Whites or not, when I come home at the end of my shift, I’m filthy. I’m told that I smell like “restaurant”, which is a combination of everything I touched or stood near for the ten or so hours I was at work. This includes meat, fish, the grill, onions, a deep fryer, chemicals, smoke, and beer. The stink is one thing, but the actual grime is another, and using a pressure washer to deal with it has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Getting dirty in the kitchen is an inevitability, but ever since I started working in a place that strives to do it all, I’m dirtier than ever. It is no longer difficult to understand how so many kitchens became disconnected from the food that they serve, because I now know from experience how messy and tiresome certain tasks truly are. Alas, it’s absolutely worth it, because immense satisfaction is included in the asking price of these often delegated chores. What lie below are some of the more messy and painful examples of the toil involved in doing for yourself what would more easily be delivered by your friendly neighbourhood food distribution company, who wants nothing more than for you to do nothing but open bags onto plates all day long.
Yesterday, while cleaning a heap of squid, I became quite aware that if I could do that, I could easily find employment at a condom recycling facility. Gunk aplenty resides in that tasty cap of theirs, and said gunk isn’t something you want to be eating. About a week earlier it was snails, a process I’d rather not be repeating anytime soon. They arrive from a local farm lively and desperate to escape, only to be incubated and fed a diet of corn meal and water, being checked and cleaned every other day until they’ve been purged of their previous and mysterious diet. It takes five days before they find their way to the stove, but not before having to be tickled, yes tickled, to guarantee “freshness” (see: not dead). They get boiled quickly, then picked from their shells, cleaned (a messy and poopy operation), only to be braised and eventually served as local escargot. After having dealt with them from start to finish, the snails are less enticing than they were when they were mysterious, and I can only see myself indulging on them in the event of an apocalypse. Even then they would be pretty far down the list, after people but before Cheez Whiz. All of our fish arrive whole, often with ghoulish expressions on their faces, indicative of the severe beatings that were deployed on them upon landing on the deck of some fishing boat somewhere nearby. Speaking of beatings, the noble octopus gets it pretty bad when it comes time to cook it. It’s a pretty unpleasant task to be around, but perhaps this could be a job for the unfortunately multiplying population of people who like to beat the shit out of each other in a cage, and then their aggression could at least have tender and delicious results.
Morrissey and many of his followers have labelled meat as murder, and they aren’t wrong. The best way to keep the old conscience clean is to make sure that as much of whatever animal you’re reaping is used as well as possible, and this basically means the manipulation of otherwise unusable bits and pieces into one of the past few years tastier trends, charcuterie. Whole pigs and lambs leave plenty of scrap and tons of bones, and it requires generous amounts of elbow grease to ensure as little waste as possible; enter the meat grinder. The noises this machine makes aren’t for the faint of heart, but the rewards are worth the auditory trauma. This is how pates, sausages and salami are born, and these are some of my favourite things. The process is much less gruesome than the previously detailed seafood tasks, and therefore I’m still able to enjoy these foods as much as I did before I’d ever had the chance to make them. A large customer base means large quantities, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve been up to my elbows in pate mix on more than one occasion: you knead to get in there. Perhaps the largest benefit of buying animals in their whole form, fiscal reasons aside, is the ability to control. The availability of more diverse offerings has been an extremely pleasant side effect of the movement; the pork belly rack from Fuel was a revelation. The reality of the situation sinks in when you’re face to face with a dead pig, and you realize that they’ve got eyelashes too. You don’t notice these things when you order a case of pork tenderloins. I’m convinced that a bit of blood on your hands is healthy for the conscience.
The good news is that more and more places are doing the things that I just mentioned on a daily basis, and cooks are becoming more connected every day. But beyond meat and fish, there’s still plenty of crazy crap that can be done that is just as painful and challenging. Cutting up a case of lemons and mixing them with a generous amount of salt will yield a lovely bunch of preserved lemons. It’s also probably the best way to find every single cut on those mangled paws of yours, because salt and citrus won’t give up until you’ve winced your eyes all the way shut. Fifty pounds of quince is a real pain in the everything, your hands will blister from the cutting, and your arms will burn during the cooking process, which closely resembles an active volcano. Some poor bastard has to stir that pot until it reaches a temperature that it clearly doesn’t want to reach. The results? A delicious condiment, some spatter on the ceiling, and a sous chef covered in burns. Equally large batches of hot sauce have a way of spicing up the atmosphere, causing the kitchen to take turns coughing and crying. This is repeated every time the container is changed and goes through the dishwasher.
Cooking is a hard and messy way to make a living, but I’ve discovered that the mess is the collateral for working in an interesting place. Sometimes the projects won’t work out, but mostly they do and the processes just become part of the routine. The culture change that has taken place over years past has built a new roster of interested cooks who no longer have to deal with the boundaries that previous generations dealt with in terms of being able to access products in whole or raw form, to be played with and eventually served to a customer base that has developed a new taste for “housemade”. I implore any cook who doesn’t have the opportunity to do these things to find a way to do them, because they represent all that is good about food and cooking. Connection is more than a trend, for me at least, and the dirty hands that come with it are well worth the staggering array of benefits you receive in turn, just have be sure to have some good soap around when it’s time to clean up.