My Creations, Places I like

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Where Angels Go to Die

(If you want music to set the tone)

Its now past twelve fifteen A.M. on a wild Saturday night and I am hunched over an L-shaped table that houses our little compact dishwasher. An equally compact little man, Crispin, operates the machine with barbaric force. His massive forearms thrust open the steel door seconds before the cycle is complete. Water shoots everywhere and steam billows out as he pulls the rack of plates from the machine. The temperature and humidity skyrocket with each cycle while the ventilating hood does very little to suck anything up. Stacking like items together, Crispin forms a leaning tower of delicate yet piping hot china before bear-hugging it all so he can carry it to the metal shelves across the kitchen. His little feet scurry across the bare concrete floor stopping at each shelf to drop off plates, ramekins, soup bowls, and ladles. Briskly jogging back to his little den, Crispy arrives to the machine just in time for the next cycle to finish. He timed it perfectly. Seeing him in his own element brought a smile to my face. There was something so raw, so visceral about the way he operated within the confines of his tiny kingdom. He was in a zone that most of us cooks and chefs get into when service is in full stride. You can't bother someone when they're in a state like that. You can only sit back and let them do their thing. It was breathtaking to watch.

I stare in awe as he repeats each step with military precision. Wash, rinse, prepare the second load, pull out the first, put in the second, stack the first, run it to the shelves, dispense, run back, and repeat all in the time it takes the machine to wash one load (approximately forty five seconds). He never skips a beat. I look on while simultaneously stacking ramekins filled with half eaten butter. He and another muchacho, Jorge (yes we call them muchachos by the way) laugh as I hit my head (for the second time) on the steel bars that prop up the glass racks above me. "Hehe YOU STOOPID MENGG!", Crispin cries out. I raise an eyebrow and glance at him as if to say, "c'mon bro, I'm saving your life here..." We glare at each other for a second then both laugh at my misfortune. "YOU LAYY CEE", he shouts again, chuckling. "I'm not LAY CEE! YOU lay cee! YOU TORTUGA!" Crispin smiles showing the gaps of missing teeth before turning to remove the next rack of plates.

Still hunched between the table and metal rack holder I work quickly to unload the pile of black bus bins filled with dirty plates and still full water glasses. A fork in one hand scrapes unfinished dinners and soggy popover fragments into the garbage while the other pulls out water glasses to place in the glass racks above. I am filling in for Ricardo who usually works this area but quit last minute, leaving Crispin and Jorge a man down on a typical chaotic Saturday night at Sperry's. Right now, at this moment, there is no cultural differences. There is no language barrier. I am one of the amigos. "El blanco diablo", they call me; "The white devil". 

Like most nicknames, mine was not self-imposed, but earned. Earned over many nights just like this one, unloading filthy bus bins way past my shift had ended and all the other employees had gone home for the night. While the three of us work hard to bust out the last late-night push of dishes, I reminisce about my very first stint in the dish area. "The gallows", "the dish pit", "the pit", or as I now refer to it: "the place where angels go to die", is a world that was always very close to me spatially (the dish area is right next to the salad station where I first began) yet seemed so foreign. On night, very similar to this one I mustered up the courage to lend a helping hand to those who desperately needed it the most--the dishwashers. I strolled over, said nothing and just jumped in. At the time I was still very new, and had only spoken a few words to the dishwashers beyond the usual "como estas?" Wearing a pristine chef jacket complete with culinary school issued pocket notebook and pens I timidly tried to help out but was getting in the way. "YOU! OVER THERE!" One of the amigos said, pointing to the bus bin drop off area. Not asking questions, I ran over and started unloading. Within minutes I was dripping wet from the humidity and copious amounts of water being sprayed everywhere. My once pristine chef coat was covered in sauce and filth. 

Akin to other new-comers I've seen fall victim to the same scenario, I felt like I was in some strange dream where I was regular-sized but stuck in a house made for tiny people. The whole dish pit was designed specifically for tiny people, for Mexicans basically (this may seem offensive, but I mean it in the most endearing way. You'd have to spend time in my world to understand fully I presume). So there I was, a giant delicately unloading bus bins while my Mom frantically tried calling my phone wondering if I was abducted. I was still twenty three at the time so this is a testament to how much a mother can worry about her son (she still calls if I am late to this day). 

 "Ay ma fren!", Crispy shouts to me from within the stainless steel fortress. Suddenly  the memory fades and I am transported back to real time. A cold, refreshing Corona Lite glistened in front of me. "For YOU", he exclaimed as he hands me the sweating bottle. We each sip our Coronas and take a minute to chat in a sort of half Spanish/half gringo dialect. I ask him about his family back in Oaxaca (where they're from) and learn of their musical talents. Jorge speaks with pride about his "abilities with the piano", and the music they used to play together back home. Here I was, in what seemed like light-years removed from Culinary School, sipping cold Corona Lite (they earn a shift drink every once in a while just like the rest of us) and busting my ass with the muchacos way past my shift had ended. The only difference is I am older now, wiser, a better cook, a better teammate, and I really know how to break down a freaking bus bin. My chef coat discarded into the pile of dirty linen, my loose chef pants (a size too big) were riding low, most likely revealing my green boxer briefs to anyone who came down the back staircase. The white V-neck tee I was wearing was now damp and covered with yellow sweat blotches like a bad tie-die experiment gone wrong. I was earning my keep with my fellow compadres and I was doing it at a time of night when no one in the right mind would. 

There is a part in Martin Scorsese's famed crime drama, "The Departed", where the police captain and his right hand guy, played by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg respectively grill Leonardo DiCaprio about why he wants to become a cop. 

"We have a question. Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It's an honest question. A lot of guys want to appear to be cops--a gun, badge, pretend they're on TV", Sheen states before Marky-Mark interjects with his own personal interrogation. Sheen goes on to explain that the real aspect of the job encompasses so much more. That the real grunt work transcends the uniform and the badge. Well I cannot help but translate that moment into my own world. 

Lots of young culinarians just want to appear to be chefs. They want to wear perfectly pressed white chef coats, use sharp knives and hi-tech equipment, and be able to play with expensive ingredients like foie gras, but no one ever tells them about all the other aspects that go into becoming a great chef. The real world is not like all those silly commercials trying to entice you to go to culinary school, where a "student" calmly chops carrots in the background while another "student" lists off the benefits of attending that particular academy. No the real world is much uglier than that. There is real pressure to perform at the highest level day in and day out. You work in a small space prepping a single item for hours on end alongside other people who have developed family matters, substance abuse, personality disorders, fled a poverty stricken country illegally, who were all at one point cast out by society in some way or another (both literally and metaphorically speaking). You all come together in an environment that is loud and hotter than hell so you can make complete strangers feel at home even if for only a brief moment. This is what they never teach you in culinary school, that cooking professionally is just as much about the people as it is about the food. 

So when I am confronted with the awkward question of, "how do you know this profession is right for you" for the hundredth time, I can look back and say with confidence: because long after my tools are put away and my chef coat is discarded, I'm still there in a dirty t-shirt helping the last few guys go home at the end of a hellish night, and I'm laughing and smiling while I do it...

"Crispy" Crispin cooks us pollo con mole