Thursday, November 06, 2008

Finding the things you didn't know you were looking for

Restaurant cooking is really, really hard. To work a full shift on your feet in full bodily motion under high-stress conditions, come home late every night with new burns or cuts, not be able to sleep even though your body is dead tired because you're still mentally wound up from service, wake up aching from head to toe and get stoked about doing it all over again is not an easy accomplishment.

meet my new blisters (thanks to some stray, searing-hot pan grease). yay!

I'm convinced that the actions themselves (cutting, grilling, sauteing, plating, etc) can be done by any well-trained monkey, but to do this for hours at a time, day after day, with speed, grace and efficiency and without mistakes or refires takes a certain kind of person. One who is thick-skinned, marathon-ready, mentally sharp and not easily flustered. Though I have all of those qualities some of the time, I do not naturally have all of those qualities all of the time. We're not perfect, right? My sous chef has had to tell me more than once after I get frustrated from a refire or a mistake, "you can beat yourself up after service."

I'll be honest: For the past few weeks, I've been struggling with kindling the same intense fire I had when I first got hired at my restaurant. I believe it's a result of a mixture of factors: The end of the "honeymoon period" now that I've been there for four months; being done with the school part of OCI and feeling disoriented from not doing 13-15 hour days; going from the sometimes crazy but fairly straightforward pantry station to the sometimes crazy and intense-multi-tasking-required grill/saute station. I'd never cooked meat to temperature order in my life, much less worked on a hot line period, and the thought that my chef entrusted this task to me was at once extremely complimentary and also really, really frightening.

I made no secret that it was an overwhelming yet exhilarating feeling to be moved up to hot line, but I don't think I took it nearly as seriously as I should have from the get-go. I became lax about my work ethic, relying on my coworkers to pull me out of the weeds when I was feeling mere hints of "going down" (restaurant speak for falling way behind) and simply not giving the 110 percent that any good chef requires from their cooks.

My actions (or lack thereof) all culminated in an unfortunate incident that resulted in my chef, never once to mince words, letting me know how disappointed he was in my recent performance with a blisteringly critical verbal slap on the wrist. I once wrote that any time I know I've messed up, I can always make myself feel worse about it than anyone else could, and it rang true here. It was exactly what I needed to wake the fuck up and get out of this weird funk I've been in, and the next day I thanked my chef for reprimanding me and not letting me get away with subpar performance.

I've been building up to getting that fire back, though I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for. I've been recently getting words of wisdom from people I respect who have been working in kitchens much longer than I have, and all of them reassured me that I would eventually get it right and even get a natural high off of the adrenaline rush. After so many nights of shit going wrong or even feeling a little off, I was starting to doubt that this would happen.

Then last night came around.

Last night was easily one of the best nights I've had on the hot line since I first eased my way over from pantry a few months ago. The number of reservations were three times what I expected them to be for a Wednesday night, mostly due to three parties of 8 or over that were coming in at the same time. I immediately felt knots in my stomach, as the previous times I've gone down hard and had to be saved were often a result of multiple parties.

Prep time was a blur and went way too quickly, and I definitely scrambled to get some last-minute tasks finished before we rolled right into dinner service. The ticket machine started printing, and the first few fires were steady. Then what seemed like a mass of really long tickets came in at once, and suddenly I had 14 meats on hold, 10 of them cooked to temperature (i.e. rare to well-done), on top of soups and apps that were fired. My oven was stuffed full with lamb racks and chicken halves, all of my burners were on fire, and I was juggling prawns and bread on the grill.

I began feeling overwhelmed and started thinking out loud, mumbling the ticket items and temperatures to myself over and over so as not to forget something in the oven or on the stove. I don't know exactly how to explain what happened next, but suddenly I was washed over in a weird calm, and at the same time my heart was beating so fast I could feel it in my neck. It was like I could suddenly see the light at the end of the tunnel where there used to be none at all; somehow I was staying on top of things just enough to keep moving along, and nothing was getting lost in the fray. Intermittently I found myself saying out loud, "I'm okay, I'm doing okay, things are good, I'm doing alright," partially as an attempt to stay calm, but also because I was really surprised I wasn't totally going down.

It was a high I've never felt before, knowing that this delicate tower I built could topple at any moment, like a house of cards that could blow over in one breath, and my heart was racing so fast it felt like it was going to burst. But somehow everything was going right and I was present in that moment. With some help from my chef, we plated up everything I had on hold in three pickups. Everything looked beautiful and all the proteins were cooked to perfect temperature and color. It was the first time in a long time that I felt a sense of accomplishment like the one I felt after my stage day.

There's massive room for improvement, especially between balancing cooking and plating, but I finally got a taste of the adrenaline rush that I've constantly heard seasoned line cooks talk about. For the first time ever on the hot line, I finally felt like I could not just do this, but enjoy it and be good at it. I realized that I had lost the joy in being in the kitchen for a while there, and I found it again last night. After last night's rush, my executive chef and sous chef let me know that I was doing a good job, and I couldn't contain the huge grin that spread across my face. After feeling so low recently, it feels great to pick myself up off the ground, brush myself off and kick some ass, finally.


ml said...

i think you were "in the zone" as an athlete would call it!

LadyConcierge said...

That's great! I get teary reading about your journey sometimes.

Bonnie said...

Go Ingrid! Sounds like a tough job.

Jacob P. said...

Inspiring! Your blog is what inspired me to start Oci, Thank you :)

Ingrid said...

Jacob: Wow, I'm flattered! I hope you enjoy your experience there as much as I enjoyed mine. Go early, stay late, ask tons of questions, do extra work!