A Sense of Urgency

“Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It’s like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can’t control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you.” Mike Tyson

Working in a professional kitchen is hard work. Working in a really good kitchen is even harder. I’ve moved from a good kitchen to a better one. By better, I mean cooking with a level of technical expertise that demands more than a recipe, expects more precision than flipping an omelet. Each day, I walk into the changing room with the feeling of having my back pressed against the wall. It’s show time, I can feel the tension coiling in my stomach like a spring, every day my knowledge and skill is put to the test, for me, there can be only one outcome, perfection.

Start with a mental checklist, tear my station apart.

ü  There’s a case of Bronzino in the meat cooler, the sous  chef ordered fifteen pounds yesterday, need to knock that out and maybe break down some more Halibut and Salmon.

ü  Tonight’s gonna be busy, need to make sure there’s enough roasted mushrooms to make it through the night. A case of Shiitake and Honshimegi should be in the produce cooler, double check, just in case the shit hits the fan.

ü  It rained last night and it’s supposed to rain tonight. Need to bring pecan wood for the grill early, maybe throw a couple logs in the oven, so they can dry out.

ü  What else? Dry aged ribeye, portion into steaks with the band saw, cryovac and cook sous vide.

ü  Need to get the immersion circulator up and running by 4pm, no later.

ü  Strain the veal stock and cut mirepoix for the red wine sauce. Hopefully the tilt skillet will be free, so I can get the sauce rolling. It takes hours to reduce. I’ve gallons of Cabernet Sauvignon in the liquor cabinet, it’s enough.

ü  My navy beans for succotash  are on the way out, they  didn’t feel too good last night, soak some today for tomorrow.

ü  I need kitchen rags.

ü  Four top chefs tasting menu tonight. A quick meeting with the sous chef to discuss menu ideas, suggestions.

ü  I have veal sweetbread on my cart, maybe for the third course with cappelini pasta and fresh shaved truffles.  

ü  There’s antelope tenderloin the meat cooler, sounds good for the fourth course, potato croquettes, braised ramps and morel mushroom sauce.

ü  Add that to the prep list, need to break the loin down and cook it sous vide in time for service.

ü  I’m thinking three extra potatoes plus ten will be enough for the croquettes and whipped potatoes.

The meeting ends and I continue thinking about my prep list. There’s more, but this is what I need to do, within a three hour time frame, to have my station up and ready for service. It can be claustrophobic for the initiated. Everyone’s busy and too many questions and patience wears thin. Find what you need, get it done, push yourself, you have no friends to help. There’s no frigging shoulder to lean on, your co-workers are all busy working their ass off. The sooner you realize and accept, they don’t have time for you. Understand this, you prep, your station, is your responsibility. You can ask for help, but it comes with a price. I don’t want it, it’s a pride thing. Are you good enough to make the grade? Are you saying to the chef, “hey I’m too slow to    set my station up within three hours?” It means you aren’t efficient, you were slow, you were not mentally prepared. Maybe you should start looking for another job? If you don’t quit early out, you’ll get pushed out. It’s as simple as that.

The team has to be strong. It’s the chef’s job to examine your performance, daily, he has to be sure that you won’t crack under pressure. Its called probation, can you fit in? Do you belong? If your station goes down the whole line goes down.  I’ve seen it happen. I come in an hour early every day just to stay ahead of my prep, just to stay out of the dreaded weeds. I run when I should be walking. I write an itemized list of all I need to do and prioritize them. My chef expects no less and I want to make sure he stays off my back. I say yes. I have lots of things to do, meat to break down, portion and cook sous vide. Fish needs to be portioned. My wood fire grill that needs to be kindled and nurtured a full hour before service.It doesn’t matter, add the extra prep for the four top chefs tasting menu tonight. Need me to fill the requisition in the storeroom. Market list needs to be done by 4:30pm. Sous chef wants to have a fifteen minute line up to discuss service for the night. Expect it. There are clocks on every wall in my kitchen, just about; it’s a race against the clock. Race to be ready for service. Race to cook. The plates must be hot, constantly remember to keep in sync with the other line cooks and have the food in the pass in a coordinated manner. Fast.  Three different tables fired at once, the chef wants it all, now! Since I’ve started working in this kitchen the hours glide by, they blur in a flurry of cutting, chopping, bending, lifting and cooking.

I’m allowed a thirty minute break; I’ve never seen a line cook take one. There’s no time to eat, but we do shoveling food into our mouth with our fingers as we pass by. A basket of French fries waiting to go out, those extra two at the back about to fall off, are mine. Cocktail shrimp in the cooler for tonight’s banquet, don’t mind if I snag one. Did you overcook that Red snapper for table 15?  Don’t worry, we’ll eat it, tearing it apart like a pack of wolves, but quietly and quickly, (the chef doesn’t allow us to eat on the line).

My cell phone stays in the locker. If you need me, leave a message, I’m busy. I’ll call you back, when I’m on the train, or on my day off. I never knew I could work a solid eight hour shift, working without pause, moving from one task to the next until this kitchen.  I’m paid more to do what I do, but here, I earn every single nickel and cent with sweat.  Tell yourself to move faster because if you don’t someone else will. So what happens next? I ask myself this question every day. I see how my Sous chefs work. From them, the chef demands even more, the expectations are higher, the hours are longer.

I’ve always said “those who work hard work harder.” Multiply that by ten. In this kitchen, prep is more, something is always added, but the time frame remains the same. The faster you work, the more tasks you are given. Finished with your prep, go help someone else.

Clean the coolers, organize, consolidate, date, wrap, sweep.  There’s no overtime in this kitchen, you must leave by 11pm. You must, break your station down, and clean and be done with it, before the clock strikes eleven. It’s a race to start and a race to finish. If you’re tired save it for the locker room. My feet hurt; my clogs are too new to be comfortable. Work through it, I’ll pay attention to their suffering when I get home.  I’m a stronger cook because of this kitchen. It’s our way of training cooks to move up the ladder and endure the rigor of a sous chef life in the kitchen. Its preparation for that executive chef position. One day I’ll be in charge of my own kitchen.  Ask the question, will I be better, faster stronger for working this way? Yes.

Mechanical Apples for Electric Oranges

 An empty kitchen is as harmless as a raindrop falling on a bus.  It’s a machine housed within walls, hardwired to crank out with relentless efficiency, trays of identical croissants, a hundred “caprese” salads for tonight’s banquet, steaks marked of and ready for the lunch rush. A steam table hold a “third pan” of roasted butternut squash soup, Tuesday’s bland “soup of the day”, made in large batches and stored in the freezer. There is equipment for every purpose and machines to help cooks be more like machines; blender to pulverize and liquefy, robot coupe to chop and shred, toaster to crisp bread, hot coffee, brewed and dispensed by a machine. 

 Alone and left to its own devices, the kitchen hums, whirs and clicks, but quietly. Turn the fluorescent lights off, and it’s a man made space filled with rows and rows of shiny stainless steel equipment, specifically designed for boiling, roasting, frying and baking. It’s a weird juxtaposition of sorts, machines run by humans performing mundane mechanical like labor to feed the hungry. Cooks in their white jackets and checkered pants arrive every morning to breathe life into this mechanical oddity. Calling to each other, as they fiddle with switches, crack eggs, turn on ovens, set large pots with water to boil, soon they will be filled with oatmeal and grits, steaming hot and ready to be served.  As more cooks clock in for work, the mechanical whirs and clicks pulses louder and the hiss of billowing steam from deep fried home-fries raises the kitchen from slumber.

There are no eyes, it cannot see, it does not feel, the kitchen is as  senseless as a clock, ticking second by second, the slow centrifuge of boiling hot chicken stock through a chinois. Liquid to burn and hurt and scald, clumsy cooks, human error, duly noted and ostensibly ignored. Red quarry tiles made from natural clay line the floor for the cooks to walk upon. It’s cheap, tough and durable, like Idaho potatoes built by nature for commercial use. Red tiles below, bright fluorescent lights above, sandwiched in between huge walk-in refrigerators store fresh produce in a state of stasis. Hidden from the sun and heat, tomatoes snuggle next to eggplant, zucchini and squash, their future irrevocably intertwined tonight’s ingredients for ratatouille.   

In the kitchen, the machines win, they always do, beat, worn out and tired, humans leave. This space is now closed. What was urgent, is no more. The art of cooking is just a phrase, which means nothing to the machine.  It has won its own prize and clicks and clacks in automation. Clutched in its embrace, wrapped in its stainless steel kettle, fifty pounds of veal bones, slowly simmering in mirepoix and water. Through the vents of the walk-in, it blows a breath of cold air on a case of cherry red strawberries, its cold in there and it will get colder still, as the temperature gauge dips below forty. The pilot lights flicker and dance then burn steady and blue, their vigil will continue throughout the night as the machine circuits turn themselves off one by one.  Alone and left to its own devices, the kitchen hums, whirs and clicks, but quietly.

Thoughts on Spring

I like to write my thoughts down, before transferring them into cohesive sentences and paragraphs on my laptop. It’s more work, writing a post in my notebook, then revising and rewriting with the help of word perfect.  My favorite place to write, is on the train, to and from work. It’s probably one of the few moments of my day when I’m truly alone. On the train in a car filled with people. No one pays attention to me sitting by the window, Mp3 player tuned in and tuned out; and I pay no attention to them.

 Lately my thoughts have turned to spring and the mercurial changes in weather from cold to warm, to rainy, with sporadic blasts of sunshine.   I’ve been thinking hard about vegetables and plants that grow in the months of March to May. I’ve been trying to find inspiration to write about all the wonderful vegetables available to chefs this season. Imagine, riding the train with thoughts of wild ramps and strawberries and asparagus. I tried and failed.

 I could not understand

 I walked into my kitchen and spent some time searching the produce cooler. I saw boxes of strawberries, from California. I looked at the asparagus – grown in Mexico or Peru I cannot remember which. It’s been on my mind for the past two weeks, my inability to write about spring. I could not connect my thoughts to what I was seeing. Nervous and afraid. I rode the train hoping to capture spring from my window seat. The page remained blank, but I did see – cars, Atlanta traffic, urban life, signs and billboards. I tried a different tactic, I Googled the word spring, with the hope of finding inspiration on the internet; I ended up checking my Facebook messages instead.

 I wrote this paragraph on the train to work

 “Spring is an exciting time to be a cook in a professional kitchen. Old man winter, has released his tenuous hold on the earth. What was frozen and hard is thawing and squirming vigorously with all kinds of growing things. Both above and below ground there is a sense of expectation and exuberance as we all wait for the first vegetables of spring. This is the season to fill the menu with sunlight and shed the heavy winter soups, legumes and bitter greens. Chefs are getting ready to change the menu. Gone, are braised dishes like Short Ribs and Osso Bucco. They may have kept diners warm and sated throughout the winter, but spring is time for a lighter touch.  Emulsions and broth, fruit sauces, fresh vegetables, salads, lemons, lime, cilantro.”

 But could not finish

 I figured it out. How could I write about spring and all that it entails from the confines of the train and glass windows. How could I relate spring from a cook’s perspective within the confines of my apartment? Spring is outside, with the grass beneath my feet and the trees over my head. If I meant to do my post justice, I needed to write about Spring, in its natural environment. I need to feel and see it growing all around me.

I’ve set myself a task

To find a farm, a family farm in Atlanta, a small one. I’m excited, and plan to share whatever I find with you, my readers  in honesty and truth.