was another son whom we shall call Dick (short for Richard of course) who would travel around from kitchen to kitchen spreading his gift for being moody bitch with everyone in all five kitchens in the parents growing restaurant empire. Then there was Dick’s girlfriend and travel companion who also cooked and curmudgeoned her way around all the other restaurants. Let’s call her… Constance or if we can….the shortened female version of Dick….you get the idea. But as these characters don’t really come into play for this story, that’s all I will say about them.
I didn’t stay a bus boy too long because Dan found out I could hold a knife and not kill anyone, so I stopped being a bus boy and moved into the kitchen as a prep cook. I learned more tips and tricks in two weeks of doing prep than I had learned since I started watching Julia Child with my dad when I was five or so. I loved doing prep because although there was a lot to do… it wasn’t especially hard as long as you were well organized.
Everybody knows how well organized teenage boys are just by looking at their rooms, so this was a bit of a challenge. One of the good things about working in a kitchen and doing prep is that it is a “carrot and stick” environment. Do well and you get the carrot. Do poorly, screw up and you get your ass beat with the stick. Putting together those stuffed mushroom caps means grabbing about fifteen things so forgetting just two or three things means extra trips to the walk-in cooler or worse, all the way down the back stairs to dry storage. Making those extra trips means extra time…extra time is something you don’t have a lot of. So when you burn it up just walking around you get …dans la merde! Literally translated…in the shit!
The one benefit in being a prep cook is that you are at least higher on the food chain than both the dishwasher and most of the front of the house people. This is also where you first discover the divide between the front and back of house. This is where you are groomed to understand that the wait staff are all idiots out to screw you every chance they can because it’s all about them and their precious tips. Of course only being a lowly prep cook you are somewhat invisible to the “real” cooks and are sort of a man without a country. In limbo to defend your station against the poaching hordes looking to steal those shrimp you’re cooking, and you’ll get your ass kicked by chef if you let them.
Crash’s looks intimidated me a bit but I loved listening to him telling wait staff what a bunch of bombastic fuck-ups they were. I was a prep cook and that made me lower than a ticks ass amongst most of the other back of house employees. So one day while I was futzing around doing prep in the kitchen while Crash dressed down another waiter and telling him he could “Roll his art-history degree up tight and jam it in his ass sideways…” I chuckled at this and thought the “sideways” was a nice touch…
I looked up and Crash was staring at me and posed the question “and just what the fuck are you laughing about?” Caught off guard and feeling red in the face from embarrassment, I opted to go with “I’m not sure if it’s your face or your ass but if it’s the latter, that’s the most impressive handstand I’ve ever seen!”*** To which Crash just turned his head in the direction of the other line cooks who were now laughing, looked back at me and half smiled saying “well…I guess Cubby’s a fucking comedian…”
*** (this was part of a joke my father used to say and always made me laugh) I’m glad I said it because had I let him attack me without digging him back…I would have been the kitchen bitch.
Cubby, as it turns out was the nickname they had given me because I had somewhat of a crew cut and chubby cheeks so they decided I looked like Cubby from Disney’s Mouseketeers. Nicknames are a good thing in the kitchen even though they’re not always good. Let me explain…a nickname is something you’re given if the other cooks give enough of a shit that you’re even there. The downside is you aren’t in any way involved in the “Nicknaming” process.
It’s usually as a result of something you’ve messed up or do as a habit, or is sometimes indicative of your more base predilections. Suffice it to say I was lucky. Even though the nickname was meant to be an insult of sorts in saying I was a chubby little kid… which I guess in some ways I was…ok, in all ways I was. But I’m glad it wasn’t “Pissy” nickname given to one of the cooks who drank piss from a beer bottle, (the result of a prank) “maricón” (vulgar Spanish for a gay male) given to one of the cooks cause he accidentally tried to pick up a transvestite while on a bender and the transvestite came and visited him at the restaurant, “cojones” Spanish for testicles given to the only female cook as in…she had bigger testicles than her boyfriend (the owner’s eldest son)who was aptly nicknamed “Mary”.
I did prep for most of the summer and just before school was about to start I was “lucky” enough to be there on a Thursday night after working all afternoon and Dave came in not feeling so well. And by not feeling so well I mean he was hung over and probably either had some kind of stomach virus or was genuinely sick. It was decided he would only do sauté and I would do fry station… I wasn’t asked to do it, I was told that would be my job with the only instruction being…”Don’t fuck it up” in a calm tone and manner that was indicative of how chef always talked…Yes Chef was about all I could say.
Fry Station: Fry stations in higher end restaurants don’t get much use with the exception of maybe deep frying some capers, sage or basil for garnish, or perhaps the odd order of steak frites for a flash fry to crisp them up. In this restaurant everything short of prime rib went in there. On two occasions I even saw those go in there because they came back from the dining room with the waiter saying “they weren’t well done enough.” Chef was not there and it was the end of the night so you guessed it…Jeff decided “these fuckers want me to kill their shit…OK, I’ll kill it!!” into the fryolator they went. Trust me when I tell you people take an already well done steak and give it five minutes in a fryolator at 375 degrees…it is more…. well…donerer?!
That horrible sound …when you’ve never worked in a kitchen, or even if you have and are with a new crew for the first time, the sound that dupe printer makes induces nervousness in some cases, and in my case sheer terror…Oh God No…I thought to myself…What the fuck am I doing here?! I look over at chef as he scans the order…he looks over at me in what seemed like slow motion and said “are you ready?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything and to be honest I don’t think he was looking for a response. Fire Three Haddock, Fire Three Fries, Fire An O Ring, Fire One Shrimp, Fire Two Calamari…everything sounding of nothing.
I looked back to see if Dave could give me a little instruction but he was in the bathroom driving the porcelain bus…”CUBBY!” chef shouted. Looking back to see chef with raised eyebrows…”Yes Chef?” What did I just say to fire? Ummm was all I could muster. “Aw Fuck” said chef! Wow I thought to myself, I never hear chef say fuck…then the realization that he said it because I was the one fucking up before I ever “fired” anything…he repeated the order and I repeated it back to him then reached in the low boy for the haddock…dropped them in the batter and then into the hanging fry basket before lowering it into the hot oil. There I thought to myself and with a sigh of relief… I got this. I then started to work on the fries, shrimp, calamari and o-ring.
I went back to the basket with the haddock to shake it like I was told. come to find out what I had really done by dropping the haddock in the basket before lowering it in the oil, was guarantee to weld it to the bottom of the basket…I tried shaking it harder but to no avail… I figured if I let it cook longer it would free itself… or get crispy and break free….or maybe do some kind of magic fish thing…While I was contemplating that…”How long on the Haddock?! “Looking over at chef I thought about it and looked back at the fish…pulling a number from somewhere between my ass and mid-air I said one minute chef. It was kind of golden-ish…right?! I grabbed three plates and scraped the three pieces of fish from the bottom of the basket and put them on the plate batter less side down and one of them even broke in half. I was thinking it looked fine and besides… the chef wouldn’t notice. oddly enough he did…
Keep in mind this whole time he was yelling something new to fire about every five seconds. I would then repeat what fry items he was asking for and dropping them as fast as I could…but no matter, chef took the time to come back across the line from expo and down to the fry station where I suspected he’d give me an “atta boy” or “job well done Cubby.” What I got instead was…If I ever see this again, (holding the plate of awful fish) I’ll make sure you’re not only back to front of house, but I’ll make sure you’re fucking under it!
Nobody said anything and continued to cook. I just lowered my head and continued to bust my ass because there was nothing I could do but keep cooking…”Fire Three Haddock On The Fly Dumbass” (Translation= Like Yesterday…Dumbass!) By this time Dave came back and was able to help get me going in the right direction. He brought up a five gallon pail and sat it between the fryolator and stove where he would occasionally duck his head to vomit. This is where I learned; in the kitchen…you don’t call out from work…unless you’re dead. And if you’re dead, then somebody else better be calling in for your faking ass!
Work always ended with cocktails for the cooks, with the exception of course being Patrick and I. We were seventeen and the bartender Nancy thought of herself as our work mother and wouldn’t allow it. So instead, on nights when Patrick worked the line we would end our day with cocktails in the upstairs apartment usually in the company of a few of the wait staff and other cooks. Most nights would end somewhat uneventful but if it was from Wednesday night on, all bets were off.
I won’t go into specifics except to say, if I combined all the stories of “Sex, Drugs and Alcohol” I could build a ship made out of cocaine and marijuana, float it on a sea of alcohol and filled with every porn star on the planet and still not come close to those first two years of restaurant life. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much…but I saw a lot of things that made me think the restaurant life was the life of a rock star… if that rock star had no singing or musical abilities.
Most people are not aware of what restaurant life is like in the kitchen. I’m sure most have this romantic notion that It’s all about the chef walking around and adding a pinch of this or a dab of that to sauces and stews. Maybe you’re thinking he makes suggestions about what might be good in this or that dish. Meanwhile the other cooks sort of stroll around watching each other flip stuff in pans and chit chat about ingredients, or what they should create next, or last night’s episode of Iron chef. Some might think of it as an episode of Hell’s Kitchen with the head chef walking around with all the time in the world to yell at you and have everybody come over to look at the burned scallop. Finally after not fucking up the NY Strip for the fifth time having the chef call your name…”Cubby…Nicely done!”
Allow me let you in on a little secret…It is nothing like that. Chefs don’t have that kind of time and rarely have that kind of patience. I’ll personally guarantee if you mess up a NY strip five times in a row you’ll either be fired, or you’ll be peeling potatoes. Come to think of it you’ll be fired and the guy peeling potatoes will be doing your job, and his cousin who was washing dishes will be peeling potatoes. Most chefs aren’t lunatic assholes…let me rephrase that, most chefs aren’t assholes. They want you to do well, it’s in their best interest for you to do well.
Provided you do everything the way they want it done, every, single, solitary, time, exactly, the, same, way, with, zero, exceptions. They are most certainly lunatics to some degree. Who the hell else in their right mind wants to work on every damned holiday, handle scheduling, staff problems, somebody wants a raise, everybody wants a raise, firings, catering, ordering, inventory, HR issues, equipment breaking down, produce not showing up, got the wrong meat order, your fish guy is tryin to screw you, your grill guy maybe wants to go work down the street…plus have sixty to eighty hour work weeks for a salary you’d expect to make as a first year accountant?!
It’s hard work. It’s often times thankless work. Until recently it was considered unskilled work where cooking was what you did when you weren’t good enough to do anything else. Now everybody wants to do it, or at least thinks they can do it, and they think they can do it because they’ve cooked with lemon grass and quinoa. There are culinary schools out there where they say you can be a chef in as little as fifteen weeks. WTF… Whiskey Tango Foxtrot…over. There are chefs out there from the old brigade system who were bellman in a hotel for two years before they could even go into the kitchen, and you’re gonna be a chef in fifteen weeks?
Assholes on Yelp think it’s just that simple. I mean really, they have every cookbook ever done by Ina Garten and Bobby Flay…and they’ve even cooked some recipes from them that their friend’s liked….so why didn’t someone fold my napkin when I went to the bathroom? I’m giving one star cause I’m somebody and I know these things goddammit, besides I didn’t get enough hugs as a child so I’m going to shit on a restaurant and in turn, a chef’s life work cause I’m a spoiled little bastard. Yelp…You’re dead to me. And soon enough… Thankfully…you’ll be dead to everybody else.
Going to culinary school WILL NOT teach you how to cook. Cooking in a restaurant on the line with a team, will teach you how to cook by giving you one ass kicking service after ass kicking service. By doing this enough, if you survive that long… you will learn to cook as if your kitchen tools are an extension of you. Culinary school will give you a baseline of technique, and the people you work with… a rash across their ass because you’ll probably think you’re better than them. Hell you may even get a bit more pay. But until you’ve out-worked, out-sweated and out-bled them… you aren’t shit. So get rid of the delusions of grandeur and dreams of being the next Iron Chef in the near future… there’s too much work to be done and never enough time to do it.
I wish I could tell you I rose through the ranks and worked every station flawlessly. I wish I could tell you it all worked out in the end. I wish I could tell you all those guys are still there cooking their asses off and living like rock stars. I didn’t, It didn’t and they aren’t. I worked for the next year and a half on fry station helping on grill and sauté when needed. I never mastered anything and the food I was serving was by today’s standards, antiquated shit. I learned a few things, drank quite a bit, and screwed as often as any waitress would let me. I enjoyed the work no matter how hard, and I came to enjoy the guys I sweated with on the line… but after I graduated high school and worked there for one more summer…I kissed the restaurant life goodbye until some eight years later I came back for yet another two years of being kicked in the balls.
Maybe more on that later…