Bruce Springsteen, “I’m on Fire”
Give a tribe of mostly twenty-something male misfits access to sharp knives, hot oil, and fire, add a healthy dose of cruel, X-rated humor and you have a restaurant kitchen—what could possibly go wrong. In my experience, the more tightly controlled the kitchen, the meaner the jokes. Working the grill one busy night in a fancy LA kitchen, I watched the Chef rebuke sauté guy for his lack of preparedness by turning sauté guy’s pan handle over the flame during service; there was uneasy laughter from the line.
Susan Feniger, the second woman to work in the kitchen at Le Perroque, a formal French restaurant in Chicago, was routinely doused when when she walked into the kitchen freezer. “One of the guys” would balance a five gallon bucket of water over the freezer door and send her in to get something, soaking her and getting her in trouble for making a mess. The line cooks hid her knives, tied her stash of towels in tight knots, pilfered her mise en place, and waylaid her timecard.
At City Restaurant, a line cook’s towel, stuck under their apron tie or stuffed in their back pants’ pocket, would occasionally catch fire. The towel flamed on until someone (usually a kinder-than-a-cook dishwasher) would yell, “Hey pinché cabrón, estás que ardas!”
The phrase “it’s all fun until someone gets hurt” cut to the quick one night when macho grill guy hid pastry girl’s sauté pan, full of just-made caramel sauce, above the pass. She saw it, reached up to lift it down, and the still-bubbling caramel covered her hand, sticking firmly. She was back to work in three months after several rounds of skin grafts.
Walk-in shenanigans flourished, especially on Monday mornings. It was a given that after the Acme Poultry delivery, I would find chickens, ducks, or quail in a chorus line—arms linked and legs crossed—lounging on the walk-in meat rack in compromising positions. Chicken and pig feet, at the top of the prankster wish list, were used in endless ways to amuse and terrify.
The butcher, John Pierre, lived for the days when a whole baby goat or suckling pig was delivered. Screams could be counted on to give the prep guys a giggle when the newest waitron unit encountered a severed head perched above the bar lemons. And tucking lobster and fish heads among the side salads in the servers’ reach-in created endless delight.
Servers were an easy target. Trumps’ (no connection to the current one) front-of-the-house considered the back-of-the-house to be unwashed, uncouth, and unintelligible felons and the BOH was determined to prove them right. “The Girls” (as all servers were known) collectively recoiled during rushes as the line cooks sweated and labored in front of ovens, burners, fryers, and grills, “How can you stand it back there?” “We’re animals, Lovey,” responded my favorite Aussie grill guy.
Sauté guy’s favorite trick was to push metal skewers deep into baguettes, considerably slowing the girls down when they filled bread baskets. And woe to the server who left their street shoes accessible. Runners were treated with more respect, but an occasional squirt of whipped-cream in the kitchen phone’s earpiece kept them on their toes.
The dishwashers were responsible for mayhem in the staff bathroom: they covered the toilet bowl with cling-wrap, hid the door key, and filled the soap dispenser with watered down mayonnaise. Servers would risk suspension and sneak into the front house restroom rather than use the one in the kitchen, designated “Staff.”
I had no agenda when I worked in restaurant kitchens—I needed a job and, despite my age and gender, I thrived there. I loved the sense of community, the frantic rush of dinner service, and the impossible level of organization required to survive. Unfortunately, I became used to swearing like a sailor, having no suitable grownup clothes, laughing at socially inappropriate jokes, never going out to dinner, and…any whole chicken that comes into my kitchen will, more than likely, be posed sitting crosslegged on a refrigerator rack—make ‘em laugh.
- 4 c. sugar
- 1 c. water
- 1 quart heavy cream
- 4 oz. cold butter
Caramelize sugar and water over low heat until bubbles are foamy and mixture is warm brown. Remove from heat and carefully add cream (it will splatter). Bring to boil and mix in cold butter, one piece at a time. Keeps refrigerated for a long time.