Ghost In The Kitchen

“Lord, I need a break.” Christian muttered.

Nora the grill cook snorted in disgust as her boning knife peeled the tough silverskin off a beef tenderloin. It was the last loin on her cutting board, and Christian glanced at her hotel pan, already filled with six long cylinders of butchered prime. As she hustled to get ready for the evening service, she pushed past him to grab the scale from the shelf and position it in front of her cutting board.

“Christian!!! Are you talking to yourself again? Muttering all that mumbo-jumbo crap…. If you’re gonna go crazy, do it on your own time, pantry boy!” Even as she spoke, her knife never stopped cutting; her stack of tenderloins became thick portions of filet mignon.

Christian sighed, but said nothing. Secretly, Nora scared him.  She was just 5’3”, but her fights with the other cooks were legendary. A mean drunk with a penchant for fighting when her lewd advances were not reciprocated, Nora had been dragged out of more bars than Christian could count.

But she always showed up for her shift on time, cooked like a beast, was never in the weeds, and moved masses of meat on a volcano-hot grill any given night. No one wanted to piss Nora off – especially not when she had a razor-sharp boning knife in her hand.

And in this kitchen, Christian’s pantry station was less than a knife’s throw away from her grill. He picked up a case of romaine and walked back to his station.

“Cut the damn lettuce, wash the damn lettuce, spin the damn lettuce”, Christian sighed. He filled the sink with water. His cutting board was beside the basin.

“Is this why I went to culinary school? I could have saved my forty grand and worked for FedEx… Culinary school to be a chef, my ass.” He swirled the romaine in the sink. “Just my luck, my first job in a professional kitchen: the glamorous salad station.”

Christian felt unappreciated and unnoticed, as if he were an unseen ghost.  But Nora watched him methodically chop the romaine with his French knife.

“Don’t look so sad, Christian,” she teased.  “Thought you’d have your own cooking show like Emeril? She walked outside to smoke a cigarette, laughing at her joke.

Christian looked up at the clock on the wall and cursed.  With his shoe, he pushed the salad spinner up against the grate in the floor.  He bent to plug the cord into the wall. Only fifty-five minutes to have his mise en place ready for service.

Christian kept his head down and used his hands to hold the vibrating spinner in place.  The spinner was old, and had a tendency to spew water all over the floor. The last time, Dave the sous chef made him mop the entire line as punishment.

Christian didn’t like Dave, a loud, pompous ass who thought he was Gods’ gift to women. Better hurry up, before Dave gets back from smoking a cigarette with Nora. Christian unplugged the spinner, took off the cover, and put the cleaned lettuce in a six hundred hotel pan.

An outsider looking in would think this kitchen was serene and tranquil… almost sleepy. Only a culinary veteran would see the brisk undercurrent of multiple cooks hustling to finish prep for their stations.

Craig the sauté cook was set for service, which gave him time to flirt with the new cocktail waitress. He was pure testosterone: two heads, two hands, two feet. Like a shark, he was always hunting for fresh meat. Craig saw the woman’s resolve weakening. He reached across and put a piece of swordfish in her mouth.

“Celia, isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever tasted? Tonight’s special is just for you. I’ll be thinking about you while I’m cooking it.”  She giggled and took the bait. Craig’s smile broadened, and Christian imagined razor-sharp teeth tearing at her pale flesh. Christian shook his head in envy as she slipped a piece of paper into Craig’s hand. Looks like Craig will be having waitress for supper tonight.

He wanted to be like Craig: arrogant, loud, quick, able to sling it when the action got dirty and heavy.  Both of them had started here at the same time; within a year, Craig was promoted to sauté cook. He had yet to see Craig in the weeds.

“Lord, I need a break today… something’s gotta give,” Christian frowned as he reviewed his station. It was 5:15 p.m.: the romaine lettuce for Caesar salad was cut and in his reach-in cooler. Mixed green lettuce… already did that. Candied pecans… done. Jumbo shrimp… poached in court bouillon for shrimp cocktail, chilling in the cooler. Mise tray for the Cobb salad… straight. Christian made sure to double-check; he poked his fingers into each nine pan, stirring them around.

Yesterday, Dave found a nine pan with slimy ham.

“Would you eat that?” Dave screamed. He held little cubes of ham high in the air so Christian could see the slime dripping from his fingers.

“No,” Christian had mumbled.

“Go get the garbage bin,” Dave shouted, waving the cubes of rotten ham around like a baton.

Christian grabbed the garbage pan and set it down in front of Dave. The entire kitchen stopped for the show. Dave paused for dramatic effect, making sure that everyone was watching. Then, one by one, he dumped Christian’s entire salad prep into the garbage. He made a point to throw each pan into the sink, and the sound of metal hitting metal cracked like a whip across Christian’s face.

“Lord, today I need a break.”

Christian squeezed his eyes shut, but Dave’s face, beet red from screaming, dragged him back to reality.

“You have fifteen minutes to reset your Cobb prep – start now!” Satisfied that he played his role to the max, Dave walked away.

Christian loved to cook. He loved the kitchen. The work was hard and the pay was small, but he knew in his heart he would never be happy doing anything else. It was a grind to cook and maintain the same intensity and focus, making sure that each and every plate that went up in the pass was perfect. These thoughts flashed across his mind as he hurried to replace his salad prep before Dave went berserk again.

For the last three months, Christian had been trying to get promoted, hoping to impress Dave by working harder and faster than everyone else.  Maybe, Christian thought, he could make it onto the appetizer station; Luis, the app guy, had quit two months ago. Craig was running both stations until the chef found a suitable replacement. Christian was already training with Craig on slow nights. He did as much prep and cooking as Craig would allow. Nora had complimented him on his progress, and Christian felt that he was ready to move up.

“Nora, isn’t that how it’s done? You work hard, take your licks, wait your chance, and eventually get promoted?”  She nodded and turned to focus on the steaks on her grill. “Tomorrow I’m up for review. I have a feeling that tomorrow, my luck will change for the better.”

The next morning, Christian woke up knowing that today he would start a new chapter in his life. He knew it as he made his bed, carefully folding the sheet back and fluffing the pillows. He knew it as he walked into his closet and took his chef pants and jacket off the hanger. Something was going to happen; he could sense it. Christian knew intuitively that whatever it was, it was going to be life-changing.

Christian was in such a chipper mood, he decided to stop at the bookstore on his way to work. Maybe he’d splurge on a cookbook. But first, a bowl of cereal and then a nice, hot shower to start the day right.  

The bookstore on Peachtree Street was a new addition to the neighborhood. It wasn’t big by modern standards, but it fit the community’s bohemian vibe. There was a specialty section aptly titled Books for Cooks. Christian was the only customer in the store. The cashier, busy reading a book of her own, didn’t even look up when he opened the door and stepped inside. He didn’t much care anyway; he knew exactly where to find his section.

At first, Christian didn’t see it. He probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but for the silver binding that showed his reflection. Curious, he reached down, but it was wedged in so tightly that he had to get down on his hands and knees to try and pull it out.

“God, this thing is sure stuck in there good.” He had to tug and wiggle it from side to side. “I hope all this effort’s worth it,” he thought, and tugged harder to get it free. Then as if it had heard, the book slid out and into his hands. The momentum was so sudden that Christian fell hard backwards and hit his head on the shelf behind him.

Christian woke up. His head felt funny, and strangely the book was still in his hands.  Something strange was happening… there was no other way to explain it. Puzzled, he walked over to a large standing mirror in the bookstore and looked at his reflection. A slightly rumpled chef’s jacket and checkered pants covered his scrawny frame. What he saw made him feel depressed.

His face was still cappuccino smooth.  He scrutinized his jaw line, hoping that a stray follicle would attach itself and sprout into a goatee. Even a thin mustache would do.  He tried to convince his reflection to grow some hair, but his face was his, and would never change.  The blister on his left thumb reminded him of the book he was holding, and he looked around for a table to at least put the damn thing down.

This made Christian mad; his thumb was hurting… and today Dave was going to do his review! He was still a bit woozy from hitting his head. He didn’t feel all in one piece: he wiggled his hand, rotating his bony wrist; satisfied, he picked his nose.   Christian picked his nose when something was bothering him. It helped him to think: some people closed their eyes, others talked to themselves. Christian mined for boogers. Whenever he needed to think, his finger would involuntarily lodge itself in a nostril. Sometimes it took a while, but eventually he always figured it out.

“Oh yeah, the book.” He walked over to a table and set the book down, then took a seat and opened it up. The cashier walked right past him as if he wasn’t there. He put out a hand to draw her attention, and she passed right through it.

Christian was so shocked that he jumped backwards as if stung. He got up and followed behind her and tentatively tried to touch her on the shoulder. His hand passed right through her, again.  At first Christian thought that he was still just dizzy from his fall, but as more and more people came and left, it dawned on him that none of them could see him. He sat down at the table and ran a finger through the pages of the book with its shiny silver binding.

Well, if he was a ghost, he was in serious trouble: his shift started in twenty minutes.

“Who would believe me?” He imagined himself trying to call in sick, “Hey Dave… ahhh, I can’t come into work today.”

“Christian, you idiot, what did you do to yourself this time?” he could almost hear Dave screaming at him through the phone.

“Well I, uhmm… hit my head at the bookstore and it kinda, ahh, uhmmm, made me invisible.”

“You must be kidding me; ghosts don’t make phone calls,” the sound of laughing through the phone, silence, then a dial tone.

Not a good idea. Christian was panicking; a wave of nausea gripped his stomach and squeezed it like a lime.  He broke into a cold sweat. Feeling like jello, he stood up, then sat back down and tried hard to stop himself from crying. Another wave of nausea, and the reality of his situation struck him full in the face like onion fumes. Christian started to cry, fat tears were flowing down his cheeks, onto his chef jacket and spilling onto his clogs. As each tear struck, his shoes began to fade as if they were being erased.

“I can’t die; who’s going to feed my cat?”

Another wave of sobbing, and his checkered pants began to shimmer and turn translucent. Christian was becoming invisible.

“This can’t be real; where’s the tunnel and the bright lights?” A sob escaped, sounding like a tiny squeak, and his chef jacket and name tag winked out like a light bulb.

“And where’s St. Peter and Jesus?”  He was embarrassed, a grown man crying like a baby in a dusty bookstore. Sniffling, he used his thinking finger to wipe away a single tear that hung suspended on his eyelash. His face grew paler and paler, until it too began to disappear. In the last millisecond as his brown eyes blinked for the last time, the truth dawned on him. He was trapped.  He had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be promoted. Not today, maybe never. He didn’t dare voice this out loud, but there was a strong possibility that he was dead.

To Be Continued…

Jomo’s Banana Bread Story

For many years, all I ever wanted was to become a pastry chef. I spent years working in the pastry kitchens of several leading hotels in Jamaica. For those few glorious years, all my dreams were as rich as dark chocolate laced with Meyers rum and whipped cream. I was filled with the enthusiasm of youth, and proud of my prowess with a palette knife and piping bag. To this day, I still can decorate a cake in five minutes flat.

My most treasured possession was a small hardcover notebook that I kept in the breast pocket of my uniform. It was the fashion in my kitchen for every pastry cook to own a notebook. Whenever the pastry chef taught us something new, we would dutifully copy the recipe and in this way make it our own. This was long before the internet. Smart phones were unheard of. We learnt by making things over and over again until committed to memory. I still remember the recipe for pound cake as clearly as the day it was given to me. This notebook – this magical tome if you will; in a sense we were all sorcerer’s apprentices studying and learning from the master – contained all our secrets. Our recipes were jealously guarded and shared only amongst ourselves. My book was four years in the making, every recipe tried and true. It was a source of great pride and I often swore:

“If I ever lost my book I would stop doing pastry.”

I lost that recipe book in a minibus travelling from Ocho Rios to Montego Bay. I still ache at the loss. I’ve come to grips with it, and though I no longer work in pastry, I’m still in the kitchen. Recently I found a handwritten recipe for banana bread tucked away in a box of odds and ends in my closet. It’s the best banana bread recipe I’ve ever been fortunate to bake and taste. I’m lucky to still have it. In fact, holding that piece of paper in my hands inspired this post and the memories that come with it. It’s a part of me, a bit of my history, and in sharing I hope that you will enjoy this recipe as much as I have.

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The best bananas for this recipe are overripe bananas.

I like to save the ones I cannot eat, ( it may be just one or two), by peeling them and storing them in the freezer in a Ziploc bag. Once I’ve accumulated enough, I’m ready to bake banana bread. There is no need to thaw the frozen bananas, plus thawing them attracts fruit flies.  Oftentimes I add them into the mixer still frozen; the batter comes out just fine.

Jomo’s Banana Bread

I’ve posted this recipe with the original measurements. It’s my way of challenging you to invest in a simple kitchen scale. There are many different types available to the home baker – and, expensive or cheap, most will deliver the same results. A good kitchen scale is one gadget that anyone who loves to bake should add to their arsenal. So use a scale for this recipe, and I can guarantee the results will be  moist, rich, flavorful, and utterly delicious.

 1 lb. banana (the riper the better)

1 lb. granulated sugar

4 eggs

1 lb. baking flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tbsp. vanilla

8 oz. milk

4 oz. vegetable oil

This recipe works well without a mixer; a blender, a bowl and a whisk are just fine. Just blend the bananas and sugar, then add the eggs and liquids while blending. Then pour into a bowl and whisk in the dry ingredients. Finally whisk in the oil. The mixture should be pourable.

Bake at 350F for 45 min – 1 hour until done

banana bread