My first order of business: get rid of the manicure. The very last impression I wanted to leave was my “Belle of the Ball” nail polish chipping into someone’s orzo.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “A woman is like a teabag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” Well, I was about to find out if I was a subtle Chai or full-bodied Pekoe.
It was high time to put my money - and pride - where my mouth and journalistic beat were.
Going in, I knew I couldn’t offer expertise on working a Cryovac machine or how to fix a grainy terrine, but I could offer a hunger to learn, a thick skin, a respect for the kitchen hierarchy and a deep-seated passion for food.
Prior to my first day in the back-of-the-house, I had asked a few friends in the industry for words of wisdom. I learned a cry of “Asses and elbows!” or “Behind!” meant someone was about to walk behind you, most likely with something that could sear off at least your first layer of skin. You better tuck your derriere and funny bone if you want to keep them unmaimed. In fact, staying out of the way seemed to be the most popular piece of advice.
I was to answer to everyone with “chef” out of respect, in the same way you might say “sir” or “ma’am” to your elders. “Yes, chef! No, chef! Where’s the first aid kit, chef?”
And I was to clean as I go, keep my head down and ask questions instead of assume that’s how the chef would like it. Also? Bring a Sharpie.
Since my culinary résumé was less than prestigious, my duties at the restaurant were mostly relegated to garde manger, or cold item preparation.
Most of the afternoon was, as one line cook put it, the “hurry around and wait syndrome” until the dinner rush. You spent the afternoon elbow deep in a hotel pan skinning roasted red peppers, picking individual chervil leaves to garnish 200-plus plates of ravioli, cleaning and destemming dozens of bundles of watercress or peeling 100 soft-boiled eggs. When dinner customers started rolling in around 6, you’d know – and it’d be full throttle until around 10 pm.
After 14 hours straight on my feet the first day, there was good news and bad news.
The bad news: I rode the train home sporting Quasimodo’s posture, my feet were the size of a pregnant lady’s in July and I fell into bed like a fainting goat.
The good news: I survived. I also learned that you can bruise fava beans while shelling them, and to avoid doing so you open the shell at the dimple, where the germ is located and peel from there. That pushing pounds of ricotta through a sieve is great for toning your biceps. That no matter how careful you are, you’re going to break at least one soft-boiled egg while trying to peel it.
Kitchen towels are as valued as a Spotify invite, and prep work is everything. Mise en place, a French term that means having everything in its place, also has a rougher translation of “you’d better have everything prepped or your place will be in the weeds.”
I picked up a few other bits of wisdom along the way:
- Drink water out of 32-ounce plastic cylindrical containers as often as you can or you and dehydration will become quick friends.
- The plating process can border on obsessive. A smear of fonduta, lay down the mushrooms, top with a few sprigs of mache and a sprinkle of hazelnuts. A smear of fonduta, lay down the mushrooms...
- If you’re a customer who asks for grilled bread with nothing on it or a well-done steak, there will be a few jokes made on your behalf at the pass.
- If you’re a female, you will be outnumbered.
- And most importantly, I don’t look good in a bandana.
At the end of the day, I had become part of a big, dysfunctional family. Occasionally, there was name-calling and yelling, but we were in it together - and we got through it together.
On Sunday morning, I got up at 8 a.m. and did it all over again.
“In some way or another, we’re all adrenaline junkies and masochists,” the chef de cuisine said to me at the end of my final shift.
After walking in their Dansko clogs for a weekend, I couldn’t disagree. It’s a labor of love if there ever was one - and come Monday, I had never been happier to plop down in a chair for a sedentary day at work.