The Desk Job

February 20, 2010

My preferred workplace in my early twenties

Roadshow Stop: Growing Chefs!
Roadshow Mentor: Helen Stortini, Executive Director

After University, wayward and unsure of how to get a real job, I decided to go treeplanting in Northern Ontario. It was hell. I would spend 10 hours each day clawing my way through the churned up land of a clear cut block, trying to get pine seedlings into non-existent top soil. Each time I thrust my shovel into the ground, it would smack hard against the unyielding rock of the Canadian Shield and reverberate back up my arm. With 40 pounds of trees strapped to my hips, I waddled around overturned tree stumps and razor sharp brush to try and plant my trees–worth 6.5 cents each. Swarms of black flies and mosquitoes relentlessly buzzed and attacked–sometimes biting so close to my eyelids that I came home with tears of dried blood streaming down my cheeks. At 6:00 pm, a rickety old school bus would ferry me back to camp, which consisted of a small pup tent, cold showers, and crappy food.

My desk alternative

Sitting on the back of the bus, I would pull off the duct tape that I wound around my fingers to protect the skin on my hands. It only helped a little–most of my skin was rubbed raw from jamming my hands into the ground all day. As we bumped along the dirt road, exhausted and filthy, my friend Guy and I would discuss our futures. We would declare adamantly that we never wanted desk jobs. The idea of a desk job seemed like a form of imprisonment, as though taking one would be selling out and succumbing to the rat race that was responsible for so much evil in the world. Somehow, the 10 hours of physical torture I endured six out of seven days seemed better.

Those anti-establishment attitudes ended with the nineties. Thankfully. And while I avoided the ‘desk job’ for sometime–working farms in Australia, teaching kids in Japan, and two more seasons of planting–it eventually caught up with me.

Without me even noticing.

Pre-Roadshow, almost every job I’ve done in the last six years involved planting my tush on a desk chair in front of a computer. (A few years ago, I had tendonitis so bad it rivaled the case I got while treeplanting.)

Being on the Roadshow has had me re-examine my nineties take on the ‘desk job’. While it is certainly naive, there is still something to be said about wanting to avoid a job that makes you unhappy and painfully aware of the 8 hours plus of each work day–desk or no desk. My desire to avoid this–to find something fulfilling and rewarding–is what put me on the Roadshow in the first place. I wanted to be sure I didn’t take a job simply for the sake of having one. And it’s been tough. I’ve been offered jobs (mostly fundraising positions) that paid well, and in some instances, were high profile. But they weren’t what I really wanted to do. And I knew taking them would mean, after the newness wore off, I would be right back where I started.

People who love their work
Through the Roadshow, I’ve had the chance to work along side a number of people who love their work, who actually like to get up in the morning to do their job. It’s been an inspiration to think that it’s possible to have this kind of relationship with your work and given me hope that I might actually find that.

And the next stop on the Roadshow was no exception. It was with yet another person who loved her job. My mentor for the day was Helen Stortini, the Executive Director of a non-profit called Growing Chefs! Chefs for Children’s Urban Agriculture. The organization’s goal is to teach kids and the community about the food they eat and inspire them with the idea that they can grow their own food, even in the city. It brings chefs into elementary school classrooms, dressed in their chef whites, to plant windowsill vegetable gardens, teach kids about food, and do cooking lessons.

Photo: Hamid Attie

Much like the Executive Director’s position, my role for the day was varied. I worked on volunteer recruitment–going from kitchen to kitchen trying to enlist new chefs. I researched funding opportunities. I developed a communications strategy and wrote copy for a new website. I organized the schools, finding out which classrooms would participate in the program. And a whole slew of other tasks–some administrative, some creative, some strategic.

At the end of the day, while I had spent most of my time at a desk–and still had all the flesh on my hands–I felt great. I wasn’t filthy or covered in bug bites, but I did feel exhiliarated–like I had been part of something really important. Like I could do this every day and feel good about it.

Growing Chefs! in the classroom

The Love Child of Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters
Now, before anyone corrects what would appear to be typos, it’s time for the full disclosure. I’ve got a job. (Gasp!) A part-time six-month contract, but a job nonetheless. And I love it. I found it the old-fashioned way with a resume submitted to an online ad. (Okay, well not that old-fashioned. But it was reassuring to know that it’s still possible to find work this way).

But I never would have found it without the Roadshow. Without the Roadshow, I would have taken a fundraising position ages ago. And my stints job shadowing have helped me realize that working with food, food writing, food education, and food systems was where I wanted to focus. (Thank you Chef Kristine and Chef Robin.) I guess I’ve always secretly wanted to be the love child of Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters–the Roadshow just helped me realize I could be this through my work.

I agonized over whether or not to take this job. Because I felt like it would be the end of the Roadshow. But at the same time, the whole point of the Roadshow was to do exactly this–help me find work that I loved. And it did. But along the way, I fell in love with the act of doing the Roadshow. I was so torn on what to do.

So I decided I’m going to have my cake (which isn’t much, trust me) and eat it to. I realize employment takes away some of my credibility on the ‘Unemployment Roadshow’–but I’m still going to do it. Because 50% of my working week remains unemployed. Although I suppose now I’ll have to re-brand as the Part-time Employment Roadshow or Underemployment Roadshow. But whatever. The Roadshow will continue on. If you’re willing to ride along with me in an exploration of meaningful employment and the work people do, I’m willing to do it.

Besides…I still need to get myself gigs as a flight attendant, stand up comic, adult store attendant, carney, zookeeper, mascot, embalmer, and chicken sexer!

Find out more about my new employer, Growing Chefs! And to see Growing Chefs! on CTV have a watch here.

And check out this great TedTalk by Jamie Oliver on the importance of food education


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.