If You Can’t Stand The Heat
Restaurant life is a love story. Right from the start it shoots its arrow and takes you under it’s spell. It casts a love Jones on you that grabs you by both cheeks. Once its in your blood a life sentence without parole begins. Possible time off for regeneration if you stay at it too long. I began my journey into the world of restaurants at the not so tender age of 14. I busted suds, cut lettuce, plated desserts, peeled shrimp, rolled meatballs, and did all the chefs culinary biding no matter what the request. I worked my way up the kitchen ranks and was feeling great. Then I went and hit a plateau. I was a line cook and it seemed that was as far as I would get. Along with a friend one night after an evening of substantial alcohol consumption we went to a diner. Behind the grill were two old relics of cooks, like bald 80 somethings, cooks frying eggs and flipping burgers. I turned to my friend and said, “Shit man look at those dudes. I don’t wanna be flipping no damn eggs when I get that old.” My friend suggested cooking school. Of course! So off to the CIA I went to get a culinary education. I received an associates degree in culinary arts and I secured a job at Windows on the World. But there I was still just a line cook. I learned a helluva lot there, more even than I did at school, and it opened quite a few doors for other jobs. I worked in 2 or 3 other restaurants and continued to learn, mostly through screaming chefs an blubbering angry managers. I learned to sauté, roast, some butchering, sauces, and a ton of culinary “tricks” but was still just a line cook. An experienced one in great restaurants , but I still hadn’t made the jump towards being The Chef.
So I moved back to my hometown on Long Island and took a job an hour away as a sous chef. Now I was moving up and things were getting better. Soon I was in charge of the operation of a very big conference center in the famed “Gold Coast” of Long Island. A huge mansion that sat on 55 acres of beautiful land in Glen Cove Long Island. The conference Center housed about 400 people in an old Pratt mansion, quite possibly one written about in “The Great Gatsby”. I answered directly to the chef who saw very little actual kitchen time. We did weddings and ceremonies on the weekends. I worked 6 days a week, from one in the afternoon until ten at night. The kitchen staff then went out to party. No cell phones, no idea where friends may be by then so we all just kind of stuck together. Party we did! Gallons of beer, pounds of weed, and whatever “special enhancers” came around. We worked really hard and we played even harder. Too hard. Most of us were just beginning to raise families and it was bad enough to miss family celebrations, but to stumble in at 3AM half in the bag an wake up late in the morning with hangovers took its toll. Our marriages broke apart and we spiraled out of control. Basically we were all a mess, but we had each other. Eventually that faded too, as cooks took different paths on their careers. Being a chef can be a seriously burnt out profession, and almost every chef I know has left the business at some point or another due to burn out. Most returned but a few casualties managed to switch careers, or go the way of asshole managers. I was burning out quickly because one of the lures of restaurant life is constant party and fun times. Fun times never seem to last and I had to get out. I was beginning to HATE the industry I had fallen so deeply in love with. I met up with some old school friends who got me a job in construction.
Me, in construction? I sucked at building Lego structures. But this offered me a 9 to 5 life with weekends and holidays off. I was in career heaven. Coffee breaks, lunch hours, a few beers after work, I felt almost human. The trade off? I had to perform mundane tasks like putting together hundreds of clothes racks, and lining the entire parameter of Filenes Basement store with floor boards. It didn’t take long to hate the monotony of the work but I didn’t want to go back to restaurants. Service time in a restaurant is an intense drama that unfolds different each night. Wait staff yelling at cooks, cooks screaming at wait staff. A total vortex of chaotic high pressure.
I continued my patch of escapism and hammered, screwed, tiled and did a plethora of things I had neither the proper talent nor the slightest desire to accomplish. I was miserable I thought, but not as miserable as I was in a kitchen. Yet in some bizarre way I kind of missed restaurant life. I did stay in touch with people working the food industry and one good friend in particular understood what I was going through. She accused me of being in denial, of wanting to go back to working the high pressure world of cooking. I of course told her she was crazy and I had no intention of going back. She invited me to a faux opening of her uncles restaurant. In a faux opening the guests are all family and friends and the cost of the meal is a full critique of service and food. It’s used by many restaurants to get some of the kinks out before opening to the public. She asked her uncle to sit us at a table as close to the kitchen as possible. He put us right next to the kitchen doors where I could hear the ceramic clanging of dishes, the whirling machine sound from the dishwasher, the near tears plea’s and the multi lingual cursing that is the noise and clamor of service time in the kitchen. Ordering 2 beef, 3 chicken, picking up table 5, where is my chicken, all the familiar sights and sounds I had grown up around.
Like the song of the sirens in Ulysses the ceramic clank of plates sang out to me bidding me to return. Seeing the intensity of action just inside those two way kitchen doors screamed out ‘I miss you”. I noticed how those doors always worked flawlessly, in on one side out on the other and stood in stark contrast to the juggling of foods and emotions inside. How the wait staff would be screaming profanities and shouting poisonous darts of anger in the kitchen, then transform instantly into a composed happy waiter driven to make the diners experience as content as possible in the hopes they will return the favor in an over 15% tip. That e transformation occurred in the kitchen doorway, like a magic portal between heaven and hell. Then as the greasepaint is to an actor, all these sights, sounds, and memories whirled around tugging my emotions and I truly did miss that shit.
That was it. all she wrote! The next morning I went straight to the classified ads and began looking for a job in a restaurant. I admit, part of it was because I was sure it was the one thing I was really good at, but I also know that it was my first true love and I just could not live without it. Despite all the bullshit, the horrible epochs of time in which I was completely and utterly debased, despite the long hours, weekends of working and missed family holidays, I was gonna stick with my love. I wanted back with my ex and my ex welcome me back with open arms. A chef position was open at a Cajun restaurant so I studied up, consumed a shot (or two) of vodka, put on some nice clothe and laid on my charm and charisma. I landed the position. It only lasted for six months which was okay cuz I’m not a Cajun cook but it was all I needed to get back into the field. The rest as they say, is history……..PEACE