Saturday, June 28, 2008

Survival extraordinaire

This is what happens to your hands when you cook 12 hours a day, use knives, manipulate wet, staining ingredients and wash your hands 80 times a day, and then ride your bike home from work:

cook's hands

(This method of nail and skin care is not recommended to the general public.)

It's been a week since I started my glamorous new job as a pantry/prep cook, and as I suspected, it wasn't an easy week by any means. Between the early mornings for school and the 8 to 10 hours I put in at work each night, I was literally hurting by Wednesday. I considered sleeping in and missing school for the first time ever (but thankfully didn't), and nearly fell asleep in class during a truly fascinating slide show about wild mushrooms and mushroom hunting by my mushroom-expert chef instructor. The trick, folks, is to ask lots of questions during the lecture so as to stay engaged (and thus awake). You'll thank me for this gem of knowledge later.

I'm adjusting, however slowly, and realizing how precious every spare minute I have is to me. 20-minute power naps between school and work helped, as did the fact that my chef at work was understanding enough to set my work schedule so I have a day off during the week to rest, collect myself and not burn out. He's been great to me; in fact, everyone at the restaurant, kitchen staff and front-of-house staff as well, have been so welcoming to me. I'm especially fond of all the women bartenders and servers who are stoked to finally have a girl in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, I studied like a demon for my midterms, and I'm crossing my fingers for good results on the comprehensive written test. I kicked butt during the 104-item identification test (fruits & veg, greens, dried herbs & spices, grains & legumes). I also managed not to cut myself during the mirepoix drills on Friday, thankfully, and though I didn't quite get two quarts, I was happy with my results. Though I did nearly cut off my ring finger during practice last Monday (see the photo above). It's a pain to work with open wounds, because it normally means bandages and finger cots, through which you can't feel anything. Tuck those fingers under, kids!

At work, things move at a very rapid pace. I'm realizing the most frustrating thing about starting a new kitchen job is figuring out where everything is. Since we deal with massive amounts of ingredients, equipment and serving dishes, I ask a lot of questions, most of them about where something is. For example, endive is in a container in the walk-in fridge, but someone labeled it "ANDIV" and no one has ever bothered to change it. I spent a good five minutes looking on the shelf on which it sits, basically staring straight at and around it and never finding it until one of the cooks told me about the mislabeled container.

It's small stuff to worry about though, as after a week I'm finally feeling more comfortable with where everything is, and my muscle memory is just starting to reach for things without having to think. It's how cooks get fast, I think; just being able to put together all the parts without having to stop to remember what's in that particular dish. Most of the salads I make, for example, have anywhere between seven and ten ingredients each, and I still sometimes have to stop and think, 'Wait, is there pepper in this one?' It really helps that we taste everything, EVERYTHING, before it goes up to the window to get delivered to the tables, as I've made most of the dishes enough times to know if there's something missing when I taste it.

I'm knocking stuff out fairly quickly though, for having only been there for a week, and I love that my chef asked me on my third day, in reference to how busy we were on my second day but how I managed to make it through intact, "So are you proud of everything you put up? Did everything taste good?" It means a lot to me that my chef is encouraging my pride in my work, and not just expecting me to knock out dishes quickly (though they do expect that too!).

I'm happy to have the next week off from school, as this will give me a great opportunity to just focus at work and be well-rested when I'm there. I know I can be a lot faster, a lot cleaner, a lot more efficient, and I have many more recipes to learn, but I have faith that I'm getting there.

Step by step.


ml said...

be careful with your fingers! can you wear latex gloves instead of washing your hands so much?

Brian said...

Congratulations on your midterms and your fist full week of work!

Ingrid said...

@ml: I wish I could wear gloves, but I work with a lot of dishes where it's imperative to tell how wet or dry something is, and unfortunately you can't tell that through gloves. Plus the latex gloves they have at work were made for big burly dudes, and stick out several inches from my girly fingers. I even had to buy myself finger cots from the drugstore because the ones at school and work are too big.

@brian: Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on getting that job! Saw your link on Extramsg. Remember. Make it nice or make it twice. Two is one. One is none. My backups have backups.

Ruth said...

would LOVE to sneak a peek at you in the kitchen... plus, want to share some of our luscious baby beets and squashes and beans with you!