Monday, June 20, 2005

on my first dishwashing week

I have finished my first week as a dishwasher and prep cook at my little funky French bistro in Boston.

Right this very moment, I feel wonderful. I feel alive: exhausted to the core, buoyant with the knowledge that I love what I do (in the greater sense, definitely not the mundane everyday duties). I, my family is surprised to hear, still love food and stand by my choice to work on the lowest food-industry rung.

It was a long week, working 9 plus hours a night. I did more physical lifting, hauling, and scrubbing then in my entire life combined.

I had to push through the difficulty of what I now deem a physical-labor-induced shock to the system coupled with jetlag (from my recent returned trip to Israel) and a cold. But I made it out the other end alive. After my third night, a slow-ish, tired night– I came home spent. I woke up early the next morning with a jolt - a fast paced dream: my night table was the sanitizing machine and I just couldn’t fill it fast enough with the dirty dishes piling up on top of me as I slept. When, later that morning, my mom asked me how it was, I burst into tears. A low moment indeed.

But after that hump, I have entered somewhat into the rhythm of the kitchen. It’s an intense environment – the Chef is yelling, the sous chefs are scrambling. Dishes pile up and there is a never ending stream of small things to be done, cleaned, put away, peeled or chopped.

I’m not really sure where the time goes while I’m at work. There are moments of severe drag – after the initial onslaught of cleaning and a few hours into service – but then picks up again towards the end, the final push to a clean kitchen. When we leave it looks like no one had ever been there. The battle ground of service is erased completely by our mops and rags; the counters wink metallically, knowing the violent activity that will begin again the next night.

I am entranced by the Chef. He is a difficult man; covered in an abundance of intimidating prickles. He drives everyone very hard, himself included. His notion of culinary perfection digs deeper than a simple aesthetic and taste. He seems to need an urgent sense of desire: from both the chef cooking and from the patron eating. A desire for what – simply for food? Food for him, it seems to me, does not consist solely of what is on the plate. The plate needs to look and taste perfect, yes. But there is more. You could not run a restaurant of this caliber without something more. A passion. One that I think I understand, although am unable to articulate quite yet. And the interesting thing is that this passion overwhelms and erases some of his more difficultly sharp personality edges. His love for what he does gives him a warmth that is enveloping; it bathes the kitchen in a glow.

The Chef yelled at J., a sous chef, last night, for not going fast enough, for not having things perfect. The Chef growled: “If it’s not perfect, then why are we doing this? Why are we even here? What’s the point? Why don’t we all pack up and go home?”

What is the point? And what are we doing here? What is this? These questions have been echoing through my head all day. It is definitely more than a simple act of sustenance. From what I’ve gathered in the short week hauling dishes and mopping floors, this is a passion that contains so much more than a plate of food. It is a passion for life – the very act of nourishing, feeding, giving people life on a greater level than simple nutrients or calories. It is feeding with art as well as nutrition. It plays with the senses, with the mind, with the taste buds, as well as the necessity of physical fuel-matter. The Chef seems to understand something that many don’t: food, society, togetherness, life, is better when infused with passion. Intellectual passion; artistic passion; culinary passion.

And I think about these things when I am relegated to a corner of the kitchen, covered in fat and grime, dealing with the remnants of these consumed passions.

I love just to be in the kitchen, to watch what happens, to see the chef in action. There is a position, hunched over a large white plate, arranging pea fronds to perfection on an oil-poached piece of salmon, which screams of concentration and of taste. The physical posture of the chef is unique – I don’t know if there are any other reasons for that shoulder-over, head down, hands moving so quickly and quietly. I itch to do the same. I feel alive when I watch.

My co-worker’s name is S., a quiet but smiling middle aged Hispanic man. He speaks no English, despite having lived here in East Boston for two years. I speak a smattering of Spanish, hardly enough for a conversation over 3 minutes. S. works hard, under the table. He anticipates the needs of the kitchen in terms of pots and pans, moppings and sweeping, garlic and shallots. He covers all of the amazingly balanced flavors of our staff meals with showers of Tabasco sauce. I am almost glad that we can’t communicate; we don’t have the same view of our work. We do laugh together, though, over nothing in particular. We took the 5 gallon tub of fat left over from the deep fryer to the trash outside the other night, each holding one side of the bucket. A large Hispanic man, a small white girl – communicating without words, hauling buckets fat together. He laughed at me when it’s gelatinous glop splashed on my leg; we made bets as to what time my indiglow watch read.

Last night being Sunday night, it was time to clean out the walk in – to use all the things that wouldn’t last until Wednesday (the restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday). We had soft shell crab and bluefish tempura (a batter made using seltzer water) with a thick gingery sauce and fried lovage (a tough but tasteful green), strawberry rhubarb crumble (the top made with crunchy sweet nuts), and a deep dark chocolate terrine. At one point, S. and I had four plates of crumble on our little work station: attempting to eat all that the garde manger messed up on was a painfully delicious task. We ate deep purple red foie gras on toast, sprinkled with flowery herbs. Rolls with butter. Bulgar radish salad and a pork stir fry. Luckily the sheer amount of physical labor I do will keep me from near obesity. Or we can only hope.

In conclusion, I don’t like dishwashing. But I do love, still, the kitchen and everything that goes on there. I am willing to do the dirty work as long as I know that I will someday enter more fully into the dance that is service. Until then, though, I’ll teach S. some English, watch the Chef’s every move, memorize the names of a large number of herbs kept in the walk-in that I have never heard of, and work on fitting more desserts into my stomach.

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