Tiffin Project

Why So Serious?

by Jacob Galbraith on December 2, 2010

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I remember peering through the clutter of scraped off plates and often burnt pans, from the dish pit to the line, marveling at not only the pace, but also the collective focus of the entire brigade, evidenced primarily by the expressions they wore on their faces; the seemingly impossible combination of a furrowed brow with widely opened eyes, and a mouth that would be frowning if there was time. They worked with the urgency of a bomb squad; both meticulous and stressed, their movements were automatic, almost mechanical, though the results were never guaranteed, and so there was tension, and pressure as well. The return of a steak slightly over cooked was akin to a hefty punch in the pride sack, whereas the return of a perfectly cooked one would send the grill cook into an unproductive spiral of profanity and manic gesturing; a text book reaction for somebody who is starving for both food and nicotine. Ten dollars an hour seemed to coax and incredible amount of care from these people. And perhaps because at that time I was a picky eater and had yet to fall in love with food, I didn’t get it. In fact it seemed downright silly to fuss over a sprig of rosemary in a pile of mashed potatoes, or to debate over the proper placement of a Yorkshire pudding. Nearly 8 years later I can say that I understand that the delivery of a poorly presented plate of food is like handing somebody a balloon that had already been burst; sure it was always going to end up that way, but it’s important to be the one who makes it so. Is it life or death? Certainly not, but it is meaningful.

My dishwashing days turned to prep cooking afternoons, and eventually I had myself a weekly streak of line cooking nights. Eventually I found myself ready to leave, and had a job offer on the table from a restaurant with a horrible reputation in a town that I wanted to move to. It was a dilemma because it was my only way out, but it was a decidedly undesirable path. I didn’t want a stain on my resume, which had mostly words and very little experience on it. My Uncle James took me aside and told me plainly that cooking was about one thing, and one thing only, doing a good job. I took the job, and it was exactly what I expected, a tremendous shit show. It was the kind of greasy hole that swallows dreams and shits them out as nightmares. I didn’t last very long, and it was hard to absorb my Uncle’s advice while surrounded by cooks who seemed to have never done a good job at anything, ever.

Dark days followed, and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I finally got a shot in a real kitchen. What made it “real” was the all encompassing presence of passion and care. The places I had come from had brought me a few allies, but mostly folks who were in it for the little money it offered. In this scenario, everyone wanted it, from front to back and top to bottom. Everybody did a good job, and the attention to detail was something I wasn’t used to at all. It wasn’t a very intense atmosphere, but it was extremely educational and intimate. I was nurtured from a feeble state to a moderately confident one, from crappy to capable. They tolerated, and often ate, my mistakes, and taught me more in a year and a half than the previous three combined. I felt good on all levels, a little bit too good considering the small amount of good experience that I actually had to my name. So, of course, I left in search of something new, something hard, something strange. It was time to do a good job somewhere else, now that I knew how.

Those things that I was in search of? Well, I found them, though not in the dose that I was hoping for. For six weeks I struggled immensely with the work load, deciding that never again would I take a new job at the beginning of summer. Every night my station would be decimated, and I’m not sure I had ever felt that kind of fear; it was like being a puppet with stage fright. I was within an inch of giving up the whole time, hanging on for any signs of progress. Eventually I got one in the form of a night that wasn’t terrible. This is not to say that the service went extremely well, it just wasn’t awful, and that made it awesome, somehow. I found myself amongst cooks I once watched from the dish pit, behaving exactly as they had all those years ago. I scowl, I slam, I twist, I turn, I shuffle, I stir, I flip, I fling, I hurry up, and then I wait. I was officially not pretending anymore, for I had prevailed over something that I thought was going to be my undoing.

My former self would never hang onto anything that was burning him, instead he would opt out and let whatever it was spill onto the floor. I’ve since smartened up and know exactly how long I can do it before any damage worthy of an emergency room is sustained, and this I suppose is the difference. As much as I try and keep it light, I’ve become serious in my work. Compared to others it may not seem so, but versus a younger version of myself, I’m a stone these days. I don’t necessarily want to call it progress, but it’s certainly a change that every cook goes through. There’s something to be said about the everything that leads up to the next thing, and when it doesn’t go as planned, you grunt and curse and move onto the next opportunity to get it right. For as much external pressure there is, there will always be more from inside, reminding you how long you’ve been at it, and how much better you should be by now. I used to be able to calm myself by saying that “it’s just food”, but it’s apparent that it became more than that somewhere along the way. What it actually is is the thing I’ve spent more time doing than everything except for the past decade, so yeah, it’s mostly pretty serious stuff, and sometimes it’s extremely satisfying, though I currently have reservations about putting sprigs of rosemary in mashed potatoes, and believe that the perfect place for a yorkshire pudding is in my stomach with plenty of jus and horseradish.

~ Jacob Galbraith


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matt R. December 2, 2010 at 1:18 am

$10/hr, eh? Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same. :)

Day rates/salary can be a real killer.

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