Sunday, November 13, 2011

Since I stopped line cooking

I've gained ten pounds. Not being on my feet 12 hours a day + eating two or three rounded meals a day will do that. I've joined a gym to try and counterbalance this effect.

I've stopped having bad cooking dreams with unending ticket machines and order-fire everything.

The hair on my left arm has grown back.

I've worn heels more than once in two months.

I spent an amazing month with family and friends in North Carolina and 10 gorgeous and memorable days in New York.

I'm cooking more at home than I have in years. Lucky Peach magazine yielded a glorious ramen broth and noodles that we ate for days.

I wrote and executed my first menu for which total strangers paid actual moneys (8 courses!) and I didn't go down in flames.

I taught my first cooking class (also, no flames).

I've continued to keep my hands busy via catering gigs and helping prep for Jeff's awesome supper club.

I miss seeing my work friends, I miss the intense veg prep and butchery, I miss the butterflies-in-your-stomach buildup to service, I even sorta miss doing the dance. But I don't miss pushing out hundreds of covers with sweat burning in my eyes while running on coffee and a bad sandwich. Does that make me lame?

How I spent my summer vacation

Jeff in blue crab heaven in Folly Beach, SC

Some of the best tacos I've had exist in Greensboro, NC

We carried her outside because she loved the outdoors. RIP, Garbanzo

Mom on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Plating grilled squab with smoked cherry gastrique. See the rest of the pics and menu here

Making the Momofuku ramen recipe from Lucky Peach magazine

I make weird faces when I teach

In Jeff's parents' backyard in the Hudson Valley for his nephew's viking-themed first birthday party

Peels for lunch, where we met Shuna Lydon (thanks, David!)

Momofuku Noodle Bar. Pork buns were totally worth the hype

This avocado at Prune blew my fucking mind

Sylvia and Jeff mean mugging for dim sum

Embracing full tourist mode

Friday, July 22, 2011

Beyond Line Cooking

Truth be told, I never seriously considered becoming a line cook when I entered culinary school. I thought that I might be a caterer, or an event planner, or maybe a food writer. Then fate stepped in and off I went down the rabbit hole.

Three years later, here I am, having landed my first lead line cook position under an esteemed Thomas-Keller-trained chef, for the re-opening of a classic Portland restaurant. I achieved my goal of working all the stations at my last restaurant, and when the opportunity came to take a leadership position and try something new, it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down.

Butchering whole King salmon
Butchering whole King salmon at work. Fun as hell, and this particular fish was one of the better cuts I've made

I've learned so much at my new gig, from butchering whole fish and breaking down primals to actually having a voice on the line as kitchen-side expediter. My boudin blanc touch is getting better by the day. Although I am not officially a manager, my job includes some management duties, and it's been really educational to exercise that part of my self.

But I've recently found myself in this constant state of 'What's next?' I think there comes a time in every line cook's career, probably many times for some cooks, where he or she wonders when it'll get better. It's hard for me NOT to think about it, especially when the grueling services, long hours and hard physical labor have taken their toll. I don't kid myself in thinking I'm a young flower; I'm officially in my thirties after all, and keeping up with kids 10 years younger than me ain't as easy as it used to be.

There is a beauty in perfecting your craft, and getting your technique just right, finding focus and making it right every time, and I have found that beauty in line cooking. Romance aside, however, doing the same thing night after night, in the same physical space, hundreds of covers after hundreds of covers, can truly qualify as backbreaking, soul-crushing work. It's why line cooks tend to meander, and it's why a couple of years in any one kitchen seems like a lifetime. For a cook my age, it's hard not to question why you're working twice as hard as your cubicle-sitting peers for a fraction of the money and none of the benefits.

So it comes to this…

For the past six months or so, I've been feeling extremely conflicted about my work. I'm a cook, so why don't I love line cooking the way I used to anymore? Why would I find that when I sat down to write a blog entry, I couldn't write with the same gusto for what I do for a living? Where did my fascination for it all go? I would start to write, only to come up with some bitchy cook blog that I didn't actually want the public to read, lest I or my workplaces be judged to Yelp death.

I tortured myself with guilt over my lack of love for my work, and overanalyzed it all to a pulp. "Most of my coworkers seem totally happy being line cooks, and they've cooked for longer that me… why can't I handle this? Am I just being lame?" But in all that analyzation, I realized this simple fact: Since I started cooking professionally, I've been mainly working in restaurants that seat an average of 140 guests, with lunch, happy hour, dinner and late night. My current workplace has the clusterfuck of Sunday brunch added to that. 300-400 covers a night with barely a respite, thanks to my great luck with working in successful restaurants… it doesn't really seem like a puzzle why I was starting to burn out, or why I was starting to associate cooking with resentment.

My amazingly patient boyfriend will laugh at me for saying this now, but in retrospect the answer to all my conflict and self-questioning seems so simple. It wasn't cooking that I was learning to hate; it was cooking in this volume, in this environment, under this pressure. Certain cooks thrive under the pressure and live for the adrenaline. While it was satisfying for a while, I've come to realize I am truly not one of those cooks. And I'm totally fine with that.

I've had moments where I've thought, "Quit whining, Ingrid, you just need to pay your fucking dues like every other line cook out there." But what makes me think even more so that I'm totally fine with not being a line cook is the fact that at the top of this particular pyramid is the Executive Chef position, what most line cooks aim to be, and quite frankly it's not what I want for myself. I see how hard all of my chefs work, and how hard they've worked to get to where they are now, and I honestly don't think I have the willpower to work 16-hour days six or seven days a week, being pulled in a thousand different directions while being responsible for every plate that goes out. I love food, I love cooking, and I'm not afraid of hard work, but I don't have the drive to be that kind of boss.

So what now? This is by no means the end of cooking for me; I'm simply stepping away from this kind of cooking before I become the angry lifer that I've seen often enough to know better for myself. I'll be completely honest; there have been times in the recent past when I've been so frustrated I've thought about quitting kitchen work altogether. I've considered going the nine-to-five route, becoming one of the cubicle-sitters, collecting benefits and a retirement fund and the whole nine yards. But talk about soul-crushing; I've brought myself to tears just thinking about it.

I know I'm a cook, I know I can cook, and pulling off a seven-course wine dinner for total strangers (with the awesome exception of Brian Wilke, the Exec Chef of OCI, and his wife) while having a fucking blast last week only cemented the fact that I feel far more comfortable on the kitchen side of the pass than as a diner. But I'm ready for a change of pace. I'm ready to not push out hundreds of plates a night. I'm ready to take care in every single goddamned dish that reaches a diner without the crushing pressure of "just get it out, we've got a six-ticket pick coming up next!" To have work that fully interests me and engages me in every way.

I've been so lucky to work for some amazing chefs, and my current chef has been so awesomely understanding about my decision. When I told him what I've been thinking, he said it best: "I've always told my cooks, 'If you don't love it anymore, it's time to move on.'" I lost my love for cooking, and I'm ready to get it back full time. I'll be at my current workplace until August, but after that I'm taking a break to go back to North Carolina for a few weeks. There's a cross-country trip with my mom in the works, and some time to spend with precious family members.

I have some ideas marinating for my future with food, but just reaching this point of clarity is beyond satisfying. And I'm totally okay resting here for a minute.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To You, Restaurant Worker

It's well into 2011, and I can't help but notice that I let the yearly summary for 2010 fall by the wayside. It seems cheap to try now (o hai late March! Nice to see you!), so instead please let me take a minute here to give thanks.

This goes out to you, fellow line cooks, for keeping my spirits up day after day. We're in it together, and when one of us goes down, we all go down. We're a silly dysfunctional family, but we are family. So thanks for keeping your shit together, and helping me keep my shit together. Thanks for trying to make our workplace better every day. This is for all the times you finished my prep as I was deeply weeded in happy hour tickets. For the high fives and fist bumps as we trade jokes and talk shit. For the cooking protips you've given me, from faster grapefruit segmenting to better butter basting. For the music and books and great/bad movies you've brought into my life. For giving a shit, and for making this time matter. Thanks, line cooks, for having my fucking back.

This goes out to you, chefs past and present, for working harder than anyone else in the restaurant. For having the patience to answer my endless and sometimes dumb questions. For having my proteins properly butchered and portioned, and my sauces perfectly seasoned and ready to go. For guiding me through everything from vinaigrette prep to lamb butchery, slowly but surely, over and over. For walking me through that method again after I screwed it up while your precious food cost suffered. For not firing me every time I fucked something up, which was quite a lot. I swear I'm getting better. Chefs past and present, you've all made an impression on me, and I feel insanely fortunate to have worked under each and every one of you.

This goes out to you, restaurant owner, for having the best kind of energy a person could have. You walk in and energize the entire staff. How you manage to seem even more spritely as your empire continues to expand, I may never know, but you are an inspiration to every single one of your grateful-as-hell employees. I never feel like an underling with you; you manage to make me feel like an industry peer. That's badass.

This goes out to you, dishwashers, for keeping my shelf stacked with clean pans so I'm never wondering how I'll fire this next 12 plate pickup. For dealing with all the shit that gets put in your area. For letting all of us invade your space. For doing all the shit that no one else wants to do--scraping burners, mopping stairs, taking mats. For scrubbing out my burnt messes, for taking my dirty pans without asking, for keeping me stocked on ramekins and pint containers on the daily. For keeping an eye out for that one tall squeeze bottle or that particular whisk. For teaching me how to say "dance" in Spanish. The restaurant would not run without you, and don't think we don't know that.

This goes out to you, servers, for siphoning out most of the bullshit before it gets to the kitchen. Sometimes I'll find myself daydreaming about the money I made in my serving days, and sometimes I'll look at you across the pass and think of how good you have it while I'm drowning in pastas and fish and chicken. And then I remember the bullshit. The demands, the entitlement, the "allergies", the my-server-is-my-slave attitude. 95% of patrons are nice, but that 5% that isn't is the loudest, worst type of person you could ask to interact with, and you, server, do a commendable job of holding their hand and dealing with them without us ever having to be a part of it. Thanks for alleviating some of the already-high pressure for the kitchen.

This goes out to you, hosts, for pacing us out properly. For checking in on us frequently to see how we're doing, and to slow seating down if we're getting crushed. It's far easier said than done when you have hungry-slash-angry mobs at the door, demanding to be seated lest their blood sugar get any lower. They want this table, not that one. They don't want to sit at the bar but they don't want to wait. I've hosted in the past quite a bit, and it's a job that can make you hate people pretty quickly. The only job I ever walked out on without a proper resignation was as a host at a Beverly Hills wine bar and bistro. And boy did I walk out. At 7PM on an overbooked Saturday night. In hysterical tears. So, thanks, hosts, for being the most underrated employee on the floor.

This goes out to you, bartenders, for killing it night after night. You dance the dance just like we do, but you have the added weight of providing skilled service with a smile. You're the last one to leave the restaurant in the wee hours of the morning, and I know you know what it's like to pull long hours. Thanks for pouring me drinks after a crushing shift, and thanks for all the good talks and fanciful bar knowledge. I've learned more about cocktails and beverages in the past year than I have in all my years prior, and I have mostly you, bartenders, to thank.

And for everyone else that I've failed to call out specifically (and I know there are a lot of you), thank you thank you thank you. You know who you are.