Friday, June 17, 2005

fueled by foie gras

The Chef was especially volatile last night. None of the food presented by his sous chefs for his inspection before service was perfect. And he accepts nothing less than perfect.

“Concentrate! What the hell is wrong with you?” he said, the characteristically gruff bite to his tone sends chills down my spine. The cooks, though, are used to it and seem to have learned to let it slide off their back, returning to their stations and redoubling their efforts.

The newest kitchen employee, M., is a fresh faced Asian woman with a kind smile and eyes that crinkle in apology when she asks me to run to the walk-in-fridge for more arugula 4 times a night. She is still learning the art of absorbing criticism, feeding on it to improve her work. Her shoulders were sagging at the end of service, 12 hours after she arrived at the restaurant that morning. I wanted to give her a hug and tell her that she would be fine – but I don’t think dishwashers are supposed to do that.

I have avoided most of the Chef’s wrath thus far – managing to dart in between the hectically gyrating staff to sweep the egg shells and fallen meat scraps with lighting speed. Granted, I did knock a row of plastic containers off the center shelf into a completely inaccessible nether region of behind-the-stove. But no one witnessed my mishap (a remarkable occurrence in a kitchen the size of my bathroom), and I retrieved them, unhurt, later.

And after completing my second night at the restaurant, I feel tired. I have moments of anxiety – when my arms ache so much that I can’t quite get the stack of dishes up onto the shelf above my head, when I feel dizzy with the steamy heat near the sanitizer, when I cut my finger on the sharp paring knife while slicing morel mushrooms. But also moments of reviving ecstasy – when the house manager took me aside to say that she respects me for doing this, for working my way up from the bottom, for being so passionate – when sticking my hands into a bucket of baby mushrooms and water, a slippery cloud of fungi - when watching the garde manger torch the tops of small puddles of sweet grits, the smell of burnt sugar and the blood red of the strawberry compote piled on top is a beautifully multi-sensual image.

And at my lowest moment of the night, 4 hours in, I was tired, hungry, and just sprayed myself in the face with dishwater for the 8th time. I was eyeing the little tool we use to scrape down the stoves at the end of night, wondering how I could use it to gouge out my own eyes, when L., a wispy blonde woman-cook who wears a green bandana in her hair and a peppy attitude, turned to me with a piece of toast. A crusty slice of grainy bread slathered with foie gras, salmon pink and flecked with fleur d’sel and a rainbow of ground pepper. "Molly, would you like a snack?" I almost kissed her. It tasted of the earth, a deeply nutty, rich flavor. And immediately in that sweaty kitchen time stopped and I was brought back to Paris, an afternoon with Becca, my first taste of foie gras, an underground chocolate festival in the carousel of the Louvre: a happy memory indeed. After I ate, I felt better. Much better. I was a new woman, fueled by duck liver pate.

And that was when I realized that yes, there will be moments of horrible difficulty in this job and a most likely plethora of plans designed to remove my eyes from their sockets. But, at the same time, I am a dishwasher that snacks on foie gras. That is something worth working for; I am truly entering the right profession.

(also, a link to my first experience at the restaurant)

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