I arrived early at the restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. One of the sous-chefs had abruptly quit the week before and I have been officially ‘promoted’ to taking care of some of her prep work. I walked in the door, donned my chef’s whites, and began to peel some juicy, blood red beets. I was having fun, making a mess with the colorful vegetables and turning my hands a neon purple.Suddenly, a loud crack echoed through the kitchen. And then everything stopped, completely. The lights went off; the rumbling appliances were silent. We all looked around at each other, surprised. The power was gone. We waited for a hesitant flicker of light and the consequent laughing sigh of relief. 10 seconds, 2 minutes, 10, 20. It didn’t come.
Without power, the entire kitchen came to a standstill. We didn’t want to open the refrigerators and lose whatever coolness was contained within. We could hardly see our hands in front of our faces without the usual florescent glow lighting the dark back rooms. And worst of all, it was hot. The temperature was soaring in the hottest day of the summer thus far. The thermometer on the kitchen wall read 112 degrees. It felt as if our skin was melting off of our bodies. The meats in the quickly warming fridges were not going to last long.
The Chef was remarkably calm. He immediately knew what needed to be done. We began rounding up everything perishable – boxes of chicken, veal, pork liver and clams; buckets of bright orange carrots and delicate greens, raspberries and peaches; containers filled with the easily ruined confit; large mason jars of preserved lemons. By the light of candles, we ferried the precious restaurant goods into the large walk in refrigerator, filling it to capacity. Dry ice was placed on the top shelf, wafts of smoky coldness cascaded down around our feet. It was eerie, seeing the faces of the chefs shakily illuminated by a flickering candle, their bodies encased in undulating smoke.
Two hours of hectic preservation ended with a full fridge and, of course, the power turning back on as soon as we were finished. Just in time to begin service.
The rest of the night was a flurry of activity, trying to catch up from our two hours of lost prep time. We had to bump the 5:30 reservations to 6 because of the outage, making a record number of 22 menus down in the first five minutes. When 22 orders come in at the same time, the kitchen and its three chefs are swamped. Roasting in the unbelievable heat, valiantly cooking for a huge number of starving diners, it felt as if we were at war. We were fighting for our lives, battling the elements. A cavalry charge against the weather, the power, the throngs of hungry fork-bearing Bostonites.
Half way through service I looked down and amusedly noticed the mass amounts of bright red beet juice I had messily spilled down my shirt before the power outage. I imagined that I cut quite the romantic figure: a warrior wounded in battle, blood dripping down my front. I was in the last throws of a lingering life, my guts oozing out, yet bravely soldiering on intent on triumph. Of course in reality I was simply washing mountains of dirty dishes, but I do what I can to get me through the night.
I wondered, later, how often chefs have to cook in the face of natural disasters such as our magnificent loss of power. The Chef told me that he has done it all: hurricanes, power outages, floods and snowstorms. J. told me that once while working in a resort kitchen they lost all power. Instead of closing down the line, they brought in a few small gas grills and served their entire menu without a single diner knowing the different. A., another sous-chef, said that once while working in another restaurant they lost power for an entire day. They, too, attempted to work through the outage, only to be closed down by the Health Board. Apparently it’s illegal to cook without a working refrigerator.
And last night when the order tickets began to pile up en masse, The Chef was smiling a crazy, manic smile. He was getting more and more excited with every seemingly impossible additional order to cook. He looked ecstatic. Bring it on! he said, jubilantly. You can’t take me down! I’m not sure who he was talking to – perhaps the number of tickets, the lost power, or the soaring heat. But whoever it was The Chef was addressing, it certainly didn’t come close to touching him that evening.