How It Started
I stepped into the kitchen at Spiaggia and knew my life would be different from here on out, I was a professional cook in a very professional kitchen. Even though my stomach was in knots, I was somewhat excited to learn something besides making chicken parmesan, or meatballs. Although it must be said I still greatly enjoy eating those things. I had a small notebook I bought the day before and I was ready to write everything down, recipes, techniques, ideas, you name it, I was ready. The cook that I had worked with the day before was already at the station setting up, as were all the other cooks. When he noticed me he flashed me a big smile and slapped me on my arm. “Good going brother, you’re hired!” When he said that everyone laughed and I didn’t really get what was so funny but figured it was kitchen humor, which I had been exposed to at my last job.
He showed me how he organized the station, where he put the mise en place, and then went through everything and wrote a prep list for the day. I drew a crude picture of the station in my notebook and wrote where the mise en place was supposed to go. As I surveyed the line, one thing stood out to me right away, these cooks were much cleaner, faster, and far more skilled than at my previous job, they joked and kidded each other constantly but never stopped working, I even saw one cook staring out the window while slicing onions, which struck me as highly dangerous but he managed not to slice off a finger. I began to worry, I’d never felt so inexperienced and green ( I was). I made a mental note to just keep my mouth shut, keep my head down, and just do my best.
When five o’clock came around, the cook training me asked if I wanted a coffee or something. I replied, “Of course!” From that day on I would have a preservice coffee for many years and in many restaurants. By the end of the year, I would switch to espresso, but the ritual remained the same. My goal was to have my station totally ready to go by 5 pm so that I could chill for 15 minutes and have a coffee. It was also a way to inject some artificial energy to help get me through service.
We had set up another smaller station with just the cold items, I was not trusted to actually cook anything yet, and to be honest it was a relief. I figured just making three salads plus carpaccio couldn’t be that hard, at least that’s what I thought. My pickups were duck prosciutto, carpaccio, and a house salad. We had created a mini station just for these items since there were two cooks working the station and not one. I had made a nice little diagram in my notebook of how everything looked so I would remember the next day, I was so happy with myself.
That first hour and a half was so slow and the cooks mostly talked to each other, a few had begun doing prep for the next day. The cook I was working with had made about 1oo hard-boiled eggs for a dressing and he gave them to me so I could start peeling until we got busy. I didn’t mind, it kept me busy and it wasn’t as nerve-racking as plating food. I did notice that the same cook that was staring out the window earlier was doing so now as well. I asked Seth ( my trainer), “Who is that? Why does he stare out the window so much?" “Oh that’s Lalo, he’s the best cook here, I think he’s just bored, go talk to him.”
There was no way I was going to talk to him, he looked frightening to me. His eyes had a certain “leave me the fuck alone” vibe to them so I did. I noticed that he spoke Spanish often but would reply in English at times. He seemed to occupy his own space as well, the other cooks were all talking to each other, but Lalo stood off to the side, staring out the window that overlooked Oak Street Beach, holding his tongs in his hands, with his apron tied high above his waist and toque pulled low so they were touching his thick eyebrows. At one point he walked over as I was making a salad and stood very close to me. “Hey, new guy, what’s your name new guy?” His voice was deep, guttural, accented, it scared me honestly. I told him my name and he sort of smiled but not in a nice way, more of a sneer. “ You go to school? Huh, new guy?”
“Um, cooking school? Yes, I went to cooking school. Why?”
“ I bet they pay you more than me, huh new guy? You’re white, you go to school, they give you more money no?”
“ I’m pretty sure I don’t make more money than you, I’m making minimum wage. I’m Puerto Rican also by the way”
“Oh shit new guy!” He turned around to the other cooks “ Hey new guy is Puerto Rican”
“No shit,” one of the other cooks said.
Lalo faced me again “ You speak Spanish” Huh new guy?”
“A tiny bit” I answered.
Lalo smiled at me “ Well new guy, you need to learn”, with that he turned around and left. I was so relieved when he walked away I sighed, this guy made me really nervous. When he was back at his station he turned, looked at me, and winked, then laughed out loud and turned his attention to the window again.
The ticket machine was now putting out tickets much faster and the noise unnerved me. Seth began calling out the dishes he needed, 2 salads, 3 carpaccio, one duck, and so on. I began plating everything but often forgot all the garnish and had to ask Seth a few times what I needed to do. I was definitely falling behind a little but it wasn’t that bad and Seth would help me a bit when he had time. But then the manager walked over to the sous chef and I could overhear their conversation. He told him they had just picked up a couple of big tables, and that we were going to be fairly busy in a few minutes. The sous chef thanked him but kept his eyes on the kitchen. It was then he walked straight to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “How’s it going?”
I was kind of busy so I just nodded and said “Ok”
“Ok it’s going to be busy here in a few minutes, I hope you’re ready for that, if you’re low on anything make sure to restock now. Also, you need to go a bit faster, some of the servers are complaining about long ticket times. “ This rattled me and I felt very small and afraid. At the time I took criticism very personally, and I sensed if I was going to work here, I had better get used to it. The other cooks were busy organizing and cleaning their stations, and had gone nearly silent, their faces showed focus and concentration. As I watched them, I doubted my ability to ever work a station like saute or grill, it seemed very hot and very intense on that side of the kitchen.
The Micros printer began to speak, and tickets started to come into the kitchen, Seth called out the orders to me. “House salad! Two house salad all day, carpaccio. One More house salad, three all day. Two carpaccio all day.” I didn’t realize the effect adreneline has on the body, and I started to plate the salads as fast as I could, but as Seth called out more and more salads, my hands began to shake a tiny bit and I started to really sweat. One of the sous chefs was standing at the kitchen pass, staring at me, intently, his eyes felt like they were drilling into my soul. Fear began a coup on my brain, vying for control from my otherwise calm rational senses. I started to fall behind and the sous chef walked into the kitchen with a very distraught frown on his face.
“Are you in the fucking weeds?”
“ARE YOU IN THE FUCKING WEEDS!” he didn’t shout but it seemed like it. His face was a grimace and his hands were balled up into fists at his sides. I was trying hard not to freak out, but I felt a dull ached in my stomach, and a voice in my head was now telling me to just leave, get the fuck out. I didn’t even know what he was talking about, what was “in the weeds”?. I had never heard that before. Why was he so angry? I decided that the best thing I could do was just nod, and continue to do my best. I started to put the salads that I had finished in the window, and started plating more, trying to keep up with what Seth was telling me to do. The sous chef walked back out of the kitchen and started looking at the salads I had made. He brought one back to me and shoved it right in my face.
“These greens are wilted. Would you eat that? Would you? Make another one, check your mise en place!”
I remade the salad, and just kept going, Seth talking to me the whole time, giving me an all day. The sous chef came and stood next to me, watching me work, asking me questions;
“Did you taste that? Did you check your greens before service? Did you season that carpaccio?
This was making me so nervous my hands were shaking badly. I was getting more behind and it seemed like the ticket printer would not stop. At some point I just shut out all the noise and began making two or three salads at a time, hoping beyond hope to claw my way out of the weeds. A few times Seth would step next to me and whsiper he needed something as soon as fucking possible and I did it as fast as I could. There was a time when a few of the front waiters were gathered at the pass, looking into the kitchen, asking the sous chef why first courses were taking so long. One of the captains came up to the pass and I overheard him tell the sous chef that because the first courses were taking so long it was throwing off their timing the rest of the courses. I saw the sous chef just nod and stare at me.
It seemed like hours but it was probably 30 minutes later the orders stopped, although saute station and grill were still very busy, the cooks staring at tickets, tossing pastas over and over in saute pans, stirring risotto, pulling duck out of the woodburning oven, throwing quail on the grill, shouting orders to each other. It was frightening and exhilirating at the same time. I saw how graceful the saute cooks weaved in and out of each other’s way. I spotted Lalo, tossing two saute pans full of pasta, finishing them with cheese and parsley, he looked over, saw me, smiled and winked. He was like a whirling dervish, he was smiling the whole time, tasting all the sauces, adding salt, adding extra virgin olive oil, plating ravioli, it was something to see. I will never be able to do that I thought, never.
We began to clean up and I was starting to think maybe this was not for me, maybe working at this level was just out of reach for me. The other cooks seemed so much better, so much better. I noticed the sous chef walking towards me, this was the moment I dreaded, he was going to rip into me for being so slow and awkward. He was going to yell, make me feel like an idiot, I could feel my face getting hot already, fear was kicking in hard. He turned the corner and walked up to me, I could see the other cooks slowing down to see if the new guy was going to get yelled at, and/or fired. I was already wondering if I could ask for my old job back, maybe that was where I belonged. The sous chef came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and looked in my eyes.
“Good job new guy. Mike? or is it Mark? “
“Ok thanks Mark, good job, way to hang in there, you guys got slammed.”
“Um, yeah, thanks”
He walked by me and into the prep kitchen. I just stood there, wondering what had just happened. Seth came up to me laughing and said “Good job dude”.
“Thanks” I thought I was going to get fired, or at the very least a stern talking to, I was so out of my depth my head was spinning. Confused and tired, I just cleaned my station and made my way to the locker room to change. As the cooks were changing and talking about where they were going to have a beer, one of them, a guy name Jimmy, asked me if I wanted to go have a beer. I told him I was tired and just wanted to go home and pass out. He laughed and told me maybe another day. He turned around and looked at me.
“Yeah, I thought the sous chef was going to yell at me, or fire me. I was lost there for awhile.”
Jimmy laughed and said “ He thinks you did a good job.”
“Nobody does great on their first day trust me. Anyway it’s not about that. It’s about not quitting, not crying when you’re getting crushed by tickets. It’s about keeping your cool when the ticket machine is going nuts, and they start yelling at you to go faster, or to make a dish over again because it’s not acceptable. If you can just keep your head down and get it done without quitting, crying, or losing your shit on someone, then you got what it takes brother. You did good.”
On the bus ride home I remember staring out the window and wondering if this life was for me. That night had been so intense and my station wasn’t even that hard compared to the hot stations. How was I ever going to work grill? How could you cook meat and tell if it’s done just by touching it? That seemed like magic to me. There was no way I would get there. But there was no turning back, I knew working at Spiaggia would help a great dela on my road to becoming a chef, and I couldn’t quit on the first day. The 62 Archer bus dropped me off on the corner of Halsted and Archer and I walked home from there,wondering if I’d ever achieve that title, Chef, and if so where? When? How? LIstened to Tom Waits on my Discman and wondered how early I should get there tomorrow, I was going to be in the weeds.