In The Kitchen

Hi.

My name is Ben. I work in a restaurant kitchen, and I hope to do so for a very long time. With any luck, I’ll be able to work in several different kitchens, for several different talented chefs, who will be able to teach me enough to own/run my own place one day. With any luck.

But that’s a ways off from now. Maybe five years, but probably ten, and there’s a good chance it’ll be fifteen. But I’m pretty patient, in a sense.

What’s it like working in a kitchen? Do people really sharpen their knives on those metal poles and make that cool “swish swish” sound. Do we spend every day expressing ourselves creatively, having epiphanies left and right as miraculous combinations of new tastes and flavors erupt from each of our respective brains?

Not really. For the most part, you’re being told what to do. By a chef. By the Chef.  If you’re in a restaurant that’s worth its snot, he’s the one who oversees everything and knows what everyone’s doing.  He knows a lot more than you, has done a lot more than you, and can do whatever you’re doing faster, better, and more efficiently than you can. That’s why he’s the Chef. He’ll tell you what he wants out of a dish. How he wants it prepared, how he wants it put together, and most importantly, how he wants it to taste. Your job is to faithfully do just that, every day and every night, until he says differently. He’s the artist. He’s the genius.

You? You’re the craftsman. Your job is to replicate those motions, those compositions, and those flavors. You produce your first plate as a carbon copy of the last plate as a carbon copy of the third, fifth, and twenty-seventh plate. It doesn’t matter if something urges you to do it differently, if something glares at you and screams at you constantly. It’s his team that you’re a part of, and his vision that you’re a slave to.

Slave sounds like kind of a strong word, though. But then again, there’s also a lot of pain involved in all this.  Your back and knees take a beating from standing for ten hours a day, seven days a week, and your feet, cushioned by the softest, most therapeutic material offered, will ache all the time. And then there’s the kitchen.  There are things that’ll cut you and things that’ll burn you. Ranges, ovens, flat tops, griddles, fryers, pots, pans, sheet trays, warmers, and even plates coming out of the dishwasher. Those will burn you.  Knives, scissors, slicers, cleavers. Those will cut you.  Your job is to be surrounded by all of them, and to be able to use all of them together without grievous harm. It’d be nice to expect to never hurt yourself, but that’s an impossibility.  Scars aren’t a badge of honor in this industry. They’re the norm.

So why am I here? I haven’t gone to a culinary school, and don’t plan to. That means that I’ll have to learn on the job, that there isn’t someone who I’ve paid so that they can impart to me their body of knowledge. I won’t have a marvelous dénouement in two years when they tell me that I’m a chef, nor will I have a brand new piece of paper that I can use to petition people to hire me. Instead I can look forward to toiling. Day in and day out, toiling.

But then, even this early, every once in a while, something happens with the food. In my hands, and in front of my eyes, everything comes together. Something that we’ve put hours and hours of effort into, in which one person makes parts A and C, someone else makes parts B and E, and I make part D and F, will all piece together. It’ll merge and meld, as if it were always meant to be; as if fate, God, and the heavens had willed the myriad ingredients to balance and interlock. In front of me, I will have the embodiment of perfection, in a form and manner that I had never dreamed of, and for a few moments, until the food runners are able to pick it up, I am able to behold it. To cherish it. To love it.

Then, just like that, it’s taken away from me, to someone who won’t appreciate it, to someone who doesn’t care, to someone who’s going to mix it all up and chow down on it. They’ll destroy it. Destroy what I’ve created and labored for, and then I’ll have to do it all over. I’ll have to pursue it again, to yearn and hope and desperately craft again, hoping that somehow I’ll attain that perfection again.

And when I do, I’ll know why I want to be there, and what I’m working for. That’s what it’s like in the kitchen.

By: Ben

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