Monday, August 29, 2005

what followed me to italy

Cold, brown water gushed from a black opening in the bottom of the wall-mounted air conditioner near my bed. It roared out of the rumbling metal contraption, splashing on the gleaming mahogany chest of drawers below and forming muddled pools on the bronze tiled floor. The majority of that putrid water was collecting in large plastic buckets, thick and hefty. Each filthy bucket was deposited on my bed. One by one, a never ending stream. I couldn’t see who was putting them there – an invisible hand was slowly, carefully stacking them in concentric circles around where I lay. Through closed eyes I imagined a hazy cave of plastic, felt an encroaching suffocation, a dreamy procession of liquid kitchen-duties literally piling up on top of me. The large canopied bed, fitted with off-white blankets and ruffled pillows was inundated with the containers of mysteriously flowing water. I lay there under my covers, utterly unwilling and unable to move. I could feel their watery weight shifting the mattress, yet I still could not make myself get up. There was no way I could rouse myself to bring the buckets to the sink and empty them like I knew, somehow, I was supposed to. I was so tired; it was so late. They were piling up so quickly. I would soon be crushed.

I dug myself deeply under my blankets, hair wildly flung about my pillow, restlessly tossing about, half in this disturbing dream world. My impending suffocation-by-air-conditioner-water was eerily real, yet still not sharp enough to throw me into full wakefulness. I could practically hear The Chef yelling my name, reprimanding my tardy cleaning. Why are those buckets still full? What the hell are you doing? I mumbled incoherently, tossing and turning, unable to shake the sound of rushing water.

A bucket floating over my head, slowly descending – I woke with a start, alone in an empty bed, on my first night in Umbria. I was surprised to find a dry mattress, a smoothly running air conditioner.

The restaurant followed me to Italy. The Chef in my dreams did not seem to care that I was in an Umbrian villa with my family; he hounded me as there was work to be done. I couldn’t fall asleep again that first jet-lagged night. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had left (my dream? the restaurant?) too suddenly, that S. would be stuck taking all the water from the bed in Umbria to the sink alone.


I was surprised on this trip to Italy to find that my rudimentary restaurant-Spanish eclipsed all the Italian I had studied in college. It took me two days to stop saying hola when I meant buongiorno; a week to substitute molto for mucho. I was also surprised to find myself thinking about S. far more than anyone else I left at the restaurant. And so before I can write about Italy, I need to write about him. S. touched me far more than I affected him, I’m sure. But he was a defining character in my life this summer.

S., the other prep-chef and dishwasher in the small restaurant where I worked this summer, is a short man, standing only a few inches higher than my 5’3. His dark skin is rough, weather-hewn, stretched across his small features in a way that makes him look much older than his 31 years. His eyes, though, are young, sad. He is thin but strong, his belly just beginning to acquire a slight paunch. At the end of each night of work his shirt and pants were always spotless, pristinely clean in comparison to my inevitably stained clothing. He is quiet; it took an entire summer of long hours in the prep room, our heads bent over a mountain of fresh garbanzo beans or dirty mushrooms, unfamiliar words tossed out into the void of mistranslation, before I felt like I knew him at all.

S. emigrated from El Salvador two years go, leaving behind a girlfriend, 4-year-old son, and five of his nine siblings. He speaks hardly a word of English, despite his great desire to learn this foreign tongue and get a better job.

As my Spanish improved, I began translating what was said in the kitchen for him: the jokes, the insults, the quickly spouted instructions. Never before having felt integrated into the restaurant life, he appreciated the newfound lingual entrance. He was inspired enough to sign up for an English class beginning this fall. He, in turn, always managed to procure and save for me the extra desserts that were unfit for service, knowing my undying passion for chocolate. It was a wonderful partnership.

One night during a lull of service, he showed me his boxing moves, blowing out air in mock speed sounds from his mouth, eyes narrowed, a glint in his eyes – ferocious and utterly disconnected form the meekly gentle man that I dishwashed with. He was in the El Salvadorian army for five years. He ran two hours a day with his fellow soldiers, he told me proudly. His back is covered with light purple, spidery thin scars.

S. gave me a high-five and a goofily loud Hola, chica each afternoon when we converged at the sink. He plays soccer ever Sunday morning in the park with his friends, paints houses on his days off, and sends all his extra money back to his family. He worked harder than anyone I have ever witnessed: never a shortcut, hardly ever a break, night after night without fail, his cheerfulness never faltering. Our lives were different in every possible way. I feel incredibly lucky to have known him. I feel guilty to be moving on. I went to work at the restaurant expecting only an experience of food. What has been foremost in my mind recently, however, is my undying respect for S., a man who drowned every morsel of food in Tabasco sauce.

When I said goodbye to him my last night, I gave him my phone number so that he could practice his English when he began taking the language class. He told me that he doesn’t have a phone.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

on leaving the restaurant and going to italy

Last week I told The Chef that I was leaving the restaurant. His eyes hardened and narrowed into a cold, penetrating stare. He blew a puff of offended air, exploding out of his pursed lips.

When The Chef hired me last spring we agreed that I would be traveling the last two weeks in August in Italy with my mom. I have been plagued by a constant rumble of guilt, lodged deep in the pit of my stomach, while deciding the future of my employment. But in the end, I will not be returning to my dishwashing position after this Italian journey.

The Chef was not happy; I braced myself for his wrath.

I told him that I have the opportunity to go to France, to learn the language. (Which I do; a village in the Alps.) And then an earlier starting date at culinary school.

Culinary school. What a waste. Why pay for that crock when you could be working; learning with your hands.

I told him how much I respect him and his work. This job has been an eye opening experience; I have learned more than I could ever have dreamed of.

Stop blowing hot air up my ass, Molly.

I apologized for leaving earlier than The Chef has wanted; I feel irresponsible.

You are irresponsible. This is not Brown; you can’t wake up and roll out of bed and go to class. You are an utter disappointment.

The words hit my like a slap in the face. I am an utter disappointment.

Attempting to fight the tears welling up in my eyes (there’s no crying in kitchens, Molly) I began to ramble, desperately trying to redeem my horrifying crash of respect in the eyes of The Chef. I told him that I wanted to write; that I needed more academic tutoring, a look at food beyond a faraway observation and a mountain of dirty plates. In the last few months he himself has spent a total of ten minutes with me, teaching me only to devein shrimp. I need more; I have the opportunity for more. I can’t pass it up, no matter how much I respect him.

Go interview Ruth Reichl. She worked in a kitchen. Apple worked in a kitchen. You are too romantic, Molly. That is not reality; live in the real world.

In a sad display of dishwasher toughness, I tried to smile as the tears slid unwelcome down my cheeks.

I’m sorry, Chef. I need to move on.

The Chef just stared at my, poignantly, as if he were visually measuring my worth and finding it obviously, painfully lacking. Ok, fine. Thank you for your work.

I told S. later that night in my halting Spanish, bursting into tears again. It was not a good night for dishwashing stoicism. I valiantly finished out the week, hoping somewhere in the back of my mind to impress The Chef with my hard work enthusiasm, romantic notions and all.


I leave for Italy this afternoon. There is so much more I have to write about The Chef, J., A., and S. It will have to wait until I return, two weeks from now.

But in conclusion, I have gained many things in my summer as a dishwasher and prep chef:

A continuing and undeniable love of all things culinary,

A hugely consuming respect for anyone who works in a kitchen,

A fascination with preserved meats like confit,

An even greater fascination with France, the French and French food,

Seven pounds in muscle,

And a groundwork of stories and personalities that I will never tire of writing about.

Monday, August 08, 2005

a sweetbreads overkill

I simultaneously adore and loathe Sunday nights at the restaurant. It’s a typical hectic night of chopping, cleaning, washing, and dodging clumsy backwaiters while balancing large stacks of dishes right up until 9pm on the dot. That’s when things change; that’s when The Chef’s Whim begins.

The Whim is a four course tasting menu, created by The Chef on the spur of the moment. It is done in waves: one each at 9, 9:30, and 10. Each eating member of the wave dines on the same things, though every wave is different. The food is brought out one course at a time by a parade of smiling servers, vibrant colors jumping off the feast of plates. It is an ingenious way to clear out the diminished supplies of food in the walk-in refrigerator before the restaurant closes for our two day ‘weekend’.

I loathe Sunday nights because the service takes hours longer. An additional course and a longer wait between the expedition of plates makes for extended periods of time with little to do and a much more intense post-service cleaning. Stumbling into bed at 3am after an intense Whim often makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing cleaning my brains out at the restaurant and not spending more time asleep.

The lull of work during The Whim, however, is prime observation time. And this is what I love. For each course The Chef lines up the empty, thick white plates (sometimes there are so many they are balanced all over the kitchen; extra space sometimes even found on the edge of the sink). He and the sous-chefs L. and J. follow him, each bearing a sauté pan filled with meticulously cooked delicacies. They all hunch over the plates, working quickly, closely. The Chef swirls an artistic line of bright green sauce, frothy and filled with spring. L. carefully balances a plump pink piece of olive-oil poached sea bass at a left-handed angle. J. delicately arranges a pile of buttery vegetables, careful not to repeat colors. The Chef returns, working his way down each plate, sprinkling lemon zest, fleur de sel. L. comes back with a tiny mound of crispy fried ginger on the crown of each piece of fish. J. wipes the edges of the plates, aesthetically perfect. I am entranced. The nimble delicacy of their work, the visual artwork, the utter penchant for perfectionism that they embody as a team: I drink it in with my eyes.

The highlights of last night’s Whim included a creamy corn soup, pale yellow and glisteningly fresh; a flash of butter poached lobster, dark and small cockles; crispy chicken breast and confit with a shockingly orange apricot puree. The second course for the second wave: a mountain of crispy fried lamb sweetbreads on a creamy ginger sauce paired with buttery sautéed vegetables. As the plates were being carefully lifted to the service window, The Chef called out to the house manager: Call the Mount Auburn Hospital – tell them to expect 11 heart attack victims within the next hour. These people don’t know what’s coming! He was smiling, gleeful with his sweetbread generosity and the delicious bomb of pure gourmet fat the dining room was at that moment happily imbibing.

The Chef later created a special Whim just for the five of us kitchen staff: a four course tasting of buffalo “wings” paired with an emulsified blue cheese dipping sauce. We all crowded around the metal serving cart, laughing and clinking our delightfully cold beers, reveling in our strange and tasty late-night-bar-food-with-a-twist. It was a neon red, eyes-wateringly spicy, unhealthy feast. I was in heaven. We ate crisply deep fried buffalo rock shrimp that burst with flavor in my mouth; a smooth pile buffalo scallops; a interestingly textured buffalo squid; and to top off our own culinary overkill, buffalo sweetbreads. You haven’t lived until you’ve had my special buffalo sweetbreads, The Chef told me proudly. He was right. no matter what else, this experience is still about the food.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

pork confit for a beer

I spent two hours last night with my arms submerged to the elbow in a bucket of slick yellow pork fat, slimy and viscous, pulling apart the tender meat of pork confit. I first slid my hands slowly under the thick layer of skin on each piece, using my fingers to separate the attaching fibers – the leathery squishiness was at first alarming but soon its wonderfully disgusting texture was almost comforting in the warm oil. The skin came off in one long piece; “perfect to make a mask with,” as the sous-chef A. told me. (An image of the kitchen staff, all wearing elaborate pig’s skin masks, dancing around the deep fryer immediately sprung to mind…) The skin will be dried and baked, a richly flavored chip. And then, discarding the cartilage, bones and gristle, I shredded the meat – so tender it practically dissolved in my hands. It smelled like a cozy winter’s night; a delicious olfactory journey away from the 100 degree kitchen. It tastes like the best pork you’ve ever had, only richer, more delicate and infinitely tender.

Confit, according to my newest idol Harold McGee, is a word “used loosely to describe just about anything cooked slowly and gently to a rich, succulent consistency: onions in olive oil, for example, or shrimp cooked and stored under clarified butter.” Or, in the case of my little restaurant, an array of heartier meats: hunks of pork, chicken thigh, lamb and duck tongue. The meat is cooked slowly in the oven at a low temperature, submerged in fat (either thickly rich pork or duck fat) for around 8 hours. Once cooled, I take the tender meats, cradling them delicately in the palm of my hand like a baby animal, and place them neatly into plastic tubs. I strain the cooking fat over the top to remove impurities until the meat is completely covered. This concoction is stored in the confit refrigerator; the meat is preserved by burying it under the airtight layer of fat. One month later it is removed and the great skin-removal and meat shredding begins.

It was one of the first times I was asked to handle a finished meat product for service. I felt much more a part of the production aspect of the restaurant, if only for a brief few hours. In the last two weeks The Chef has (somewhat grudgingly) given me more responsibility after a sous-chef quit. Along with the confit, I have been tutored in the preparation of ice creams (thyme, lemon verbena, crème fraise) and the dough for mini-donut beignets. The increased responsibility, no matter how brief it will be, makes me feel more of a person in the restaurant rather than a dishwashing work-horse.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch, however, the treatment of my co-worker S., a 31-year-old El Salvadorian who speaks no English. He is nowhere near abused, certainly; everyone is very nice. But as I have gained a bit of responsibility and a modicum of respect, his status of dishwashing work-horse is painfully obvious. I have been thinking about this a lot and will soon write more about him. But last night after the last plate went out, beers were passed around in the kitchen, a clink of good work on a busy Saturday night. The Chef handed me one (sweet reviving coldness pouring down my throat) and a pat on the back. He saw S. watching, yearning to be included, but only shook his head. No beer for you while working, S. Maybe later, man. S. did not understand The Chef’s words exactly, only the fact that he is the only one not allowed to have a drink at the conclusion of service. S. looked sad, eyes softened. But he also nodded in acceptance; he is resolved to his lower status. I don’t understand why, really; I had a guilty lump in the back of my throat as I drank.

I would gladly have given up all the pork confit in the world for S. to just have a beer with the rest of us.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


I stealthily slid, tiptoeing in my dilapidated New Balance sneakers, towards the restaurant’s dining room. I passed the gleaming prep table, the plastic rumbling ice box. I maneuvered around the fresh faced backwaiter carefully polishing wine glasses. I bypassed the stack of dirty dishes calling out to me in the small room sharing space with the walk in refrigerator. I could hear the clink of glasses, the burst of muddled laughter, the soft hum of chatter and the lilting tones of background jazz rifts. I was invading an alien territory; I certainly didn't belong in the dining room. I don’t fit in; my overly stained chef’s shirt screams out ‘kitchen’. Only The Chef goes into that land of the diner. The rest of us are left only with our imagination and the server’s reports. I paused at the silverware station, a mere two feet away from the happily eating customers. I watched, unnoticed for a moment, as the servers bustled in and out, carting bottles of red wine, aromatic plates of bluefish and hanger steak. They looked clean, cool and collected; a slight difference from the sweaty kitchen interior. I inched my way closer to the divide and slowly, carefully, craned my neck around the door frame. It was there, at a crisply linened table closest to me, that I found what I was looking for.

Christopher Kimball.

A skinny middle-aged man with rounded glasses perched on his nose, arms folded over his chest, grinning at the words of his companions. He was perched delicately on a wooden chair, holding a partially emptied wine glass. His light blue shirt was perfectly pressed; his signature bow tie was bright yellow. His receding hairline shimmered in the elegant candlelit room.

Christopher Kimball is founder, editor, and publisher of Cook’s Illustrated, an elegantly scientific culinary magazine. He writes cookbooks and has a TV show, America’s Test Kitchen. He is a well known gastronomical figure whose work I deeply respect. In fact, purely and simply, I love him.

In one magical moment, I watched Mr. Kimball take a bite of The Chef’s specialty pork belly, smile, and look around contentedly. Strange as it sounds, the scene sent a tingle down my spine.

The world quickly came back into focus, however, with a disgruntled shout from The Chef. I quickly withdrew from my secret viewing point and made my way back to the steaming, hectic kitchen.

It was a difficult night. We were behind on prep work, overwhelmed and ‘in the weeds’ for the larger portion of service. J. was kicked off the line again due to extremely shoddy salad presentation; when I left at 2am he and The Chef were still in the midst of a dangerously serious talk. I dropped two bread plates in close succession, and received a harsh rebuke from The Chef. The dough for the sweet fried beignets wouldn’t come together and the sorbets were frozen into an inedible solid.

In the midst of the mishaps and crazy tension of the kitchen, Christopher Kimball provided a moment of beautiful calm. A glimpse into the dining room gave me the much needed proof that we serve people (many people, real people, famous people) and don’t exist solely in the drama and grime of the kitchen. And I even almost enjoyed washing the dishes that came from his table. Almost.

It was a deliciously secret observation. And, I will now admit, not my only secret.

The Chef is not yet aware that I am going to culinary school.
My days with him and his little bistro are numbered. After winning a small scholarship last spring to the Culinary Institute of America, culinary school has been constantly hovering in the back of my mind. This summer of work has solidified my love of food and my desire to cook. While an incredibly interesting (and intense) experience, I am not content with the painfully slow learning curve dishwashing provides (not very surprising, I suppose). I itch to wield my own chef’s knife, throw a sauté pan on the stove, create a sauce and a plate with artistry and flavor. I am garnering the courage to tell The Chef that I will soon be leaving. But until then, my unrevealed, soon-to-be culinary student status as well as hidden dining room observations are warmly motivating me through mountains of dishes to wash and buckets of mushrooms to clean.

Monday, August 01, 2005

chicken heads, temper tantrums, and the deveining of shrimp

Trying to fall asleep last night, I was barraged by images of chicken heads bobbing in a steaming vat of stock whenever I closed my eyes. Dribbles of oil and hunks of aromatic vegetables floating like life rafts behind my eyelids were begging the drowning poultry to grab hold.

I have been spending an increasing amount of time with stocks at work. I strain them, the huge metal vats piping hot off the stove, and cool them down. When the stocks – most often chicken and veal – cool, the fat coagulates and rises to the top. It’s my job to get them into a portable container and in the fridge before that happens. Not only has this given me massive arm muscles (on my day off last week I had dinner with Alex, who I hadn’t seen in a few months; he took one look at my shoulders and biceps and quickly dubbed me Rambo) but also it has given me a strangely disturbing array of pre-sleep images. No matter how many decapitated animalia I encounter, I am always a little shocked and surprised by their vacant eyes and limp neck sockets.

Since the blackout, this week went by in a blur, probably due to increased working hours. Eleven hours of dishwashing can do a number on your mental faculties, let me tell you. I feel like my brain is encased in a fog.

There were moments that stand out, however. Some were unfortunately of absolute horror -

Last night in the heat of service, the sous chef L. dropped two perfectly plated masterpieces of lamb’s tongue confit in a smash of broken china on the floor. The Chef looked stunned for a moment; the dishes were for a table of ‘very VIP’ and it was the last of the lamb’s tongue. He visibly clenched his jaw, perhaps trying to hold in the unavoidable blow out. But then yelled FUCK and slammed his fist down on the metal counter. He whirled around, looking at the mess, and slammed his fist down again. Plates rattled on the shelves; a collective cringe went through the kitchen staff. The Chef refused to make eye contact with L.; the kitchen was silent for the rest of service. The tension was so tangible I felt as if I could scoop it out of the air and store it in the fridge just like chicken stock.

The garde manger ( or salad and dessert chef) J. also began making mistakes again on Friday night. It began when he attempted to send out a plate of sour milk panna cotta which wasn’t perfect. The Chef saw and coldly moved right up in J’s face. What the fuck do you think you’re doing man? Do you think I don’t see everything here? EVERYTHING? Do it over. Walking away he muttered: I’ve got a garde manger cook who doesn’t know right from wrong.

J. has the unfortunate tendency to shut down under pressure and criticism. As soon as The Chef began his loud rant, J. only made more mistakes. The more yelling, the more imperfect plates. It’s a vicious cycle – one that spells doom for J’s chances to work sauté line, a position that he visibly yearns for. With each additional sloppy plate, the heat of The Chef’s mounting anger spread. It certainly reached as far as the sink and I wouldn’t have been surprised to later find my eyebrows singed off. J. was a disaster and The Chef was unrelenting. There was something wrong with every single plate, no matter what. The peach crisp he plated was one inch too big. The foie gras was a centimeter too thin. The green salad was not stacked tall enough; there were three too many crispy onions on top. The colorful vegetables in the farm stand salad were not arranged with proper visual gradation. It was painful to watch, my own ears were burning with embarrassment for J. He crumbled under the pressure.

After service, J. walked around the kitchen with blank eyes, foul temper, deflated ego, and a visible, undulating hatred for The Chef.

This week there were also, however, moments of wonderful gastronomy -

The Chef was wearing denim shorts and a ratty blue t-shirt. Without his baggy chef’s whites he was an alien being, unfamiliar and strange. But, not surprisingly, much more approachable. Together, hunched over the back prep table, he gave me a lesson on cleaning fresh Georgian shrimp. We peeled the shells off of their slick gray bodies, slit open their backs and delicately removed their digestive tracts. We kept them in a metal bowl resting in a box of ice. Seafood, The Chef told me, is ideally kept just a bit over freezing. The refrigerator, kept at 40 degrees, is still a bit too warm. Even a few degrees affects its taste. He is a thorough, inspiring teacher. I hung onto his every word, trying to drink in his knowledge. He asked me if I read about food. I said yes, of course, and rambled off a list of my most recent culinary literature (Calvin Trillin, MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl…). The Chef just looked at me and raised his eyebrows. Get your head out of the clouds, Molly. Read about real food. Leave the romance for later.

I bought myself a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking this morning.

And in one of the first working relationships where the whisper of friendship lurks somewhere in the background, the sous-chef A. seems to have taken me under her wing. Every night she helps me to make a list of things to be done, explaining the science behind technique and answering the multitude of questions with which I barrage her. She went to the Culinary Institute of America; when I told her that I was in the process of applying there she hugged me.