One busy Saturday night service, many years ago, my station partner and I looked down the line, at one of the meat cooks, and knew something was amiss. There had been an exchange between him and our expediting sous chef that none of us were paying much attention to until our sous raised his voice and squelched that meat cook's words. My partner and I looked down the line and saw that cook just standing there. His knife bag was on his cutting board and he was looking at it.
This might not sound so odd, but in the final minutes before service begins and your ticket machine starts chinkity click clink clinking into it's sputter of endless tickets, time both condenses and elongates like nod sentences on slow motion. You can't stop moving, you can't stop doing,
you are never ready.
You never have time to stand stock still. And your knife bag is no where to be seen. You've been using your tools for hours and they won't find the dark resting place of that knife roll until well past the violet hour.
Service begins. We are at the ready to serve 500+ people 4 star food with 10 cooks on the line not including the expeditor. We have 3 dining rooms, six menus and there's no room for error.
We are about 45 minutes into service when this meat line cook says, "I gotta go."
The air leaves the kitchen and every cook freezes, for a nanosecond. None of us dare to look up. Our sous yells at the line cook. Screams. Rails. All front of house is concrete. Cooks keep cooking. Sous and Line Cook sit under a theater spot light and meat cooks gives in. He starts cooking again. We exhale. Carefully.
8 o'clock hits. The board is full. Captains, back waiters, 3 dishwashers, runners full throttle ahead.
And it's right about then I feel the air in the room shift. Tilt. Electricity ankle high. I am working two ovens, sauteeing and quenelling 25 ice creams my board is full my partner has plates out we're garnishing like mad I'm yelling for runners and plates are getting wiped as they're lifted off the pass
that that meat cook has turned his back to his grill and is packing up his knives. He has long curly hair and it's obscuring his flattened face. He shows no emotion. He is a quiet artisan, slowly taking care of his tools. The rush of service, the cacaphony of kitchen, the orders barked and directed and a kitchen orchestrated is madness, all around him.
The sous says little. We dare not speak. We watch
in complete disbelief.
The line steps one step closer to stoves to let him pass when he walks out.
He walks out in the middle of service. On Saturday night. In one of New York's best, most popular restaurants.
The ticket machine doesn't notice. The diners don't give a shit. They want their four star food. Now.
It's surreal, and we all know. We all hope
that that is never us.
But what we don't know, what we don't want to believe, what we will fight tooth and nail to forget, to stay in denial with, to shelve, to subjugate, to keep at arms' length, or better yet-- as far away as we can, is that
One day that will be us.
Sooner than we think.
There was a running joke in that kitchen ever after that night. When we were in the weeds, which was always, but right before service when our nerves were on high alert and we watched the clock banging out its last seconds before the ticket machine would go from sleeping to fourth gear, one of us might say, "I gotta go." laughing in that easy way you can never laugh like again
After it's the you that has got to go. No matter what the fuck is happing in the kitchen. No matter what your leaving does to your fellow cooks and chef and those clueless diners happily perusing the menu.
We have a few pieces of advice concerning 'life outside the kitchen getting in the way of work/cooking" for cooks in this brutal business of professional cooking:
Leave it at the door.
Use your job to avoid your life.
Workaholism is the best forgetting drug.
You can cry, but you gotta keep working.
You can hide in the walk in, but you won't be alone.
There's no part-time in the kitchen.
If you can't come with 1000%, don't come at all.
Preoccupation causes bodily injury. To yourself and others.
Never call in sick unless you're dead.
But what about when you can't leave it at the door?
What about the day I got a long distance call on the internal kitchen phone line at the French Laundry telling me one of my cousins died in a car crash that morning?
What about the day I worked lunch service shaking & hallucinating-- stone cold sober, because of an internal organ failure?
What about the day you bury the most important person in your life?
What about the day you come home to find your partner with someone else?
What about the day you wake up to terrorist attacks? And the days and weeks that follow waiting for word from people you know who were working in the Twin Towers that day? What about the day you get that phone call you didn't want to get, but knew you were going to, telling you that your worst fears were confirmed?
What about the day you hear from your beloved that she has an incurable illness?
What about the day you go home to find your husband gone & divorce papers on the kitchen table?
What about the day you find a lump in your breast?
What about the day you realize your addiction is, finally, something that needs to be addressed. Now. ?
What about the day you learn one of your best friends' has taken her own life?
What about the day you get a call from the school that your child has been hurt?
Can you go into the the kitchen that day, that week, those months, and leave it at the door? Cry in the walk- in? Can you go into work and grill or saute or reduce stocks or brunoise meaningless cubes out of vegetables no one is ever going to taste, let alone see your perfect knife skills?
How do you go on?
How do you continue to care about, be inspired by, want to teach, be interested in learning, this exhausting craft, this hungry thirsty insatiable beast of an industry?
Those phone calls, those life altering moments, need to be seen to.
I took time off from cooking to help someone die. I took years off from getting into my chef's coat when I knew I could not give 1000%. I worked in catering when I could not give all of me to a restaurant. I worked in another industry altogether when my grief was so profound I could not sleep or eat or read or speak.
But there are more options than 2.
If you can work through the experience. If you can focus on one hour at a time, one day at a time, one moment at a time, one service at a time, you can accumulate a few hours, a few days, a few months, working through the pain, the anguish.
When you can collect a few of life's breathtaking heartbreaks, and you can get through them, and get to the to the other side, where there is light, you collect hope. Hope doesn't go bad. It collects interest in your bank.
And every time you walk through the coals, you can remember that you once did, you twice did, that before.
Because cooking and baking are verbs, they heal as they work you. Working with your hands, seeing immediate results for your toils, heals. Being in a kitchen with other cooks, many of whom have had serious struggles of their own, humbles us and we can be carried by them, if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Kitchen cooks are pirates. We are survivors even if we're not always the fittest. We romp and we meander. We're train jumpers and responsible citizens alike.
Show me someone in my uniform everyday who does not struggle with the craft, the industry, the grace. That person does not exist. You can use work to avoid life, yes, but what about when work is life? Managing life inside and outside of the kitchen is tricky business.
If there's one thing I know it's this. Cooking and baking and writing about it buoys me. Has set me on course even when I couldn't see land through tears. Has brought me back down to earth when I could see my body floating away from self.
But there are times in a cooks life when saying, "I gotta go." is what needs to be said. Only that cook can know when. And why.
I beg of you this, cooks with the blues, attempt to stick it out. Use the kitchen to heal yourself through the pain. Kitchens steady. Kitchens support. Kitchens weather. Kitchens give perspective, consistency. Kitchens heal.