So, while I was fixing the kerflooey blog-bugs, I put together a little chat – maybe not so little – on why I didn’t stick with fine dining. It’s a magical high-end world and everyone wants in, right? Well, the five-star kitchen is tempting, to be sure – but you can make that almost everyone.
A plate was flying toward me, so I ducked. “No sugar!” hissed Dieter, the headwaiter. “No….sugar!”
That was the night I mixed two soufflés – whip, fold, stir, I know how. I smiled when they left the kitchen and nearly choked when they came back wrong. When one orders a $17 dessert, one can expect sugar. I’d been an intern for fourteen days at this five-star restaurant – and between two botched soufflés and one smashed plate, I assumed I had about fourteen seconds left.
Second-year culinary students did internships, and this was the one for me – a place famous for gracious service and the second mortgage you’d need to eat there. There were a thousand city kitchens but I’d fought for this spot, and lobbied to win. It was plum, an expensive organic plum of a chance, and on the first day I laced my Doc Martens, tied back my hair and jumped.
Jumped fast, and fast was good. When you are the only woman in a cramped kitchen of men, it’s like working on a nuclear sub. Down in the lockers I learned to grab two towels, an apron, and get the hell out. In the darkest corners of the walk-in, I whistled loud and carried a peeler.
And on the line, I was invisible. “I’m here,” I told Mario, the pastry guy, “let me do something.”
He gave me a case of club soda and a stack of chargers, and I spent the day buffing Limoges. When I went for new plates, the dishwasher leered. He was a sulky, strung-out French cousin of a saucier’s cousin, but he smoked with the bakers and drank with the chefs. I prayed for a tragic scalding at the sink.
Though my shift started before noon and dragged past midnight, I began showing up early, when the produce arrived. Chef – the chef – would climb through the alley on wooden crates, pinching herbs and squeezing fruit. Safe behind the ovens, the pastry guys whispered and mocked.
“Oh yesss…yes, we must kiss the ass of every strawberry. Mwah!”
If I joined in - strawberry ass – ha ha, that’s good! – they turned and went back to work.
Without leadership and dying to be led, it occurred to me that Chef himself should be my teacher. He’d be flattered by questions, enchanted by curiosity, why yes, he’d say, but of course you are most natural. So much talent for one so young. And your shiny nose, tres chic. One morning I stood with my little notebook, watching him snap dough into onion tarts.
“Is that pate brisee?”
“For you it is NOTHING.”
“Go to hell. MOVE.”
Thanks, mon ami! I started stealing into the tiny fish kitchen, scaling three-foot tunas that hid me from view. In twenty years Alejandro had gone from dishwasher to fish boss – let’s see Le Dish Cousin do that – and his manner was shockingly kind. “They won’t let me do anything over there,” I whined, “they hate me.”
“You’ll make it.” Elbow-deep in sea bass, he yanked out some guts. “You will.”
Certainly I could make it as a plate shiner. Not counting club soda, I hadn’t touched an edible in seven working days. But just ten minutes before dinner on the eighth, Mario grumbled “you plate tonight.”
My head swam. Desserts…now. Plate.
On the line. That’s what I wanted, right? I’d watched them all week, the battery of sauces and garnishes, tart shells and torches and berries. I test-plated a poppyseed tuile on the sly and it shattered to the floor. I kicked the pieces under the counter.
When the dessert rush hit I was nauseous. Tickets poured in and Mario barked orders while I frantically tore mint leaves, piped swirls, curled chocolate. Line work requires the hustle of a trader, the fight of a bull and in my case, a skin of steel that I did not have.
“Move, MOVE!” Dieter snarled. “I will not SERVE this SHIT!” For a man who resembled a cadaver, he was surprisingly alive. “Why so slow, PIGS?”
“Yo estoy solo!” Mario yelled. I am alone.
I spoke decent Spanish. I’m on the line and he says he’s alone.
“I’m trying!” I wiped my hands and grabbed the next plate. “Look, I’m on it!”
Thirty-seven desserts later, I was given a five-minute break and flew down to the locker room, drenched and shaking on the…ashes. Every cook, waiter, and busboy topped this floor with Marlboro butts. Maybe if I just started smoking.
I threw up over a trashcan. Then I sat on the floor, pressed my face on a locker and cried.
Four minutes later I was back on the line. I drove down empty Lake Shore Drive at two a.m. each day and returned at ten a.m. the next. My body found a new brand of numb; even my skin hurt from the daily rounds of try, scream, fail. Maybe I did not have what it takes. Maybe I did not want what it took.
For two weeks, every man over twelve and under eighty welcomed me with open arms – hairy arms. Each night I worked between three dripping necks, boasting in three languages over my head what they’d like to do with me, for me, to me.
The day that Dieter fired a sugarless soufflé at my head I untied my apron, hung it on the peg and walked out to the night.
I sat five minutes in the car, breathing frost in my wet, filthy whites. The restaurant window showed in my rearview mirror, catching a diner raising her glass and a man clinking it, smiling. I yanked down my hair and sped off to the highway, thinking quitter. You burned your fancy bridges. Schooling was what I’d come for and schooling was what I got. I would quit my way into a different kind of kitchen, reasoning that if this was it, what I had was something else.