An on-going series
By: Chad Minton
The fucking machine wouldn't stop. It was printing tickets faster than the lead could pull them. The checks were rolling over and there was nothing the expo guy could do either. All I could hear was the Chef screaming for this table or that table, how long on this piece of meat, how long on that piece of meat? The grill was full, so was the plancha. My little oven, always at 500 degrees, was also full. "How fucking long on table 10?!" The veal chop had just come out of the hot oven and needed to rest before going on the plate - I knew that - but it was one dish - the only dish needed to "sell" a table of eight, if I didn't put it up immediately we would have to re-plate the whole table & that was something I wasn't willing to risk considering the circumstances. In three movements I quinelle'd the butternut squash puree, dropping the sautéed chard next to it and set the veal chop on top. With a dramatic spoonful of veal demi glace and a quick garnish it was in the window and we were on to pick up the next table and the next table and the next table.
Line Cooking at this level was my only goal in life, at least that's what I would repeat to myself over and over. "This is your life, this is everything you've fought for, everything you've sacrificed for - this! Don't blow it. Stay focused. The job, cooking really, was absolutely all I had. The power had been turned-off at my place for a week, the gas for a week longer than that. I was showering at work. I avoided my little apartment during "normal" hours because my rent was late and my landlord, who lived on my floor, was patrolling regularly. I had a girlfriend but she left me a month earlier to move back to Texas, while I was at work. In her note, she said she wasn't getting enough out of our relationship. Who could blame her?
I worked double shifts everyday for a year. Five days a week AM Pantry at the fancy restaurant in North Beach gave me just enough time to run through Chinatown everyday to make it to the luxury hotel on Stockton where I worked the PM grill. On my days off from the hotel I would work for free in Banquets, Pastry or Garde Manger. On my days off from the restaurant I worked for free or staged at other fine dining restaurants. One night feeling terrible, I forced myself to go to the Saint Frances Emergency Room where I was diagnosed with serious influenza, pink eye and a fractured wrist. I never missed a single shift. I was never late. I came early and stayed late on my own time.
I was the first one to see the food runner and server coming back to the kitchen with the eight top we just sent. We knew what it meant without them saying a word. That was the Chef's job. "God damn it Chad! What the fuck's the matter with YOU?!" The other guys sneering at me through the corner of their eyes, busily re-plating the table, knowing that my mistake didn't just screw up one table but potentially the entire service. They hated me at that moment and that hurt worse then whatever Chef could yell at me. I was in over my head and even though I tried like hell, I still wasn't good enough to be cooking with these guys... but I would be, one day.
When I was a little kid I cried a lot. Not out of temper tantrums, fear or anxiety but out of frustration. Frustration at not having the power to better our circumstances. I would cry because I was just so damn angry that I couldn't do more for my mom or be a better kid. I would cry out of the helplessness of being a child who just wanted to be a grown up. That frustration followed me home after every service. Walking home, alone, with the rain to hide my tears of frustration.