Crossing The Line: Salazar, Part 2
Part two of my two-part Salazar story. Part one can be found here.
I don’t know how the start of a new job goes for you, but you know you've arrived when your boss calls you a pussy.
The relationship between the kitchen cook and his chef is a very nuanced balance between father/son and master/slave. It doesn't matter if the person at the helm is shouty and generally disagreeable; the subtle ones can be even more effecting. There are moments that make you sad to leave your shift, wishing for more hours in the day. Other moments are painfully coarse and make you wonder what you did to arrive at this point in your life. You are employed to be a team player with the one you fear. Hitchens would call it “masochism, sold to you by sadists”. And for you to work in a kitchen is to enter into this silent, universally-accepted contract, and to never expect a civilian “normal” person to fully understand it.
Within my first week on the official job, I was ushered very quickly back into that deep sense of personal fear of one man: Chef Jose Salazar. Dear fucking god. The only reason I can even talk about this without shitting myself - besides knowing Jose as a real person and friend - is that every other person who’s ever worked in a serious kitchen and reads this will know exactly what I mean. This has nothing really to do with a chef as a person. This has everything to do with respect: for the craft, the industry, the pleasure, the pain, and the person who allows you the privilege to be a part of it.
I was fully aware, painfully, that I was the unseasoned kid, and I never tried to make myself out to be anything more than that. I knew I was learning, every cook there knew I was learning. Jose even knew I was learning, and he still hired me, to enlighten and to train, to see if I had the minerals… that information didn’t alleviate for a single second the fear that I would somehow let him and the team down. It just made it goddamned worse.
And I was only there for a few months; imagine this being your life. Maybe it was the experience of working in an award-winning restaurant as a complete rookie, or some serious self-loathing, but I realized when writing this unexpected dissertation that the screw-ups are still the moments I remember most - of which, I might add, there were many.
But as entertaining as tales of misfortune can be, I didn't want to just write a bunch of stories. So I present to you, in no particular order, some important lessons I learned as the kitchen rat.
One of my first, most basic duties was to peel and cut potatoes for fries. Simple, right? Well there was no specific mention which kind, and there were two types of potatoes downstairs, and I had not asked which ones. Now being the pedantic know-it-all I am, I had always assumed that the standard for frying were the starchy variety, the Idahos, the Kennebecs, but I thought I’d better check with the sous chef in case I was an idiot. After asking him which I should use, I was surprised to hear him say “the yellow ones.” “You sure the yellow ones and not the big brown ones?”, pointing directly at them, trying to simplify the discussion. “Nope, the yellow ones," he said simply, and headed out of the room. So I do my job and cut, oh, 18 quarts of yellow, waxy Yukon gold potatoes, and move on with my work.
Later that evening, Chef comes down to do his informal post-shift check on the night’s prep. When we get to the fries, I point out the enormous container I prepped. “Which potatoes did you use?” was his first question. “The yellow ones.” “Not the Kennebecs?” he asked. I replied, “I think they're Yukon golds," trying to soften the conversation with my impressive knowledge of potato varieties. “Those don't fry well..." he muttered, "It should’ve been the Kennebecs.” “I know, I checked with sous. He told me do those", I said. “That’s fine, but we need the Kennebecs for fries," he countered. "Follow your instinct next time, ok?" He walked away promptly, returning to his checklist. It didn't do either of us us any good standing around talking about how I knew the difference now. Common sense dictated I should've known when I did them earlier.
The following day, it was on me to figure out what to do with them for staff meal. I really hope they all liked mashed potatoes.
Making a fool of myself is a trait that manifested itself beautifully at Salazar, in moments of blistering culinary stupidity - like the fact I actually thought the elegant word agnolotti was pronounced ag-no-LA-tee. I’m not bothered too much by my own ignorance; I was there to learn after all. But I knew potatoes. I knew which could be fried and which couldn't, and I did it the wrong way anyway. Second-guessing what you are sure you know, being a yes-man for the sake of the conversation, is a failure. A stupid, lazy failure.
Self-doubt will not save you from fucking up. It will lead to it.
Much more debilitating than self-doubt is the male plague of perfectionism. As it was and is in every aspect of my life, the simplest of tasks can become monumental challenges. Organizing the iTunes library. Tweaking the equalizer. Making ramen. All potentially problematic. There can never be enough metadata added to a song, a room will never be perfectly attenuated to your stereo, and ramen noodles are never ever just ramen noodles. The battle is to find the balance between getting a job done completely, cleanly, and to the highest standard... and then just getting it done and enjoying it. The latter almost always suffers at the expense of the former despite your best efforts - which is why, today, my music collection remains disorganized, my custom speakers have long been sold, and my noodle game ranges wildly from carefully-handmade to dear-god-I-just-need-to-eat-this-instant.
At the restaurant, I had to unsurprisingly get over my Hughesian tendencies before my work ethic. I wasn't going to let a list go undone because I was particular. I did the diligence, dutifully. I can say with confidence that I moved as fast and as hard as I could within my ability. Filling in any role, never turning down a menial task: I even covered the dish-pit for a full busy Saturday shift with a very high fever. I'm very proud of my work ethic, but my suicidal perfectionism still managed on occasion to drag me down... For example, taking two hours to pick through braised rabbit, twice, because I was sickly nervous about bones left in... a single quart of turnips cleaned and turned to the minutia at the expense of the rest of the evening's prep... Interrupting chef at the pass, on a busy Friday night, to see if I had the right amount of pepper in the marrow butter...
...and then, there was the bane of my existence, the tiny eater of my soul.
I’ve been conquered by a lot of inanimate objects in life, but I share a history with no other nemesis more than the pearl onion.
Technique dictates that every item be prepared as identically as possible to the preceding item: the more one practices their technique with a particular group of items, one could theoretically develop a skill in that group. I am convinced that pearl onions are the enemies of skill, mostly because they are morally opposed to technique. Even if all pearl onions were exactly alike, they would find some method to commit culinary terrorism against a paring knife. As one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply peel a pearl goddamn fucking onion.
This was a problem for me, as I was often responsible for preparing a lot of purple pearl onions for this gorgeous handmade cavatelli dish: removing the skins, leaving the tops mostly intact, and cleaning (not completely removing) the root ends. And I didn't have all night to do them.
After the first demo, they looked easy enough. But I ended up taking much longer than I thought, because I had trouble getting it as right as the other cooks did. After I figured I was doing something wrong, I requested a second demo. Still not convinced, I began to consider maybe this person and I were a little incompatible, and got a second opinion: a different method. Later, a third opinion and a third method. Growing concerned that every cook in the building was set out to conspire against me, I retreated with my now-burgundy-colored thumbs to the ultimate authority and requested a demo from Chef. Yet another method - as clean as the others, tiny roots meticulously shaved away, the crosshatch an even, perfect depth on each root... infinitely more precise than my purpley mangled wreckage. How is such precision possible within a matter of seconds?
At this point, I feared that I had contracted some debilitating, permanent learning disability. The colors in the room looked a little inverted, and I began hearing voices. I would retreat often to the familiar, friendly brussel sprouts: I could do brussel sprouts. Brussel sprouts were my safe zone. Brussel sprouts were my friend. But I had very cruel daydreams of sauntering into the walk-in, opening the bin to retrieve my lovely sprouts and finding they had turned themselves into ghastly pearl onions. They weren't the only victims: the oranges, the limes, the rutabagas, the squash... all pearl onions. Every day, I would arrive ready to conquer a day's worth of prep, only to have my list come alive and immolate itself in shame at the written mention of those two unholy words. I was consumed in a nightmare, where the restaurant sign had changed its logo to a monochromatic pearl onion, and all the cooks had turned to bobble-headed, half-human, half-vegetable abominations, mocking me through gaping, toothless, oniony mouths. Chef barked orders to fire more pearl onions. The entire menu was now pearl onions. I'd scratch my head in bewilderment, large petals of loose papery skin falling to the floor around me. My brain was an exposed, multi-layered sulphuric mass, weak and inert, weeping from the seams: I was no longer man. I was onion. Pearl onion.
Then... it just broke. The next day, my Hunter S. Thompson fever dream subsided, and I simply had it down. From that point on there was nothing to it. I swear the first time I crossed two quarts off my list in under 20 mins, I got weirdly emotional. And no one in that building had a clue what I was going through or would even understand if I tried to explain it to them.
Let yourself go a little crazy at the risk of productivity. You'll either get through it or burn the place down. Either way, it will work out.
Not all memories make me cringe. I did learn a great deal.
I remember the fish demos: chef filleting a red drum and brown sea trout. He had probably done it a thousand times before, but to me it was still fairly new and altogether exciting. It's as much an audible experience as a visual one. The cold slap of the tail against the board. The raspy de-scaling. The long broad strokes of the yanagi blade working in near-silence, save for the gentle tick-tick as it bends ever-so-slightly against the curved ribs. Keep it clean and dry. The methodical pin boning, the fingers searching the surface of the flesh. The violent act of separating muscle from bone, punctuated by the delicacy with which the resulting fillets are lain gently and neatly in the bin they will live in until they are cooked. Each tool in its place, as it was a hundred times before. Clean and dry. Watching someone methodically break down a whole animal, with measure and care, is as wonderful as smelling rain for the first time.
Yet, like an unwitting jester thrust headlong into a court of kings, there was I. In and out of place.
Let me set this up for you. Anna and I had managed to arrange a night out to celebrating our wedding anniversary. We did it up like professional white people at the swankiest of swankstablishments - you know the type. Our friendly server was well aware by now of the special occasion. So as we’re knocking back our third glass of champagne, and as I’m enjoying a particularly good plate of seafood risotto, I wonder aloud - in earshot of our server - how scrumtrulescent it would be to come by after a shift at my fancy new restaurant job to grab one of these mah-vuh-less dishes. Did I mention the server was listening? "And oh wait!" - I basically grab her arm at that point - "I just so happen to be working tomorrow, at that new place down the street, Salazar! Do you know it? Do you know how it’s spelled? Do you know its exact address?"
Whether I said all those things exactly like that or whether I made simple mention of in passing makes little difference. Because the very next day during my shift (another busy Saturday, mind you) as I have 10 minutes to finish my part of staff meal and am still elbow deep in raw chicken thighs, I am suddenly called upstairs. Chef had a particular call: “Nate Dogg!” This meant urgency. This meant stop whatever the hell you’re doing, put down whatever you’re working on, you were needed two minutes ago. I washed my hands and raced up the stairs as fast as physically possible, to find Chef simply looking over notes at the pass. He points over to the front door, which I move to, still drying my hands, when I see... a delivery guy. Not just any delivery guy, like a professionally-dressed delivery gentleman. He had an oversized, deep blue, elegant bag hanging from his right arm.
Why am I up here?
It took me at least a full minute to register what was happening: he was from the restaurant we were at the night before. I listened with disbelief as he explained - in front of the entire front and back of house crew, I might add - that our server from last night had taken the liberty to send over a personal seafood risotto, just for me, as a joyful continuation of last night's festivities. It even came with a handwritten note from the server.
This isn’t happening, I thought. I was lucky enough to get a job at one of the best restaurants in the city, and I just had seafood fucking risotto from another restaurant delivered to me during my shift.
I felt like a fucking idiot. You could practically hear every server in the dining room glaring, waiting to see what this cunt getting his fancy food hand-delivered to the front of house would do next. Do I say no thanks and be rude? Do I own up and haughtily receive this gift on behalf of my inferiors??? We were now just shy of ten minutes from opening. I just took the bag and muttered something resembling a thanks, as the delivery guy walked out the door with a big oblivious smile, probably drafting tweets in his head.
I turned around to retreat quickly back downstairs where I belonged, dedicated to salvaging anything left of my dignity, when I practically bumped right into Jose. He was no longer at the expediting table. He was now looking at me. Holy shit, how long has he been there? He looked at the bag, and then me, and let an excruciating moment pass before sneaking the most shit-eating grin.
“Mr. Popular, huh?” he chuckled.
That grin haunts me. I went on to finish my work and managed to contribute well in other areas that evening, but that was it. That was the night I knew.
What the hell am I doing here?
Now about that pussy comment.
To be fair, I was being a total pussy. Just a couple months in, I had graduated from being the newbie help in the dungeon to knocking out critical main dish items, to being dragged kicking and screaming to the line. "Just watch for a minute," chef said. "Do what I do, you'll be fine," Jeff said. They tried to reassure me. But then, before I had gained an iota of familiarity with the dish being called, it was fired, plated, and on the pass. I stared anxiously at the plancha, aghast at the precision and punctuality. Each cook had a place, a pace, an air of confidence in the task at hand. There I was, standing basically back at the wall, without a clue of where the first component of the dish even was.
I retreated mentally back to prep territory. The next order called, I made the quickest possible mental chart of the components of the dish. Order fire: one veal. "Ok... Where's the veal tongue?" I asked Jeff. In the lowboy, he said. "What's a lowboy?" He smiled, and opened the drawer in front of his knees. It was a refrigerated compartment, filled with par-cooked chicken, raw burger patties and the like, most of which I had prepped personally... though I didn't remember bringing up any tongue earlier. "It must be down in the walk in. Do you want me to get some?" I asked, still shuffling awkwardly, I might add, through the half-way retracted drawer near the ground, forcing him to stand at an awkward distance from the plancha. As soon as I heard a yes, I shimmied hurriedly through the line back down to the dungeon - my safe place - where I pulled a braised chilled tongue out of its herbaceous bath, quickly trimmed and sliced it, packaged it neatly in a cambro as I was ought to, and ran up the stairs back to the kitchen.
But the kitchen suddenly seemed very different.
I had only been gone a few minutes, maybe four, but the dining room seemed more busy now. The line was an absolute war zone. The sauté station was blazing, completely full. Jeff was alternating between slicing meat on the plating station and flipping countless items on the flat top. The garde manger was in a wild-eyed other-dimensional fervor, somehow juggling multiple salads, manning a fryer, and grilling bread all at the same time. Each one was focused and intentional, weaving in between the two sides of that galley kitchen like machine gun fire across a trench. And I stood frozen, carton of veal tongues in hand, on the edge. All the sound disappeared and I just heard ringing; shell-shocked. It was a fifteen-foot long kitchen, maybe, but it may as well have been a hundred feet of dark, claustrophobic corridor. There was no way in hell I was getting to the other side.
Meanwhile, Chef was inspecting and finalizing plates at the pass to the left, mechanically retrieving and applying finishing oils and salts with effortless speed, handing them off to at-the-ready runners, tickets lain orderly at the pass to be furiously marked one line after another. He was basically a shoulders' distance away from me, when he noticed the product in my grasp.
"What do you need? What is that?" He asked.
Holy shit, I had an existential thought, how do I even answer the first question? "It's veal for Jeff," I had barely muttered my slack-jawed response when he pointed determinately towards the line. "Get that in there, he's been waiting on it!" he laid into me. "I know! I just..." I stalled. (How do you communicate to a battle-hardened soldier that guns frighten you?) "I just didn't want to mess up the line cooks, they're really busy." Chef was basically shoving me at this point. "Just get in there! He needs it to do his job!" I made my way over the course of a half-second to my destination, where Jeff ripped open my neatly-wrapped cambro and finally slung tongue after tongue onto scorching hot griddle.
I immediately retreated back out of the line as quickly as I came. "I'm sorry, I just didn't want to get in the way," I pleaded to chef, within earshot of everyone. He waved his hand: "It's fine, really. You've just got to stop being such a..." he stopped. He trailed off, and then just let it go.
The word never actually passed his lips. But it should've.
The old adage is so plainly, simply, unironically true.
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
At least until you're ready.
A few other things out of my control did demand my focus and hastened my departure from Salazar. A lot of shit went down earlier this year with my family. My workload at the office suddenly went insane. Life is a relentless bitch: it draws you with its promises and simultaneously sucks you in quicksand. But the main reason? I was just me: too nervous, too unfamiliar, too self-conscious and too fucked up at the moment to push myself to that level. I couldn’t get out of my comfort zone. I wish I could’ve been the bigger guy and said fuck it and worked until I killed whatever was going on with me then, but I couldn’t. I’m the first to admit I didn't have the balls to do it.
Ultimately, I made the choice to leave the job I loved more than anything. My last night there, I said my goodbyes, promising to bring barbecue in for staff meal one day, unable to really relay to anyone there was how crushed I was to be leaving. I drove away that night with both windows down, hoping the night air would cool my emotions. But as any good glutton for punishment will surely relate, I couldn't resist an opportunity that night to find myself - a grown man with a career, a family and all the opportunity in the world - poetically and miserably weeping alone in his car in a darkened Kroger parking lot.
To compare my strong desire to be out of my comfort zone and my strong pussying-out of the restaurant world is to realize my lifelong disability: I am a very conflicted person. I want to be better at everything, but I’ve never been able to take the necessary steps to be the best at anything. It turns out - more than I realized in that pathetic moment - I do really appreciate my free evenings and my social life and my comfortable boring kitchen. I had dreamt of being an insider so bad, that when I got it, I admittedly missed the comforts of being an outsider.
For now I’m ok with being good at most things, as long as I’m trying to figure out what I want to be the best at. Maybe that’s cooking, maybe it’s not. But this was a big step for me. I may not be able to keep up with those bastards in the restaurant world, but at least I can say I fucking tried.
Twenty years from now, I guarantee I'll still be calling Jose “Chef”. He is the reason I had some of the best months of my life. This is kind of my crushy, bromance letter to him, Jeff, Cheeks, Mike and all the other insane people who give their health and their lives to this insane occupation. I haven't ruled out going back, and it may be sooner rather than later. All I know is there are many evenings I find myself at home after a week of clients and meetings, watching television, whiskey in hand, all responsibilities absolved… when the clock strikes 10pm. Those guys are in the shit right now, I realize, and it’s an entire hour until shift beers. And I’m filled with a happy, bittersweet envy.