There are dog years, cat years, human years, and then there are kitchen years…
Saturday morning, my last Saturday morning, I hop in a taxi and take the FDR freeway from Lower Manhattan to Midtown. I look out onto the East River as rain pelts against my window, beading up, then sliding down the pane contorting my view into a million tiny fisheye lenses. I glimpse the Brooklyn Bridge arching gracefully to a place called Somewhere Else.
The taxi takes the 42nd Street exit and we are whipped into Midtown madness. Tourists line up in the rain around the Radio City Studios hoping to catch the Letterman show or the Rockettes. African street vendors hawk their counterfeit purses and sunglasses under plastic rain ponchos. Steam rises from street food vendors luring in travelers with a promise of spicy halal stirfry or Jamaican jerk chicken.
I slip unseen into work.
There is no reason for anyone to notice. I work on the groundlfloor of an enormous skyrise building located between 51st and 7 Avenue. Unless you are an investment banker there is no reason why you would even know the builing exists.
Nevermind that Mama Mia is playing right across the corner. We might as well be the invisible empire in the midst of toursit central. Half of France and Switzerland bank right overhead, and yet we remain concealed from view.
We are very private. And yes, we do serve over 350 clientele privée everyday. But you would not know we are where we are, unless you knew where we were. So to speak.
A beautiful hostess takes your fur lined coat and seats you at your table. You float by flower arrangements half the size of an average human being that decorate the warmly lit contemporary dining room. Modern Oil paintings depicting the sea and all its wonders hint to what the menu has in store. White table clothes dressed with crystal are set like diamond necklaces in silk. Contemporary luxury.
A waiter takes your order after your thirst has properly been addressed – Champagne? A martini? A glass of sparkling water perhaps?
An amuse bouche arrives seconds after the waiter disappears with your command for the kitchen to fuss over.
The sommelier appears and, being the best in the world that he is, guides you through a volume of voluptuous green bottles until, together, you have reached a suitable date for the evening. Or perhaps a few. Maybe just a taste from many?
The courses roll out and waiters glide to and from your table seen and unseen. They know when to get your attention and when to leave you alone. They know when you want to strike up a conversation and when to remain in the shadows refilling glasses, brushing away the crumbs, taking away empty porcelain plates with silverware made of real silver. That is their job – to know what you want and when you want it.
And then there’s us cooks in the kitchen slaving it out under extreme pressure like we were in a war game simulation with chef’s barking orders and tickets in-coming faster than torpedos. And we’re either laughing in the trenches because we’re winning the game or keeping our heads down working faster and faster hoping the flag is still ours at the end of the night.
Yes, it is quite another world from the dining room. I personally like to play both fields.
Nonetheless even you, the diner, has entered into the timelessness of ‘kitchen years’. The Broadway show you thought you were going to catch at 8PM has now become less important than staying for an extra dessert course and an after-dinner drink. You are living moment to moment, like us cooks do, just in a different way…
I’m not so early into the kitchen this Saturday, but not so late either. Early enough to gather my equipment before the rest of the kitchen staff starts searching for all the good flat bottomed pots and pans and the desirable cutting boards.
“Last day, huh? Is it really your last day?” The hot appetizer cook, Chris, comes over to chat a little before the kitchen becomes a circus.
“Yup, it’s my last day, and you’re the next Monk Station cook. Are you excited to be on the entrée line?” I ask wondering how he’s feeling considering he will begin without any training on the station.
“Yeah, I’m excited, but I don’t know the station at all.”
“Don’t worry.” I offer with a pat on the shoulder, “I have everything written down that you need to get prepared with an hour by hour itemization. And they won’t let you fail on this station. Trust me. A dish off the entrée line costs at least $50. They will not let you fail. But they will scrutinize everything you do over on this side.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard…” He remarks and I can tell he’s worried about the position.
“You’re shit has to be tight over here. I mean really tight. Expect to be yelled at for weeks about everything – even if you think it’s perfect, it’s not perfect. You’ll be fine.”
He leaves to go back and set up the Hot Appetizer station which is by far one of the worst to get up and running. That station has so much mise en place it’s almost unthinkable. And he will be fine, he’s a good cook.
“Hey, there’s much less mise en place on Monk Station!” I call to him from across the piano, “It’s easy compared to Hot Apps….”
I am blazing through my prep work and I’m not feeling anything yet. I expected to feel sad or relieved or something upon arrival into the kitchen that has been my home for the last year and a half and instead I feel nothing. It’s just a regular Saturday.
Cooks come up to wish me well and ask if it really is my last day. One of the new cooks catches me in the walk-in fridge and says: “You’re going to cry tonight, I know you’re going to miss us.”
I tell her, “I am going to miss you, but I am not going to cry.”
And I know I’m not going to cry. I don’t know why I know that, but I do. It’s not that I love anyone less or more than the last place I cooked at, it’s just that I know in my heart I’m ready for the next chapter to begin.
Diner service finally starts up after five hours of prep work and the chefs are messing with me biggtime: last night on the line Amy? How does it feel? You’re gonna miss us? Thank God you’re leaving –if you put another plate like that on the passe we’ll have to fire you….
But it’s all in fun. And for the most part we are just too busy to do anything but concentrate on the dishes.
The first seating is over and I’m still not feeling anything. And now this is bothering me.
Actually I am feeling something: I’m feeling really tired because I haven’t slept well for weeks. And when I’m tired, I’m irritable. And dammit, I want to feel something other than irritable.
“You okay tonight? You seem mad or upset?” the Chef de Cuisine asks as I’m gathering plates for the line in between seatings.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why do you ask? I’m concentrating on making my dishes perfect tonight. I want a perfect night.”
“Well you look angry. Smile.”
“Why are you asking me to smile. You never ask any of the male cooks to smile and they look more upset than me right now.” I lash back, surprising myself.
“Amy, I am not messing with you tonight. I just know that cooking is a passionate thing and it brings out lots of emotions. That’s all.” He says still slightly messing around with a sparkle in his eye that tells me he’s up for a good challenge and a slight smirk that always means trouble.
When my Chef de Cuisine is in a good mood that normally means he’s going to come down on us harder. I usually try to stay clear of him when he’s happy.
I ignore the rest of this conversation because I’m obviously being led down a road of no return and continue bringing plates for the line.
The second seating is smooth and my fish is poaching nicely and my plates are looking clean and my sliced monk is looking soignier…
Chris, the Hot Apps cook is sent over to my station to join me for the end of the last seating and I am trying to teach him everything amidst the rush. But it’s impossible. And he, of course, wants to plate everything.
But at the same time I want all my dishes to be perfect because, it’s my last night and I want to finish them myself.
But I like Chris and I want to help so I let go a little.
The last dish is ordered and it’s a filet with pommes purée. I have no idea it’s the last order and I heat up the filet and sauté the wild mushrooms while Chris caneles the purée on the plate.
He does a good job, but I like it when the caneles are shaped just a little bigger and fanned just a little wider. No matter, it looks good, he takes the plate to the passe and I follow behind so I can glimpse the upcoming tickets.
I read the tickets, and read the tickets again, and then it hits: that was the last ticket for my station and I let Chris plate it. The horror! It’s not his fault, but I’m upset that I’m asked to train a cook on my last night on the line when I could/should have been doing this the whole week long.
I leave the kitchen to cool off and go to the bathroom while the other stations (besides the entrée line) are cleaning up. The Chef was right – cooking is a passionate thing! I look in the mirror, take off my paper hat, and finally I feel something totally unexpected: I am so happy! And I still don’t know why – but I am so happy!
I come back up to the kitchen and half-heartedly pitch in cleaning. No one expects me to. And I’m busy taking loads of photos. I look on the passe and a silver tray of Champagne glasses await.
The Chef de Cuisine comes up to me, “Well Amy, go get your champagne in the walk-in, I know you wanna open it.” But first he hands me the blue permanent marker and I write on the dry-erase board, what we write when a ‘dish’ is taken off the menu for the evening.
Amy 86 at 12:30 A.M
I stare at this and for a second I think maybe I will cry, but tears don’t come and I grab my champagne.
“Are you gonna open it for me chef? I ask
“No way sister, I’m sure you’ve had a little practice at this one…” He smiles, but something is bothering him and he leaves briefly while I pop the corks and pour champagne to discuss something with the Maître D in his office.
Hmmm, not good, a problem on the floor.
He comes back to the passe to grab his glass of champagne, but another cook has swiped it and I feel bad for not saving a glass for him. He gives a speech that frankly does nothing to inspire and I look at him a little confused. He looks back to the dining room. Something is bothering him and it’s not my departure.
“”The pressure he must be under”, I think to myself.
I snap more pictures of the team and invite everyone over to our local hang out, Faces & Names, for pints.
I arrive at the bar and the Chef de Cuisine is there. I was wondering if he would make it. I know he doesn’t always come to farewell parties. But his mentorship has meant much to me and I find myself choking up at his presence. His friendship and respect have been hard won.
I chid him, “Nice farewell speech Chef. Maybe you should consider changing your day job…”
He laughs, “I’m sorry, there were some problems, I’m sure you saw that?”
“Yeah, I gathered as much.”
“Okay Amy, you’re right, let me re-give your speech…” He lifts his beer to my glass of wine, “Thank you for your hard work, I have really enjoyed you here, your have grown so much as a chef, and best of luck in your next endeavor…”
For the first time in a year and half we just talk. We talk about my future, the restaurant, the work, the life of a cook. We talk. And I see him, just for a second, as a normal person with a family to support and not just an intimidating Chef de Cuisine of one of the best restaurants in the world.
We finish our drinks and he ducks out before his staff (and fan club) pull him into their drunken conversations.
Bob, the sauté cook comes up to me with a beer and we start philosophizing…
“How was your night Amy?”
“I dunno. Good. But not perfect, ya know? I just wanted one perfect evening…”
“We live moment to moment, what happened yesterday is a thousand kitchen years away, a thousand kitchen years away” he says for extra emphasis.
“What do you mean Bob? What do you mean ‘kitchen years’?” I asked a little slow in understanding.
“Look, in the kitchen you cannot let things get to you. What happened the day before was a thousand years ago. When you are judged moment to moment on what you bring to the passe, what happened just five minutes before does not mean that what will happen five minutes after is the same.”
Sipping my beer and still taking in all the happy emotions of my last night I ask for clarification because frankly I have no idea what he is getting at.
“In your heart you have to know when you bring something that is perfect to the passe, that it is perfect. There in no one who is going to tell you that it is. But when you do bring that perfectly cooked fish to the passe there is no better feeling. And that feeling comes from within.”
Still catching on I add, “Yes, I agree with you. You are right. We live moment to moment and are judged moment to moment.”
“What happened five minutes ago in the kitchen could be a thousand kitchen years ago. The person who was being an asshole the day before was an asshole a million kitchen years ago. That perfectly cooked halibut you brought to the passe was a hundred kitchen years ago. And you…YOU…” he taps me on my breast bone to send the point home, “…need to constantly be looking to the next moment. To the next I-cooked-that-perfect moment before it too becomes a, a, a, a…memory.”
We sip our beers and sort of stare at each other. I’m dumbfounded at Bob’s revelation. Because it is profound. And I think he is sort of feeling the same way. He has summed up just how time passes in the kitchen and what we all as cooks strive for – the next moment of perfection.
“I’ll write about this.” I tell him.
“Good, I hope you do!” He tells me. We sip more beer.
“And I hope you stay and make sous chef Bob, you will be a good one, I have really enjoyed working with you. You cook fish beautifully.”
He laughs and we drink more beer.
The senior sous chef slides a chair beneath my tired knees, pushes Bob out of the way, and pulls up a table to what appears to be the beginning of a serious conversation about life.
He rests his chin on his hand, elbow propping up his inquisitive concerned face, beer firmly grasped in his other hand. “So, what are you going to do now?” He asks almost like I think my father would if he were half my age instead of three times it.
“I’m going to finish my book.” I say frankly, because it’s the only thing I”m sure of at this moment in time.
“Good, I really meant what I said months ago – if you ever wanted to be a professional writer – you could. As long as you don’t write about me.” He laughs his contagious laugh and takes a long sip of Stella.
I sigh. It’s hard to not have a most innocent crush on a very talented young man who undoubtedly has a brilliant future ahead. Not to mention the one person, in an extremely competitive kitchen, that has always had my back.
“You know, I wrote a book when I left Paris, it’s a long book. Funny. Painful. French. But I never wrote the last chapter. I think now I’m ready to write it.”
“There’s no books out there written by a female chef.”
“Yes, I know.” We sip beer and think about this. “There’s really nothing out there on being a female cook in France and what it’s like cooking at a 3-Michelin star restaurant.”
He nods his head vigorously while listening, and his belief in my writing ability is making me more high than the alcohol and dehydration I’m experiencing.
“But, I don’t know, I have some other interesting cooking offers too, I just want to take this time to close one chapter of my life before I begin another.”
“Do it Amy. And if I ever open my own restaurant ten years from now, can I count on you?”
“Abso-fucking-lutely Chef!” and then I change my mind, “But chef, I think you’re a lifer. I think I will be coming in to dine ten years from now and you will be the Chef de Cuisine.”
He laughs his contagious laugh again because he knows there’s some truth to this. He loves his job and loves the restaurant.
“Yes, you’re probably right.”
“I always am chef!” He laughs again, knowing that my weakest personality trait is being wrong – I hate being wrong. And it sometimes gets me into trouble in the kitchen.
“Yes, it’s been fun to work with you and I’ve always enjoyed telling you how to do things differently than you did in France. It’s always fun to watch you argue, then do it the American way, and then understand.”
“Fun for you I suppose, painful for me. I’m sure glad I won’t be hearing ‘Is that how they do it in France?’ anymore.”
We drain the last of our beers and now it’s really time for me to go. The alcohol has caught up with a year of exhaustion and dehydration. I say goodbye to my long time family. Giving long hugs to everyone I can. We all pile out of the bar and cooks gather around trying to figure out the next venue: “Where are we going next? Where are we going?!?!?”
But I am tired, just plain tired. And happy nonetheless. One of the cooks hails a taxi for me and the rest of the cooks gather round and wish me farewell. The senior sous chef literally lifts me up in the air like a child light as a feather and then puts me back on the ground and into the taxi.
“Bon chance, hein?” He says and everyone waves goodbye.
I look back through the rearview window, the rain has stopped and I can see the cooks huddling for warmth planning their next destination for the evening.
A million kitchen years ago…