Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Mind of a Kitchen Cook

There are a few love affairs on the top tier of enjoyment for me. This is enjoyment in the purest form, even above my love of videogames and zombies. Things like sipping on a micro-brewed beer or a smooth glass of wine, seeing a movie by myself, traveling to places without the distractions of cell phones or multiple travel partners, and food.

I’ve always said that if I were laid off or fired from my current job, or if Sallie and I were able to un-bury ourselves from my student loan debt enough, I would go back to the restaurant industry where the schedules change and you never get a weekend night or holiday off..

I miss having a constant flow of new and expensive kitchen gadgets at my disposal. The sort of gadgets that have such a niche need, like a lettuce dryer, that only a restaurant can use.

This is either an instrument for holding wood or coring and peeling apples.

I miss the knives, oh god the knives. Once a week, they would be picked up and sharpened and when brought back could slice through metal. It was like getting a Christmas present.

I was quick with the knife. I have more finesse and grace when cutting veggies than I have when walking. I forgot how good I was until last Christmas, Grandma Leonard watched as I sliced a cucumber Rondelle style faster than any food processor could and was impressed. I’m the John Henry of cutting.

You have the butcher knives, the serrated knives, the machetes, and that three foot long cheese knife. That thing was like a Nintendo. Countless people tried to use it to cut the 80lb blocks of Parmesan cheese, but only a few seemed to master it. I was one of those. When my old manager, Tom, wanted to show off skills to the new guy, I was handed that knife like I was being knighted. I’d be able to cut and shred all 200 lbs of cheese and mix them up into a fine parm/romano blend in less than an hour.

Then the new guy would take the knives and use all of his body weight, unable to even break the wax covering on the cheese.

I miss having thousands of ingredients at my fingertips. Alann and I on those idle afternoons, creating monsters in the kitchen like a couple of mad scientists, eventually producing next week’s special of the week like the Flaming Mac and Cheese or Spinach Pesto on Bowtie noodles.

The thing I miss most though is the rush. It’s a cheap thrill, sort of like an energy drink that doesn’t count against your caloric intake for the day.
That ticket machine would start spewing orders out and we would get 15-20 tickets deep. The ticket machine would haunt my dreams some nights, where I would hear that mechanical cranking printing on the carbon paper and sit up in a full on panicked sweat at 3 am, desperately looking for a wok to flip or some veggies to dice.

A large table would come in and throw off our whole system. But it didn’t matter because, as any cook or chef can tell you, there’s some sort of instinct that governs every movement of the kitchen vet.

Often given less than 15 square feet of kitchen space to maneuver in, 2-4 full grown humans find a way to roll in and out of each other’s space, not interrupting the other’s work. It’s something that clicks in your mind after a few shifts as a line cook. You become aware of your environment. You sense when something changes in it.
If you don’t believe me, next time you’re in a place with an open kitchen, look at the cooks. None of them are usually discussing what they are making. Usually they are having highly inappropriate idle chat or singing along to the music from the dishwashing station.

You will also notice the body language when someone orders something special, or sends food back, or wants sauce on the side, or the worst punishment known to cooks, a manager tries to step into the kitchen to “help out,” all the cooks faces show either intense anger or intense frustration. This is because in my experience, managers are the worst people at cooking.

And my final reason for loving working in the kitchen is my OCD for cleanliness is applauded and not an irritant. Sallie and Cory often reprimand me for not being able to sit on the couch and enjoy a movie when my space is dirty, especially the kitchen. While they are having a drink, I’m usually finding some ridiculous piece of equipment to clean. Something they might have dirtied, but the normal person would never think about cleaning up. That is the mind of the kitchen cook.