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On Cooking

Chef, Jeremy and I all make eye contact at the same time. Jeremy stands at the top of the trap door staircase leading down to the walk-in and the Dungeon ( a less than affectionate name for the damp, low ceiling office), shrugs apologetically, and beats it out the backdoor. “Have fun!” he says, and I hear relief over the apologetic air broadcast by his body. A fractious and contentious front of house manager still terrorizes the restaurant and he is relieved to be leaving before his anger boils over and his usual calm demeanor is replaced by the bitingly witty and insightfully mean spirit that it conceals.

His stand-in for the next two weeks has just spilled a liter of beet juice all over the inside of the garde fridge. It is everywhere, seeping into a creamy white puree of jerusalem artichoke, spilling over a carefully wrapped platter of cheeses (Blue Benedictine, a sharp Monforte cheddar, a rind washed gouda, it is enroaching upon carefully cut, washed and stored sprouts of sunflower, pea and coriander and the living mixed greens in their damp, black soil, delivered fresh from 100 Kilometer Foods.

“I’m sorry, Chef, I’m cleaning it up, Chef!” The twenty year veteran of the line is on his knees in his checkered pants, beet juice soaking into his tidy white apron, scrambling in hasty panic to soak up the beet juice with our dwindling supply of clean side towels.

I can’t look Chef in the face any longer. I am no twenty year veteran of the line, but these sorts of mistakes, and those much lesser, raise the ire of the large man who looms, a threatening, First Testament sort of God like presence, over my world at least twelve hours a day. I think the reason he and I have come to an understanding and an ability to work together is because I am sensitive to moods and emotions, and although he is unpredictable and inconsistent in his moods, I can feel his rage rising a degree at a time. I know if it is a day to say “Yes, Chef,” regardless of whether it was I or The Boy who fucked up a River Cafe inspired chocolate torte, I intuit whether or not to stay late, helping bone out poultry and scrubbing rolling racks with degreaser, or beat it. This new guy has none of that intuition. I turn on the grill and the fryer and start setting up my mise-en-place for 5:30 service. It is 4:45.

A year ago, I would have been consumed with a deep, internal panic at this time, having no knowledge of the ebb and flow of the service to come, no strategies to arrange my mise or what prep could be left to do leisurely during the lulls of a Wednesday night service. A year ago, I was blindly throwing together salads on garde and trying not to cry as it became more and more apparent that I was in over my head. A year ago, I was moving with such blinding speed and desperation, I once threw out my shoulder rifling through the garde fridge during a particularly busy service when Chef, a line cook from Cambridge moonlighting as a white-boy English rapper and myself fired out a 100 cover service after a glowing review from a notoriously harsh critic. Now I am calm. I am zen. Service will come, the curtain will rise, we will make the food, we will feed the people, it will end, and tomorrow, we will do it all again.

The signs have been there all week, since we started training Jeremy’s temporary replacement. Chickens I need butchered early in the day to soak in buttermilk before breading and frying it remain entire, almost taunting Chef and I from their leisurely posture in the hotel pan where they lie in the walk in. When the dry goods order arrives and I leave my prep to begin squirreling it away in the basement and the back room, he remains at his station, leisurely chopping up a mirepoix that should have been done hours before. When asked to wrap beets in tinfoil and roast them, he wraps each one in an individual snuggy of foil, tenderly. Now, the climax, the culmination, the moment of truth, is coming.

Kasun is still bent over the spilled beet juice while gnocchi dough, a time and heat sensitive, messy, project, sits on his station, rapidly cooling and turning into a gluey mess. The potatoes take an hour to roast, to roll out the long, even strands and cut and shape and blanch them another half hour. I spend two years tentatively approaching this project on-and-off, returning again and again to the scene of my failure, until finally, I get a grunted “Ok,” from Chef instead of the usual criticisms. I fly that day. Better cooks than I have tried, and failed, and I am sensing an imminent opportunity to see the failure of somebody with more experience than myself.

Kasun returns, finally, hands stained with beet juice and trembling. I am enjoying an ice cold Log Cabin (Diet Coke- D.C- Washington D.C- Presidents- Abraham Lincoln- Log Cabin- the mind games you start to play when trapped in a windowless room upwards of ten hours a day are complex, meaningless and convoluted.) His entire station rapidly becomes a paste of too-sticky gnocchi dough that sticks to the stainless steel work top and is dragged across it by his rough handling. The snakes of dough, which must muster inspection by chef, are uneven squiggles ranging from 1/3rd of an inch thick in some areas to more than 2″ in others. They are going to fall apart in the blanching pot. Their edges are uneven and undefined. The grated Parmesan isn’t melted into the potato, the dough is so ill-mixed that egg yolk still colors parts of it a dark hue of yellow.

I am toasting perfect hashtags on the tops of the brioche burger buns I made earlier that day when it happens. “What the fuck is this?” By know I know the tone isn’t anger. It is bewilderment and confusion and frustration. Why doesn’t anybody care about the food as much as he does? Why can’t anyone just see what is wrong with it, why can’t they see the angle he wants the artichokes cut on or the way he wants the shiso to curl under the octopus like a piece of floating seaweed? Why can’t we all be possessed of the same training and discipline and toughness, lightning fast and accurate knife skills and dogged dedication? What. The. Fuck. Why are people so disappointing? Why are we so content to linger in our mediocrity?

The lackluster gnocchi is swimming in oil on a parchment covered sheet tray. Chef has just popped one into his mouth, although the taste test isn’t even necessary. The food is fucking ugly, and he will not have ugly food, particularly with something as simple as gnocchi. “People eat with their eyes first,” I’ve heard him say a million times. “They are paying for pretty as much as tasty.” The gnocchi is undeniably ugly, and insultingly rubbery and underseasoned in addition. Chef is verging on something, I can’t tell, even with the study I have made of his moods, if it is tears or a screaming bout. “What… the fuck… is this?” he repeats again. He is dumbfounded. How could he be let down so badly by somebody with so much experience? How can Kasun be satisfied having spent twenty years of his life working on the line without even being able to accomplish a task like gnocchi without failing?

This comparatively gentle question, asked without anger or ire, only bewilderment, is what breaks Kasun’s spirit. I see it happen. Chef sees it happen. Kasun takes off his ballcap and wipes his hands on it, starts untying his apron. “I’m sorry, Chef. I just can’t do this.” Chef’s imposing frame stands between him and the trapdoor.

“The gnocchi?” Chef asks, leadingly, although all three of us know that is not what Kasun is talking about. “Of course you can!”

“No, Chef, the job,” he blurts out, sneaking with surprising speed and agility between Chef and the stacks of Cambros perilously balanced on a shelf at the top of the stairs. He moves with such speed that some of them clatter down the stairs behind him as he sprints to gather up his clothing. He doesn’t even change out of his clogs and checks, just reemerges a moment later carrying a hastily bundled bindle of his personal effects in his arms, wraps his knives in a tea towel and bolts out the door with a final apology of “I’m sorry, Chef, I just can’t do this!” as he slams the back door behind him and disappears out of our lives and into legend.

Chef and I make eye contact through the pass. I am utterly frozen. A two person service in this kitchen can be messy. I am still new to the kitchen, although I am more organized now and more confident. Our first reservations will be sitting in half an hour. My hand snakes out to turn on the heat lamp, hoping I am not electrocuted in the process (it is hit and miss with sockets and electronics in our kitchen at this time.) And suddenly, we are both laughing, the kind of laughter that hurts your belly and makes tears come to your eyes and makes your knees weak.

He cries out “Eighty six gnocchi!” to the terrified server who comes through the swinging doors into the domain they all find terse and forboding- the kitchen. “Chef is laughing!” we hear her relay to the front of house staff. And we clean up the station and stock the line and slog into a service where there is a 45 minute wait time for an appetizer that normally takes seven, where the tickets from the chit-machine droop toward the floor, where I am constantly squeezing between his bulk and the range to run around to garde to plate a dessert, a service where we run out of swears and laugh until we are plating blinded by our tears and out of breath.

Some names have been changed or committed to protect the idiots. Er, innocent. This is a story from my time at The Beech Tree, a small, intimate bistro in Toronto’s East End where I am pleased to have gotten my start cooking and often return to, the prodigal cook, to my Chef Daddy (yet another inside joke.) More stories from The Beech Tree can be found at the blog of its founder, Robert Maxwell, Thrice Cooked.

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