Day 1: My life on the line

October 2, 2009

My mentor: Kristine Kittrell
My mentor’s details: A chef with 10-years experience in the kitchen. Also happens to be my sister
Office/Organization/Business: A four diamond restaurant in Austin, Texas
Catch phrase: colourful language, but heard with frequency “F*ck a duck.”

‘It’s hot, noisy, and the pay is shit. But you do it because you love it,’ said Dave, the line cook standing next to me. Dave was working the grill, flipping a recently killed soft shell crab for a crab and bibb lettuce salad. I had been the harbinger of death for the little guy–mercilessly hacking off its head and penis with a huge cleaver. It still twitched with its last pangs of life while grilling to perfection.

This was day one of the unemployment roadshow. I had jumped feet first into the kitchen fire as a line chef at a four-diamond restaurant. And I was nervous as all hell. I had seen the battle wounds on my sister’s hands and forearms–the scars and burns mapping out the menu of her career. I didn’t know much about working in a professional kitchen, but I did know that it was hot, fast-paced, loud, and dangerous. For someone who is regularly soft-spoken, slow moving, and clumsy, this didn’t seem like a likely pairing.

The Piracy
Anthony Bourdain once likened the kitchen to a pirate ship. It’s such an apt description. It’s hot. Space is economized. People cuss. People drink. They wield sharp knives and bang around hot metal objects. They break the rules. When things go to all hell, they call it being ‘in the weeds’. And there is a strong sense of camaraderie that these people are in it together. They even look like pirates. They have lots of tattoos and wear bandanas and loose-fitted pants perfect for squash buckling. And the topics of conversation would make a Human Resources Director faint. The most colourful from the evening was an argument regarding what the term Spiderman-ing meant. I won’t elaborate, but it was sexual and nasty.

Of course, kitchens vary from restaurant to restaurant. Some are run militantly, with no allowance for tomfoolery or nonsense. Others are a den of mischief. My sister came home from one job to tell me she had been waterboarded. It had been a slow day so the chefs decided to do it to one another just to see what it felt like. Another kitchen she worked in allowed almost no interaction during dinner service and every morning they had to polish their cookware and plates with gin. Any screw ups, even the slightest in nature, involved a violent 20-minute reeming from the chef de cuisine. Kitchens also have to constantly adapt to deal with whatever crisis is thrown at them. And there are many. Walk-ins break. Dishwashers stop working. Pipes burst. One shift, my sister and her fellow chefs all had to stand on stacks of cardboard boxes because the floor was flooded with an inch of water. But meals still get sent out. And a successful restaurant will ensure that the diners have no clue as to the chaos that ensues on the other side of those swinging doors. Much like the occupants of a passenger cruiser unaware of the advancing band of marauding pirates, the patrons eat in ignorant peace.

The Guillotine
Since I was job-shadowing, I expected to do just that. Shadow. Stand out of the way and watch the culinary mastery unfold. Not a chance. The kitchen was keen to have an extra set of hands, regardless of how blundering and inexperienced they were. I was immediately put to work on a mandolin slicing potatoes for the pomme frites. Mandolins are terrifying. They look like a miniature horizontal guillotine with multiple blades. Chefs make them look easy, like they will save a homecook hours of labour. But they are really instruments of torture designed to remove flesh and bone from the user’s hand. And like all blades in a professional kitchen, they are extremely sharp. This one was missing its safety. The only protection between my hand and the razor sharp row of blades was a flimsy terry cloth rag. I had horrible visions of my fingers julienned, but managed to push through the ten pounds of potatoes without drawing first blood.

From there I was given a list of tasks: slow roast the tomatoes (which I burned), de-membrane and blanche the sweetbreads (de-what the what?), peel the sunchokes (the what chokes?), stack the sheet pans of blanched pomme frites in the walk-in (stack the what where?). I had no idea what I was being told to do. It was spoken in a language that was foreign to my non-chef ears. And there was no time for explanations or demonstrations. Everyone was busy setting up their mis-en-place–preparing the ingredients they would need to cook the foods assigned to their station. They moved with efficiency, precision, and confidence to get the seemingly insurmountable list of things done by only four people. Without explicit instruction, I somehow managed to stay out of the way and still get through my list of duties–with the exception of the tomatoes that were so slow roasted they resembled astronaut’s food.

My last prep task was to scrub and debeard an 18kg bucket of mussels. It took forever. Their beards are securely attached and often have to be pried off with an ice pick. And they are covered in sharp, impossible to remove barnacles that leave tiny razor cuts all over your fingers. It’s a crap job and one that’s given to the person at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, which was me. I felt like I had been told to swab the deck.

The Hot Oil
After four hours of prep, dinner service started. I was given a 2-minute lesson on how to use the deep fryer and was assigned it as a station. I was responsible for cooking all the deep fried items on the menu. And since the restaurant’s signature dish was deep fried oysters, I was busy. The deep fryer is scarier than the mandolin. It holds almost 20 litres of boiling hot oil–190 degrees Celsius to be exact–just waiting to indiscriminately crisp, bubble, and burn whatever slips into its golden bath. But I didn’t have much time to conjure up the worst-case-scenarios involving me and the vat of bubbling oil. I had too much to do. Before I could get one order into the buttermilk, then flour and then into the grease, I had yet another order called out to me from across the kitchen. There was no time to think or do anything but fry. Soon my grease vat was full. Four orders of oysters. A rabbit confit. Three kids of potatoes. A dozen anchovy-stuffed olives. The hot pantry cook called for her pomme frites. The executive chef called three new orders of oysters. The cold pantry chef was demanding her olives. A barrage of ‘need’, ‘now’, ‘what’s the hold up?’s were slewed at me. Waiters hovered impatiently.

Before I could toss myself into the grease to end it all, Sarah, the pastry chef, showed up. She slipped in, refilled my vats of buttermilk and flour, tossed some pomme frites in sea salt and then slipped away again before I could shower her with my gratitude. But I had a feeling this was just what cooks do–they look out for one another so the whole operation can run smoothly. Sarah didn’t just help me because I was the new guy; it was because I was for that day, part of their crew. With just that little extra help, I was back on track. I got the food fried and delivered. I could yell back with confidence that the orders were up and ready.

Cooking attracts all sorts–restaurant cooks are a motley crew of illegal aliens, former lawyers and doctors, transients, teens, ex-cons, foodies. But while their backgrounds might be diverse, they take care of one another. Teamwork is crucial to their success. But with that loyalty also comes an equally fervent revenge when betrayed. One of my sister’s co-workers, who did a no-show for a busy weekend shift, found all of his belongings–knives, clogs, and pay cheque–frozen in a solid block of ice as pay back.

By 10 pm, dinner service was done. I was exhausted and covered in a thin layer of grease and flour. But I also felt great. I had successfully cooked food that was served to high-end diners. And no one sent anything back. They bought it–both in cash and opinion. They bought that their ‘signature’ oysters and other deep-fried dishes had been prepared by a trained professional. I felt like I had duped every single one of them, a pirate in my own right, stealing their credibility as discerning diners. It gave me a bravado and a swagger that lasted all night because Day One of my tour was over, and I felt ready to man the helm.