This past summer I finally learned the true meaning of the saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
I had just received word from Frank, a young Los Angeles hipster and executive chef at Son of a Gun restaurant, that I was hired for the prep cook job I had been inquiring about. He made sure to warn me that it was going to be “real hard,” and I would be asked to do the “tedious, nitty-gritty stuff that no one else wants to do.” I assured him I knew it wasn’t some Easy-Bake Oven occupation, and I was up to the task. I didn’t want to be known as some kid who meanders through his kitchen, flipping through recipe books and rustling around ingredients while getting in everyone’s way. I was there to work, and work hard.
And thus my day began: my first day, at my first job in the restaurant field, or chef-hood, as I like to call it. I honestly had no idea what to expect, so I showed up in yoga pants and my “water-proof” Sperry’s. I was convinced that these shoes would serve me well on a slippery kitchen floor. Oh, the naiveté.
The moment I walked through the back door (feeling pretty cool), Frank took one look at me and said, “What’s on your feet?”
I love first impressions.
As I made my way around the kitchen trying to figure out where ladles, serrated knives and cheese graters lived, I was continuously bumping into apron-wearing, thickset, hippie-esque 20-somethings who were sautéing shiitake mushrooms and frying fillets of alligator (yep, alligator). I was told to grab the oysters and start washing. Never having cleaned an oyster in my life, I lugged over a 15-pound net of them and grabbed a pick scrubber, which is basically a blunt piece of metal used to scrape off grime. I stood at the sink for over an hour hacking away at the unyielding barnacles and slime fixed on these abominable mollusks. In an effort to conceal the pain from holding onto these prickly little creatures and nicking every knuckle, I kept the mindset of, “Whistle while you work.”
Finally, I finished; the oysters were gleaming, and my hands were scored from barnacles. I would also soon become accustomed to the pruned fingers that come with the incessant hand washing in the kitchen. I looked up from the sink and asked what needed to be done next. “All the citrus has to be juiced,” Frank mumbled with a charming wink. The perpetual use of Dial soap and citrus juice burned every scrape etched in my hands as I squeezed each lemon and lime in stinging discomfort. But all I could do was laugh, because ironically I was having a great deal of fun. Cooking has always been a passion of mine, and I’ve fantasized about working in a restaurant. Now I was living my dream, except it wasn’t glamorized in any sense.
The night progressed and my assignments piled up. By the time I had to clock out, I’d gone from dicing onions to gutting squid and torching crème brulée. As I was packing up, the staff yelled above all the clanking of pots and pans, “Right on, Greer!” and I received a mighty double high-five from Frank. It felt as if, just in that one day everyone recognized my efforts, and I passed a sort of “trial by fire”. So, I hung up my apron and joyously declared, “See you tomorrow!”