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.