Here’s one you’ve heard before: I had my ass handed to me today.
Any cook line is ideally set up to evenly disperse the work load of cooking for hundreds of people in a two-to-three-hour time span, among the five or eight cooks depending on the restaurant. The idea, of course, being no one person carries the weight of the most difficult or most numerous tasks. But this is seldom the reality. Many restaurants have a station referred to as “The Bitch” or “Punishment” or something of that sort. It’s the one station that, no matter what happens, seems to always get it worse than anyone else. One might clock in, check the schedule to see where one will be working for an evening, and quickly hear a chef yell, “Bend over, dude, you’re on broiler tonight!”
That aside, whoever bears the burden of preparing the most dishes can vary from day to day. Some days everyone wants seafood. Some days everyone wants fried food. Some days it seems that every diner passing through the doors wants the exact same thing for no explicable reason. At my current restaurant that always seems to be the pasta guy. He does several appetizers as well as (I believe) more entrees that any other station. After the expo shouts out four or six things for each station, the pasta guy will have eight or fifteen things called to him. He’s known for shouting back, “Thank you, Chef! May I have another?”
Today, however, that guy was me. They came for me today, with a spiteful, hellish vengeance. I don’t know who I offended in the world in some previous lifetime but hoards of sandwich-gobbling cheapskates annihilated my stations this morning.
This is not the problem. It’s part of the job, and it happens to one of us or another all the time. We sink or we swim. We may or may not receive help, but at the end of the day we’re still fine and breathing.
The problem is that I consider myself a pretty happy guy. I usually let things roll off my shoulders, I find joy in the little things and I tend not to sweat the small stuff. I’ve had fellow cooks fail to help me when in need because I didn’t look panicked or freaked out, dripping sweat onto my plates, and they had no idea I needed help. Even when I calmly said, “Hey, man, can you give me hand?” They thought I was kidding. Not until they’d see me jumping rope with my strand of tickets would they rush to my aid.
Today, however, I clearly displayed that I was flustered. Everyone ordered from my stations and very little from everyone else’s, so I had loads to do right out of the gate. When this happens I go into Focus Mode. I start ignoring everyone because I have a bunch of tickets in my head and can’t be bothered to listen to them ranting about the game yesterday, their significant others (or worse, exes), or some shit they cooked at home last week. I stop smiling because I’m focused on what I’m doing, where hands are landing, not burning or cutting myself. I have to remember which entrees go out in which order, and how far along in there cook times they are.
How many plates I did throw in the oven to warm? Did I drop those sides of fries? Are they burning? Did I just use my last ramekin? How much grated cheddar do I have left? I stole chef’s tooth picks, did I put them back? Did they want two sandwiches or three? How long does the broiler guy have on that filet? Did garde manger take my fucking remoulade again?
Apparently my trademark of Go Mode is that I start “slamming shit”, which I’ll have you know, I don’t. I certainly get louder. I trade subtlety for speed. Cast-iron skillets landing on metal burners are loud when you don’t gingerly set them down, and when the one on my hand is literally engulfed in flame, I don’t bother doing much gingerly. If I have to plate something, I put the plate on my cutting board. If I have to plate five somethings I slide the stack down my board like playing cards. It’s loud, but it’s fast. Coworkers have always complained. “Dude, why are you being so loud?” “Dude, chill out.” I’m not mad. I’m in a hurry, and as a universal rule kitchens are loud. I currently work around thirty feet of roaring vent hoods, four high oven fans, clanking pans, scraping plates, chopping knives, slamming tenderizers and screaming expos. Hell yeah, it’s loud.
The problem about being happy all the time, is that people notice. People don’t notice when you’re pissed off all day. It’s a bit more of a norm in this industry. Justifiably so, due to ubiquitous hypocrisy and BS, but it’s also an environment full of jaded burn-outs or overworked souls with three jobs who are just perpetually grumpy. The bubbly, happy ones like me are the anomalies. When the army veteran running on two hours of sleep due to a second job and a new baby starts cursing under his breath during a rush, no one gives it a second thought. When the perky young guy or girl who always has a smile on his or her face drops the smile for two seconds, everyone wants to know why.
There are three bits of irony in this situation. The first is that when I’m happy, hyper and wearing a flamboyant smile, some people are pretty bothered by it. They don’t have the energy to put forth patience to answer my How are you’s and What’s going on’s with anything more than a nod in return. They find the in-your-face happiness of someone else obnoxious. I’ve been asked to tone it down. What’s ironic is that when I do tone it down, for whatever reason, everyone is unsettled by it. It’s as though happy people are held to a higher standard of emotional stability. I’m expected to be happy all the time. I’m not allowed to have a shitty day. “You should have seen it, Chef, even Casey was pissed!” As though it’s against the laws of nature.
The second irony is that any time I’m bombarded by coworkers asking what’s wrong, or why I’m “slamming” my stuff around, there is never anything wrong. I’m working! I have a million things to do in two minutes flat. Don’t run over to my station to distract me with your confusion about the well-being of my psyche because you don’t have anything to do. But since you’re here, start plating my food! Yes, my personal life is fine. I get plenty of sleep. I eat well. No, I’m not hung over. No, my girlfriend and I aren’t fighting, I don’t have a girlfriend. Shut up and pull my shrimp off, they’re burning.
The final irony is that while I’m busy, focused and “in the zone” apparently looking like I’m balls deep in a murder fantasy, nothing is wrong. It’s just work and I’m doin’ the damn thing. I’m only annoyed, infuriated, agitated, aggravated, flustered or pissed off after ten guys have bothered me trying to see what’s wrong. By the time I’m done putting out food and rebuilding the apocalypse that was once my work space, I really am pissed off. It’s hard to tell sincerely concerned coworkers when they plea, “Hey what was the problem today?” that “As a matter of fact, YOU were, man.” Then, of course, all you get is the, “Fine, sorry I asked!”
I realize this was a lot less insightful and more rant-like in nature, but it needed to come out. I guess there’s a fourth irony. I go from being way too nice for this industry to way too mean and back in one rush of tickets.