Born To Cook (Culinary Nirvana Begins At The Pot Sink)


“I got a job!” I was so excited, no more paper routes, no more Deli boy, now I have a real job, one that pays decent money. Mom was excited too, “A job where?” Beaming with a sense of pride I uttered, “At Cumberland’s Restaurant on 25A.” Mom looked a bit disappointed, “ A restaurant? So We’re going to have a chef in the family? I was really hoping you would be our doctor JT.” I wasn’t letting her deflate my enthusiasm, “Mom, I’ve told you, I’m not smart enough to be a doctor, and besides its just a job, not a life. I’m only sixteen I have no idea what I wanna to be yet.” That was true, all I wanted was to make some money so I could party and buy stuff for my girlfriend. I had no plans of staying in a kitchen for the rest of my life, its just a job. Fates plans however differed from mine which was clear on my first day.
“Hey chef! Da new boy is here, you want I should show him around?” The chef came walking over holding a huge knife in his hand an a scowl on his face, “So youda new kid eh?” He lifted the knife up so I could see the shine of the blade, “Jus don pissa me off boy and you be okay. Grab a apron and shirt and get washing. Take himma downstair Ernie.” Ernie was an old dude, real skinny and wrinkly. He made me nervous at first, the stereotype image of a pedophile or serial killer with a slight emotional handicap. “Foller me son, whatsa you name?” He had a slight limp as he led me down the steps to the basement. I followed hoping this wasn’t where they stored the dead bodies or something, “I’m Justin, my friends call me JT.” We stopped at the bottom and Ernie pointed to the left, “That’s a walk in over there, dry food there, and this is the lockers. The shirts and aprons are over there JD, take any locker you want.” I walked in grabbed a shirt and apron and changed while Ernie stood and watched. A tad creepy. “It’s JT, not JD.” Ernie looked confused, “Wha? JC? Likea Jesus Christ?” He laughed, I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not, “No, it’s JT, not JC or JD.” We went back an forth a few times before I just said, JD is fine.” I didn’t care man, I had a j-o-b, I was a pot washer.
Despite all the bad karma that seeped out of the sink drain I knew instantly that nothing would drag me away from this. Maybe one day I’ll be the Chef, I’ll be the raving lunatic who screams at anyone unfortunate enough to be within range of my booming voice. The insane culinary Guru who proudly sports a tall white hat like my chef Jimmy. Like him I’ll probably have a huge vein popping out from my forehead that can intimidate people all on its own. Mentally deranged king of the kitchen who is permitted by law to carve up carcasses with an array of razor sharp knives of all sizes. I can’t help thinking how proud that would make Mom and Dad. Oh the hell with being a surgeon Mom, I wanna slice up dead animal carcasses and cut the muscles into edible portions of food. I want to carry big ass knives around and scare the shit out of the dishwashers. My gastronomic voyage would be completed once I became the all powerful illustrious kitchen Buddha, The Chef.
I was born for this industry, lured by some mystical force. I wanted to be one of the “restaurant people!” A cosmic group of mix-matched misfits. I was spellbound by this diverse group of dedicated individuals, who work together in a form of impromptu performance art centering around biodegradable remnants of the tastiest and most orgasmic morsels of nutrition I had ever indulged in. Each one plays an integral role in this daily drama. Like an experienced stage hand I would set up the props over and over, so the chef could turn organic ingredients into edible works of art, perfectly arranged on the plates I keep clean. Our lead waitress, Laura would put these recently cleaned now presently food adorned plates on a large oval tray (also cleaned by yours truly) and with swanlike grace effortlessly carry it off to be placed in front of some alcohol saturated patrons. The patrons would then eat the wonderful dish of blissful organic delight, inadvertently leaving something on the plate that would eventually become my responsibility. The waitress would entertain them with a variety of skits, ranging from cute and flirtatious to downright suggestive. The performance continues. Meanwhile, backstage, the chef, Jimmy ( his given name was too hard to pronounce) is performing voice exercises and using my deer in headlight eyes as his focal point. Rapidly building to a spit filled ear shattering crescendo. I listen intently to the chefs advice, disregarding the part where he assures me I should leave this God forsaken establishment or die. He further suggested I engage in a sexual act with myself I felt to be physically impossible. (Not that I wouldn’t try) That too I chose to disregard. Once sufficiently emasculated, red-faced, and disenchanted, I returned to my post, my pot sink, in a highly evolved state. Taking a “the show must go on” attitude, I needed to ready myself for the onslaught of table remnants that our patrons found objectionable. In walked the lovely leading lady, flashing me that piercing knee buckling waitress smile. I began to daydream, or maybe fantasize until Laura began emulating the chefs thunderous performance. Thankfully, it was not directed at me, but rather on the only person here that was as lowly as me, Rod the busboy. Now I got an opportunity to view my peer’s reaction to a brutal lexiconic work over so I might gain some insight on how to deal with it or hone my anti-beration skills for the next portioning of verbal abuse. No doubt it wouldn’t take long before I resort to my improvisational skills of defense. The burning narrowed eyes of the seductive angry waitress met mine and for just two seconds held me in a frozen state. Her face made a remarkable quick change while flashing her signature come hither smile her eyes softened and in that songbird voice, asked, “JT, sweetie will you set up my next tray?” With a wink, she was gone, the busboy was fighting back tears, the chef was deciding my fate, and I of course, was setting up Laura’s tray, like it had never been set before all the time thinking, “she called me sweetie.” As the chef pondered the proper English translation of various swear words and insults to more effectively crush my spirit, I arranged Laura’s tray oblivious to my surroundings. The chef began to explain to me who I was working for, but fortunately for me his lung pounding performance was interrupted by the appearance of an enigmatic presence. The next character to enter, stage left, was a tall, tuxedoed, and very suave Frenchman, bearing the title restaurant manager, Didier. Didier’s job, as I understood it, was to make the entire cast miserable, so we would reach deep down to our inner selves to come up with the performance of a lifetime. I wanted to reach deep down and pull out a Smith and Wesson.
I did however find myself motivated by the threat of that French penguin. That, and a paycheck, and another opportunity to allow Laura to know what an awesome dude I really was. Didier began to roar at all of us, and yet then again, to no-one in particular. It was delivered in a language foreign to me that sounded oddly complementary. Rod the busboy assured me that those seemingly sweet words that came thundering out towards the entire cast were in fact foul French slang that could make the50 pound sack of onions break down and cry. Didier loudly explained to us how important it was that we comprehend the significance of his tirade as a team while we all just looked down at the floor. Even Jimmy looked worried when Didier was in the kitchen. Oddly, the only one that was not intimidated was Laura, the vivacious waitress, who seemed to render our fearful leader speechless using only her eyes. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, Didier disappeared in a puff of smoke. Or maybe Jimmy was burning something, I really don’t remember. But he was gone, Laura’s tray was set to absolute perfection, Rod the busboy had regained his composure, and Jimmy was ready with the next round of tantalizing treats arranged in artwork on my clean plates. All had performed admirably in Act 1.
Anyway, you get the picture; This performance goes on all night, every night over and over. Some of the actors change, but the results remain the same. I can’t explain why but the seething emotional combat combined with the intense pressure of service time was intoxicating. Curiously at dinner time Jimmy took on more an air of compassion that made me think of my own father on some of his better days. He would speak ever so softly and hold out a bowl of beef stew which because it had some wine in it, was referred to as Beef Bourgogne. But delicious it was. No Dinty Moore for this restaurant worker. As quickly as everything had gone to hell in a mixing bowl, the calm and serene peace of family meal changed the entire setting. I sat at a small table with Ernie, the old man who was in charge of maintenance. Funny, because he could barely maintain himself, and as I later found out, he was the 65 year old uncle of the manager. I cleverly positioned myself so I could catch a glimpse of Laura each time she entered the kitchen. It was these Zen saturated moments that made us all forget how loud and harsh the decibel level could get at service time.
My gastronomic voyage had officially begun. I dove in with a work ethic beyond reproach. I have arrived,
an almost spiritual transcendence, having a job and being part of something that lifted me to a higher plane. I was fortunate enough to find myself in the employ of Cumberlands’s restaurant, in the socially envious position of pot washer. Four nights after school, and Saturday nights, I was the lead pot washer. But, being the envy of my high school buddies was short lived when I discovered that the “lead pot washer” wasn’t really in charge of anything other than some sudsy water, and that it involved way more than merely washing pots. I was also permitted, implored even, to use my hands to scrape and clean the organic food remnants, and other indefinable residues left on the plates by our satisfied customers as well as floors, utensils, machines, and anything that neeed cleaning including the managers and the chefs cars. So it was that this head pot washer was cleaning everything in sight, in the restaurant or the employee parking lot. Poised at the suds busting helm I decided that I was going to be the best washer they ever had until that day I rise up the culinary ladder to take off to enlightenment.
On one particular night I felt compelled to let everyone in the kitchen know my lofty intentions of becoming a black belt in the art of pot and pan scrubbery. When I told the chef, the absolute ruler of the kitchen of my plan I was certain he would beam with pride. I really looked up to the chef even though he was so old. Man that dude must have been in his 60’s. I believe he always worked hard and the years had been kind to him, although not without consequence. Deep furrows stretched into spaghetti lines across his face, and he always seemed to be deep in thought. Quite fit for an older guy, and he was deceptively strong. Crazy coot could throw 50 pound bags of potatoes halfway across the kitchen with ease. He always wore a dirty and tattered black bandana under his chef hat which concealed the badly receding hairline and his eyebrows sported the thickest hair he had. Like caterpillars on steroids those eerie brows housed some very dark and serious eyes. Eyes that narrowed instantly at the first sign of anger. Like holy shit man it wasn’t only the eyes, but that bulging vein that stood out and threatened you personally. I prayed it wasn’t the angry face that was building up inside his maniacal mind. Not siree it was not the anger I was about to get a full emasculating dose of. He looked me directly in the eyes, and with his most compassionate paternal demeanor, his eyes teared up, and he laughed uncontrollably. A laugh that came all the way from the balls of his feet. In between his deafening guffaws the chef attempted to tell his sous chef Andre what my intentions were, and that was met with a roar of laughter that could cause a soufflé to fall. Regardless of their snickering daggers of contemptuous chuckling I maintained a stiff upper lip, and decided I would take charge of my own soapy destiny.
As empowering as it may seem, it wasn’t the joy of busting suds for a living that kept me coming back. It wasn’t the dream of one day being admired, no revered as the Chef, the absolute ruler of the kitchen. It wasn’t that soul warming food, it wasn’t even the lure of the attractive and flirtatious waitresses that continually tempted my teenage libido with a false sense of possibilities beyond imagination. No, there was something else about this experience that tugged at my inner Cheshire cat causing me to smile from ear to ear. They paid me.

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