Tuesday, July 19, 2005

decapitated sardines and flying saute pans

My two week hiatus from work during the restaurant’s summer vacation is over and I am back prepping and washing dishes at the bistro. I am still reeling as I type right now, even on my night off. The intensity of the kitchen never ceases to amaze and overwhelm me, no matter how much time I have clocked in thus far.

This week I spent countless hours plucking the blossoms and leaves off of fresh stalks of marjoram, wild sorrel, burnet, and a pungent black basil. I chopped cornichons, or tiny pickles, into a microscopic mince for garnishes. I cleaned arugula and black trumpet mushrooms. I peeled garlic and onions, tears streaming down my cheeks. I learned about the various stages of veal stock, an aromatic pot always bubbling away on the back burner, strained and intensified over and over before its flavor is fully deepened. I watched the preparation of guanciale, an intensely flavored dried hog jowl. I puzzled over the service of cock’s comb, which I was surprised to find out is truly the floppy red thing on top of a rooster’s head. This cartilage-rich chicken-plumage is cooked slowly to break down the naturally gummy gelatin and create a richly textured dish. I washed dishes with rhythmic efficiency.

What intrigued me most this week, however, was not the food. The human drama of the kitchen has me entranced.

I was standing over a mountain of fresh sardines: tiny silver heads and floppy decapitated bodies shimmerd while the red guts oozed out of their body cavities. Their glassy eyes, all two hundred of them, stared at me with an eerie vacant gaze. S., my co-prepper who speaks no English, and I were chatting (I’ve learned a remarkable amount of Spanish this summer) as we pulled the skeletons out of the fish-bodies and washed them out in a tub of cold water that soon turned the color of a deep red wine. I was trying to decipher S.’s long story about his brother in El Salvador when I heard a huge crash. I looked up to see The Chef, hair tied back in a ponytail and sweat streaming down his forehead, wielding a sauté pan in his right hand. He raised his arm over his head and with all his strength brought the pan crashing down against the counter again. There was utter silence in the kitchen. Even the rumbling sanitizer seemed to quiet down. The tension was so thick it could be cut with the dullest of butter knives.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” The Chef growled. His upper lip was curled like a snarling dog. He was looking straight at J., the hefty young sous-chef with a black bandana tied around his head and a look of utter terror in his eyes. J. looked dumbly at The Chef, fear written all over his face.

“I don’t know, Chef,” he said meekly. “I was trying to plate the pork.”

“Did you even look at what you were doing? Did you taste it? Look at this shit. This is the worst cooking I have ever seen.” The Chef didn’t raise his voice. “How dare you try and serve something like this here. In my kitchen. How dare you.” He made no move to slam any more sauté pans. But the raw edge of his voice, the crazy gleam in his eye, the ominous hum of the pork on the stove signaled trouble. J. obviously didn’t know how to respond, torn between defending himself or admitting his mistake. He hadn’t tasted the pork; he hadn’t plated it with perfection. J. simply shrugged his shoulders. This noncommittal answer was unacceptable for The Chef. There was a long pause in which the entire kitchen froze, time in slow motion, waiting for the explosion.

And then it came. “GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN. GET OFF THE LINE," The Chef bellowed, phlegm flickering at his lips. More quietly: "You are the worst chef I’ve ever seen. Come back when you are ready to cook.” J. looked like he was going to argue, then thought better of it. He walked out of the kitchen and into the back hallway, shoulders sagging and his head down.

It is difficult to explain the significance of being thrown off the line. It is a matter of lost honor, broken pride, the disruption of a chef’s basic identity. The kitchen is a battle ground on which line cooks valiantly fight the clock and the physical elements to deliver an aesthetic and gustatory experience for the diner. To be thrown off, publicly yelled at like a small child being sent to his room after a temper tantrum is the ultimate humiliation. It is a soldier being told he is not good enough to fight for what he believes in. It is a grown man being reduced to toddler.

There is no arguing with The Chef, though. He is all powerful in that tiny, sweltering kitchen. He is explosive and unrelenting. He meters out well-aimed blows to both sauté pans and egos. His anger sneaks up on you like a pouncing feline. The tough yet benevolent father of the bistro, his words can make or break you. One withering look sends you into paroxysms of guilt while his crooked smile and a playful punch on the shoulder inspires joyous waves of happiness. His charisma is undeniable. He is infectiously passionate and his driving desire for transcendent food is contagious. This intrigues me above all else: a personality of such overwhelming intensity and the reverberations in his small culinary empire of a kitchen.

When I later walked into the back hallway, J. was motionlessly staring into space. His eyes were empty, as if his consciousness had stepped out of the building and left his body behind. He was standing awkwardly, unsure of his footing. There was a smear of flour on his cheek and a large brown stain on his white chef-shirt. He looked rakish and wild; his atipically unkempt appearance suggesting that he lost not only his honor and coveted place on the line, but quite possibly his sanity as well. J. looked small. Lost. He slowly turned his head towards the sound of my footsteps, pivoting his head but not his body, and shook himself awake.

“I’m at my saturation point, Molly,” he said, gruffly. “I can’t take it anymore.” He opened his mouth and then closed it again, sighing deeply. He shook his head and then cleared his throat. Hearing those words come out of his mouth surprised him. As if saying it out loud finalized a sentiment he had long been feeling. He frowned, shook out his shoulders, and steeled his expression. “I’m going back,” he said. And he did. There were no more flying sauté pans; only bruised egos and a hearty dose of kitchen reality.

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