By Hanalei Souza
Cooking a steak to perfect medium-rare is a simple task, once learned. I think anyone is capable of doing it. Now let’s throw a few more things into the mix. Not only do I have to nail one perfect medium-rare rib-eye, but two more rib-eyes, four filet mignons, three New York steaks, eight burgers, two salmon filets, and 15 chicken skewers, all while running two deep fryers, and listening to a waitress cuss out the expediter and two other cooks argue over which plate had the sauce on the side. Of course all these aren’t put on the grill at once, but at different times, so I have to remember which ones were put on when, what temp (“temps” referring to rare, medium, etc.) they were ordered, and if the burgers were beef patties or bison (they look exactly the same by the way). Oh, and also different sections on the grill run hotter than others, so I have to take that into account too. And the ticket printer, letting off new orders with a robotic screeching type of sound, won’t. Stop. Printing.
Earlier that summer, I decided I wanted to go to the busiest restaurant in town, get a job there, and find out if I really wanted to cook for a living. So here I found myself, behind the grill, on Saturday at 7:19 pm, wondering how I got here, and why I EVER thought that would be a good idea. Like an adrenaline junkie looking for the next cliff to BASE jump off of, I had surveyed the streets of my little mountain town, trying to find a place where I could get my ass handed to me every day and truly push my own limits. There was one place, a casual-but-not-too-casual American restaurant, on the corner of the main intersection in town, which fit the bill.
I walked in with my resume, then bugged them with phone calls for almost a month to get an interview. Finally, I got one with the chef, and I was able to talk about my year (well, one summer full-time and very part time during Winter) of experience at my previous (and only) kitchen job at the local “lobster shack”, saying I would love to learn everything I could at this place. I told him about my experience on the “line” — where the meals are cooked-to-order and sent straight to the customer.
“Yeah, I can handle the line. I can totally handle the line. I thrive off the rush. I was born ready for it. Molded by it. I am the Zen master. That’s why I want to work here. It’s always busy.”
“Well you’ll definitely get that here,” he said, “and you need to be able to stay on top.”
We talked for a few more minutes. I somehow managed to dodge having to confess that I couldn’t cook a steak to order to save my life, or that I’d never been to culinary school and had barely been working at restaurants for one summer, or that I had absolutely no clue what “mirepoix” or “the five mother sauces” were. People had told me I was a damn good home cook though, so I had that going for me.
“Can you start on Friday?”
I showed up on Friday, eager to work and learn the long menu of everything from burgers, to fish tacos, to seared ahi with citrus beurre blanc sauce, to orzo primavera. This place was a huge step-up from the itsy-bitsy lobster shack I had come from. It had multiple walk-in fridges and freezers (plenty of room to go in and cry on a Saturday night), two separate kitchens, and three to seven cooks on at a time. Most things, like sauces, pizza dough, and salsas, were made from scratch, and meat was butchered in-house.
“Are you a busser? Food runner? Prep cook?” Said the current dishwasher, upon seeing the fresh, new hire.
“No, she will be on the line, next to me,” replied the chef who was training me that day.
A wide, intrigued grin went across her face.
“Goooood luuuuuuck!” She laughed, like I was getting up off the bench for the underdog team going up against the world champion.
At 11, we opened for the day. I thought I’d begin on prep or just watching, but I was thrown straight to the wolves on the line. One order turned into three, turned into seven. I felt like I had dyslexia as soon as we had more than three orders at once. I just had no idea where anything was or what goes with what, or heck — even how to organize the tickets on the rail. One of the other cooks, without saying a word, kept giving me this look, which said,
“What is this, your first day?!”
I had no idea who did what or what’s going on or where anything was and a server was telling me the bison burger for table 32 comes with aioli on the side but I snapped back “that wasn’t on the ticket”, and she shows me the ticket and yes, it did say aioli on the side, so I ate humble pie and re-made the whole thing. Only a few hours in, I began to wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to leave the comfort of my old job — where I had every menu item on point and knew that kitchen better than my home kitchen (where few things actually have a place).
We wore actual chef coats at this job. By the end of that shift, I felt as if I didn’t even deserve to wear one. The “Imposter Syndrome” hit hard, or maybe for chefs they call it “im-pasta syndrome”. I thought I had just talked myself up at the interview big time, using state-of-the-art trickery to make them believe that I, an inexperienced, quiet, young woman with zero culinary school and little experience could hold her own on the line at the busiest restaurant in town. What was I thinking?
“It’s so hot here,” complains a waiter on the other side of the window, as he fans himself with his notepad. I’m reaching over the grill and can feel the sweat dripping down the back of my neck. I look him dead in the eyes through the flames rising from the grill, inches from my hand, while the fryers steam behind me.
“Okay, I’ll shut up, it’s not hot here,” he says.
My entire shift so far has been an absolute scramble right from the get-go. I arrived at 3 pm and had exactly two hours until dinner service to get my mise en place (chef-an-ese for: get my shit together). It’s a Saturday, so there’s no separation from the lunch rush and the dinner rush. I knew the dinner menu began at 5, ready or not, but I had such a long list of things to do, while simultaneously helping the lunch crew on the line, that I lost track of time. Next thing I knew, I had orders coming in with dinner entree items and I realized I hadn’t even mashed the potatoes yet. Just in the nick of time, I was able to get the potatoes finished by 5:15 and jump straight into the madness of a Saturday dinner service, and that’s where I’ve been for the last two hours. What’s that, another order? It’s for sliders — thin little things that burn easily. Better keep my eye on those. All 12 of them. After dropping three orders of fish and chips and six battered jalapeno poppers in the fryer, I watch a waiter come back to the kitchen holding food. That’s never good. He said the guy at table 12 ordered the ahi tuna entree, and didn’t expect it to be “so rare”. I find some room on the grill and cover it, and I better remember it because there’s no ticket for this. What’s that, something’s on fire? I definitely did not forget about that medium-rare rib-eye, a fatty cut of meat which when on the grill, drips oil and can set the whole thing ablaze. Luckily it’s still rare inside, so I make sure I remember to take it off in just a minute or two. A thin steak on the hot part of the grill might give a 30-second window between temps, and it’s not like there aren’t other things going on to distract me from a perfect medium-rare.
I’ve seen too many “feminist” ads and videos pop up in my social media feed putting down being in the kitchen, defending themselves against people who use “get back to the kitchen” as an insult, and I just want to get this straight. Can we get rid of this telling-women-they-shouldn’t-belong-in-the-kitchen nonsense? As if a woman being in the kitchen is some kind of mark of weakness and a slap in the face to ‘real’ feminists? Like cooking is an easy task for some kind of domesticated, patriarchy-supporting pansy? Neo-feminists will try to distance themselves, wearing their inability to cook like a badge of honor. “Look at me, I’m a real feminist because I can’t cook or clean! Look at me, I burnt water!” Want a difficult, male-dominated, high-pressure environment that creates tough people? Look no further than the commercial kitchen.
If someone thinks that by telling a woman to get back to the kitchen is saying she’s weak and can’t amount to anything else, I dare them to find the busiest restaurant in their city on a day where the line is out the door, peek into the kitchen and watch. They might not even see any women, and if they do see one, they better believe she’s tough as nails.
It’s 8:07. The manager and head chef walk into the kitchen. They are telling me that I have passed the 15-minute ticket time on table 57’s order. Like way passed. They want to know why. They’re nice people, good bosses, really, but are probably reflecting some of the anger coming from the hungry diners waiting behind those swinging doors. The other seven plates are in the window (dying under heat lamps), and I’m dragging a medium New York steak. I try to explain that the steak is still rare, and they ordered medium, and there’s little I can do, but they’re not having it. Meanwhile the sauté cook is yelling at me because he said I never told him about said New York steak, and now he has to scramble to make the sides that accompany it. The line cook up front pulls a string of new tickets from the printer and begins calling out even more items I need to start — and remember.
Only a few weeks into the new job, they began trusting me to work the grill. Remember how I couldn’t cook a steak to save my life? They eventually found this out, but it wasn’t a problem because they knew it was a skill I could learn, and they taught me. So there I was — me and one other guy holding down the entire kitchen while the July 4th week crowds flocked to our area by the tens of thousands like an angry mob. Restaurants aren’t always staffed-up to meet the demands. It’s a transient industry in a seasonal town, and turnover is high. Few people can cook nowadays, let alone want to hold down the line at the busiest restaurant in town for a living. There’s just so much more easy money out there. Whether there’s two cooks or four, when that dining room fills up, I still better put out perfect food. Every time. Every order. I’ve heard too many restaurant workers say things like,
“People can’t tell the difference between med-rare and med-well anyway. Just put more sauce on it.”
“Most people want their fish overcooked.”
I call B.S.
If you’ve ever paid for food at a restaurant that wasn’t up to par, I am sorry, and I really mean that. I’m not just screwing up your dinner. I’m screwing up your anniversary date night you saved up every penny for, your graduation party, or your night out with the guys. To me, it’s more than food.
I am not a perfectionist in most areas of my life, but if a customer orders a medium steak you better believe I want it to be perfect. This particular night, we were so swamped and understaffed, I was sending out some things that made me embarrassed to leave the kitchen in uniform, in case someone put two-and-two together and muttered,
“Hey look, there’s the unqualified schmuck who messed up our dinner!”
Slightly burnt but passable sliders, burgers ordered medium that were a solid med-well, and charred burger buns left the kitchen while one member of a party of eight watched their group eat and sat without food because the kitchen misread their ticket. To top the night off, the manager came back in and slapped down a cut-in-half filet mignon I had just sent out.
“They ordered this medium.”
With no defense, I slunk my way back to the grill and put the steak back on. If Gordon Ramsey were there, he would have yelled,
“It’s RAAAAAWWWWW you Donkey!! Now where’s the Lamb SAUCE?!”
The next day I’m back at work. The entire town is ramping up each day as we near the 4th of July. I begin prepping for service — cutting and roasting parsnips, reducing demi-glace sauces, and saying my final prayers that I would keep my sanity before the hungry masses arrived. Somehow, I ended up on grill again. Things seem to be running smoothly, until a server comes back to the kitchen and says, with a hint of disappointment in his voice,
“Hey, who’s cooking steaks tonight?”
The whole kitchen went quiet and all eyes were on me. My heart sank as I tried to hide the fact that I was standing by the grill, tongs in hand. I was 100% sure he’d say that they were all going out wrong. Very wrong.
“The guy from table 11 who ordered the med-rare filet mignon told me to go to the chef right away and tell them he just had the best steak he’s ever had in his life!”
I blushed, or maybe I was just red from the heat of the kitchen, standing next to the grill for five hours. Or both. I had the biggest smile for the rest of my shift, as the four of us continued to work in harmony and encourage each other while we crushed the rest of dinner service. I encourage everyone to give their compliments to the chef if the food was great. Maybe they’ll just stroke an ego. Or maybe, there’s a struggling line cook out there, desperate for a sign that they are in the right profession.
I need to pee but I can’t leave the line with a rail full of tickets. It’s 9:14 pm and there’s no signs of the rush slowing down. Of course I’m also keeping track of all the modifications the diners have made, because one does not simply order menu items as they come. One rib-eye orderer wants it medium-rare with no mashed potatoes and the demi glace sauce on the side. Another rib-eye orderer wants medium, but no asparagus. One of the medium-rare bison burger eaters wants no bun and no onions, and another wants medium-well with no bacon and aioli on the side. I try to keep my flow while bending my brain around which order has which temp and which modification, but it’s not easy.
I finish plating up the ticket’s final bison burger at the same time the guy on sauté carefully brings over his salmon entree, trying not to disrupt the perfectly squeeze-bottled dots of pomegranate reduction and basil oil on the plate. Let me tell you there are few feelings as satisfying as slapping that plate down in the pass and handing the expediter that completed ticket for a table of eight. But I can’t revel in that moment for even a second, because that filet mignon ordered rare ain’t gonna be rare for much longer. Oh, and the ahi tuna is ready too… And my sliders are burning.
When one of the brunch cooks called in sick one Saturday morning, I figured it could be my time to shine, so I stepped up and said I’d work his sauté/egg poaching/fryer/waffle station. I’d never run that station before, so I took five minutes to learn how the waffle maker worked, had a quick hollandaise sauce making lesson from the chef, and began service.
I was almost waiting for the moment I’d be overwhelmed and have to ask one of the more experienced guys to step in and take over my station. I was running 12 stove burners, four waffle makers, and two deep fryers all on my own, but as the tickets kept rolling in, I was able to stay on top. Every order was going out on time and nothing was being sent back.
“Nice work, boys!” Said one of the waiters as he picks up the food for his table.
Without skipping a beat, the head chef, who’s on the line next to the rest of us, says,
“You’re going to have to start saying ‘nice work boys and girls’ now!”
That was one of the many little moments where I began to feel like I fit in — like there was a chance that I, an inexperienced, quiet, young woman with zero culinary school and little experience could hold her own on the line at the busiest restaurant in town. Maybe I wasn’t an im-pasta after all.
It’s 10:05, and our team has put out 450 cooked-to-order dinners in the last five hours. The kitchen closes at 10, but they’ll extend it if people are still waiting outside, and they are. Just when I get one second to breathe and think about potentially taking a bathroom break, I hear the printer again. I want to punch it off the shelf, but instead I watch the ticket keep printing, and printing.
“Sorry,” says the waitress, sheepishly as she walks into the kitchen, “I didn’t warn you about the table of 12 that just ordered. We just sat a few more tables too.”
I call out the ticket so the guy in the back on sauté can hear, then I put six burgers and three steaks on the grill. It doesn’t matter if it’s my 450th plate of the night, I still have to make it the best damn steak I’m capable of cooking. I finish up that order, three more orders, and then the manager finally tells us the kitchen is closed.
I’ve had many overwhelming days besides the ones I’ve written about in these pages. Maybe one day I’ll stop feeling like I’m getting chewed up and spat out by the dinner rush, or maybe great chefs never stop getting their butts kicked but have learned to roll with the punches. There are days I have the life drained out of me, and I finish my shift feeling like my brain had been fried in the deep fryer. There are days where I feel like I lost my soul somewhere between 7 and 9 pm, vowing if I ever have to see another filet mignon ever again, I’m punching a hole through the walk-in door. I’m not invincible because people say I can “handle the heat”. Many of us turn to drugs to handle the pressure of this job, but I’ve chosen not to. We all need some way of coping with the different pressures of life, whether we work in a busy restaurant kitchen or not. Writing this piece, and many other pages that will probably never make it out into the world, is one of my ways.
It’s 10:45. I think we did a good job on service, but I don’t know if people liked the food or not. The only dishes sent back were the “too rare” ahi tuna, and a perfectly good chicken dish that the customer thought just looked weird, and almost all dinners made it out in 15 minutes. Not only did nobody throw any plates across the room like they do on TV, and not only did no one retreat and cry in the walk-in, but I actually felt as if I had come alive that night. Sure I was tired as all hell, but that feeling of giving something my absolute all was truly satisfying. I’m not going to say the last few hours were handled with grace and ease, but dammit, we had handled it!
Then the chef walks in with the only piece of feedback I’ll receive on the entire night’s service.
“A customer said their rare steak was closer to medium-rare. They didn’t send it back, and they ate it, but try to take it off the grill sooner next time.”
The other 449 dishes? Who knows, maybe they were perfect, maybe they weren’t. It’s a mystery and will always be. This is what I have to base my entire performance off, and judge whether I’m good at my job or not. Constructive feedback is a good thing, but if I lose faith in my own overall ability, it’s over. I take note to pay more attention next time somebody orders rare.
I know I need to wake up early tomorrow for Sunday brunch, which is usually even more brutal than Saturday night. I leave the kitchen and begin squeezing my way through the labyrinth of drunk, dancing partiers bouncing up and down to some sub-par live music. I may as well be invisible in my whites (well they were white but now they look more like a Jack Pollock masterpiece of buffalo sauce and char). Nobody cares about me as I make my way to the utility room to get the mop bucket, as the lead singer of the band wails off-key. It doesn’t matter if I can put out all those fine foods. I’m not above mopping the floor, and I never will be.
I had come to work at the busiest restaurant in town to find out if I really wanted to cook for a living, and had, at many moments, wondered why I EVER thought that was a good idea. As I’m scrubbing dried batter off the walls that night, I realized it was a good idea, because I ended up finding an answer.
I was only planning on staying for a summer. Turning a childhood passion into an actual career? Impossible. No one does that, and if I try, I will end up hating the thing I used to love. At least that’s what people say. But when I went from cooking at home to cooking for work, something clicked. It wasn’t just cooking that I liked. I had grown to love the rush of a busy service, the potential to learn and eventually create new ideas that would bring a light to people’s eyes, and the camaraderie shared among people who have the same passion and work hard together. We work in a pressure cooker, and few people become diamonds, and in the fast-paced craziness of my new work environment, I was beginning to see my true potential. I realized I wouldn’t want my workplace any other way.
Modern day feminists may be mad, but I think I’ve found my place — and it’s in the kitchen.