Friday, June 24, 2005

la chica esta loca

R., the day-time prep chef, laughs with boyish abandon - a deep guffaw that echoes throughout the entire kitchen. He, like S., speaks no English - only the occasional "okay thank you very much" in a parroting mock of the Chef's orders. He sings Spanish songs at the top of his lungs until someone yells "Callate per favore! I can't hear a goddamned thing!" And he grins, sheepishly, muttering something about merda and tu madre. He is short and stout with a wide, expressive mouth and perpetually greased-back black hair that hangs in a limp pony-tail. When he told me that he is 22 - "mismo como tu" - I could hardly believe him. His skin is deeply weathered, tough. We are the same age - yet his face shows an unsheltered, working life, while my own is almost embarrassingly fresh with the bubbly scent of academia. He hacks at the animal carcasses living in the walk in fridge, a large cleaver expertly handled, until 7 each night. He bikes home to Chelsea, returns the next morning at nine.

Last night, in a goofily uncommunicative Spanish conversation, he asked me if I liked the work I was doing. I shrugged, si. I attempted to tell him that I love cooking - that dishwashing and prepping vegetables are not my occupation of choice, but I want to learn about the food and the restaurant. He looked at me like I was insane - work is just work for him here; he doesn't see the beauty of a perfectly poached piece of salmon. (either that or I horribly butchered my Spanish and told him that I actually have deeply romantic feelings for fillet of bluefish.) But then he smiled; said, shaking his head, mucho trabajo per una chica. And began to sing, at the top of his lungs - La chica esta loca.. loca... llllllllllloca! Accompanied by a little squat dance, I almost chopped off my fingers instead of the garlic heads I was laughing so hard.

Later in service, I looked over from the sink where I was dutifully scrubbing a sauté pan, and saw the Chef staring at a large knife, grasping it tightly by the handle, its long sharp edge horizontal to the ground. He brought the blade, sideways, up to his face, and smelled the metal - slowly, painstakingly, sliding it lengthwise under his nose. It was as if he were using his whole body in a concentrated focus of inspection - to feel the knife, to understand it, to integrate it into his own being and imbibe it with his own senses. It was no longer a physical object, but a part of the Chef himself. He looked up, meeting my curious gaze - and whether it was the hard glint of the steel knife as it reflected the bright kitchen lights or the quick flash of his eyes, sprung from a more interior source, I seriously wondered: if R. thinks I'm crazy, what must he think of the Chef?

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