(From Zen And The Art Of Culinary Maintenance by J. T. Hilltop)
Working in a restaurant at age 14 was more than just a J.O.B., it was a spiritual transcendence. It was being part of something that lifted an entire staff of “Restaurant People” to a higher plane. At that impressionable age I was fortunate enough to find myself in the employ of Cavalieri’s restaurant in the socially envious position of pot washer. Four nights after school, and Saturday nights, I was the head pot washer. But, being the envy of my high school buddies was short lived when I discovered that the “head pot washer” had nothing to do with pot and even worse, I wasn’t really in charge of anything other than some sudsy water that 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. So it was that this head pot washer was cleaning everything that anyone found so objectionable it was left on the used plates in the restaurant. Poised at the suds busting helm I decided that I was going to be the best Goddam pot washer they ever had.
On one particular night an epiphany of sorts smacked me in the head so 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 sensei, 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 50’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 even when he was drinking. I noticed he was quite fit for an old dude, and he was deceptively strong. Crazy coot could throw 50 pound bags of potatoes halfway across the kitchen with ease. Sometimes directly at me! He always wore a dirty and tattered black bandana which concealed the badly receding headline and his eyebrows sported the thickest hair he had. Like angry 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 me personally. Eyebrows that said grab a scour pad you insignificant piece of shit the are dirty pots to be assimilated. Every second I prayed it wasn’t the angry face that was building up inside his maniacal mind but the funny one. 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 eyebrows alloed his eyes to tear up as 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 to it‘s knees. 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.
The fuck with them! 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 Ultimate, 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 taunted my inner Cheshire cat. They paid me money so I could but weed.
So despite all the bad karma that seeped out of the sink drain I thought nothing could possibly drag me away from the restaurant industry. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be the Chef, and become a raving lunatic who screams at anyone dumb enough to stay within ear range of my booming voice. An insane Guru who proudly sports a tall white hat accentuated by a bulging forehead vein that popped out with ease whenever challenged. A slightly touched man who is permitted by law to carve 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 the Stock Exchange Mom, I wanna make Chicken veloute and dine of foie gras. Trade in the stock market returns for recipes. I want to carry big ass knives around. My gastronomic voyage would be completed once I became the all powerful illustrious Chef
Anyway that was the dream. Truth be told the restaurant industry simply jumped up at me and shouted “This is it” Este Este Este!!. This is what you ask? It was the people, the “restaurant people”, an almost 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 person plays an integral role in this drama. Like an experienced stage hand I set up the props over and over so the chef could turn organic ingredients into edible works of art, perfectly arranged on the plate I had cleaned. Our lead waitress, Laura would put six of 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 more than likely 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 an everlasting crescendo I listen intently to the chefs advice, disregarding the part where he assures me I should either procreate with myself or leave this God forsaken establishment. Or die. Sufficiently emasculated, red-faced, and disenchanted, I returned to my potsink 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, and began emulating the chefs thunderous performance. Thankfully, it was not directed at me, but rather on the only person here that was truly as lowly as I am, Rod the busboy. Now I got an opportunity to view my peer’s reaction to a brutal lexiconic workover, so I might hone my anti-beration skills for the next portioning of verbal abuse. It would not take long, and I unfortunately had little time to study my new mentor, so I was left to my improvisational skills. The burning narrowed eyes of my dream vision, the waitress, met mine and for just a few seconds held me in a frozen state. While flashing her signature seductive smile, Laura’s eyes softened, and in that songbird like voice, she asked, “JT, 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 oblivious to anything that didn’t involve setting up Laura’s tray like it had never been set before. As the chef pondered the proper selection of various swear words and insults in his bi-lingual assault ability to more effectively crush my spirit, I arranged Laura’s tray smiling silently. The chef began to explain to me who I was working for, but fortunately for me his lung busting performance was interrupted by the appearance of anther equally as enigmatic presence. The next character to enter, stage left, was a tall, tuxedoed, and very suave Frenchman bearing the title of restaurant manager. Didier. Didier’s job, as I understood it, was to make the entire cast so miserable we would reach deep down to our inner selves and come up with the performance of a lifetime. I wanted to reach deep down and pull out a Smith and Wesson but then again, I was young and impressionable back then, and of course a pacifist commie bastard, so I did indeed find myself motivated by the threat of that French penguin. Not to mention another opportunity to allow Laura to know that I may be way young, but I am also an awesome dude willing to please. 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 vulgar French slang that could make the onions break down and cry. As Didier loudly and cantankerously explained to us how important it was that we comprehend the significance of his tirade most of us merely trembled. Even Jimmy looked worried when Didier was in the kitchen. Oddly the only one that was not intimidated was Laura, my fantasy vivacious waitress, who seemed to render our fearful leader speechless using only her eyes. Or was it her gorgeous thighs? No matter 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 I, but Act II is yet to come. Rush hour, when the dining rooms reaches maximum capacity, the pressure elevates, tempers hone their skills, and back in the kitchen the shit really hit’s the exhaust fans..