(Read “Selling Out – Part 1“)
I walked away from the orientation sessions with a comprehensive knowledge of three things: the benefits packages, breakfast pastries, and the peripheral interests of several people I would never speak to again. At the outset I understood that I was signing up for a culture shock, but the environmental contrast between restaurant and hotel had my own personal Jiminy Cricket chirping loudly. My conscience, it seemed, was completely unmoved by the possibility of earning more in four 8 hour shifts than I would have earned in five shifts pulling much longer hours in restaurants. Since I had already trimmed my respectable playoff beard into a Gillette-style business beard, I decided to put a muzzle on Mr. Cricket and venture further into the bizarre abyss of hotel cooking.
Each day provided more incentive to leave. My first schedule featured a shift in the banquet hall, some time working the breakfast buffet, and culminated with a couple of graveyard shifts. Out of the 70 some odd line cooks working in that hotel, I was chosen to be one of two guys left to rot overnight cooking room service for entitled and inebriated folks who prefer to do their eating during vampire hours. The torture of cooking 100 liters of borderline inedible tomato sauce in a tremendous vat paled in comparison to the agony of starting work at 10pm, trying to function confidently in the eye of a hurricane of cooks trying their hardest to get the fuck out of dodge. The menu featured just about everything you’d expect at a 12 year olds birthday party. Nachos, hot dogs, chicken fingers, pizzas, burgers and the like. I had recently departed a restaurant that prided itself in making almost everything in-house, and I had apparently landed in a place where that’s just silly; macaroni and cheese, of all things, was brought in frozen and microwaved when needed. There is some relief, however, to finally work in a kitchen that validated the idiotic line of questioning on the Red Seal final exam. Cooking that kind of food is akin to being punched in the nuts. And since it was all happening at 3AM, it was like being punched in the nuts in your sleep; a rude awakening, so to speak. The whole thing reeked of injustice. The food, for one, deserved better. As did the customers, who were paying hefty sums for food that was bogus all the way through. I always knew that this kind of shit went on, but having my fingerprints on it was brand new and unpalatable. I was getting paid great money to do awful things to food, which made me painfully aware of the fact that the previous arrangement of getting paid smaller sums to produce great plates was simply better for my heart. And so, with only one week in the bank, I made the decision to leave.
At this point I hadn’t been paid for a while, so rolling up my knives and saying “Fuck it” wasn’t an option. I first needed to find work, the good kind. Meanwhile, I tried really hard to get pulled off of the graveyard shift, first by expressing displeasure to as many of the higher ups as I could find. The best I could get was a loose promise that it would only be that way for “a few months” and that the situation would be reconciled then. This did little to pacify my urge to leave. Something about pulling those sorts of hours for a few days a week really messes with every fabric of your being. I, like most folks, prefer the standard arrangement of existing when the sun is up, and signing out when it goes down. Everything was upside down and inside out, and with no solution on the way, I did the right thing and started growing my beard back. The way I saw it, nobody wanted my job, and that meant that I had enough leverage to grow some hair on my face. There just wasn’t any way in hell that some Executive Sous Chef was going to spend the night in my stead. That was phase one of my petty retaliation for being leveraged into a shitty position that I simply wouldn’t have accepted had their plans for me been disclosed in the first place. You’re reading phase two right now.
It’s a weak plan, I know. Growing a beard and vaguely describing a professional atrocity won’t exactly bring ol’ Goliath to his knees, will it? And that’s not what I was trying to do, I just needed to exhibit some defiance while I hunted for a more appropriate job while doing my best to ignore the aspects of the job that hurt my soul. Unfortunately it didn’t make me feel any better when I would have to throw out incredible amounts of food on a daily basis, or when I would be asked to cook tremendous quantities of the lowest quality breakfast sausages on the planet. It was astonishing, and heartbreaking, to be in the presence of so many young cooks, and have to see so much food enter the building already prepared. A certain canape, for example, required the meat from Chinese BBQ Duck. One would assume that with all of that equipment, and all of those cooks, that someone could cook up a couple of ducks. Alas, this wasn’t the case, and the ducks came in a box, already cooked, and ready to be served. To know that these sorts of things are normal and unremarkable in that setting is why I had no choice but to leave. It was nice to make good money for once, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why I, or anyone else there, was being paid so well. I was finally underworked and overpaid, and instead of being pleased with the arrangement, I felt guilty. I felt like I was selling out.
When I found a better job that wouldn’t be mine until a month later, I immediately gave two weeks notice. I couldn’t handle it for any longer than I had to. It was at this point that the powers decided to acknowledge my gripes and were kind enough to try and get me to stick around, promising me my choice of departments. When I brought to their attention that my problems extended beyond having to work the graveyard shift, that I took an exception to the amount of food that they wasted on a daily basis, I found, unsurprisingly, that they were unwilling to change, just like me.
It isn’t enough to walk away from that situation and keep my mouth shut. The experience was conflicting in terms of creativity, individuality, professional ethics, and sustainability. I have to believe both as a cook and a concerned individual, that a restaurant should strive not to dispose of enough food to feed 50 hungry bellies on daily basis. And that’s just for breakfast in of the many food outlets in the building. The issue isn’t whether the food is paid for, because those customers pay dearly for their shitty sausages and hours old pancakes, this issue is waste. It’s a waste of an animal, a waste of labour, and a waste of time. It was at the hotel that I learned just how much efficiency and thoughtfulness matter to me as a cook, and how there isn’t enough money to make me feel good about ignoring such things. I can’t be among those who are unwilling to challenge themselves, those who are unwilling to question a broken system, in order to make things better. This is the perfect example of what is wrong with affluent society. Beyond the facade of marvelous architecture and flawlessly groomed and strictly regimented staff lies a massive pile of bullshit. It’s disgusting.