by Jean Ryan
I need to write a cook book, a friend has told me. By this she does not mean recipes, she means secrets. The kind only cooks know.
We worked for the same catering company, this woman and I, and she wants me to tell our story, to tell the story of all cooks. She wants me to lay bare the work we did so that someone might acknowledge it.
I understand this. I spent sixteen years as a line cook and four years as a caterer, and when I finally left the cooking profession, scarred and exhausted, no one noticed. After two decades of hard labor, I wanted to see some mention of it: a note in the local paper, a plaque with my name newly etched. All those thousands of mouths I fed—didn’t they add up to anything? They did not. Like a plate of food, I was there and gone.
Line cooking is a sort of magic act. Before you are eight sauté pans, smoking and bubbling, and a grill loaded with meat and fish in various stages of readiness, and somehow, amid the firing of orders, you are delivering every one of these dishes in the right combination at the right time. You have no idea how you’re doing this; you’re moving too fast for thought. Suddenly a cowering server appears. He has dropped a plate and needs a re-fire. For a second you look at him without comprehension, and then a murderous rage floods your body. Your tickets have turned into a blizzard. You will not find your way back.
I still have cooking nightmares, endless dreams in which I can’t get my food from the stove to the warming lamps. There is a white scar across my knuckles, a wound from the blade of a food processor. My forearms are blemished with old burns, most of them from oven racks. I can point to each one and tell you which kitchen it came from.
And then there were the other accidents. Walk-ins gone warm. Hours lost replacing a ruined soup or looking for Band-Aids swallowed in bread dough. Never a lax moment in the cooking arena. I recall the day I pulled on one of those giant oven mitts and felt something fast and urgent streak down my arm. I screamed and flung the mitt across the kitchen, and the mouse it had harbored scurried under the sink. I couldn’t blame the little guy—it had been a cold night.
While restaurants are riddled with trouble, catering can be even more dicey: the terrain is unfamiliar and access can be difficult. Once inside these grand homes, you have to figure out how all the high-tech kitchen gadgets work; it’s no good asking the trophy wife—she’s never spent time in that room. The most dreaded disaster is food shortage: one of your ten fruit tarts gets crushed on the journey, or a waiter breaks a wine glass near your mashed potatoes and destroys the entire dish. I don’t think people appreciate the scope of catering: how you have to prepare the food, then load it into a van, then unload and cook it and serve it, and then wash all the dishes, all the pots and pans, all the forks and plates, every water goblet, wine glass, coffee cup and brandy snifter. And god forbid you should break anything.
While I was still working in restaurants, I often escaped into the walk-in, the only place a cook can scream. Sometimes I went outside, sat on an overturned bucket and just let my body tremble. One evening a rat emerged from a dumpster a few feet away and paused to study me, his black eyes bright and questioning. Comrade, I thought, looking back at him with tenderness.
Oh, there were high times, too—I wouldn’t have lasted without them. Magnificent victories. Indulgence. Hilarity. Cooks play as hard as they work. This is the bargain, the immutable law.
In the end, it wasn’t the cuts and burns that made me hang up my apron. Nor was it the work—I figure my body could have lasted another ten years at least. It was the incidentals that finally undid me, the avocado under my fingernails, the veal stock that wafted from my clothes and hair. I was sick of the whole soggy mess: the bloody bar towels, the greasy stove vents, the mountains of innocent carcasses. That’s what began to bother me most, the doomed innocent.
Very early one morning I was in a kitchen fileting salmon when I heard the unmistakable cheeping of a mouse in distress. My heart sinking, I went on a search and found the poor thing under the stove, stuck to one of those horrible glue traps. I tried to pull him off, but it was no use. Drowning, I thought, would be the least violent way to go, so I filled a bucket with warm water—it seemed kinder than cold—and slid the creature in. I turned away, unable to watch, and when I looked back a few seconds later, he was freed of the trap and swimming circles at the surface—the warm water had dissolved the glue! I cupped him in my hands and carried him out to the garden. Not long after that, I freed myself.
I’m employed at a plant nursery now, a gentle job that leaves no blood on my hands. Having traded my chef’s knife for a pair of bypass pruners, I’m happy trimming shrubs instead of meat, deadheading flowers as opposed to fish. Even if I wanted to return to those trenches, I no longer have what it takes.
Before enlisting in a cooking career, one might first consider the lexicon. Cooks work at stations “on the line” and orders are “fired.” Microwaved foods are “nuked,” well-done dishes are “killed,” food picked up late is “dead.” “Buried” is probably the most evocative term. This is what happens when a cook loses track of her orders, when the long row of tickets in front of her face no longer makes any sense. This affliction can strike at any time and there is nothing a cook fears more. Response is swift. The stunned soldier is shoved off the line and someone more fit for duty takes over.
Last week I dined at a posh Napa valley restaurant with an exhibition kitchen. I eyed the cooks with sympathy, remembering when this trend began, how much we resented being on display. Watching my kin in their natural habitat, their heads down, their arms in constant motion, I felt a surge of solidarity. I wanted to make eye contact, to show my support, but I knew they couldn’t risk it.