How Being a Line Cook Ruined Me
When you exist outside of regular society, when the nine-to-five gig is as foreign to you as going somewhere hot for a vacation, it makes it easier to indulge in the wilder, untamed side of things.
Photo via Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker
I spent ten years in the trenches of professional restaurant kitchens. While other twentysomethings were taking jobs in the real world—working in offices where people got eight hours of sleep every night, dressed like fully grown adults, and didn't use the word 'fuck' in every other sentence—I was stuck in a scene where shit talk, farting, and sexist ignorance were encouraged. It was like working in a prison, but without the rape. When I emerged from the professional kitchen ten years later, I walked out into the real world with a severe case of arrested development.
I could not go to a wine tasting at the Four Seasons in flashy-trashy hooker clothes I'd picked up in Chinatown.
It was actually while still working as a line cook that I began a side gig as a food writer. My editor would send me out to cover media events for his publication. At first this was terrifying because I had no clothes—I mean, none that were suitable. My wardrobe consisted of jeans, T-shirts, and threadbare Converse high tops for everyday, and one pair of heels and a selection of prostitute-y rags for special occasions. I could not go to a wine tasting at the Four Seasons in flashy-trashy hooker clothes I'd picked up in Chinatown.
Eventually I got a wardrobe together, but it wasn't easy. At least not compared to the other writers I'd be seated with at the media tables; they had all gone to journalism school (J-school, as they called it) and were all getting paid humane wages, while I worked as a dirty line cook making $12 per hour.
The lack of money seeped into all aspects of my life, and it worked just as effectively toward making me into a boorish trash-talker with no table manners as the constant flood of swearing and brute work in the kitchen did.
When you have no money and you're surrounded by people with no money, there is no shame in using a cheque-cashing place to cash your cheque because you can't get your shit together to open a bank account, let alone get a credit card. There is no shame in getting your phone cut off—or your cable, or your heat. There is no shame in bumming smokes or returning empties to afford bus fare to get to work. Shopping secondhand, never going out to dinner—it all comes part and parcel with being poor and everyone you work with (with the exception of the head chef and the front-of-house servers and bartenders) is in the same fucking boat.
How does one engage in conversation with a well-established food writer and cookbook author whose only experience in a real kitchen was at a Cordon Bleu in France while on vacation in Paris?
When you exist outside of regular society, when the nine-to-five gig is as foreign to you as going somewhere hot for a vacation, it makes it easier to indulge in the wilder, untamed side of things. If you have to be in your office every day at 9 AM, it is less likely that you'll decide to go shot-for-shot with a 300-pound line cook in an impromptu 1:30 AM drinking contest. It is less likely that you'll decide to drop molly and snort some Hollywoods off the back of a toilet in a dive bar.
After a ten-, 12-, 14-hour shift, all you want is oblivion: beer, shots, coke, pills. Your idea of winding down after work doesn't include curling up with a glass of red wine and a good book. You wind down by chain smoking in basement apartments, grinding your teeth in between dipping your head for a rail as you re-hash the finer points of that night's service.
To sit at the food media table with all that shit in your wheelhouse, you realize you're not really equipped to deal with things like small talk and polite society. How does one engage in conversation with a well-established food writer and cookbook author whose only experience in a real kitchen was at a Cordon Bleu in France while on vacation in Paris?
How does one even begin to try to relate to that?
Eventually, I did. I've been out of the kitchen for three years now; I have a bank account and a credit card, but I still stay up all hours of the night and swear like a sailor.
The efficiency required to properly set up your station and execute service will sink into your everyday routines. I pack my makeup kit in reverse order so that each item is at the ready when I need it.
I can also spot a shitty menu a mile away. A Caprese salad in February? No thanks, I'll wait until tomatoes are in season. If I see a lot of weird flavour combinations and super-long lists of ingredients in a dish, then I know I'm dealing with some kid who got promoted to chef too fast and who is too busy re-inventing cuisine to bother with nailing the basics. If the menu reads like an early 90s catering sheet from the set of Fresh Prince—all pineapple salsa and balsamic glaze—then I know that the chef is an old hack who hasn't had a new idea since Emeril was relevant.
You become efficient to the point of seeming mad. The efficiency required to properly set up your station and execute service will sink into your everyday routines. I pack my makeup kit in reverse order so that each item is at the ready when I need it. I set up mise en place when I cook pork chops at home. I chop herbs and put them in a ramekin beside the other ramekins and cups of prepped ingredients. I'm cooking at home for no one. It doesn't matter, I'm always prepared.
In the professional kitchen, we say 'behind you' about a million times per shift, but I have said 'behind you' to inanimate objects and strangers on the street. It's the catch-all phrase that alerts others in the kitchen to your presence so they don't turn and accidentally stab you with a boning knife or douse you in molten caramel.
After spending countless nights sweating over raging burners with a chef screaming bloody murder, you with your head down, turning out plate after plate of great shit despite the pulsing hangover, the frantic rush and the clanging madness of dinner service in a busy restaurant… the number one thing you'll take into the real world after being a line cook is this: You might not be great at small talk or polite company, but you know that you are tough, that nothing is impossible and that you can pretty much crush anything any motherfucker throws at you.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on February 12, 2015.