12 August 2011

2 Days, 5 Wounds, and a Career Change

I’d been thinking about becoming a cook for years. I'm a writer. Went to film school at USC, tried the screenwriting thing, ended up writing random things in random places across the Interwebs. Some of it I enjoyed. Some of it, where I was essentially writing for search engine algorithms instead of people, not so much.

I didn’t make the career jump for a number of reasons. Chief among those reasons: I am not an impulsive person (read: scared). I needed to know if the daily routine of a kitchen was something I could handle. Except I wasn’t really sure how to find that out.

As with many food-loving media consumers, I’m a fan of Anthony Bourdain. My personal admiration for the man stems from the fact that he parlayed a cooking career into an acclaimed writing and television career, which pretty much hits all the "interests" I list on social network profiles. I consider myself to be a fairly estimable cineaste, but the Top 10 list Bourdain did for the Criterion Collection puts me to shame – I’ve only seen four of them. Be still my man-crushing heart.

Suffice to say, the idea of pulling a Reverse Bourdain (that’d be writer-turned-chef) fills me with considerable joy. But much to my dismay, Bourdain often dismisses the increasingly trendy food world, and especially the part where thousands of disaffected idiots like me begin to fancy themselves chefs. In Medium Raw, Bourdain devoted an entire chapter to basically breaking my will, along with every other disaffected idiot who fancies chefdom.

And then he gave an out.

     Are you the type of person who likes the searing heat, the mad pace, the never-ending stress and melodrama, the low pay, probable lack of benefits, inequity and futility, the cuts and burns and damage to body and brain – the lack of anything resembling normal hours or a normal personal life?
     Or are you like everybody else? A normal person?
     Find out sooner rather than later. Work – for free, if necessary, in a busy kitchen. Any kitchen that will have you will do – in this case, a busy Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s or any old place will be fine. Anybody who agrees to let your completely inexperienced ass into their kitchen for a few months – and then helpfully kicks it repeatedly and without let-up – will suffice.
So, I set out to get my ass kicked.

 A friend connected me to a chef de cuisine at a Pasadena restaurant who'd talk to me. He told me about kitchen life, how he managed his Le Cordon Bleu loans, and how his early career unfolded. And then he said I could work for two days if I really wanted to see what it was like.

Yes, please.

I hadn’t spent more than half a day working in a restaurant kitchen before I thought I was going to die a cruel death. I showed up at 8am the first day, anxious and second-guessing my decision to go through with this. After nine years of writing, I was julienning bell peppers, dicing squash, and halving cherry tomatoes. It took me a while to figure out what a “deli” was, but otherwise these initial tasks were all in my comfort zone as a home cook. I asked what else I could do.

The chef in charge of lunch nodded over to a huge stock pot of boiling fingerling potatoes and said I could strain it if I wanted. It was easily the largest stock pot I’d ever seen in my life, probably around 100 quarts. As I lifted it, my allegedly slip-resistant work boots slipped a little bit on the wet, allegedly anti-slip rubber floor mat. At this point, I remembered a random work safety PSA I’d seen on YouTube, in which a pretty, bright female chef talks about how well her life and career are going before she slips with a pot of boiling water and literally melts her face off.

I took tiny steps all the way to the sink with this bathtub of scalding fingerlings at chest level, certain the lunch chef was expecting me to screw this up in a spectacular, comic-book-villain-origin-story kind of way (Harvey Boil-Face? Man-Braise? Ra’s a la Minute?). But I didn’t. I got it on the lip of the sink, tipped into the biggest colander I’d ever seen in my life, and moved on to potato chip duty.

I promptly sliced my left thumb wrestling potatoes through a mandoline. By the afternoon, I worked up a callous on the base of my index finger, the pressure point where the knife’s handle had dug into my hand as I chopped other, denser root vegetables. The callous quickly tore apart to create an open wound. Over the course of the day, despite the use of bandaids and latex gloves, lemons and tomatoes proved not to be on friendly terms with my fresh wounds. Fun trivia: tomatoes give a longer, deeper sting than the quick zap of lemons. Cut yourself and try it if you don’t believe me.

My right forearm began to cramp after several hours of mincing, so I went lefty for a bit. Which worked fine until I almost chopped my right fingers off. Then my index finger cramped so badly that I couldn’t straighten it, making it look like I had some kind of palsy. By the end of the day, my cuts burned, my neck was stiff from holding the same looking-down-at-the-counter pose for hours, and my hands reeked of lemons and raw shrimp. I was more tired then I’d ever been in my adult life. All I could think was how severely my ass had just been kicked.

The prep chef I’d been shadowing on the first day called out sick the next, so day two began at a hectic pace. I had to halve a whole crate of cherry tomatoes ASAP. Which was fine except there’s no real way to streamline that process. You pin down a cherry tomato, half it, pin down the next, and so on. Suddenly, my amateur status was holding things up.

But I got through it. Later, I gave the base of my right thumb a pretty sweet-looking (if I say so myself) triple cut, this again from wrestling potatoes through a mandoline to make fries. About halfway through the day I realized that I was in a pretty good zone. I’d started to get my bearings, stay out of people’s way, label and store prepped veggies, and even have conversations while working. I worked a little bit with the chef de cuisine and managed to chop onions without crying like a little girl.

Final Score: Mandoline 2, Me 0
At the end of day two, my hands still smelled. My cuts still burned. But my neck didn’t even hurt and, strangely, I wasn’t tired at all. In fact, I was excited. 

That was a professional kitchen. It had a unique rhythm. A small crew doing a dozen different things that all end on the same plate. Things get done and customers eat. Conference calls aren't like that. A Starbucks overflowing with aspiring screenwriters and their MacBooks doesn't feel like that. Having your soul sucked out by SEO tasks definitely doesn't replicate that vibe. It hurt, but it hurt pretty good.

Now I know. I’m in.

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