Over the past year, I rounded out my high school experience shadowing and working with some of Seattle’s most prominent chefs. Trying to make the most of this rare opportunity, I was toted around the city attending radio show tapings and television segments, helping with cooking classes and listening to speaker panels, while learning hands-on how to handle suppliers and make a food business profitable. Although the publicity and excitement of the corporate half of the business was appealing, I found my interactions with the shift workers and line cooks to be most bona fide.
When I designed my high school senior project around working with a cooking school, I knew that the atmosphere and attitudes of people teaching and assisting paying customers would not reveal the real life of a chef or, to be more accurate, a cook. The dress code suggested all black clothing and required clean aprons, a far cry from the stained chef coats and t-shirts found in the back of the house at a restaurant. So, thrusting myself into an entirely different role, I took a job on the side working as a garde-manger cook in a local upscale French bistro.
I had been eating at this restaurant on occasion since my early teen years and I loved the calm, intimate atmosphere. It was always quiet in the dining room and the food was delicious. Suffice to say the kitchen didn’t share the same vibe.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 3:50 in the afternoon, I would fire up the huge SUV I drove and meander through back roads to the next town over. There, I would park on the hill behind the restaurant and head into work.
Already wearing my baggy black chef pants and black Crocs, I clocked in and slipped into a white chef coat hanging next to the kitchen. Everyone shared the coats, so whichever was small enough and cleanest became mine for the night.
Then, I ducked through the door into the kitchen. After greeting Jésus and Andrès, the dishwashers, I found Lynn, the chef, and waited for my assignment.
Dinner service started at 5 p.m. but it didn’t usually get busy until around 6 p.m., so I spent the first few hours of my night doing prep work. My first responsibility was to prepare the line for both myself and Lynn while she rested between service.
Surviving the Vietnam war as a refugee, Lynn has always been resilient. Having worked as a chef for 40 years and owning her own restaurant for 15, she impresses us all with her stamina. But she requires a quick nap after lunch and before dinner to give her enough energy to pull through until we lock the door around 10:30 p.m.
Prep work included different tasks depending on the day and who had worked before me. Some nights, I would need to julienne whole containers of carrots; others, I sliced unused bread into crostini. Every night I had to restock the meat and fish.
A kitchen’s “line” is composed of a refrigerated trough filled with “1/6 containers,” cube-shaped plastic or metal containers with lips that suspend them above the refrigeration. On one half, Lynn had all her raw vegetables to sauté and on the other, her meats and fish. On my side, I had all the fixings and dressings for salads, desserts and appetizers.
I might spend the first hour or two talking to the dishwashers in a strange mix of “Spanglish” but by the time 6 p.m. hit, I was locked in. Actually, I was literally blocked into a corner of the kitchen. Space is tight in most restaurant kitchens, so the layout is efficient, if cramped.
In front of me I had the line; at my knees were the low-boy refrigerators with salad leaves, bowls and pre-made crème brûlée and chocolate mousse. Behind me, a small oven, two burners, a grill and an ultra-hot crèpe maker radiated heat.
Although it was a small restaurant, orders came fast on the weekends. And man, it was hot back there, especially in that heavy chef coat. I kept busy making loaf after loaf of bread, tossing salads to order and heating up and garnishing desserts, all under the (extremely) watchful eye of Lynn.
By the end of the night, my workspace may have been clean, but the floor was sprinkled with salt and pepper, the trash cans were full and a stack of used tongs, salad bowls and half sheet pans sat waiting for the dish pit.
Far from done for the night, I would start to reassemble the kitchen while Lynn returned to her desk to pay bills and respond to catering requests. Over the ensuing hour, I swept the floor and wiped the oven and low-boy doors clean of smudges and spills. I sent loads of dirty dishes back to Jésus and received clean ones to put away. I replaced the meat containers on the line with empty ones and stored the meat, along with any remaining par-baked bread, in the walk-ins (to ensure they stayed cold overnight).
The last thing I did in the kitchen was clean my knife and shut the lid on the line. Then, stuffing a handful of used towels in the hamper, I hung up my chef coat and clocked out.
Some nights I would stick around a few minutes and joke with the servers or other cooks from next door. Most nights, however, my underage status excluded me from the late night antics they anticipated.
Finally, I would head out into the drizzly, dark, Northwest night and meander home again.