Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we, as culinary professionals, as line cooks especially, do this to ourselves?

I think about this a lot, especially on those days when I'm nursing my shift drink at 1:30AM, sticky with dried sweat, grill smoke and fryer grease and thinking about how hard we got rocked, how much my back hurts, and how poorly I'm gonna sleep before I have to peel myself out of bed and do it all over again. How big my prep list is for tomorrow, how perpetually dirty my cuticles are from scrubbing the grill grates, how much it sucks that even though I'm dog-tired at the end of the night I won't be able to fall asleep for another two hours at least. How I wished I hadn't missed a certain concert or birthday party, how badly I need to do laundry and clean my house, how I haven't been on a date in months, how my last relationship deteriorated in no small part due to my work schedule. Try explaining to someone who gets home from work at 6 or 7PM that waking up at the ass-crack of dawn to an alarm clock that snoozes for over an hour is neither normal nor acceptable to someone who gets home from work at 12:30AM at the earliest.

Then I have days that are nice reminders of the work we do, the world we live in, the people we can proudly call our colleagues. I do this because I love my crew, I mean I love them, really. I can be myself wholly and completely, in all my nerdy, foul-mouthed ridiculousness and they'll just shake their heads and say, "Yep."

I do this because as much as I hate to admit it, I'm an adrenaline junkie. I get a crazy high from pushing out ticket after ticket on a busy night, the one where I can feel my jugular pulsing in my neck when I'm on top of my game. I'm juggling 10 things on the grill, pirouetting to the sound of expo calls, talking with saute with just a nod or an eyebrow tweak, and, despite myself, letting out a "yessssssss!" when I slice a steak and hit the temp dead-on. I've stopped looking at the clock for how many more hours of service we have left and instead I'm keeping an eye on the minute hand to pace my fire times.

I do this because I'm tickled by the customer who interrupts me during a three-ticket fire to tell me that the steak I cooked him was incredible, one of the best he's ever had, and made his trip to Portland worth it.

Because I'm stunned by the amount of work that made that steak possible: The cow farmers, the butchers, the purveyors. The farmer who grew the lettuce and raised the hens that laid the eggs, the time it took for the artisans who made the balsamic vinegar and cheese, and my chef who portioned the meat and made the marinade. It's easy to get complacent in the everyday life of a line cook, and I find it helps to put things into perspective.

Because I get to help do this every week:

Breaking down whole lamb
Whole lamb being broken down for brochettes of loin, braise, lamb belly for breading/frying, and stock

And be proud of the little things:

Soft boiled eggs
Soft-boiled, 5 minute and 15 second eggs. I usually break a couple per batch, but this was the perfect batch--no breakage, perfect consistency

And admire gorgeous handiwork close-up, seeing the man behind the curtain:

Rolling out cavatelli
Javier, our pasta man, working his magic on our buckwheat cavatelli

Because I have moments every now and then where I think I might actually know a little something about something. And then I'm completely bowled over by how much more someone else knows about that something. It's humbling and inspiring all at once.

Because I love the look on some people's faces, men especially, when I tell them I'm a line cook. And because I can't help but be proud of the places I work, and the places I've worked before.

Because the people we meet, the people we feed, they had a memorable experience and we were part of that. Every day, I am a part of someone else's experience. I make things with my own two hands that people eat and (if we did our job right) enjoy fully, tell their friends about and come back for more.

Because I can go to an event with my restaurant where there are nine other awesome restaurants representing, and you can feel the love and respect. I've met so many great cooks and chefs in Portland, and worked with a lot too, and it still stuns me that I can even consider myself in any way remotely associated with that talent.

The IACP annual conference kicked off today in Portland, and as frightened as I am of mouth-breathing chef groupies, the roster is legit (Ruth Reichl, Kim Severson, Michael Ruhlman, Madhur Jaffrey, Dornenburg/Page, et al). While I couldn't (and probably wouldn't) pay what they're charging for tickets to the event, I was fortunate enough to tag along to help set up, serve and break down our station at the opening reception for the conference. A giant ballroom was packed to the gills with hundreds of eager guests, all of them friendly and mostly knowledgeable about food. We scared off a couple of folks with the mention of the words "pig foot" (and I judged them for it, I admit), but by and large we were a hit. The feedback was awesome and I always have a lot of fun interacting with people through tasty morsels.

I've always craved connecting with people, which is what made me gravitate naturally toward hosting and waiting tables. I was never truly fulfilled by front-of-house work, however, and it was my thirst for being in the trenches, cultivating skills and knowledge that seemed to belong to an elite few, that eventually won out. Turns out that through line cooking, a job that people have historically turned to specifically because they don't care to interact with other people, and a trade that has a reputation for harboring some of the surliest and least personable workers around, I've connected with more people on a more meaningful level than any other work I've ever done.

Since I started cooking for a living, I've worked the hardest I've ever worked in my life, and with all the triumphs have come major downfalls too. But I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. I won't be a line cook forever, and frankly I don't know where this will take me, but for now, right now at this very moment, despite all of its downsides and the ridiculous life that comes along with it, I'm pleased as punch.


Matt said...

I've never had lamb belly. Does it ooze with deliciosity as much as pork belly does?

mll said...

well said, as always. glad you love your job!

The Guilty Carnivore said...

Great writing, Ingrid. I love these "inside baseball" posts.

terror firma said...

i like this post. how was the pigs' feet prepared?

Ingrid said...

Hey, thanks for the positive comments!

Matt: It's not as fatty and juicy, but we confit it before breading and frying it. They're like lamb nuggets. Totally awesome.

TF: Fried pig foot terrine! Who doesn't love fried pork, c'mon?