This job is really breaking me down. I’m no wimp but working in a 3-star restaurant at the meat station for 13 hours a day, 6 days a week during hunting season, in a traditional French kitchen is starting to feel like hell’s inferno. The heat, the yelling, the fear of messing up, never having enough time in the day to finish all the prep work, the constant criticism, the language barrier…everything…I don’t know how much longer I can do this.
My hands are permanently blood stained (out out damn spot!) and no matter how much bleach or hydrogen pyroxide I use it won’t go away. They are swollen from gutting hunted animals by hand and getting pricked by tiny bullet shattered bones – so much so, that I can’t even get my engagement ring over my knuckle let alone make a tight fist. The scars on my hands, wrists and arms from cooking and accidents (like the time I tripped on a box left on the floor and landed hands first onto our massive hot plate stove burning the entire side of my hand and wrist) are obscene.
I’m a mess.
And then there’s this other hellish part of cooking in a French kitchen that is hard to describe. Imagine being around the same people in a very small space in a very hot environment (around 80˚F during prep and 90˚F during service) for 13 hours a day every day. No cubicles or dividers. There is no hiding anything. Your life is visible for everyone to see and vice versa. If you’re tired they see it, if you’re upset or happy they see it, if you get yelled at by one of the chefs and break down in tears they see it. It’s like living in a green house and the heat just gets hotter and hotter until you just want to explode.
Last week I did something totally unprofessional that I still feel a little guilty about and got verbally ripped apart in front of the whole staff by the Executive chef. I took some chocolate chips from the pastry kitchen to my meat station to munch on during service. Why? I don’t know. I needed chocolate. I got my period for the second time during the month (which has never happened to me before) and I couldn’t handle the emotional roller coaster let alone the pain and needed something to make me happy.
I also have a new boss at the meat station and my old boss doesn’t see eye to eye with him and they both stress me out completely because they do everything differently. Hard to please two men at the same time! Not to mention my total exhaustion or the fact that I’ve worked there for free for 4 months and have never once asked for anything. Merde, I figured if a cup of chocolate chips was going to get me through the evening in one piece, then who cares? But the Executive chef saw me carry up the cup of chocolate chips and stopped me.
We’ve had this disgusting smelly bird grouse on the menu for the last few weeks and we were using dark chocolate chips in the sauce to deepen the flavor so I always had a few chips stored in my fridge. But it just so happened that we were sold out of grouse that day and no more would be arriving for the rest of the week. I thought I would just get some more chips and no one would notice.
But the executive chef did notice and in French yelled at me for everyone to hear. He was so pleased with himself for catching me in my little chocolate chip caper. Like he had solved the biggest crime of the century. “Grouse is not on the menu tonight!” he screamed in French. I tried to ignore him and go to my station because I knew I couldn’t make him understand in broken French how desperate I was for chocolate and I didn’t want to yell back at him that “I’m a woman, and I have cramps, and I feel like passing out in this f’ing heat, and I’m tired of two crazy French meat chefs bossing me around and then getting mad at me for doing things the way the other one likes it, and I work here for free, and I NEED CHOCOLATE!” He yelled at me full force to bring the chocolate chips back down to the pastry kitchen. Sooooo embarrassing.
To make matters worse my old boss yelled at me too and gave me that look that only a disappointed parent can give , “How could you do this? It’s so unprofessional. Why didn’t you put the chips in your pockets so no one would see? Amy, how could you do this?” Yeah right – put them in my pockets so they can melt into my pants? What’s the point of that? It was hard enough to have the exectuive chef yell at me, but then to have my old boss double the pain was mortifying. I felt like a two year old kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, not a grown independent woman.
I couldn’t help thinking, “You should be paying me right now and the only reason you’re not is because I can’t get my work permit sorted out. If I want chocolate chips, then pay me in chocolate chips. I do the work of Comis for the Chef de Viande – one of the most pretigious and demanding parts of the kitchen – and if I need some sugar to make it through the evening then let me have it! Everyone knows I’m working here for free and knows how much work I do and all the extra hours I put in.”
My new boss could sense that I was either about to walk out for good or sob uncontrollably so he sent me down to the pastry kitchen to return the chocolate chips and retrieve a few dead birds from the walk in fridge. He was sweet enough to tell me to stay in the fridge for awhile. “Don’t come back up until you’ve cooled off, okay?” I came back up birds in hand this time – no chocolate chips – and returned eyes downcast to my station. He told me he needed all the birds gutted, filleted, and hacked into the tiniest pieces possible. Luckily, it was the beginning of service and not many orders had come through yet.
I did as I was told trying to refrain from unleashing a flood of tears. When I got to hacking the birds apart I just let those poor little creatures have it. I pictured the chef on my cutting board and I let my cleaver cleave away until my board was covered in blood and the walls around me splattered with a thin spray or red. Ah, much better. I turned to my new boss and asked what he wanted me to do with the birds. He said, “Nothing. I just thought it might make you feel a little better.” It did.
I then proceeded to focus on de-boning a huge pile of fifty ducks legs and picking the tiny balls of shot out of their flesh. That kept me going for quite awhile until the orders started to fly in one after another. The good thing is, my new boss is English and we can talk and joke and no one has a clue what we’re saying. So the whole night my boss kept me sane with French jokes and English humor.
I told him at the end of service that I thought I wasn’t cut out for this job and asked if there was another person he would rather work with. I went on to tell him that I would be willing to train another person and then leave. But he said to me, “I will work with you and only you. When you go I would rather work alone. You will be here as long as I’m here and I will teach you how to cook.” I told him that I was only going to be there for the next month and then that’s it. But he replied, “You will stay for six more months.”
Well, I don’t know if that’s possible with my work permit situation but it was sure a little piece of heaven in Hell’s Kitchen!
The next morning there was a bar of dark chocolate in my knife box from my old boss.