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The cooking profession, while it’s a noble craft and a noble calling, ’cause you’re doing something useful – you’re feeding people, you’re nurturing them, you’re providing sustenance – it was never pure. – Anthony Bourdain
I always enjoy meeting people who haven’t experienced a single shift in a professional kitchen yet because they threw that one dinner party for seven people two years ago that everyone said was just perfect is now under the impression that they must be a natural. They feel deeply in their hearts they could step out of whatever non-food-related profession they hold and take up a new career doing what they love, cooking. They usually have a grand collection of cookbooks authored by the food network demigods, along with matching kitchen wares. If serious, they often will even possess some skill as it pertains to putting together a moderately involved recipe, as long as they have sufficient time, space, and order to do so. Of course, these three are by far the hardest things to come by in a professional kitchen, maybe next to clean towels. They will have a blog detailing some of their favourite recipes, complete with unnecessary 3,000-word essays on the history and emotional connection they have with this particular food before ever showing an ingredient. Yes, the home “chef” is easy to spot. I can take one look at your scarless fingers and unjaded eyes and know no real-time was spent in the shit. It is not lost on me that a kitchen is not a Hadron collider and every single person reading this can cook something. Everyone can boil water, turn on an oven, mic something, and keep yourself and maybe even a family alive. In this fast-not-good world, I’m happy when anyone takes the time to improve their culinary abilities, but because everyone can cook something and probably does every day is the root of why some of you think you can step onboard. This would be similar to telling a joke at work, getting some laughs, and thinking you’re ready for your first-hour stand-up special…just saying. There is a universe of things you need to consider before entering this world.
My first impression of the Pines kitchen was how confined it was. Not so much the floor space; anyone who has spent more than a shift in a professional kitchen knows you’re usually dealing with the square footage somewhere between a large tent and a small RV. No, the real worrying observation here was the fact that at 5’11”, I could place my palm flat on the ceiling with a bent elbow. It’s about 45 minutes before service really is set to go off and the temperature in the kitchen is already hovering around the 105º mark. This will only increase progressively through the night until the ill of health and spirit begin to tap out. It feels like a submarine, lathered in grease, travelling through one of the lower levels of Hell. An absolute furnace. OSHA has never and will never hold power here. Already sweating, I do one last line check, making sure all needed elements are ready and in their homes. The core menu offers around 30 different options, ranging anywhere from a ridiculously priced filet Diane and a roasted duck ragù to blackened mahi-mahi tacos and a lemon poached halibut. I write a weekly special menu with seven to ten more choices that are usually changed out on Friday, which today was. If lucky I could start a couple of the more difficult selections Thursday to give the staff a slower night to get more familiar, although this was a rarity. The new items were usually seafood-heavy in nature and what this particular establishment was known for. Most require several components and techniques to complete and must be done so at a highly consistent level. Being a pro, consistency is king. The best among us are craftsmen, not artists. Every brick you lay must be the same. It is also essential your ticket time does not exceed 14 or so minutes. If you find yourself eclipsing 20, you’re all but doomed. The tickets will begin to curl to the floor like some kind of 19th century stock ticker, the expediter will lose his rhythm, confusion will creep in as sweat begins to pour out of your face, and the darkness will consume you. This is what nightmares are made of. Mise en place is your religion and only path to salvation.
Overall it’s a dated menu, most items being relics of the past. This is not surprising being that the restaurant is located in Pittsburgh’s affluent north hills, where we primarily feed the dead and dying aristocratic class. These ancient bastards would be filing in soon. A long precession of Mercedes, BMWs, and Porsches would fill our lot. This was enough to make any underpaid cook enjoying his predinner smoke physically ill. Despite looking down the barrel of a five-hour marathon through the Gobi, any capable cook worth his recycled staff meal made from unsold scraps will gather his strength, stifle his resentment for the other half, and take his or her position. My group of misfits on this night was a more than capable bunch. No more or less eclectic than any other kitchen on this planet. A couple of dishers, one in his 50s, hitchhikes to work every day and looks like he wandered off the set of a Rob Zombie film. The other is in his late 80s just lucky to be alive. The garde managers (cold line) are a pair of stout, ginger brothers from the local high school. They possessed an actual work ethic, which was rare for children in the area. The kitchen’s nucleus was composed of my grille man, Jeff, who was new to me but not to the ranks of the damned. He wandered here after 15 or so years of drudgery, the last few of which he’d spent in the country club circuit, so he knows our clientele. He had a similar level of experience to myself, which led him to covet my position. He tries with limited success to hide his resentment. His overall unhappiness with life gives him the aura of a red-haired, humanoid Eeyore. Despite his shortcomings, his pride won’t allow him to be a sub-par cook on his grille and therefore is an asset. My runner/prep on the fly guy this evening was Joe. A 40-something eccentric and lovable Long Islander that looks more like a dock worker than a cook. I employed Joe at a previous location and, knowing his talents, plucked him from a night of Bud Light and conspiracy videos to give a hand after my original runner was too dope sick to handle his post and bailed. For his cowardness, he shall not be named. Then you have my sous chef and sauté man, Jared. It’s his first day back after the birth of his second child. He took two days off and was ridiculed without mercy for taking the second day. I gave Jared his first cooking job three years back on a prior vessel. I didn’t bother to commit his name to memory for weeks (as is custom) until I knew he’d last, and last he did. He was a quick learner and developed into one of the better cooks I’ve worked with, rivalling my abilities on the line. He officially became my sous and friend near the end of our time at that particular establishment. I would probably still be there if it weren’t for a longstanding feud between the bar manager and myself reaching its precipice. There was a regime change and I was forced out. Their misstep was assuming Jared would stay on under the new chef, the new chef whom I’ve had the displeasure of working with in the past. He was a spoiled, pasty, whiny, poor excuse for a cook. The walking definition of privilege. The only thing in the kitchen I had ever witnessed him do with any skill was to punt a sauté pan into the ceiling, effectively sticking the handle into the drop-down tile when he got overwhelmed by a four-ticket rush. The first day after the coup my loyal sous did not show up to help their transition. Neither did my gruff but lovable previously mentioned Long Island-born prep cook, Joe. This left the already unskilled chef with only fairly unskilled help. After a couple I’m sure disturbingly bad services, the restaurant was forced to close for a week to gain some kind of control. This was very satisfying to me.
After a few months of under-the-table work at locations that can only exist on the absolute fringe of society, the unemployment was drying up and it was time to take a legit gig. Now around a year into my Pines career, I’m fairly settled in my new white-tablecloth environment. On this night the rush came and went as it has a thousand times before. Overall a good service. We turned the two main dining rooms a couple of times, as well as the patio. It’s not a massive place so probably 220 covers, give or take. The only noteworthy complaint was from a decrepit old badger who brought in a hand-held gluten detector that must have registered a single flour molecule that floated by air to her gluten-free crab cake. I couldn’t help but be immediately envious of the cooks before me that did not worry about such technology being implemented. This also won’t be the last time I hear about the crab cake. Today’s professional culinary landscape isn’t complete without about three or four billion critics and I’m sure this gluten-related complaint will have a new incarnation online, where it shall live for all time. But still a good night overall.
Typically the final hour or so of a weekend service, I start the cleanup process with the guys for a few minutes then break off to have a meeting with the owner. I descend the stairs positioned by the back door that lead to the office. The temperature drops thirty degrees easy as I move underground. After a gruelling 12-hour day in the heat, this is most welcome. Passing through the dry storage I make mental notes of exhausted inventory. The quinoa is basically gone and with no order coming in until Tuesday, I’ll have to stop somewhere in the morning and buy out. There is about a pound of coconut flour but this will be more difficult to find at any kind of reasonable price. So in lieu of a retail raping, I’ll do my best to stretch it. One of the chef’s most important skills is the ability to stretch anything. Time, food, patience, income, all of these things need to be stretched sometimes. I proceed through the basement kitchen toward the office door in the back corner. This space was mostly used for catering orders for anybody from the Pirates to one of the many off-brand pharmaceutical companies that litter downtown. It was always a welcomed assignment pulling a few hours in this temperature-controlled environment.
In the office, I find the Pines proprietor Mike, sitting behind his desk peering over his glasses at his computer. The staff before my arrival had nicknamed him Paycheck. They called him by this mostly in secret but with my arrival and admittedly more loose style, I took to openly addressing him like this. He enjoyed the moniker, as he should have. Check was fairly tall, 6’3” or so, alabaster skin, snowy hair. He was polished with a deliberate opulence. A great communicator, you could tell every word he spoke was calculated. I’m not saying he was exactly how imagined Satan may appear, but close. He was a White House aide during the Carter administration and currently holds a high seat at Orchard Hill, an affluent North Hills church. I suspect this was more for optics than genuine spiritual conviction. I take a seat across from Check, residual trails of salt carving paths down my face from the night’s work. He pulls a sapphire-coloured bottle from behind the desk, pours a shot into a rocks glass, and hands it to me. I take the shot without hesitation. It’s a smooth, citrus-infused gin, easily the best I’ve ever had. “Wow, that’s delicious…gin?”
“Gunpowder gin…taste the grapefruit?” he inquired proudly, knowing he’s giving me something I never had.
“I do, it’s really good,” I said with the appreciation only a beaten chef could give.
“Isn’t it nice? You’re going to make a slush for the oysters tomorrow night with it, and reservations are already high, maybe you should call Spalata and try to get a few hundred more tomorrow if possible.”
“I added 300 more blue points….should be here by ten, he claims. He did his best to unload some barramundi from last week on us, but I shut it down, had to hang up on him.”
An overzealous salesman is the scourge of a busy chef. They typically show up in the middle of lunch, dripping with thirst. They come in all shapes and sizes, but if you look directly into any of their soulless eyes you can always see the depraved chase for the sale that connects them. It’s like crack to them. Paycheck nods in approval. He turns his attention to his computer with the month’s numbers displayed. We’re up on food sales and wine slightly. This is good for me, being that I’m only the third chef this illustrious restaurant has had in 40 years and the roughest around the edges, so the pressure is definitely on me to perform. A fact that wasn’t lost on Paycheck. Luckily for me, he enjoyed smoothing out rough edges. Something we both did know intimately about this business was it’s a true meritocracy. In a world where there are fewer and fewer of them, the fact is I would have never made it the several months I had running his business if I didn’t possess the necessary abilities. I’ve been war-tested long before I walked through the Pines doors. I never attended a traditional school of higher education in the culinary arts such as the prestigious CIA like many of my peers, but I did work under them for many years, absorbing every skill and technique displayed. Advancing myself only through victory on the line until I became their equal, and in many cases their superior. The kitchen doesn’t care if you are educated, illiterate, black, white, polka-dotted, striped, saint, or convicted murderer. It makes no difference if you’re gay, straight, male, female, or anything in between. Can you put out a decent reduction sauce on the fly while under constant fire from the unrelenting ticket machine and bitching wait staff and simultaneously keep an eye on your strung-out grille man? Then you’re in. I don’t care if you recently escaped from the local asylum, you will man your station until they drag your crazy ass back. No amount of tenure will save you; the position goes to the best person for the job, and many times that person has an electronic monitoring anklet. Because of our accepting nature and willingness to give anyone a shot, you absolutely have to weed through the garbage. During my career, only about 10% or so of all my hires have panned out. Work ethic is rare, call-offs are common. You just have to push through, poach when possible, and survive. If this description of who could be cooking your food is at all surprising to you, you never spent any real time in a kitchen and it shows.
During my 15 years of servitude, I’ve worked alongside many excellent cooks, but very few Gordon Ramseys or Bobby Flays. If I were forced to guess my place in the field of chefs and cooks out there, it would be not unlike my economic class, straddling that line between lower middle and middle middle. Even as a self-described lower-middle-class chef with a decade and a half of experience behind me, let me assure you, if you’ve never set foot in a professional kitchen, I am better than you. Every single cook on my level (and many below) are better than you. I don’t care how many quiches Rachel or Giada have walked you through, we are better. Better at sauteing, blanching, braising, searing, cutting, slicing, dicing, pickling, curing, sharpening, and so on. And these are just day one terms. Something Giada never told you about is the economy of motion. Your movement must be tight and never wasted. If you want to stay under that 14-minute ticket time, you must be fluid; there is no time for frantically searching for your next move. It’s also essential to possess the ability to think on the fly, improvisation to the non-kitchen ear. Unless you live in a repurposed gazebo with your acting troupe, we are better at this, too. This one is one of my strengths. I hate to 86 anything, ever. Once I blended up raw angel hair pasta when I ran out of pastini for wedding soup. I’ve used turkey in fricassee when chicken was unavailable; it was the best they ever had. And, of course, I’ve indiscriminately swapped out this fish for that fish, especially when it’s being blackened and put in a taco. These are skill traits all chefs and seasoned line cooks possess. All chefs are cooks, but not all cooks are chefs, but they’re all better than you.
Our superior skills are not only confined to the kitchen, oh no, our skills comprise a vast spectrum. The majority of us are better at the procurement and distribution of narcotics, although those days are all behind me, it’s still a practiced skill in much of the culinary world. We’re also very good at destroying relationships, capable of burning even the most soundly constructed bridges, both personally and professionally. Just ask the spouse or, most likely, ex-spouse of any chef. Definitely first aid on the fly. Any experienced cook can sever his finger to the bone and then, with the silence of a samurai, bandage it with whatever he or she has to work with. This can be rubber gloves, tape, rubber bands, paper towels, cellophane, basically anything that is not an actual Band-Aid. So if you’re a newbie, you happen to cut your pinkie finger, please don’t run crying to the chef, you won’t like his reaction. If you’re accustomed to a non-restaurant environment, It would suit you to get rid of any predispositions on how a superior should speak to you. This is something Gordon has communicated accurately. And you don’t have to worry about how to respond; “heard” is the only word you respond with. It’s one of the only words you’ll need at all. In a well-run kitchen all you will hear is one or two people using complex, expletive-filled sentences with the dexterity of a composer, and “heard” from everyone else. Occasionally “behind you,” “behind you hot,” “behind you sharp,” you get the idea. These phrases will be so beaten into you that they will extend to your daily lives conversations, confusing the ignorant masses at Walmart.
The bandaging process on the fly can also be made more difficult based on what libation the cook has been indulging in. If it’s after 7 p.m. he’s likely had at least one drink, thinning his blood. If it’s a Pines level arena, you easily could have spent the better part of an afternoon trying the new wine selection; the chef must be knowledgeable on this after all. Or maybe you’re in a less than scrupulous establishment, it’s Cinco De Mayo, and you made a science of smuggling Coronas to you and your men between the hundreds of “dollar tacos” you’re slanging. Easily 75 percent of the cooks I’ve worked with have essentially been functioning alcoholics for some time. That’s not to say every cook is drinking while making your quesadilla, but many are and nearly all are drinking two minutes after their shift. I’ve personally sent out some of my best plates with a moderate buzz. The drink for better or worse is in the kitchen like heard. Our capacity for the devil’s nectar may only be rivalled by war-scarred soldiers on leave, and even then we’re not turning down any challenges.
After we wrap up our review of the numbers and do a brief back and forth on special ideas for the upcoming week, I return topside to check on the crew’s progress. Jared has shifted to delegation at this point and is no longer doing any hands-on cleaning. Jeff generally gets visibly disgruntled around this time, knowing Jared and myself are basically out the door, even though we arrived five to six hours before him and would return in ten hours to do it again. This type of response from subordinates is not uncommon and I’ve dealt with far greater hate in the past. It’s not a problem, it’s the natural ebb and flow of things. It would be strange if he didn’t bitch.
Paycheck’s grooming was not subtle. Although I had experience successfully managing past venues, both financially and creatively, there were certainly holes in my education he planned on fixing if I was going to have such a hand in his enterprise. He also knew at the end of the day the restaurant’s energy had become a little old and as he would often say, most of his customers would be dead soon and he needed to attract a younger median age. While not as polished as his previous classically trained chefs, I brought a fresher and more modern take on food. He essentially was trading me his 40 years in the game worth of wisdom for my youth. So in continuing my education, there were after-dinner meetings, there was usually a before-work meeting, a midday meeting, sometimes an off-day phone meeting, and so on. Every other month or so we would take a field trip to attend a leadership seminar or maybe some kind of upsold entrepreneurial workshop. These were usually held downtown in some midlevel hotel. I mostly felt out of place at these, because I think I was the only one in attendance making less than 400k a year. It would start with an elevated continental breakfast where Paycheck would schmooze with his people, leaving me to fend for myself. Sometimes I find myself in a hurry trying to finish my cantaloupe and scrambled eggs before some multimillionaire, upon discovering I’m a chef, feels obligated to interact with me. They will usually ask some generic questions like do I have any kids, or what kind of fish I like to cook? This usually comes off how you might ask a toddler what his or her favourite colour is. Then we go into the main room where we listen to an author who wrote some 17-step book on success do his thing for a couple of hours. Everyone would get a free copy of said book, Paycheck plugs the Pines for a few, we get into his Mercedes and he barrels down the road around 90 to get me back in time to cook dinner.
At the end of the day, these excursions were a true blessing and a great change of pace from the typical owner/chef relationships in my past. Many restaurant owners come from backgrounds that couldn’t be further from food. They are seduced by romanticised fantasies of the industry and how exciting and cool it would be to own a restaurant. They look at it from a patron’s perspective. “I have fun going to cool new places. I can start one and it will be like that every day!” they tell themselves. This, of course, is a reality that only exists in their minds. By the time they realise they’re error, it’s too late and all the money they made being a personal injury lawyer is gone. I’ve had owners who in their 50s band rehearsal outweighed any restaurant responsibilities ’cause they just knew they’d be signed soon. Then, of course, I worked somewhere where you would routinely come into blood-stained sidewalks alongside broken windows from the night’s previous action. Here we would serve delicious food from scratch until 11 a.m., but after that, the bar served overpoured drinks until 2. This paired with the fact that it was against the rules to call the police, on the owner’s command, meant any given thing could happen from night to night. Stealing food, armed robbery, murder, it just didn’t matter what the offense was, everyone knew the owner’s hatred for the police and you’d be fired immediately for raising them. Certainly practiced what he preached. Once he got arrested for an unpaid $100 fine, refused to stand for the judge, and did a month. Sending money orders to the jail for gambling was then added to my responsibilities. Usually from the belligerence of the night, the front door would forget to get locked, once resulting in the cash register getting emptied of several thousand. Surely police were needed for this. Not quite. Always the do-it-yourselfer, he opted on sleeping in an inflatable kayak in a dark corner of the dining room for weeks, just hoping they would return. Less gunpowder gin here, and more boilermakers for breakfast. He didn’t care for business taxes either and did his best to go without paying them using an obscure 17th-century law he learned about on YouTube. It’s safe to say he was my favourite. Last and certainly least, you have the common absentee owner who allows his ship to drift aimlessly, its success completely dependent on the work and goodwill of the higher-end employees. These owners would have more kids every time you saw them so much time would pass between visits. These archetypes are closer to the norm in this industry, for better or worse, hence why my happiness with the change.
In the end, I crammed a bachelor’s degree worth of business management education into about a year, and I was fortunate I did because a year is all I had. Things can change very quickly in this world and on a crisp PA fall day upon our arrival to work for another day of drudgery, we were greeted with a bright orange sign stuck to the front window. It was detailing the liquor license change of hands. The always silver-tongued Paycheck explained how this just had to do with bureaucratic bullshit, how it originally was in his mother’s name and taxes, and so on and so on. He held a meeting explaining this to the kitchen and how there was nothing to worry about. He dodged every question from the staff like a seasoned politician, leaving them somehow comforted yet confused. My sous and I stayed silent through the inquiry from the rest, seeing through the hustle. He kept up the charade for a good month, I assume while paperwork was finished. The month of clarity was a gift, allowing Jared and myself to work out the details of the catering company we were going to start. Although he’s had many suitors for it over the years, in the end a pizzateur from the area made him an offer he could refuse and acquired the 40-year-old legacy restaurant.
The last couple of weeks were more than awkward with most of the staff stuck between unabridged anger for check as well as pure panic for their futures. It didn’t help that the new, very enthusiastic proprietor was busy in and out measuring for upcoming renovations. His concept, whatever that was going to be, wasn’t going to come to fruition for many months. This didn’t stop the staff from lobbying for future employment. Everyone except Jared and myself. I had already secured the majority of Paycheck’s catering equipment he wouldn’t have a need for, at a very generous markdown. We already had a website being built, found a kitchen to work out of, had all of our ducks in a row legally and creatively, and were eager to get going. It was November 2019, and I didn’t foresee anything getting in our way.
The final service was truly something to behold. The word was out that it was the last chance to eat at the Pines. The last day of a place that anyone 40 and older, living in the North Hills, had spent their entire lives going to. Busier than I’d ever seen it, with every elite in the area making an appearance. Service started without a hitch. We were all on point, and things were going smooth, every plate perfect. That’s until a bumbling bar manager built like a small bear bumped into my 80-plus-year-old dishwasher, knocking him to the ground. It was his heart-wrenching cries of pain that I still can’t seem to forget. I’ve never felt so helpless than being on that line, not able to leave for even a minute to help Pete. The ticket machine continued to spew paper as a waitress propped his head up with a throw pillow while he lay directly in front of us wailing. We all looked at each other with mutual disgust that we couldn’t help and could only continue to cook on through the rush accompanied by screams until the paramedics got there. I’ve cooked through many rushes with screaming from angry chefs and wait staff but never screams of pure agony from a disher. I have to think that in every other occupational setting, next to an actual battlefield, business would take a hiatus, you could help Pete, then continue. But not in the kitchen.
No after-dinner meetings that night. Paycheck was mostly drunk by the time we’d normally be sitting down. He was emotionally saying his goodbyes to customers he’s served for 30 or more years. I sat out at the bar that final night with Jared, having a Stella. I watched a drunk patron wearing butterfly wings cut down a square of the distinctive racehorse wallpaper with a box cutter for a souvenir. I distinctly remember her saying, “Look what you made me do, Dunlap,” in an almost cartoonishly wealthy-sounding voice. It was the richest thing I’d ever heard. The next morning we showed up one last time to get all the unopened stock ready for donation. The staff was also given the go-ahead to take any food unsuitable for donation they may want for themselves. I had my eye on a tin of saffron worth around $300, but it was already gone by the time I arrived. I did get an industrial-sized jug of garlic powder and enough star anise to last ten lifetimes. Believing this could be my severance pay, I also got a couple of utility knives and a steel mandolin. Watching the staff take every grain of rice or nearly empty bag of flour made me think of a sinking ship and the frantic accumulation of goods that would occur. Being optimistic about the catering prospects if this was the last time I was in a restaurant kitchen, it would somehow be a perfect end.
Long before the written word, there was someone, somewhere, that was designated the cook. Maybe he just had a knack for picking tasty plants to accompany your mammoth shoulder that also wouldn’t kill you. It is an ancient skill and one that anyone can learn fairly easy to be good, or even great at. But you can never learn everything. It’s been with us since the very beginning, in every corner of the world, and has had time to evolve innumerable different directions. You would have to live a hundred dedicated lives to even get close to seeing, tasting, and cooking all there is. James Beard himself never got close. As complex as it is, being a pro was never about the act of cooking. That’s the simple part. I can teach an accountant to make gazpacho, but you can’t teach someone to handle the surge of a full-blown Friday rush in a virtual Hellscape where anything and everything will go wrong. Then do it again, and again, until death or stroke in some instances. You also can’t teach someone to mesh well with literally every personality type under the sun, in a high-stress, extremely claustrophobic environment, while putting out a consistent and delicious product together. If you can imagine a human complete with flaws, interests, philosophies, and motivations, someone is cooking out there that fits the bill. The kitchen is easily one of the most diversely rich working environments that exist, which is my favourite part, and if this scares you more than the unrelenting heat, ticket machine, or venomous front of the house, then you could probably use some time in the kitchen, and not to get better at cooking. A few home cooks reading this probably think it’s bullshit and would be confident putting up their specialty against my version, and you should be, it definitely could blow mine out of the water. Especially when it was made in a central air-controlled, updated, modern colonial home kitchen. So quiet all you can hear is the click from your pilot light and the sound of Rachel’s voice walking you through that quiche. As I said before I applaud you for your culinary efforts; it’s just about so much more than the act of cooking. That being said, if you still want to give the big show a shot, track me down at whatever ex software programmers rusty barge of a broken dream I’ve been shanghaied to keep afloat, and I’ll give you that shot. I’m sure someone called off anyway.