Thursday, July 21, 2005

more than one neck under the cleaver

A., a scrappy female sous-chef, was chopping the heads off of plucked ducks in the back room, their bodies stiff with rigor mortis, skin a pale beige. The day prep man, R., picked up one of the body-less heads off the steel table. It looked naked and confused, a little tuft of black hair on the very tip of its skull. R. tried to pierce the top skin above its forehead with a knife and run string through the hole – to make what I can only imagine was a grotesque kind of necklace. La cabeza di pato esta mucho duro; the duck head is too hard, he said. Thank god. He tossed it in the garbage and went on his way. Later, I found the lonely duck head lying on the floor near my work station. It was as if he had courageously jumped out of the trash and miraculously waddled a leg-less walk back to where the rest of his body was being stored in a plastic tub on the concrete stairs. I picked up the head (slimy, cold) and met the gaze of that poor little duck. If I ignored the fact that I was holding him near the dangling chopped remains of his spine, he looked as if he could be alive. His beak, orangey-red with a small yellow tongue flap sticking out, was curved in a way that made him look like he was smiling. A surprised, small smile. He looked surprised to find himself here, just a head, the rest of him covered in saran wrap away in a box. His eyes stared into the distance, lost. I imagined he was very sorry he no longer had his body.

Later that night, I committed my first large gaff at the restaurant and was feeling very sorry myself. In a mad dash getting things done during service, I put a box of confit (chicken thighs in the month-long process of being preserved in duck fat) into the confit refrigerator, located in a back room. Two hours later a sous-chef realized that the door to the refrigerator was still open. I had forgotten to close it. Luckily it was caught early; the entire contents of the fridge could have been lost. If the confit becomes too warm, bacteria will start to grow and the entirety of the restaurant’s difficult to make and very expensive collection would have gone bad.

When I realized what I had done, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I am painstakingly careful in my tasks and already feeling like I walk on thin ice being so new to the business – I couldn’t believe I had made such a potentially grave mistake. I apologized to The Chef, his eyes ripe with anger, and took full blame. I expected yelling and a good number of swears. But he only looked at me levelly and said: “This is a restaurant, Molly.” And while that statement in itself doesn’t really mean a whole lot, he said it with such disappointment, such weight and gravity, that I truly felt like I had committed a crime far graver than murder. Paroxysms of guilt over an open refrigerator door.

I tortured myself the rest of the night - wondering what would happen if I had truly destroyed a fridge full of expensive food items, wondering if The Chef would hate me forever, wondering if I could garner sympathy if I somehow gouged out my own eyes with that dead duck’s sharp beak. And then I began, in the exhausted haze of early morning scrubbing, to wonder if I would be fired. Taking on an inexperienced intern was a leap in itself for The Chef – but one who nearly destroyed your confit? He could replace me with a hefty, Spanish speaking man in a second. I broke out into a cold sweat.

“Molly, come here for a second.” We had just about finished cleaning; The Chef’s voice was grave. I slowly walked toward his office: impending doom.

“Yes, Chef?” I was ready to take the hit, to be yelled and cursed at, fired and thrown out jobless into the night.

But what came was far from that.

“One of the trash bags split in the trash compound outside. We seem to have a maggot problem now. There are three 5 gallon buckets that are… not pleasant. You need to bring them in and clean them. Now.” The words were delivered in an upbeat, genial fashion. But the underlying meaning was clear: You fucked up, now go clean some maggots.

And so I did. 1am, my co-worker already home; I cleaned out putrid buckets filled with stinking trash juice and writhing maggots. And I imagine in that moment I looked very similar to my friend the duck-head: surprised to find myself where I was, bewildered and slightly sad. My own neck was stretched out, ready for The Chef’s cleaver. Luckily I got maggots instead.

And as I wrote in the very beginning, I always knew there would be times where I would mutter to myself, desperately wondering what the hell was I thinking? This was certainly one of those times. The kitchen is not a place for mistakes. It is not a place for the squeamish.

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