Restaurant cooking has essentially ruined me as a human being. I lack diplomacy in conflict situations and choose, instead, to resolve them with a mixture of incredulity and ham-fisted shaming. “Shame is the only effective teaching tool,” is a mantra I repeat to myself only half-jokingly. A day shorter than ten hours feels unproductive. Pantry shelves at home are neatly organized with labelled liter and 500ml deli containers and eating out is a recon mission of studying menus and criticizing service. Burns and cuts and broken bones go unattended, sick days are an unknown realm, and any job that doesn’t require an eerie level of focus, organization, and an uncanny ability to multi-task simply isn’t challenging enough. My vocabulary of curse words and frequency of use is truly impressive. My sense of humor revolves around long and involved inside jokes, layered upon other long and involved inside jokes, to form a sort of inside-joke inception. No topic is off limit when it comes to humor.
The night that Kasun walks out on us becomes an improv act with a blank space in the line. It is as if a cast member of a play has failed to show up and the remaining actors are scrambling to cover his absence. Our continual witty repartee flies, but as a trail of chits grows longer and longer from the printer, we are running out of curse words. “Shit.” Another chit. Two more chits. Ten more chits. Our kitchen is roughly the size of two Lincoln town cars parked side by side, and Chef takes up two thirds of that space. He is so tall that working pans is a challenge, because he is constantly bashing his forehead off of the hood. A full seating is do-able, two back to back seatings a challenge, and three back to back seatings a true test of resilience and creativity and will power. My overburdened and already finicky grill is completely covered in burgers.
“Ah, Burgermeister! I hear tell of you throughout the land! Tell me, are you of the Munich Burgermeisters?”
“Nay, sire!” I cry out to Chef, flipping a burger deftly, relieved I’d chosen to hand-grind two briskets earlier instead of just one. “Of the Hamburg Burgermeisters, of course!”
We are both howling with laughter despite the impossible amount of catch-up in front of us. All the burners on his station are loaded with pans of various bubbling concoctions, the oven is full of sizzle trays and pans, an induction burner on my station is working double time, my single fryer is beyond capacity and the grill, my beloved first station and eternal love, is completely covered in a layer of burger, ordered to various degrees of done-ness, and 36 hour short ribs. We are well and truly in the weeds and the knowledge that we are well and truly fucked sends us veering into mania.
The empty garde station that Chef would normally occupy on the other side of the line mocks us. We are yelling at The Boy (this is not even an alias, this is what we call him from Day One, and it sticks) to help us garnish plates or plate a salad. The reason he is called The Boy instead of by name is because he consistently fucks up, so that is quickly thrown out the window and we alternate running to the other side of the line to plate a salad or a dessert while hoping our own careful house-of-cards doesn’t implode in our absence. I am carefully quenelling creme fraiche when, directly across the line from me, I see one of my burgers go up in flames on the greasy grill. Chef’s hands are full of pans, he is literally juggling. Every available service is covered with plates and pans and mise, and all he says, without even looking at it, is “Fire.”
The farce continues to play itself out through service and the only way to survive is gallows humor. I am calling the line as the printer, evil bastard, lives on my station. We reach a point where I am not even looking at the new chits that are flooding in, mercilessly. I hear the printer continuing it’s vile spew and huddled over the grill, bumping shoulders with Chef, murmur, “Shit.”
I’ve run out of swears. Shit- so simple, so stylistically pure. So versatile. “Shit Shittingon,” I venture. “Of Shitsville.”
The printer is still going but I am laughing so hard I am actually crying and Chef is choking back great guffaws, great hands shaking as he tries to plate.
“Ahhh! Many a great summer I spent at the Shittington Manor,” he continues the tirade. We are working seamlessly, plates are being assembled as if by magic. We’re not calling times or tickets anymore, merely working in a perfect sort of psychic synchronicity. He puts chicken on the plate as I swing a pan over from my induction burner and top it with butternut ragout. “The sweet Flushing Meadows of my youth! DING!” he yells at the startled server who has been skulking about, waiting for her late plates.
The joke carries on for many months. “Dick Shittington’s Cat,” we cackle wickedly over prep, renaming works of literature as if they were within the Shittington Universe.
Our manager comes in, looking under the sink for cleaning supplies, crouching on her haunches, and we begin almost in unison. “Ahhh, a famous Shittington party! They don’t truly begin until a guest shits on the floor! Madame Shittington must be so pleased!” Our manager flushes and nervously giggles, stands up and rushes out without her cleaning supplies. When a good friend of mine joins us on the job as the missing and elusive Perfect Third, he spends much of his time doubled over as we continue the Shittington stories. “Dick Shittington of the Shittington Press, here, myahhhh, see?”
“The Shittingtons Visit The Grand Canyon!” comes in a sudden flash of inspiration. Eventually, our imaginary family is phased out by improvised monologues about Slap Chops and a weird, but steady decline into listening to Elliot Smith’s Waltz #2 on repeat prior to service while singing along morosely, and a foray into attempting to tolerate The Boy by transforming him into The Dishslayer, as the prophecies foretold! (It did not work, and The Boy remained The Boy- utterly useless and intolerable.)