Chew on this

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Cooking for a living

I'll say one thing for sure: You get a whole 'nother view of food when you cook in a restaurant for any length of time.

You gain two new perspectives (at least) in doing this work: For one, you come to understand how to be a good customer; no one who has slaved over a sandwich line or a grill can ever again look at the plate the waitress has just put down in front of you without knowing the multiple levels of effort that go into it.

I had a girlfriend for a couple of years who was hard to please, to say the least. She had grown up well-off, then fell down among the regular mortals somehow. She once had a panic attack because she'd bought a second-hand sofa and then couldn't deal with the implications. I laughed at her and she broke up with me for three days.

She was also in the habit of sending her food back when we ate out. There was always some little thing wrong with it, according to her.

After about the third or fourth time, I challenged her on this. "Don't you realize," I asked her, "how the cooks in the back are reacting to this?" She professed not to know, so I clued her in.

"At the very least," I explained, "they are calling you a princess for sending back perfectly good food. That's at the very least."

I then went on to detail to her what was just as likely to have happened between the time she sent back her perfectly fine tuna melt and the time it was innocently returned.

"No way!" she cried in horror.

"Yes, way," I said.

And so it is. Maybe. A valid complaint is fine. But don't press your luck.

The second thing you learn if you are a cook long enough is how to be a master of your food. This carries over into real life, and into the domain sketched out in previous columns -- i.e., not eating trash on a regular basis.

Be a prep cook for a couple years and it's at almost as easy, and a lot more satisfying, to cook something halfway decent as it is to microwave something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, and then eat it.

Not only is prep cook probably the best job in the restaurant (washing dishes is a close second), but it is also a meditational exercise. Once you know what you're doing, you simply go and do and dwell in your soul awhile, and make sure the cooks have plenty of everything when you're done.

One possible negative consequence of being a line cook, though, is that when you do find yourself in the position to carelessly toss together a beautiful little chicken breast with some Asian noodles from the back of the cupboard (how they got there nobody remembers) and a sauce whipped up from peach preserves, half a can of ginger ale, a dash of bitters, a bigger dash of Sriracha hot sauce, und so weiter, you may just not want to get near a stove at all, at all.

I have run most of the gamut of "being a cook," from flipping burgers at Mc-You-Know-Who's to light duty at a local tea room (now gone) to my true initiation, three years in the kitchen of a well-known subterranean local eatery downtown. I reached my limits in New Orleans after two weeks in one of the Emeril Lagasse restaurants. I made it through the salad station and the hors d'oeuvre training before losing my cool at the first grill, throwing my tall white hat and a stream of invective at the sous chef, and stomping off to find another job.

All of which is to say I was there and I did it, and now I don't, but let me tell you: any cook in this town is working way harder than anyone pounding a keyboard in this town, and next time you order a meal, consider that.