A Sharp Knife for Incidental Details

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 vise-grip tentacles, navigating both open ocean and tight crevice.  It’s the menu, recipes, ingredients, knife skills, cleanliness, speed, discipline: all suction cups of memory that dig in and never let go.

It’s the little things we learn 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 answers are, “Yes, chef,” and “No, chef.”

In the kitchen and in life, paying attention to details is about accepting your responsibilities. It’s this thought – this notion about how we become 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 burst open… and he flung another empty produce box across the tile floor. Asparagus boxes from Chile, avocado from California, sweet corn from Nebraska: all lay juxtaposed like a poorly-made cardboard tent.

I imagined Dmitri inside the walk-in cooler, grunting as he bent down to pick up a lexan filled with broccoli. It was easy to watch him in my mind’s eye, because I’ve cleaned the vegetable cooler a million times.  If I offered to help, Dmitri might pretend to help for a while, then walk away; and I’d be stuck for an hour with the task. That would be one hour of prep time wasted, and I had no intention of 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 the moment. Suckers get caught; smart cooks find things to do when it’s time to put away the produce.

The cooler door opened again, and a blast of frigid air followed Dmitri as he threw yet another box on the wobbly cardboard pavilion. Pointing to the pile of boxes, he shouted for the dishwasher to clean up the mess. Dmitri wiped the frost from his glasses with the sleeve of his chef jacket before moving on to another cooler. A clipboard with a produce checklist lay inches from a case of ripe bananas, and the sweet fermented smell of the fruit hung thickly in the air.  I had no intention of helping; in fact, I kept my head down and avoided eye contact in case he looked in my direction.

With a sudden burst of energy, Dmitri dragged a fifty-pound box of Yukon gold potatoes like dirty laundry stuffed into a pillowcase.  He knew we were watching, even as we pretended not to notice what he was doing.  As if on cue, he began to exaggerate his antics and curse loudly as he hefted the box and dumped its 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 looked away, concentrating on the red onion on my cutting board… slicing it in half, holding it flat with fingers of my left hand…. My knife sliced the neat perpendicular lines…. The onion flesh would be a fine brunoise, joining a quart of diced celery and bacon, 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 12-hour day again. Long after all the cooks had gone home, he would still be in the office finishing paperwork. Oh yeah, 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 the 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. I dump the colander and its contents 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. I’m ready 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. Dmitri really meant to say, “I did it because I care.”