The pastry department is the closest to the back door; Linda, Pierre’s sous, hunched over her batch of house-made butter pats, protecting them from any debris borne in on the autumn wind. She grunted a hello and went back to using a warm spoon to make perfect, egg-shaped quenelles, placed dead-center onto cooled shards of slate. There are bags under her eyes; she’s probably been here since four in the morning.
Christine waved cheerily from in front of the giant stand mixer. She’s always cheery and upbeat; even I have a hard time being grumpy in her general direction.
“Good luck tonight!” She chirped.
I swallowed the insult that clawed it’s way up my throat. She’s just being nice.
I waved back on my way down the stairs to the laundry room, flattening against the wall as a server I don’t recognize barreled up the stairs with an armful of tablecloths.
Saison opens daily for dinner at 5:30pm sharp, Monday through Thursday. Friday and Saturday, 5pm. The servers are probably out in the dining room, ironing tablecloths and napkins and gossiping about who is screwing who.
I tossed my backpack into my locker and got changed. White tank top, black chef pants, rubber clogs. I grabbed a ‘medium’ chef coat off the rack and did up the buttons, going over my prep list for the fiftieth time that day. I fumbled around the top of my locker for my carrying kit; digital thermometer, two black fine tip sharpies, one black clicky-top pen, a pair of fine-pointed jewellers tongs, a paring knife with a magnetic case, and a small black notebook that fits in my back pocket. The thermo, tongs and pens went in my sleeve or tucked sideways on my coat. The knife went in my pocket, just behind my notebook.
I grabbed my knife case and a fistful of blue side towels and bounded up the stairs.
There’s a moment in the ‘getting ready’ pre-shift ritual where, in every cook’s head, a switch is flipped and they are ‘here’, mentally and physically. It’s different for every cook; for some it’s as soon as they punch in, some as soon as they put on their uniform. Others need a few minutes to lay down a cutting board and grab that first cup of coffee. Whatever the moment though, past that point our lives beyond the walls of this place are gone. We are bent-backed beasts, measured by the skill and strength of our hands.
“Behind!” I shouted over the spray of the dish machine, clapping Arturo on the back as I walk past. He grins and gives me a thumbs-up. He’s from Mexico City, an illegal immigrant with three jobs, a wife and two infants at home. He can out-drink, out-smoke and out-work me with one hand tied behind his back. There’s no one I’d rather have grinding out dishes on a hammering Saturday. It’ll be him and two other dishwashers tonight.
Dishwashers are literally the backbone of every single kitchen. I don’t give a fuck if you work at a dive bar or Eleven Madison Park, if the dishwasher’s don’t show up to work, you’re good and fucked.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” The sous chef adjusted his glasses and grinned at me from his cutting board at the center table.
“Good morning to you too, Rich.” I said with as much cheer as I can muster, which is not much at all, winding between cooks towards my station.
The kitchen in Saison is small. The owners dumped a bunch of money into the equipment and features, but they couldn’t really do anything about the size. It’s essentially a fifty by fifty square, with two hallways at the north and west sides. In the center is a five foot wide, twenty foot long counter, surrounded by what’s left of the morning prep crew as they close up their tasks, blending purees, straining and cooling stock and the like. Along the edges of the square are the stations; garde manger, plating, grill, vegetable and saute, as well as the walk-in coolers and dish room.
Every surface is polished and clean. It’s almost intimidating how clean this fucking kitchen is.
I work the veg station, which is exactly what it sounds like. I’m responsible for any hot vegetable on the menu. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not.
Terry, one of the morning prep guys, is using my six-burner to finish clarifying butter. It’s one o’clock now, and he’s out at three, so technically it’s his station for another hour, but he’s cool with me setting up a little early. We exchanged cordialities as I fill a red sanitizer bucket from the sink on the wall and scrounged a cutting board from the dishroom.
My heart is beating fast. I’m already nervous.
I flipped open my notebook, propping it open in a ninth pan in front of my cutting board to the page where my final prep list is from last night:
Break Salmon — Ian
Break & Sous Fennel
Clean & Sous Beets
Rich RE: duck pick-up
Salmon first. I unzipped my kit and took out my thin-bladed boning knife, fish tweezers and chef’s knife. The salmon is in the walk-in, sitting upright in a lexan of clean, fresh ice. I prod one gently, around the gills. The flesh is firm and springs back immediately. The eyes are clear and flush with the sockets, and the gills are still bright red. A nice, healthy fish.
“Shoulda swum away from that worm.” I mutter to myself, grabbing the whole lexan.
The best part about having the life sucked out of me on a daily basis here is the food. It’s on another level. This salmon here was probably caught yesterday, for fucks sake. Rad as a motherfucker.
Worth trading my happiness? Fuck no.
“Hey Terry, can I borrow your scaler?”
The bald-headed man grins at me over his pot of simmering butter.
“Shee-it man, shouldn’t you have bought your own by now? They’re only like six bucks.”
I shrugged. “Salmon season’s got what, two weeks left? It’s a race against the clock, baby.”
He laughed, exposing a row of perfect white teeth, nodding to the metal shelf on the wall where his canvas knife roll is. “Zippered pocket.”
I stuck a towel under a faucet, laid it over the first fish, and started rasping off scales. It’s a long, arduous and messy process, which is why I’m doing it first. Always do the shitty stuff first, because if you put the small projects off until right before service and don’t have time to get to them, you’re going down.
Success in a kitchen ultimately relies on prep. Rod, unholy asshole that he was, had that right at least. Prep properly, service will be a hundred times easier. Success in prep relies entirely on timing and speed. The order you accomplish your tasks ultimately determines your survival. I do the hard stuff first because it takes the longest.
“Morning, champ. This spot taken?” Ian grins and places his cutting board down across from mine, flicking his sleeves back around his forearm.
I like Ian. Ian looks like a philosophy professor that wandered into a kitchen one day, liked what he saw, and stayed. His big, toothy grin is mostly hidden behind a wiry brown beard that’s starting to show signs of grey. Ian works the grill, spending five hours of the day hunched over a bed of 800 degree coals as he bounced forty or fifty entrees off his station.
“That my salmon?”
Yesterday Ian picked up two of my amuse off his station to keep me from sinking into the weeds and I asked him how I could help him out over beers. So now I’m breaking down salmon. I eyeball the clock on the wall over the door to the dining room; two o’clock. Two and a half hours until service.
God and all his angels, let me be on time.
The salmon are all broken down; I quickly tossed all the scraps into a clean container and slap a label on it for soup-making monday morning. On my way back from the walk-in I grabbed a small bowl of clean water. The pin bones in salmon run down the upper third of the fillet, towards the head. When you pull them out, you always pull at an angle towards where the head was. Pull straight up and you’ll tear the fish. I dip my tweezers in the water to keep the feather-thin bones in the water and not clinging to the end of my tongs.
“Cracked open some of that plum cider after I got home last night.” Ian grunts as he sets down a hotel pan piled high with dry-aged ribeye from the glass-doored cabinet across the kitchen. Ian fermented his own cider at home. I’ve tried some; it’s amazing.
“Yeah? What’d you think?” I washed and dried Terry’s rasper, putting it back in his case.
“So goddamned good.” He grinned over his knife as he slid it deftly over his steel. One of the things I liked most about Ian was that his eyes never lied.
“Was that the six month or the year batch?”
“The year one. I’m going to let the six months go a little longer, I think.”
A box of house scales sits on the main counter; I weave my way between morning cooks finishing and the line cooks getting set up, grabbing one. “Hey, good morning Mike.”
A brawny twenty-something with a naked woman tattooed along his neck nodded back as he glared intently at a black notebook similar to mine, sipping fresh coffee. He grunted a noncommittal greeting as I danced back to my station.
“How dry was it?”
Ian shrugged. “So-so. The plums were really sweet when they went in, so there’s a lot of residual sugar for the yeast to consume.”
“Think I can get a bottle sometime?” I sat the scale on my cutting board, narrowing my eyes as I mentally calculated the weight of the salmon side in front of me. Portioning meat is a delicate process; cut too heavy and you’ll waste trim making it the right weight. Cut light, and you’ve wasted that fillet.
“I mean, probably. If I don’t drink it all first.”
We break our salmon into four-ounce steaks. I took a deep breath, making the first cut.
Four and a half. Not too bad. I took a small slice off and re-weighed. Four-point-two. Good enough. Salmon is especially difficult to break down because the side changes as you move down it; towards the head you’re going to get shorter, taller portions. Towards the middle you have to compensate for the breadth of the belly. Each cut has to be done intentionally. I’m starting to run behind today, so I guessed on a handful of the fillets; it’s almost two thirty and I still haven’t started on my own prep.
“Tess try it too?” One fillet down, seven more to go.
“Nah, she was in bed by the time I got home. We really only see each other on Sundays. She got herself a real job.” Ian slid his knife through the ribeye with speed and grace that comes from years of practice. I watched jealously. Maybe one day I’ll be that good. Then I could show up to work when I was scheduled, instead of two hours early.
Yeah. That’ll be the day.
“Yannick, how’s your prep list?” The sous chef, Rich, called over from his cutting board where he’s picking baby dill fronds for Chef’s garnishes. He doesn’t even look at his task as he’s talking to me. His hands move on auto pilot, picking the herb into tiny pieces, each a copy of itself multiplied a hundred times.
“I’m all right chef. I’m about to finish this salmon for Ian and then hammer out my own stuff.”
He nodded and turned to Sarah next to him who had a question about the soups.
“Ian, these are done. You want them in the walk in?” I snipped a length of blue masking tape from the roll in front of Ian and I with a pair of scissors. I don’t know why, but every uptight chef I’ve ever worked for goes absolutely batshit when they see tape-labels that have been torn instead of precisely cut with a sharp edge. I think it’s because it aggravates their OCD.
I wrote ‘salmon 10.13 YF’ on the tape and slapped it on the pan.
“Can you toss it in my drawers? I need it for tonight.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
Ian’s drawers are underneath the massive cast-iron grill set into the corner of the kitchen. He likes his salmon in the top drawer, all the way to the front on the right hand side. When I stood up, Rich was standing next to me, adjusting the flame on a pot of consomme that was simmering on a burner. He adjusted his round glasses, peering at me over the tortoise-shell rims.
“Yann, you measure all of those fillets? Four ounces each?”
Fuck. If I tell the truth and tell him I guessed on about a third, he’ll rip me a new asshole in front of everyone. If I get caught in a lie…but I need the time. It’s two forty-five; I’m up against the wall as it is.
Rich is a pouty-lipped thirty-something with an expensive haircut who’s worked at Saison for two and a half years now. He worked at Per Se in New York for a year before moving out west. I know that because he never shuts the fuck up about it. He’s condescending and annoying, but he means well. He must have believed me about the fish, because he nodded and sidled away to go bother someone else.
I’m running out of time. Next on my list is fennel and beets; I need to get them cleaned, sealed in vac-bags and into a hot water bath before three-thirty.
The fennel bulbs are small; each is the size of a tennis ball. Their greens have already been trimmed andused in various soups or stocks, so breaking them down is a piece of cake. One cut vertically down the center and a quick ‘v’ to remove the core from the middle. I cut each half into three wedges, being careful not to knock them around too much. They fall apart pretty easily. I gave them a quick splash of olive oil, salt, pepper and chili flake in a bowl and separated them into four eight by twelve vacuum bags.
While I’m thinking about it, I flip on the three immersion circulators on my station. The water baths are full, but it takes a while for them to heat up.
There’s only one vacuum-sealer in the kitchen, and Mike is using it right now to seal shallots in a pickling solution. I don’t have time to wait for him to be done; I’m moving on to the beets and I’ll just have to keep one eye on the machine to grab it in a spare moment.
Beets are a little trickier; the size of golf balls, they still have their greens attached and they have to be peeled and split. The clock reads three oh-five. An hour and a half to go. I ignore the tremor running through my hands from anxiety.
“Doing alright man?” Ian asked quietly across the counter, gaze flickering to my clumsy, trembling attempts to cut the greens off a beet. He’s wrapped up his ribeye and is using the spine of his chef’s knife to scrape the flesh from lamb chops, exposing ivory bone. A mound of finished chops sits in a hotel pan beside himl. Fuck, how is he so fast?
“I’ll be fine.” I’m not sure if I’m lying to himself or me.
“All right.” He turned back down his lamb.
I sliced the greens off the baby beets, tossing them into the clean mayo bucket that sits inside every trashcan to accumulate compost without a second thought. I was halfway through peeling the beets when everyone’s favorite sous chef walked past my station with an armful of sauces. He hesitated as he moved past my trash can and my heart hammered against my chest.
“Yann, did you throw these beet greens away?”
No dickhead, it was someone else peeling beets on my station right now.
He set down his quart containers and gingerly lifted the emerald-green fronds from the compost bin, fanning them out. “These could have been used for something, man. We could have made a fam soup or a sauce out of them.”
“I’m sorry chef. I’ll save them next time.”
Rich shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Please do.”
Terry clapped me on the back as he gathered his things.
“Good luck tonight Yannick. I got a head start on some chanterelles for you, they’re in the lowboy. Your fennel puree is in the drawer.”
I feel a rush of gratefulness. Cleaning those chanterelles is going to take up a bunch of my time. “Thanks T. You have a good night.”
Ian looked up from a batch of rainbow carrots he was peeling.
“Night Terry. See you tomorrow.”
The morning crew was gone, replaced by the line cooks. Mike was almost done at the vacuum sealer, exchanging puns with Sarah, the amuse cook. She’s responsible for the other four amuse bouche that come with each tasting menu. Rich was writing something on a clipboard on the expo station. Arturo was joined by Maria and Jose, over in the dishroom, listening to tinny mariachi music from the hand-held speaker Jose brought from his other job. Tony and Dave, the two saute guys, were dicing shallots and garlic, discussing the best places to go mushroom foraging this time of year, being careful to use cryptic terms so as not to give any of their spots away.
“You remember where we went last year, over ten?”
“Yeah, just under the pylons?”
“So if you go beyond the pylons there’s a shoulder just by that one tree we talked about, thirty feet to the south is a whole field of ‘em.”
Relax guys. No one’s after your lucky charms.
I finally finished the beets. They’re cut into wedges, sprinkled with a little salt and vinegar, and spread into several bags just like the fennel. The vacuum sealer is free, so I grabbed all my bags and made a beeline for it, narrowly beating out Sarah, who was approaching with a bag of her own.
“Ha!” I fist-pump the air in mock triumph, setting the vac machine to medium-high.
“Aw come on Yannick, I only have one my one bag. Can I cut in front of you?”
Sarah gave me her best pout, flashing my a pair of shining puppy-dog eyes. Her white-blonde hair is held up by a green bandanna covered in sunflowers. She may bat her eyelashes and give me a little smile when she wants something, but I’ve seen her plate fifteen amuse at once, while cooking garlic confit on a burner behind her to order. She’s not fooling anyone with the cutesy routine.
“Sorry Sarah. I need to get these in water. I’ll seal yours though. What is it, melon?”
The contents of her bag are orange and reek of anise, and we have an amuse on the menu that has a cantaloupe-pernod caviar. One and one make two. She nodded.
“Can you seal it on high and give it back to me? Thanks.”
“Hey Sarah, what did the ocean say to the shore?” Mike cracked, grinning over the vita-mix blender that sat on the counter in front of him.
Sarah shook her head. “I dunno Mike, what?”
“Nothing. It just waved.” He flipped the switch on the mixer, laughing at the collective groans lost beneath the roar of the motor.
I moved the bags through the vacuum machine as fast as I could. It only takes twenty seconds or so to suck the air out of the bags and seal them, but I’ve got ten to fifteen bags here. And it’s not like I can do anything else at the same time.
Sous vide is not a new technology. It’s a two step process; first, you sealed food in an airtight container. Then you poached it in water. It actually began in the seventies as an industrial food-preparation method. Then, in ‘74, a french chef by the name of Georges Pralus discovered that by sealing foie gras in a plastic bag and cooking it sous vide, it lost less fat and had a better texture.
Every leap forward in the culinary industry ever has been done first by the French. You can take that to the bank.
Because my station featured sous vide so heavily, I have four water baths built into the countertop, with immersion circulators wired directly into them to precisely control the water temperature. Again, the owners dumped a metric fuck-ton of money into this kitchen. Toys are one of the perks. And also again, not worth the price demanded of us.
“Here you go Sarah.” I slid the bag of neon-orange cubes across the counter on my way back to my station.
The water baths are hot and ready to go; I calibrate the first one with a very scientific technique known as ‘turning the knob’ to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, dropping the fennel and beets into the water. Most of the water baths are used in the morning for the prep team. I’ll keep one on and full for my utensils during service but I’ll cover the rest and use the space for the pots, pans, plates, napkins and other sundry items I’ll need.
“Start a timer for forty-five minutes.” I whispered into my phone. The fennel takes forty-five, the beets take an hour. Siri chirps a confirmation and went back in my pocket. I look at the clock.
Three thirty-five. Holy shit I just might make it. I weaved my way between the press of bodies towards the walk in for garlic and shallots, yelling ‘behind’ and ‘here’ as I went.
Chef was in the walk-in, inspecting the shelves for missing labels or mistakes. I only froze like a deer in the headlights for a split second at seeing her.
“Morning Yannick.” She said cordially, scooting to one side as I sidled past to grab mesh bags of shallots and garlic. Chef had short black hair and round glasses. Her custom-made blue apron was tied with a perfect bow at the small of her back. Her clipboard bore rows of exact script in neat lines above razor-straight stacks of numbers.
“Everything going alright?” She stopped what she was doing and turned towards me with a smile.
Chef Sam was unlike any boss I had ever had in my ten years as a cook. She was polite and genuinely interested in your triumphs and problems. She treated everyone, from her sous chef to the part-time dishwasher, with respect and compassion. She also dealt praise and punishment with open hands, without remorse or hesitation, like the blind scales of justice. She hardly ever raised her voice.
I had heard Tony bitterly call her a ‘robot’ one night over beers for cracking him open like an egg for a mistake he made and then four minutes later asking politely about his kids. Her discipline was devoid of personality; it was ice cold equation. Failing to live to known standards despite proper training is unacceptable. It’s Chef’s bottom line, the end of the rope. Test her and you’ll hang. Her attention to detail operated on the microscopic level. She would be the first to jump in to show you a better way to do something if you asked for help. She was the first person to arrive in the morning and the last to leave.
If I could be half the chef she is, I’d consider myself a success. She also scared the ever-living bejeezus out of me.
“Yes chef.” I mumbled. Even I heard the lack of conviction in my voice.
“Really? Doesn’t sound like it.” She said gently. “Do you need a hand? I’ve got a few minutes.”
Goddamn she was nice. I felt my cheeks burn hotly as I thought of Chef stooping to help the vegetable guy out with cutting shallots.
“No, I’m good chef. Just tired.”
She cracked a straight-lipped grin. “Late night with Ian and the guys last night?”
“Ah, you know…” I said awkwardly, backing out of the walk in. I nearly tripped over Arturo in my haste to get back to my station.
There has been much talk about the forgiveness of chefs in the hospitality industry of late. Starting about five years ago people started talking about the alcoholism, drug use and depression rates that ran rampant among cooks, blaming hard-ass chefs who used fear as a weapon, burning through staff like they were charcoal, fuel for the flame. Cooks, desperate to win approval, were working fourteen hour workdays with no breaks, never taking a vacation or using sick time.
Eric Ripert, chef of the world-famous Le Bernardin was the first person to put it into words:
“We shouldn’t be proud of chefs who are screaming in the kitchen.”
So, gradually, chefs changed. They became more forgiving, more compassionate. They became like Chef Sam.
But you know who didn’t change? The cooks.
It’s almost like being in a cult. A cult centered on pride. Pride at it’s most base, chest-thumping level. Pride is all we have, so we guard it with our last breaths. We take the casual cruelty of our industry and hold it up to the world as justification for our elitism.
I worked fourteen hours and bounced a hundred and fifty tasting menus off a saute station with six burners and a goddamn charcoal-powered box. So I’ll sneer at the salad guy who took a day off to take his kids to the park because he doesn’t work as hard as I do, which makes me better than him. He isn’t willing to sacrifice his body and his free time and his life like I am, so he doesn’t deserve as goddamn much as I do.
It’s a tower of gibbering ghouls scrabbling over each other to the top, clawing and fighting, nails tearing raw furrows of raw meat, showering blood onto the souls below, all to grab the prize of the title and power.
Because maybe, just maybe, then we’ll get a break.
I hate it. I hate the whole goddamn sick mentality of it. But that’s why I can’t ask Chef Sam for help. I’m too proud.
Small dicing garlic and shallots is technically challenging, but I don’t really have to think about it. Oh, speaking of thinking–
“What’s up Yann?”
“What’s going on with the duck pick up? You said yesterday it was changing?”
Rich adjusts his glasses. “Totally. We’re adding a roasted chanterelle to the plate, same as we do with the chop pick up.”
“Same method and everything? Garlic, butter–”
“–and shallots, yes. So just keep an ear out for the duck call, yeah?”
“Thanks man. You know it actually reminds me of this one time when I was working at Per Se–”
I casually tuned him out. I’m sure it’s a cool story but I just don’t have the fucks to give right now. I laugh and smile and eventually he went away. I just needed to know about the duck pick up man, I didn’t want your life’s story.
Ian leaned over his cutting board. Up close, he’s got deep blue bags under his eyes, and his pupils blur in and out of focus. He must be operating on four to five hours of sleep, max. I recognize the look. It’s the same one that glares at me resentfully from the mirror every morning. The only difference is he’s happy. And I’m not.
“You know, this one time when I was working at Per Se…” He drawled, mocking Rich’s casual disdain with remarkable accuracy. We both snicker, furtively glancing over our shoulders like schoolboys to make sure the teacher isn’t watching.
“Hey Ian can I ask you something?” I lowered my voice.
“‘Sup?” He sliced through a chicken leg, deftly removing the bone from the flesh.
I opened my mouth but hesitated. How do I ask this?
“Why do you…how did…why are you here?” I finally finished, feeling foolish.
Ian looks up, dark eyebrows furrowing in confusion.
“What do you mean? Like tonight?”
“No, no. I mean like…in a kitchen. Why do you do what we do?”
I’m blindly grasping for a revelation. Something, anything, to get back from this place. Maybe Ian is going to say something that will make me go ‘aha! I totally like that thing too!’.
“Because I like it, man.” Ian looked over at me almost apologetically. We’ve hung out after work a few times before and he’s heard my frustrations. “I mean yeah it’s hard, sure, but I the food is badass and I get to work with cool cats like you…”
He’s trying to make me feel better. Nice guy Ian is nice.
“No I know, but you have to admit it’s… I mean it’s not exactly profitable.”
I’m 24 years old, and I make $15.00 an hour, which is Seattle’s minimum wage. There are secretaries sitting in lobbies at Amazon that make 15 grand a year more than I do answering phones.
Ian barely suppressed a laugh. “Dude if you’re in this industry for the money, get out now. We’re the working poor. Always have been, always will be. Find fulfillment elsewhere in the job.”
“I’m not just in it for the money.” I protested. “I’m just…”
“Looking for a reason to stay?” He gave me a direct look and I shriveled up inside.
We worked on in silence.
I finished the shallots and garlic; I’ve got a little under a pint of each, which should get me through tonight. I snipped off two pieces of tape and slid the containers in my drawers, beneath my six-burner. I have two drawers with six third pans each. Most of them are full, thanks to the rockstar morning prep team. Pickled carrots, fermented celery, a squeeze bottle of turnip puree…hours and hours of work to make sure that I can get through service.
Praise be unto prep cooks, for without them I’d be truly fucked.
The mise is shaping up. I checked my phone; five minutes until the fennel is done, which means twenty until the beets. I can speed up their cooling in an ice bath during standup.
I need a full third pan of halved brussels, that’s next on my list. The brussel dish has been crazy popular lately. Unsurprising, seeing as it consists of roasted brussel sprouts, pickled carrots, brown butter hollandaise, apple cider gastrique and a poached egg. I’d eat it off the floor.
The chanterelles that Terry was talking about are there as well. About a third are cleaned, the rest are dusted in the forest loam and leaf debris that they were dug from. I lean in and inhale deeply. They smell like wet hillsides under gloomy october skies, like pine needles and soft dirt.
Brussels, butter and chanterelles. That’s what’s left on my list. It’s four-ten.
Hustling back from the walk in with my case of brussel sprouts I can see signs of the kitchen getting ready for service. Mike, who is almost always done first, has cleared his section of countertop of cutting boards and knives and is filling quart containers with halved tomatoes and julienned fennel. Tony and Dave are filling the warming cabinet with plates. Ian has finished his chickens and is starting his last prep item, a box of octopus.
I’m rapidly running out of time.
My phone alarm went off and I ran to the dishroom, grabbing a six-quart cambro. I hurled a few shovelfuls of ice into it, weaving around servers gossiping around the espresso machine on my way back to my station.
I dropped the fennel into the ice water, setting a timer for fifteen minutes so I don’t forget the beets.
Trim the bottom off the sprout, pick off the outer leaves, cut in half vertically. Repeat.
My phone chirps again and I stick the beets in the ice water.
Four-thirty. I’m not done with the brussels but I slide the pan into my drawers and stick the case back in the walk-in, seizing three pounds of butter while I’m in there. I have fifteen minutes to dice butter and clean and cut chanterelles. I can cut brussels to order if I have to.
I diced the butter without really thinking about it. It’s all being melted anyway; as long as it’s in small pieces I can work with it doesn’t really matter what size it is.
The servers run white tablecloths along the main counter in the center of the kitchen, using rolls of blue masking tape to fasten the edges so they don’t flap annoyingly in the middle of service.
“Catch you later dude.” Ian hefted his hotel pan of sealed and marinated octopus tentacles and headed to his station along the far wall, whistling as he went.
I grabbed the hotel pan of chanterelles and a brush, scrubbing the delicate yellow mushrooms as fast as I could. I looked around; I was officially the only one left prepping. How was everyone so much fucking faster than I was?
“Four-forty Yannick.” Chef Sam called over from her conversation with Rich over a menu.
“Yes Chef.” My mouth formed the reply before my brain recognized what she said. That’s just what you say. If chef asked you to nose-dive over a bridge, you said ‘yes chef’. What she was actually saying was I had five minutes to get my shit together before stand-up.
Arturo brought me a stack of cast-iron saute pans, sliding them neatly onto my prep table.
“¿Terminado wey?” He pointed to my cutting board.
“Simon, gracias.” I said gratefully. He took it with him back to his dishroom. I loved that man.
“Yann, can I light your Box for you?” Dave leaned over from his table where he and Tony were shooting the shit, waiting for standup.
Fuck me, I forgot about the Box. My stomach plummeted. I forgot to light the charcoal. It’s four forty-three. It’s going to take at least a half hour to get hot enough to be useful; I’m going to be fanning the ever-living fuck out of those flames in about twenty minutes so I can cook my amuse over them.
“Shit. I mean, yes please. Thanks Dave.”
The Box was exactly what it sounded like. Its real name was a yakitori grill, but we just called it a Box. Imagine two cinder blocks placed end to end lengthwise. Stack a bunch of red-hot coals in the center and place a non-stick wire grate over the top. There’s a small door on the side that slides horizontally to control airflow. That’s the Box. It imparts a grill-type char and smokiness to food without a great amount of color. I cook most of my veggies on it. I can’t fucking believe I forgot to light it.
“Four forty-five!” Rich bellowed, folding his arms in front of the pristine, tablecloth-lined countertop.
“Yes chef!” We all roared in answer. I dropped my mushrooms, standing at my place in front of my station like a marine at ease, legs spread, hands folded at the small of my back. Mike, Sarah, Ian, Tony and Dave were frozen in mirror images in front of their stations.
The servers were standing in a crowd at the end of the kitchen closest to the dining room. The head servers were wearing immaculate black suits with grey ties and vests. The junior servers wore the same outfit, but without the dinner jacket.
The two owners, Michael and Doug, were standing by Chef, wearing perfectly tailored navy blue suits. Chef inclined her head to Michael, who stepped forward. He was a cheerful guy, with a big white smile and laugh wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. I’ve seen him fire servers without batting an eye over dropped espresso cups, his smile never faltering.
“Hey everyone, how are you doing?” It’s a rhetorical question, and no one answered. He rubbed his hands together. “It’s a big night tonight. What is it, Doug, sixty on the books?”
His brother, Doug, set his china espresso cup back on its saucer.
Doug is a man of few words. Bet he still pulls in over a hundred grand from this place though.
“Sixty five!” Michael grinned like this was the best news he had ever heard. “Big night, big night. We’ve got Amy Hood, the CFO of Microsoft at table 16 for a birthday event, and Macklemore having dinner with his wife will be here at seven thirty.”
The servers all tittered with appreciation at these illustrious stars gracing us with their presence. We could have been carved from stone.
To us, it didn’t matter who we were serving or why. The guests were nameless, faceless entities who consumed our food and left. They were wraiths.
“As you may know, our very own executive chef Sam Virginica is going to New York in a few days to cook at the James Beard house. She’ll be taking two cooks from the back of house, which I’m sure is very exciting for you all.”
He swiveled his shit-eating grin around the kitchen, but no one responded. It would have been exciting, if it wasn’t a foregone conclusion who Chef was going to take. She would take Sarah, because Terry could step into the station with no problem, and Ian because he was rock-solid. The only question would be who would work the grill for that weekend. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo Michael.
The owner cleared his throat. “Chef Sam, do you have anything?”
“Watch your safety calls in and around the kitchen, please people.” Chef said, eyeing some of the servers. “There’s been a few near-accidents from people trying to slip around corners.”
“Excellent point!” Michael simpered from behind Chef’s shoulder. She adjusted her glasses.
“Everyone set for tonight? Mike?”
“You’re up to date on the new pick-up for the oyster?”
“Yes chef, I’ve got the fried kale and longpepper ready to go.”
“You’re going to be done with those mushrooms by the first ticket, right?”
“I will, yes Chef.” I’ll have to haul ass to get them cleaned and trimmed for service. Time, it seemed, would not be on my side today.
“See that you do, please. Tony?”
“Ian? How many ribeye do we have for tonight?”
“Think it’ll be enough to get us through?”
“I think so, yes chef.”
“Keep Rich updated on the count, we can switch to a chop if we have to. Dave?”
“Rich, got anything?”
“Guys please don’t forget about the new duck pick-up we talked about last night. We’re adding a roasted chanterelle and beet mole to the duck. You all saw it last week on the veal chop plate, so you’re familiar with the flavors.”
Chef nodded. “Mike, Doug, anything else?”
“Server meeting in the dining room, guys.” Michael ran a daily server meeting after standup every day. They usually try a wine off the extensive wine list or go over the menu, quizzing each other. Or maybe they just blew on whistles and color with crayons. I’ve never been to a server meeting, I have no idea what the fuck it is they do.
“Alright everyone, good service. Thank you.”