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.