It started as is always did; we waited. We kept busy with small, easy-to-put-away projects on our cutting boards, chatting with each other about nothing, keeping one ear open for the printer beside Chef, who was calmly talking with Rich about a farm that she went to last Sunday with her fiancee, Brenna. I filled up a small pot with water for my poached eggs.
In an hour and a half this place would be a shit-storm of motion, food and people. Plates would be flying out into the dining room dozens at a time while fifteen people all worked around each other in a delicate ballet that could easily crumple into chaos at any moment. But for now we stood and waited.
I finished brushing my chanterelles and sliced each into quarters, packing them into a metal third pan with dry white paper towels. Mushrooms are ninety-two percent water; given the slightest opportunity they’d get soggy.
The printer at Chef’s elbow chattered loudly and all conversation halted immediately. The squat black machine ticked and tacked two lengths of paper; one white and one yellow.
“Order fire.” Chef said calmly. “Amuse for two. Two Saison salads. Two prawn. One salmon, one ribeye. One risotto, one gnocchi. One duck, to share.” She removed the yellow copy and handed it to Rich, who tacked it to the hot-side rail that hung between Ian and Tony’s station. It would stay there, untouched, until Chef said to fire the salmon and ribeye.
“Yes Chef!” Sarah and I said in unison. The first table of the night, a two-top. They were getting three amuse, followed by the tasting menu. I watched Sarah deftly spin two curved shot glasses onto the linen-topped counter, pouring two ounces of neon-orange pumpkin and radish soup into each. She gently set the soup back onto the burner behind her and and spooned a perfect semi-circle of rose-infused pickled apples onto the top of each. She slid the soups across the table to Chef.
“Two soup shots.”
“Dennis please.” Chef called. The expo whisked the soup shots onto a waiting bamboo tray covered with a square of dazzling white linen, handing it to Alex, who was waiting for it. Dennis worked the expo station on Fridays and Saturdays, taking the finished plates from Chef and coordinating with the front of house so the lead server responsible for the table could take out the corresponding plates.
“Amuse for table 42 please Alex.”
“Thank you.” The tall server said calmly, nodding. He spun on his polished heel and walked out into the dining room followed by his two server-attendants.
“Yann, ready on the carrot.” Chef called over. Another ticket was already printing at her elbow.
“Order Fire. Amuse for three. One Saison salad. One brussel. One prawn, one cod. Two ribeye. One risotto, one ravioli. Duck to share. Yannick, fire carrot please. Sarah, fire two soups.”
Here we go. Right on the heels of the ticket Chef just called is another curling off the printer, chattering like a machine-gun. I’ve got one carrot amuse fired, another on the board; I can see Sarah plating another round of soup shots, which mean I’ll be getting the fire order any minute. In my immediate future I have two more carrot, four ahi sets, roasted vegetables for one salmon, three ribeye and two ducks, and one brussel entree. Two tables down, another seventy or so to go.
I grabbed a metal quarter sheet tray from the large stack on my side-table, putting a square of white paper towel on top. These my staging areas for almost all of my dishes, which I then slide down to Tony and Rich to plate.
From my mise in the drawer below me I use my plating tongs to gently pull two bright orange crisps that looks like a tiny cannolis out of a sixth pan lined with white linen; a gift from the pastry department. With my other hand I fished around for the squeeze bottle of roasted carrot puree I know Terry made for me, squeezing the filling gently into the cannolis.
Chef began calling the next ticket. “Order fire, amuse for four. Order in, four Saison salad, four brussels, two prawn, one cod, two ribeye, two salmon, two risotto, one gnocchi, one ravioli.”
Fuck. That one is going to hurt. Four brussel entrees is going to take me five minutes of doing nothing else, while my amuse and veg sets continue to stream in. I struggled to mentally adjust my count of amuse and vegetables. Six carrot now, same number of ahi. Six vegetable sets for salmon and five ribeye.
Don’t lose the count, whatever you do.
I gave my tongs a quick swish in the hot sous-vide water, and dug into the sixth pan of pressed and dried feta cheese, selecting six nice-looking shards. I laid them gently along the top of the carrot tubes. Six dots of fennel puree from another squeeze bottle and it was done. Rich and Tony will finish plating them on their station.
“Chef Rich, carrot coming over.” I call, sliding the carrot along the no-man’s land between where my station ended at the Box, and the line of delicate greens in ninth pans and double-boiler of sauce-laden quart containers that marked the start of the plating station.
“Thank you Yann.” Rich said formally, taking the sheet tray as soon as it left my hand. “Looks good.” He deftly plated the cannoli onto two clear acrylic blocks, using a pair jewellery tongs identical to mine to lift fluffy green leaves of baby arugula onto them.
“Dennis, amuse for table 42 please.” He called, glancing up at the copy of the ticket that hung above his station.
“Yannick, Ian, fire three ahi please.”
The ahi set was easier because it was split. I fanned the charcoal at the bottom of the Box furiously for the last time; it was almost there. I tore a piece of aluminum foil off the roll and set in on the grate. From my drawer I grabbed three small pink steam buns each the size of a nickel, placing them on the aluminium to warm through without adding any color on the bottom.
We were really hopping now. Chef called another ticket, a two-top splitting a duck and seven courses. In the back of my head the guitar solo from Thunderstruck by AC/DC started playing.
The rush hits the kitchen like a rising tide, hissing and spitting through the stations. First it hits Sarah and I on the amuse. Sarah was garnishing four soup shots, with another three waiting to be filled, and I was waiting for the fire on three carrot amuse, with a four-top just behind it, and a total of eight ahi. Then Mike was going to get hammered on salads; he was already watching Ian carefully, waiting for the last amuse on the first table to go out so he could start the first two.
“Tuna over.” I called, adding three long green onion curls to the sheet tray with steam buns, sliding it over to Rich.
“Tuna over.” Ian mirrored the call on Rich’s other side, handing the sous chef a quarter sheet tray with three perfectly grilled sliced of ahi tuna.
Rich bent over two ivory plates, giving them a swoosh of emerald shiso puree before quickly composing the plates with the bao, tuna and green onion.
After Mike gets sucked into the rush come Ian Tony and Dave, firing a dizzying combination of gnocchi, salmon, ravioli, ribeye and duck. The pastry department feels it last, almost two hours after we get going, plating the first dessert courses. You can see the rush boiling up the line, foaming and angry.
“Yannick, fire three carrot, followed by one brussels!” Chef had to raise her voice slightly to be heard over the chattering of the printer and the hum of noise from the servers gathering at the entrance to the kitchen waiting for food. The flat metal railing in front of her was filling up with fluttering white tickets, marked with circles and slashes from the black sharpie she kept tucked behind her ear. “Order fire, amuse for three. Three Saison salad, three brussels, two cod, one prawn, three salmon, two gnocchi, one risotto, duck to share.”
I nodded, my response lost in the clatter of pots and pans. I slid a saute pan onto the six burner with a three squares of diced butter, setting the flame on low. I filled and topped three carrot tubes as fast as I could, my hands starting to shake. The counts were adding up with dangerous speed. I began to worry about my brussel sprout supply; I would run out at this pace.
“Chef Rich, three carrot over.”
I grabbed seven brussel sprout halves, placing them cut-side down in the melted butter and cranked the heat up to high.
“Yannick, fire three Ahi!”
I tore a scrap of aluminium from the roll and set three bao atop the Box, agitating the brussels to prevent them from sticking to the pan. I lifted one with my tongs; there were caramelized enough. I deglazed the pan with a splash of apple cider vinegar and sprinkled a dash of salt into the pan. I slid it off the burner while I pulled the bao onto another quarter sheet tray with green onion curls.
“Ahi over.” I called, without looking. I quickly grabbed a sous-vide poached egg from my drawer and cracked it into the simmering water on the back burner, mentally counting to ten. The egg was already cooked, I just needed to heat it through. Sous-vide was the best thing to happen to poached eggs; perfectly cooked whites with a soft yolk after forty minutes at a hundred and forty-five degrees.
I palmed a eight-inch white plate onto my plating station, using my larger plating tongs to transfer the brussels to the plate. I lifted the egg from the water, patting it with a paper towel so it didn’t weep vinegar water onto the finished dish.
“Fire one salmon, one ribeye!” Sam called. “Yannick, fire four Ahi, two carrot.”
“How long on Brussels?” Rich called, eyeing his tickets.
“In my hands chef!” I called, wiping sweat from my forehead.
No one on our side of the line is talking anymore. Pots clang and clatter, the servers hum in quiet conversation and Dennis confers with Chef over amuse sliding across the countertop. Focus has been tightened, stations roped off. We’re chained to this place now.
I set the egg on the plate and reached into my drawer for thin sliced pickled carrot. I finished the plate with dots of thickened apple cider vinaigrette. Rich would give it a dab of brown butter hollandaise, kept warm above Ian’s grill.
“Brussels over!” I called, lifting the plate between my palms and setting it gingerly in easy arm’s reach of Rich, hustling to start four more bao. Ian, Tony and Dave are in it now, each working on the first of the night’s entrees bouncing off the grill and saute stations.
Three ahi. Two carrot. Roasted pearl onions, glazed with a hit of apple cider vinegar for a ribeye set. Time begins to stretch, minutes losing their meaning in the onslaught of tickets. I struggle to keep the count. Three carrot, five ahi, six brussels–or was it seven?–that salmon should have fired by now. Did I fucking miss a fire?
“Fire four brussels!” Chef’s voice cut through the slipping chaos in my head.
“Yes Chef! Chef Rich!”
“Yes, Yannick?” Rich looked over from the three plates of gnocchi he was meticulously shaving black truffle onto.
“Can I get an all-day please?” I didn’t make eye contact. I felt my cheeks burn.
There was a moment of stunned silence from the plating station. Who asked for an all-day in the first hour of service? Was it still even the first hour?
“Fired, four brussels, one salmon, three ahi, one duck. On order, five carrot, six ahi, five brussels, four salmon, six ribeye, four duck.” Rich rattled off the orders as quickly as he could, turning back to his plates.
Nobody else had asked for an all-day. I proclaim thee Yannick, weak link.
The question had accomplished it’s purpose, though; I did miss the salmon and duck fire. I slid one large and one small saute pans over burners, throwing a few cubes of butter into each. I tore a large strip of aluminium and loaded up three bao onto the grate. The Box was a little cool; I closed the slide to cut off airflow. I gave a fennel wedge a rub of olive and salt, added it to the grate. I dropped three chanterelle slices into the hot butter, tossing them quickly.
I smelled a waft of spice. The bao were starting to toast along the bottoms. I dropped the brussels I was about to put into the pan, loading the small pink steam buns onto a sheet tray with green onion curls, sliding it along the table.
“Three ahi sets. Salmon and duck sets in one, brussels in three.”
“I need that salmon set, Yann.” Rich called, adjusting his glasses.
I dropped a spoonful of shallots and garlic in with the mushrooms.
“Yannick, fire two brussels, two carrot!” Chef said loudly before sliding a plate of salad back to Mike, pointing to a pair of imperfect cherry tomatoes.
My mouth was dry and the air rasped hoarsely as I tried to remember to breathe. My station was littered with sheet trays and bits of food; eggshell fragments and brussel leaves.
I added a halved beet to the grate beside the fennel, flipping the wedge. I threw the rest of the brussels in the pan, giving it another cube of butter. I cranked the heat up; these four orders are holding up the mounting crush of amuse and veg sets behind them. Gotta go, gotta hurry.
The chanterelles were a beautiful caramelized color, coated with shallots and garlic; I shook most of the butter from them and slid them across the table on a quarter sheet tray.
“Yann.” Rich called over, inspecting the bao buns. “Watch the color on these, these three are a little toasted on the bottom.
“And give me that salmon set before you burn that too.” The sous chef pointed angrily at the fennel wedge which was starting to smoke above the grate.
“Fuck.” I used my fingers to grab the fennel and beet, tossing them onto a quarter sheet tray. The fennel was a little crispy around the tips but it was serveable. “Sorry chef.”
Rich took the sheet tray without saying anything.
Ian was bent over his enormous grill, his hands a blur as he flipped, sauced, prodded and moved a dizzying array of ribeye, salmon and cod across his grill. His face was red and shone with sweat. His eyes were tight and saw nothing but the mise in front of him. The same unblinking focus was scratched onto Tony’s face, as he handled eight saute pans with the grace of a dancer, sliding them on and off the heat, tossing and tasting in smooth, fluid motions. Arturo weaved between Rich and Ian, sliding clean plates into the hot-holding drawer and picking up a plastic bus tub of dirty dishes in two twists of his arms. He was like a ghost, the way he slipped in and out of a four-foot square space without a trace.
What was I doing here? I didn’t belong here.
I turned back to my station to smoking remnants of brussel sprouts, vivid green leaves bright and brilliant against the charred burnt bottoms.
Time stopped and ice punctured my chest in razor sharp shards.
Oh my god. They were completely ruined. I was already falling behind.
Now I was fucked.
Panic rose along the back of my throat, sending spasms ripping through my hands and making my knees tremble. I choked back a scream of anxiety and frustration.
I used one of the several towels strewn across my station to toss the pan in the bus tub, sliding another one across the flame and gritted my teeth for the worst part.
“Yeah?” She didn’t look up from the six plates on the linen she was sliding to Dennis, who was giving them to servers along with marching orders. Table 42 seat 1, table 15 seat 3, table 42 seat 3 and so on.
“I need time on those four brussels.”
Was it my imagination or did everyone stop for a split second? I could feel their eyes on me.
This time Chef did look up. “What happened?”
“Burnt them Chef.” I threw butter into the new pan with shaking hands and fumbled with the drawer.
“Why did you do that?” Her tone was flat.
I hesitated. What the fuck do you say to that? “Accident, Chef.”
She adjusted her glasses, staring at me with eyes hard as stone.
“Don’t do it again. Rich?”
“Slow down two prawn and cod on 35. Yannick, you have three minutes. Go on six brussels all day, then give Rich four salmon sets, three carrot and three ahi.”
“Yes Chef.” I breathed for the first time in what felt like hours, forcing my muscles to move. I talked to myself under my breath, a streaming monologue. “Six brussels spread out over two pans, three orders each, heat on medium goddamnit, while those are working grarb three carrot…”
I checked the clock, blinking stinging beads of sweat from my eyes as I peered over the tumult of writhing bodies and noise. For a split second I didn’t recognize the position of the two arms; thoughts came slow and fuzzy. Six…no, seven thirty. Jesus god, there were still three and a half hours of this to go.
I felt like I was being chased, fleeing through a dark and alien place as small things with sharp spears hunted for my soul. I was trapped. No way out.
I slid the carrot tubes over with time to spare on the brussels, sliding the pan so they didn’t stick please fuck don’t stick now please.
“Carrot over. Brussels plating in two.”
I cracked three eggs into the simmering water, sprinkling the two pans with salt and deglazing with vinegar. I palmed six plates, clutching the saute pans with a towel as I began lifting brussels with my plating tongs, counting under my breath.
“One, two, three…” Let’s dance you and me…
“Yannick, fire three ribeye sets! Rich, how long on gnocchi and cod on 14?”
Across from Chef on the main table Mike and Sarah were pounding out plate after plate, delicately pouring soup shots and plating intricate salads, heads and shoulders hunched against the current that pounded against us. In my heated imagination I thought of the guests as a tide of roaring mouths with sharp teeth, implacable and demanding. Our sanity didn’t matter, our effort unimportant. We were the sacrifices made for their perfect plates; a price paid in sweat and tears. When one of us dropped, the rest picked up the slack. No reprieve.
“Three brussels over!”
“I need one more to sell, Yann.” Rich’s round cheeks glistened in the light of the copper heat lamps.
“Working now chef.”
“Can I go on these?” The sous chef pointed at the three plates lingering between his station and mine. I nodded, cracking three more eggs into the water.
“Go. I’ll have the next three by the time you’re done.”
My breath was coming easier now. My hands were still trembling, but at least I was moving.
The next time I opened my drawer I noticed my brussel supply was getting dangerously low. I swore under my breath, reaching over them for chanterelles for three duck sets. I couldn’t say anything. I was already in the bulls-eye, I already fucked up. We were starting to weigh heavier on entrees anyway, I told myself. Maybe it’d be alright. Maybe I’d luck out.
We struggled forwards, all of us silent and slogging through the mountain of tickets weighing down on us. The rail in front of Rich fluttered with row after row of yellow tickets, a chaos of strikes and circles and times written in black sharpie. I sent tray after tray of carrot tubes and tiny pink bao over to the plating station, firing salmon and brussels and ribeyes one after the other, trying to keep up as Rich slowly lost patience, snapping at my weary heels. Where was that fucking salmon? How many brussels are you working? Give me two ribeye right the fuck now.
I tried to mentally close myself off, lock what was left of my soul in a room but it was too late. Each call that came from the printer sounded like it was spoken in mandarin, blending in with the one after it in a ceaseless babble that I couldn’t understand. I asked Rich for another all-day as I struggled to keep the count, and then another as I lost it moments later. Sarah asked me a question that I didn’t hear. AC/DC was no longer playing in my head. I was painfully present, agonizingly aware of how far behind I was slipping with every ticket. I was in the weeds.
“Sarah, fire two soups. Rich, go on entrees for 24. Yannick, fire four brussels.”
Chef was a never-ending machine at the expo station, wiping plates with wet cloth, giving servers plates, marking and firing tickets. She kept the count of the entire restaurant in front of her, thirty tables all firing and moving at once.
I opened my drawer for the millionth time and my heart stopped.
I was out of brussel sprouts.
I had banked on being able to trim them during service and now I was out. Suddenly it was freezing cold in the kitchen.
“Chef.” I closed my eyes. I was very aware of my heart thudding dully against my ribs.
“What, Yannick?” A small muscle clenched in Chef’s jaw as she stared right through me.
“I’m out of brussels.” Even to me, my voice sounded small and weak. I must have been heard, though, because this time everyone did stop. For two full seconds the only sound was the blood rushing in my ears and the spray of the dishmachine.
The fury in Chef’s eyes was palpable. Her hands curled into fists at her sides, and when she spoke, it was clear that she only controlled her voice with great effort.
“Rich, take over Yannick’s station. Dave, take over the board. Yannick, do whatever Rich tells you to.”
The sous chef nodded curtly and walked over to my station, a snarl spreading over his face at the scraps of eggshell, brussel leaves and towels that were thrown over the table. I backed into the corner and tried my best to disappear into the wall.
“Wipe this shit down and start trimming sprouts. Dave! I need an all day please.”
“Fired, five brussels, five salmon, two ribeye. On order…”
I wiped the station down with a wet towel and retreated into the walk-in. My chest burned with shame and humiliation. I was banished. Couldn’t hack it.
Failure. Complete and utter failure. Tears blurred my vision.
I seized the case of brussel sprouts and galloped back to my station, trimming them with shaking hands. The knife shook lightly in my grasp.
“Come on, come on hurry the fuck up!” Rich snapped at me, swiping what I had left and placing them into a waiting saute pan.
I worked as fast as I could, blinking often and subtly wiping the tears that still rose unbidden with my sleeve, pretending it was sweat. I tried to keep my sniffing to a minimum but I knew they heard me. I could see Sarah looking at me from the corner of her eye. Rich didn’t talk or look at me.
Failure failure failure. The tiny voice whispered gleefully in my ear.
When I had finished enough brussels for a sixth pan I tried to slip it into the drawer so Rich didn’t have to keep reaching across the table.
“Here.” I muttered pathetically, sidling next to him. He didn’t hear me, clearly, because he leaned over and reached for plating tongs in the well and I opened the drawer into his knee, eliciting a gasp of surprise and pain.
“Sorry! I was–”
“Goddammit it, Yann leave it! Just put it on the counter and stay the fuck out of the way.” Rich slammed the drawer closed and glared at me furiously before plating four brussels at once. His elegantly moussed hair was sagging to the side and dripping a milky substance that mixed with his sweat, sliding down his red cheeks in beads that looked like wax.
I stayed on the far end of the table after that, trimming brussels and occasionally wiping the table down when I saw the coast was clear.
The rush died down some time later. Mike and Sarah stopped making salads and amuse and they slowly began the process of cleaning up as the incoming tables slowed to a trickle. Mike emptied his mixed greens into a clear plastic container lined with linen for use on Monday, snipping a label from a roll of blue tape. Sarah poured what was left of the pumpkin soup into a hotel pan to cool.
Chef Rich, Dave, Tony and Ian were moving through what was tables were left. A steady stream of servers went in and out of the pastry area bearing desserts.
Eventually the last of the entrees left the saute station. I looked at the clock for the first time in what felt like forever; it was eleven-thirty. I felt like I had been beaten with sticks; my feet and shoulders hurt keenly and a sharp ache along my temples announced the arrival of a headache in my near future. Rich stepped off my station without a word and I began to pack it up for the night, moving slowly, not making eye contact with anyone. There wasn’t the normal level of chatter that accompanied the close today; things had not gone well.
My fault, my fault, my fucking fault.
Ian walked over with a familiar-looking third pan. He set it down on the table. Five of my salmon fillets were at the bottom.
“I worked around these.” He spoke softly, I could hear how angry he was. “They were two full ounces under weight. If I hadn’t taken the time to weigh them, I might have sent them out into the dining room.”
I hung my head. Goddamnit, even Ian hated me.
“It’s my ass on the line if I serve these, Yann. Next time, use a scale.”
He dropped the pan on my station and didn’t wait for a reply. More tears fell silently onto the burners as I attempted to scrub my sins from the cast iron. I knew he was right.
Chef disappeared for about twenty minutes, reappearing in her street clothes. She made her rounds through the kitchen, bidding everyone goodnight. She appeared relatively cheerful, shaking Mike’s hand and chatting with Sarah about boozy brunch spots on Cap Hill. My heart started hammering when I saw her make her way towards my station, ducking out of Arturo’s path as he rolled up the black sectional carpets for vacuuming outside.
“Yannick, may I have a word?” She kept her voice low, but we both knew everyone was looking.
We went into the privacy of the walk-in. I shivered as I felt the cool touch of cold air along my fevered skin.
Chef adjusted her glasses and ran a hand through her short black hair. She took a deep breath.
“So today could have gone better.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know, Chef.” My responses were wooden.
“Yannick.” She said warningly. “You are a lot of things, but you’re not stupid.”
I bit my tongue to keep tears of shame at bay. “I ran out of brussel sprouts. It was busier than I thought it would be.”
“I don’t accept that.” She said evenly. “You’ve worked here for a year now, and you’ve been on that station for six months. You knew how busy it was going to be tonight. Why didn’t you ask for help? I even asked you if you needed anything.”
I shrugged, unable to speak beyond the lump that had formed at the back of my throat. When I didn’t say anything, she continued.
“You watched your brussel supply dwindle, and you only raised your hand when you were out. You made a choice.” Her breath curled and misted into nothingness. “Do you understand that? You chose not to say anything. You chose to wait until it was a problem. You chose your pride over a properly prepared station. Why?”
I stared at my feet, blinking.
“Answer me!” She snapped.
“I…” I sniffled pathetically. “I didn’t want to be the only one who needed help.”
A moment of silence. “And how did that go for you?”
I shrugged weakly. I just wanted to go home.
She sighed again. “Take tomorrow to clear your head and figure out if you really want to be here. You and I will talk again on monday.”
She left to go talk to Dave and Tony. I went back to cleaning my station.
God I wanted a drink. There was most of a fifth of bourbon in my freezer; it would be gone in half an hour after I got home. I wanted to sink into myself and never surface.
I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t. She must know that. To quit would be the ultimate failure, even worse than what had happened tonight. I hated it here, but I couldn’t wash out. I couldn’t be beaten. On monday I’d walk in here same as I had today and lie, same as I had been lying to myself for a year. I want to be here. I’m good enough to be here. I’m happy here. The words sounded mocking even to me, burrowing like maggots into a corpse.
Happy here, happy here, happy here.