On the line
Written by Bwog Staff
Editor emerita Anna Corke, of Cooking with Bwog fame, gives us a glance into life behind the kitchen doors.
Here is what I do: toss salad greens with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, diced tomatoes, and crumbled feta; garnish with mixed olives, sliced cucumber, peppercinis, cucumber yogurt; plate with toasted pita, lamb on the bone, and breaded onion rings. Place each item so that one inch inside the rim of the plate is clear of food, garnishes always come in threes, and the food is as tall as possible. Oh, and this one customer wants extra olives, dressing on the side, the lamb well-done, pita untoasted, and a side of maple syrup. Mess it up and I get yelled at by a cute waitress and an uncute chef named Justin, who reminds me to “make it a quickie” while brandishing both a wrinkled sausage and a large serrated knife. Mess it up and they get yelled at by a paying customer whom I will never see, but who is undoubtedly wearing ethnic jewelry and Dior sunglasses – an authentic Bainbridge Islander (population: 20,000 lawyers).
This summer, instead of learning the finer points of envelope-licking or how to take messages for a Congressman, I am learning to sweat over salad presentation at Café Nola.
This is my second summer cooking in restaurants. Like most young pantry cooks, I started as a dishwasher and was slowly trained into the art of cutting rapidly and preparing large quantities of food for the mealtime onslaught. Throwing someone not used to restaurants into a cooking position can result in not only physical injuries – my boss once saw someone slice all of the skin off of one side of her finger – but also a lethal mix of stress and exhaustion. Many have cried. More have quit. The trick to avoiding such trauma is something any ER doctor could tell you about: staying focused and moving as fast as you comfortably can. Accuracy is usually more important than speed.
But when I’ve got a chef yelling “I need two racks, a house, a stripper, a wang and a squawk on the fly” (read: two rack-of-lamb salads, a house salad, a serving of chicken strips, an order of bread pudding and a side of guacamole as fast as possible”), 12 potatoes to peel, eight quarts of black bean salsa to make, two crème brulees to torch, and a recently burned hand, it’s easy to envy the cubicle dwellers their peace. The hours are long – once I worked 16 hours with only one 5 minute break – and the callused and conditioned cooks have no pity for trim little me.
The lack of pity is making me stronger, though. I’ve learned to catch food flung from across the kitchen, lift garbage bags weighing as much as I do into a dumpster, whip whipped cream by hand, cook damn good food, and put up with the base dialogue that somehow always accompanies the sensual art of cooking. “Hey Anna, I’ve got an idea: your chin, my balls,” yells my boss, “Oh, and I need a bread pudding in the window.” Then he asks one of the waitresses if she’ll give him her panties. “How can I give you something that I’m not wearing?” she replies, as I finish cutting bread pudding and set it on a plate for the chef to throw in the oven. “Poontang in the window!” I yell – this is our nickname for the best bread pudding ever. “Get your mind out of the Anna,” says Justin. I have a reputation here as the gutter itself, and coming home from work often means staying cloistered for a few hours reading chemistry textbooks in an effort to get my mind out of, well, myself.
It gets easier. We’re starting a new menu this week and, to my surprise, it only took me one attempt to memorize the new plates. Good thing, too, since the power went out yesterday and I ended up making salads by candlelight – the dining public will eat through any kind of disaster. In all fairness, figuring out the new food is easier for me than for the servers since cooks order anything off of the menu for free. And some of this stuff is fucking mouthwatering: salmon pad thai, grilled asparagus salad with apples and pecans, enchiladas filled with cactus and cumin sour cream, mac and cheese with crab, and, of course, hot poontang with whipped cream and dripping caramel. Dear Columbia, I miss you, but they’re feeding me well here.