It’s the tiny details that separate the professional from the amateur and the average cook from a truly great one. Attention to detail, that undulating octopus with vice grip tentacles hiding in a crevasse. It’s the menu, recipes, ingredients; knife skills, cleanliness, speed, discipline, all tiny suction cups of memory that once learnt, dig in and never let go. It’s the little things that stick with us as cooks, they shape our habits and codify the rules we live by;
- Never peel vegetables over a garbage can,
- Keep your wit sharp and your knives even sharper,
- Your station your responsibility,
- The only answer is yes chef, no chef.
Paying attention to details is accepting your responsibilities as a cook. It’s this thought, this notion about what we become that made me think about Dmitri. It was Sunday in November and I could tell he wasn’t happy. The cooler door opens and Dmitri flings another empty produce box across the tiled floor. Asparagus boxes from Chile, avocado from California, sweet corn from Nebraska all lay haphazardly juxtaposed like a poorly made cardboard tent.
I can imagine Dmitri inside the walk-in cooler, grunting as he bends down to pick up a lexan filled with broccoli. It’s easy to watch him in my minds’ eye because cleaning the vegetable cooler is a job I’ve done a million times. Offering to help, would only mean he’d pretend to help, then walk away and I’d be stuck for an hour with the task. That’s one hour of prep time wasted and I had no intention of deliberately putting myself in the weeds just to be a nice guy. Cleaning the coolers and putting away produce were menial tasks delegated to prep cooks like myself and whoever else was unlucky enough to be passing at that moment. Suckers, get caught, smart cooks find things to do when it’s time to put away the produce.
Just then, the cooler door bursts open and a blast of frigid air follows Dmitri as he throws another empty box on the already wobbly cardboard tent. Dmitri points to the pile of boxes and shouts for the dishwasher to clean up the mess. There’s a clipboard with a produce checklist lying inches from a case of ripe bananas. The sweet fermented smell of the fruit hangs thick in the air. He wipes the frost from his glasses with the sleeve of his chef jacket before moving onto another cooler. I had no intention of helping, in fact I make sure to keep my head down and avoid any eye contact in case he looked in my direction.
With a sudden burst of energy, Dmitri drags a fifty pound box of Yukon gold potatoes through the cooler door like dirty laundry stuffed into a pillowcase. He knows we’re watching even as we pretend not to notice what he’s doing. As if on cue he begins to exaggerate his antics and curses loudly as he hefts the box and dumps the contents into a lexan on the shelf. It was hard not to laugh because Dmitri looked like a roly poly Santa Claus but sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I look away, instead concentrating on the red onion on my cutting board, slicing it in half, and then holding it flat with the fingers of my left hand as my knife slices neat perpendicular lines through the flesh. In a few minutes, this would become a fine brunoise and join a quart of already diced celery and bacon as part of my “mise en place” for potato salad. I was in no rush really, it was Sunday and if I worked smart, I could be done and out the door by two.
I could sense that Dmitri didn’t share my optimism, in fact, his frustration was mounting. How did a routine inventory turn into a one hour cleaning exercise? This meant he would be working another twelve hour day again. Long after all the cooks had gone home, he would still be in the office finishing paperwork. Oh yea, I forgot to mention, Dmitri is a Sous Chef, a position that put him squarely in charge of all us miscreants. It also made him personally responsible for every mistake, customer complaint, equipment malfunction and snafu that is part of a busy restaurant kitchen.
Hopefully he was feeling sorry for himself and wouldn’t notice the twenty or so potatoes missing from the box he’d just put away. I had taken potatoes for my salad without even bothering to put the box away. Too bad for him, you learn to be slick if you want to survive in this kitchen. It takes about twenty minutes to cook potatoes to a stage of doneness suitable for a delicious potato salad. The trick is to keep the water at a low simmer, so the potatoes cook evenly to the core without being reduced to a pile of mush. They taste even better when the water is heavily salted so the spuds absorb a bit of salt, kinda like osmosis, but for root vegetables. I hurry to the dish pit and grab a large colander and a sheet tray, timing is crucial and I’m in no mood to be laughed at for overcooking potatoes. I turn the stove off and carefully wrap a dish towel around each handle, “coming through hot,” I shout, and lift the rondeau from the stove moving quickly to drain the potatoes into a colander. The colander and its contents get dumped onto a sheet tray which goes into the cooler until I’m ready for it.
My potatoes are cold. I place them in a large mixing bowl along with the onions, celery, bacon, chives, crumbled blue cheese, a pinch of Dijon and a generous dollop of mayonnaise, a little salt and pepper, and carefully mix them together. It’s my last task for the day and as I’m about to go home. Dmitri is nowhere in sight and I have a few moments to reflect on what took place this morning. Why did he care? He could have finished his inventory and then gotten a prep cook to clean up the mess. That’s what I would have done. Work smarter not harder, that’s what they always tell me. So why didn’t Dmitri do what any of us would have done? And that’s what I asked him, on my way out the door. His answer was simple as he looked up from the pile of paperwork in the chef’s office. “I did it because it was bothering me,” he replied and then continued to add numbers on the computer. I smiled at that, as I walked through the door, because I understood what he truly meant to say. Dimitri really meant to say, “I did it because, I care.”