The kitchen of the restaurant is hardly bigger than my own modestly sized bedroom. It is long and narrow, filled to capacity with stainless steel counters, shelves, pots, pans, and the all too familiar sink and sanitizer. During service, it is alight with frenzied activity: sizzling sauté pans, bubbling deep fryer, tense chefs and bilious sanitizer-steam. The six of us working there are intertwined in a delicate choreography. We are coordinating our movements, dancing the complicated culinary dance of a tiny kitchen. In order to prepare the food and keep the chef’s supplied with dishes and ingredients, we are all nimbly darting around each other in the tight quarters with a lightning speed that necessitates all our powers of concentration. Concentration and communication. In order to avoid huge collisions involving extremely hot pans and huge stacks of breakable dishes, there is a verbal code rigidly enforced. It is the key to the safety of all working in the kitchen. Whenever you are nearby or behind someone, you yell BEHIND YOU. Holding something hot: HOT HOT HOT. A knife in hand: SHARP KNIFE SHARP KNIFE. While at first I felt self-conscious and slightly silly always yelling out my location and what I was holding, I quickly understood the necessity. The red and blistery burn mark on J.’s neck, received in a surprise collision with an unannounced sauté pan, scared me into hearty narration of my every movement. And now it hardly requires a second thought – a light touch on the back and a piercing BEHIND YOU is my verbal code of choice.
And yesterday I was in the local Whole Foods wearing a grubby sweat shirt, my hair flying out in every direction, in desperate need of a coffee and in search of dinner ingredients. I was darting in and out of the throngs of Brooklinites who seem to do their shopping en mass at precisely 5pm every day, always standing with a full cart and a horde of tiny children directly in front of the exact item I need. I was having a hard time finding evaporated milk (for an experimental ice cream, but that’s another story in itself) and was careening up and down the isles. Slightly distracted by my frustrating search, I offhandedly noticed that I was getting some strange looks from those I passed. I know if look a bit disheveled, but I don’t think I look bad enough for these odd looks, I thought to myself disgruntledly. But then with a start, I realized that in my mad dash through the supermarket I had not been silent. Unconsciously, but with a consistency that would have made The Chef proud, I had been lightly touching the backs of all I passed and confidently belting out BEHIND YOU, hardly registering what I was doing. At least I know I’ll never be burned by a surprise sauté pan while grocery shopping.