I’ve kicked around in a couple of kitchens during my early teenager years. Did a lot of the menial tasks that are typically given to the ‘newbie’, met a lot of interesting characters. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, at some point in my career I put 2 and 2 together and realized that there is definitely something ‘off’ (to put it mildly) about restaurant cooks and chefs. Something I quite couldn’t put my finger on. Don’t get me wrong, they were all very serious about their jobs, had the passion and all, but with some, it was like you had to tiptoe around them like they were live ammo that could go off at any moment. Others were always seemingly too happy. Ready to belt out a tune, (whether you asked them to or not) and some just hated the world and thought every customer was out there to get them. But, when they were ‘in the zone’ on the line slugging it out during a service, they would become almost zen like. Two cooks on the hot line, would ‘dance’ do the ‘chefs waltz’ as we call it. They could be sworn enemies and ready to come to blows, but on the line they were different, they knew what the other person was doing, anticipated their next move and could simultaneously toss a saute pan while stepping out of their counterpart’s way and garnishing a plate all without missing a single step. There’s a type of communication that goes on, sometimes with a single word never being spoken. That has always been something I’d taken for granted. Just assumed that is how its done, and I encourage you the next time your in a restaurant that has an open kitchen, to watch them. It really is a well choreographed dance, mesmerizing even. The ebb and flow seemingly flawless. A real work of art.
Then, there was me, who couldn’t even boil a pot of water. That was just an expression, or so I thought. But after months of watching the cooks on the line perform their nightly dance, the day finally came when I was asked to fill in for one of the cooks that had called in sick. Something that I had gotten used to in later years as a daily ritual. But at the time, you want to talk about sick? When I got asked to step in, I nearly puked. I mean really, what was I gonna do? All I had done here before is chop some vegetables, wash dishes and scrub pots. It got to the point where I was literally feeling dizzy. The restaurant was in for one hell of a night and it was a night that shaped my future.
Now I’d like to be able to finish this story by saying that I found some inner strength and was able to work the hot line with out a misstep. But that’s far from what happened. What really happened was I brought the kitchen to a screeching halt. I was called more names than I care to remember and I single handedly cost the owner about a thousand dollars worth in comped meals and free wine.
The cooks wouldn’t talk to me, the wait staff scowled at me and I never felt so alone in my life. Why did this happen? I was just minding my own business, they’re 7.62×39 surplus ammo the one’s that put me on the line. Now, even though I caused such a fiasco, I was getting on the defensive, I was mad. To hell with this place. I wasn’t sticking around to clean up, I’m outta here. I took off out the back door first chance I got. Didn’t even punch out. I was livid, embarrassed and good riddance to good rubbish.
I made it as far as my bike that was chained up in the back parking lot. The owner was there waiting for me. He must have known I was gonna duck out, was actually sitting on my bike. He wasn’t letting me out that easy. “I’m so sorry” that was all I was able to utter. I think during my madness I may have even offered to pay back what he gave away for free that night. He didn’t say anything for a few moments. Seemed like an eternity. Then he laughed. “So you make a big old mess of the night, and then you plan to sneak out with out even helping to clean up?” Now I was even more embarrassed. “Get your ass back in there and help close the place up.” I thought to myself, are you kidding me? I’m not fired? As I headed back towards the kitchen, he called me back. “Let me ask you a question” he said, “why do you come in here day in and day out, cut school to work, to do the petty grunt work?”
“Because apparently I’m a moron”, well that’s what I should have said, but I said nothing. He realized I wasn’t going to answer him then said “you think you’re the first person to ever have a bad night? You think those guys you were working with tonight all began as well tuned as they are tonight?” I guess I never thought about it that way. What did I know, I was only 15. Then he said “tell you what, you want to pursue this industry, you bring yourself back here tomorrow morning 9am. Put tonight behind you, it’s your first disaster, it won’t be your last, believe me. This business is full of disasters. So when you get home tonight, you think on it. We’re here at 9. Hell, it isn’t that bad, if you can ride a bike, then I sure as hell can teach you how to boil water…”
And that was it, hook line and sinker. I just cost this man at least a thousand dollars in revenue, and he didn’t boot my ass to the curb?
They say you always remember your one true love. Well for me it was cooking, and she just knocked me for a loop. By the time I got home that night, I was so jazzed up that I didn’t sleep a wink. A new opportunity awaited me, something that I truly fell in love with, and if I didn’t fall out of love on the heels of last nights performance, then it could only get better.
I often wonder how things would have turned out if that restaurant owner had a different outlook on things and had made me pay back the lost money. I guess it was in the cards, because that owner, while strict but fair, over the years taught me all about the restaurant business, but most importantly step by step. He taught me to pursue my true love, and as he had promised, taught me how to boil water.