Monday, April 23, 2012

Choosing Sunshine

A few nights ago, I was standing behind the bar of the restaurant where I work, polishing glasses and chatting up the bar patrons. A couple of men about my age sauntered in, pulled up at the bar, and each ordered a whiskey neat with an Old German back. I knew they were cooks, mostly from the drink order, partially from the weary looks on their faces, but also because I've seen them on the line before at their hot spot of a restaurant.

I asked them how everything is, and one of them kindly but absentmindedly responded, "Great, thank you." Reminiscing on my own day and in spirit of small talk, I asked, "Did you get to enjoy the sunshine today?" I thought about the walk I took after my morning gig and before I came into the restaurant, strolling downtown in the sunshine and basking in the warmth after months of soggy, cold, gray wetness.

One of them looked at the other and mumbled, "Well, sort of, a little bit, this morning before I had to be at work today." The other one did a side-to-side shake with his head in agreement with the "so-so-ness" of the morning sunshine, squinting as if he was having to think really hard to remember. They sighed in unison.

It's subtle, but I know this tone. I know it because I've done it, probably countless times. It's the "I'm a line cook and I work really fucking hard, so hard that you have no idea how hard it is to work this hard, you behind the bar polishing glasses... I just got off a twelve hour shift, and I can barely recall what I had to eat today, much less what the fucking weather was doing twelve fucking hours ago, plus I don't need sunshine when I just killed it on the line tonight, so you and your sunshine can go kiss my ass" tone.

I wanted so badly to tell them, "I've worked hard too, I know exactly what it's like, I swear!" I wanted to give them a run-down of all the shitty hours I've worked and all the sunny days I've missed and how I truly understand exactly what they mean, even though they don't know me from Adam. I wanted to scream that I work hard now, and I was in fact just finishing the tail end of working a double, but I know it's pointless, because I'm not a line cook. Not anymore.

And obviously it's neither the time nor place, so instead I nodded and smiled and came back with more pleasantries about how nice the weather has been for business and how happy we were to be busy that night. "Oh, yeah, we were slammed tonight too!" The return to work talk is all it takes to right the ship, and they finished their drinks, regaling me and each other with tales of getting crushed on the line.

They left happy and tipped heavy.

Portland waterfront in its sunny Saturday glory

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In flux

I've been feeling the itch to write lately. It's been five months since my last meager update, and so much has transpired since then that I almost don't know where to begin.

These past few months have me running around like a headless chicken (albeit a hardworking one), writing and executing menus for events for an amazing commissary kitchen and event space, working front-of-house in an awesome restaurant in town, picking up random catering gigs for friends in need, helping my friend Nong open up her second cart in February and then third location last month, basically being your typical BOH/FOH gun-for-hire. I'm lucky to get as much work as I do. Serving, bartending, bussing, prepping, grilling, menu-writing, sausage-making, pie-rolling, working cash registers, I've been doing it all. It's been sometimes crazy but mostly fun, and thanks to all these extra gigs, I'm able to round out my schedule so I'm paying the bills and I'm still able to go hiking with Jeff and the dogs when we feel like it.

Somewhere in there, I also managed to take a trip to Taiwan, my home country, and where almost all of my relatives live. There, I experienced the usual "So when are you getting married/having babies?" from all of my aunts and uncles, and my beast of a paternal grandmother, my sole surviving grandparent and an incredible woman. I also ate the shit out of some classic Taiwanese cuisine, from traditional breakfast fare that I've sorely missed to an incredible omakase sushi experience at Kitcho. And oh the shopping! I managed to squeeze all the eating, cavorting with family and more eating into five jam-packed days, and when I finally kicked the jet lag after getting home, I immediately got to work making shaobing, the classic sesame flatbread served at breakfast. I've been half-joking with one of the owners of the restaurant I work at (who happens to be Taiwanese-American as well) about doing a Taiwanese brunch with all the fixings.

Aside from my time in Taiwan, I've been working an average of two to three different jobs a week. As much fun as it is, in my heart, however, I know this isn't sustainable. One week I may work six days in a row of mostly doubles and some triples (like this past week for example), but another week may only see me working three or four shifts. I think if I were ten years younger I might be okay with this kind of inconsistent schedule, but frankly, I'm at a point where I'm starting to plan for a future, maybe a family, and having a solid career plan would be great.

So yes, even though I'm busy as shit most of time, I'm struggling with keeping really focused on a goal. I still don't have aspirations to be an executive chef of a restaurant, though for a while there while I was line cooking I just put my head down and went with the flow until I realized it truly wasn't what I wanted. So what exactly is it that I do want? I'd love to be a private events chef full time, but the demand for that isn't there right now, and I don't want to go into full-time catering either. I'm becoming more and more obsessed with the service aspect of this industry, especially working as a server and barback for the restaurant I work at, and part of me wonders where that could take me, as that is what got me into restaurants in the first place. But I still love working with my hands, touching and fabricating food, creating meals that people remember. I need something that will sustain myself, my future, and my health and well-being. Kitchen work on its own is not made for "futures". It's made for right here and now, and living paycheck to paycheck, and though I'm physically living that reality, in my brain I've moved beyond that. Like I said, unsustainable.

I wish I had something more focused and picture-perfect to offer you, readers, but this is what I'm thinking right this very moment. Things are really good on the day-to-day, but I'm doing an awful lot of ruminating on my future.