Have Some Sympathy, Have Some Taste

21 Apr
"Salsa Flight"-acrylic

“Salsa Flight”-acrylic

About two months ago, I was working an office job. I trudged through the polar vortex’s mounds of snow with the occasional ray of sunlight. I looked forward to free coffee at work. I daydreamed of the rush of my time in college spent experimenting with new recipes and cooking for friends. That was what I needed, to cook something. Anything. Maybe even professionally. A respected taqueria in the city was hiring a line cook and without really thinking, I applied and got a chance to trail. A trail is a professional kitchen’s version of an audition for potential hires. They check out your work ethic and see if you can handle the kitchen rules and gel with the staff. In return, prospective employees see if they’d like the atmosphere. You end up learning more than you’d expect, especially since things are happening so quickly around you. I had my own limitations thrown in my face and then sent out my best.

Note: I changed the names of employees and places.

“The rite of passage for all new hires here is 25 minutes in the walk-in with ‘Sofie.’”

I glance up at Sofia, who is slamming together a $40 lobster taco. With her nostrils flared, she looks like a bulldog. I learn she’s not a bitch, but she sure wants me to think she is. It’s all part of her predisposition to bust balls. She raises her eyebrows in jest and eyes me up like she was appraising a a fish filet. A very white, very bony fish.

“Think you can handle me?” she scoffs.

“You also have to keep your pants on while in the walk-in,” Chef adds.

Sofie cackles at this. “How old are you?”

I’m young enough to learn a lot here but old enough to handle this hot pit of abusive language, tight corners, expensive tacos, and yes, Latina bulldogs. I’m ready for a sweaty six hours which I willfully and enthusiastically volunteered for. Or so I thought. I’m standing in the middle of a taqueria in West Village, dressed to impressed in a culinary skull cap and chef whites. This observational trail is like a dress rehearsal for a job here, a forerunner of modern Mexican cantinas. I am eagerly waiting for the Restaurant Week rush to arrive hungry, and the staff is eagerly waiting to see how I handle getting my ass kicked.

In all of my time as a glorified home cook and professional, I have never looked the part. I had been on a date to this taqueria, and in my cover letter to the chef, enthusiastically recounted the way the restaurant’s smoked cashew salsa singed my lips and stuck with me. I remembered the nutty-cayenne burn more than anything I talked about on the date. The dark dining room gets its light from candles and beautiful, smiling, cash-heavy New Yorkers. I was once one of them and now am welcoming a change of pace. For the next six hours, our scene is bright with fluorescent lights, not candles. We smile at jokes about Robocop’s private parts, not at flirtatious jabs. And instead of navigating my way through conversation, I’ve got to navigate through a high-action kitchen without getting burnt.

It’s Chef Hadrian’s will that I shadow each of the four stations. After changing, I get a quick introduction to the cast. Geraldine works on fry and quietly nods. She’ll say a total of six words the entire evening. Sofie, saute cook, is responsible for cooking fish and sniffing out newbies. She looks at my shoes.

“You tap dancing’ for us o’ somefin’?!” she cackles.

I look at my shoes. The oxford wingtips I have on are good for front of the house; back here on a tile floor covered with cooking grease and sanitation solution, they’re like skates. I can easily visualize myself soaring across the floor, pitching in as the kitchen mop.

“This is Jorge,” Chef points and snickers. “The white guys call him George.” Jorge, the grill guy, nods and winces at the joke, grabbing his stomach. I later learn he is working on the line with acute indigestion.

Line cook Miguel peers through his thick-as-guacamole glasses, rearranging the kitchen tickets to get a look at the new guy. With his spindly arms and nervous giggle, “Mikey” would be the perfect friend for Sam Weir in Freaks & Geeks. He works on queso fundido and the griddle, flouncing and jerking his arms while methodically measuring out 120 gram queso servings. Miguel carries himself in a judicial way that betrays his gangly appearance. When something’s out of sync, he’s the one who notices first, and he has a near encyclopedic knowledge of cooking temperatures and procedures. He’d be a good manager. I just know it.

Chef Hadrian takes me to the garde-manger station. Another bookish-looking guy with a little baby fat around the cheeks and belly scrunches his nose, fixes his leather cap, and continues to chop up celery root. His name is Timothy. This kitchen offers a slice of life: the garde-manger went to culinary school, Sofie’s been in restaurants as long as she remembers, Miguel might be from Mars, and there’s me. Without a clue. The garde-manger is my first stop, and Timothy will be my guide.

“Service!” Chef Hadrian bellows. “Get uh, Tom? Tommy? A salsa set.”   A server’s assistant brings over a tray of seven salsas that pop with color against the grey steel kitchen line. Timothy explains each one in the way a sommelier navigates a wine list. As I’m progressing through each of the salsas, each getting spicier, my eyes are watering. They become tear sponges with the salsa habañera, which is redder than a sunburnt Santa Claus. I have a bite of the smoked cashew and am transported years away. My eyes continue to water over fleeting food memories. This emotional reflection disappears as the night continues.

Timothy handles all mariscos (small seafood plates) and all vegetables and desserts. I have spent some time trailing garde manger in the past, but like any job, or any family, every kitchen is different. Timothy gives me a demo of four vegetable bowls. The Jicama beets erupt with more purple than boxing bruises, and the cauliflower has an amber rust color and the richness of a nut cream. These white florets come garnished with lemon zest and almendrado, a reduced almond sauce. They’re my favorite. I like putting them together almost as much as eating them. We fling the cauliflower florets around a metal bowl, manipulating our wrists to spin and swirl olive oil onto the veggies. The almendrado adds a creamy Southwestern flair to the final result, and the light lemon zest acts as a color burst and zing of acidity to cut through the richness. Fatty, juicy, with a final burst of citrus: who said vegetables couldn’t be fun?

The kabocha squash has a stream of pumpkin seed oil and greek yogurt; opulent without feeling indulgent. The celery is raw and dressed with a green peanut mole and crushed peanuts. I furiously scribble everything down while trying a bite of everything. I will learn that tasting everything is more important than getting an even dice cut of the vegetables. In the lull before the dinner rush, I will be doing a little prep work (called side work), taking unpeeled and ugly root vegetables and gourds and turning them into beautiful bite-size dices. Timothy hands me what looks like a scimitar for the beets. I start doing side work for Timothy. For my first real task, Chef Hadrian watches, telling me cut closer, cut faster, and “for Christ’s sake,” to button my jacket.

“I know this a taqueria, but we’re running this place like it’s a fine French dining restaurant. Cleanliness, neat uniforms, no food waste. It’s the mission of this place.”

I look at my “shaved” beets, which by now look like a brutally slaughtered animal. My hands have taken on the color of the beets, the purple blood of the slaughtered. Beet blood is hard to wash away. If I am to be a disciple of chef’s mission, I am Judas. I am determined to follow chef’s credo. I am determined to not get thrown off of the line, the kitchen’s way of saying “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” I know this place actually does kick ass, and the food reflects an awesome kitchen, so no arguments and no attitude on anybody’s end. I’ll button up anything.

The orders start coming in.

“Fire a chocolate flan. Tommy, you plate this.”

The first dish I plate of the night is a chocolate flan topped with a thin layer of caramel sauce. I revolve my wrist to get the veneer of caramel uniform. Chef watches my caramel pool smoothly and continues watching me scoop out the cinnamon ice cream. He shows me how to rotate my wrist and use a secret ice cream scooping muscle in the wrist to roll a smooth sphere, called a quenelle. The rest of my ice cream looks like it could be cast in marble. I finish with a sprinkling of cocoa masa, a crushed streusel made of ground corn and cocoa. The dish is ready, and a server whisks it away to one of the many smartly dressed first date diners stylishly removed from this pit. They will never know it was an outsider who made it.

The ticket machine buzzes.

“Fire a duck, octopus, cauliflower and a squash.”

I repeat back our station’s responsibilities. “Octopus, cauliflower, squash. Heard.”

I’ll be plating the vegetable bowls. Timothy starts scooping salsa papatenca into the octopus bowl while I scramble through my menu notes for my veggie garnishes. I feel like I’m on a roll after the sugar high of the chocolate flan, and I have to get my accompaniments straight. Cauli gets parsley. And zest. And parsley.

Wait. Already said that.

I open up the drawer with the miniature green garnishes. It’s loaded like a planter’s box, but there are a number of distinct compartments. Micro parsley looks very similar to micro cilantro. For those who think the latter tastes like soap, parsley and cilantro are definitely not interchangeable. I put zest on the squash, add more salt to the veggies, manage to drop my kitchen towel, and slam a spoon full of squash into Timothy’s spoon tub.

“You just messed up his shit water,” Chef Hadrian says.

“Shit water,” for those who don’t know, is a water-filled pot or tub holding a cook’s spoons for service. There’s a fistful of utensils in the tub, but a cook generally uses the same spoon for slopping on sauce, adding minced shallots, or tasting a vegetable dish before plating. This spoon takes a dive into the milky “shit water” between tasks. “Shit water” might have a vague name, but one thing it’s not is a dump for squash bits. I must look like a kitchen nightmare. That squash is dry on the palate when I taste. It needs more oil and salt. I’m beginning to understand why tasting is crucial for every dish.

I finish a cauliflower and place it on the pass, a metal running board where all ready-to-serve plates go. Chef Hadrian wheels over with a hand of tickets and scrutinizes my cauliflower plating, counting every zest and sprig of parsley. He’ll occasionally interrupt his own side conversations with orders to servers.

“Tommy–SERVICE! GUAC TO 37–Tommy, did you make this?”

This sounds like a loaded question. Here it comes. I’m picturing a rage fest that would make Gordon Ramsay wince. Something where I have to carry out the cauliflower to the table, interrupt a date’s charming conversations about juice cleanses and explain why I thought I could handle this.

“Yes, chef. I made this.” He nods. He puts it on the pass.

“SERVICE! This cauliflower is going to Table 10.”

I am keeping up with orders while watching Chef Hadrian expedite and run the show. The taqueria’s ordering system is all verbal, meaning Chef is the only one watching the tickets. When an order comes in, Chef announces the full order and slides it into a runner at his eyes’ level. Each station needs to keep track of the order of the orders, prioritizing, itemizing, and doing inventory all at once while also not obliterating any food. Cooking becomes automatic out of necessity. For somebody with limited experience, this is a great challenge.

I understand this challenge fully as I move to the grill station. Jorge is responsible for five very different tacos: duck, pastor pork, short rib, pastrami, and beef tongue. Like the vegetables, no ingredients or garnishes are repeated between the tacos. I learn three tacos are a main and two are for an appetizer. The easiest to put together is the pastrami, with shredded and pre-cooked beef, cabbage slaw, and a vinegar-loaded mustard. No one orders tongue. My menu is already missing. The taco’s tortillas toast and bubble along the griddle, and Miguel creeps behind me, throws on handfuls and giggles. If being a manager doesn’t work out, he’s got a future as a mad scientist. Jorge flings on bags of short rib and pastor pork on the left hand side of the griddle. He grabs his own side and grimaces. The pan on the grill is hot. I’m getting burnt on the line but the food’s not. The tortillas singe my fingers going from griddle to warming pan and the smell of the pineapple I throw on the griddle melds with the kitchen smells. I am way behind in my ordering system but on a different sensual plane. Pork al pastor sizzles and reminds me of my walk home past the taco truck on 145th and Amsterdam. The pickled red onion whisks me to my first time making French onion soup. This has been an ass-kicking, but it’s also been a nostalgic run of food memories.

My day of spreadsheet writing and event planning in a “nice” office setting is flipping upside down. I’m loving it. It feels like the rush I last had while in a rock band. When the curtains go up or tickets come in, there’s only reliance on muscle memory, intuition, and adrenaline to push through and make some excellent results. But playing covers of “Sympathy for the Devil” was never a flow of physical injuries. After passing over plates of tacos, I realize I don’t feel my fingertips. The trickiest thing to keep warm are tortillas, which get soggy and cold if left on the pass for more than two minutes. To save time, I don’t bother with using tweezers to flip them. The only thing between my fingertips and a searing griddle is a tissue-thin tortilla. Guitar calluses have become burn calluses as I’ve cooked and picked up hot plates more and more.  Am I more daring, or am I just stupid? With every singe of the griddle, I can’t decide which I feel right now. I look at the clock. 10:30 p.m. I don’t feel stupid, I feel as timeless as that Stones song.

Chef addresses the kitchen. “Mikey, start breaking down. Tommy. Come outside. I want to talk.”

Shit. This is really it. Where I realize, yes, I’m in over my head. I am stupid. I step outside on the tight West Village sidewalk. Chef watches the dining room from the street window, counting out how Restaurant Week business is. I can see my breath. The pretty people inside are probably eating smoked cashew salsas while I’m going to eat shit outside. He looks at me up and down; not like a fish, but more like sizing me up for a kickball team.

“The first thing you’re going to need to do if you work here is get better shoes.”

I look down. “Thanks, chef.”

“You’re doing a great job. And you gel well with the team. I’d rather have somebody green around the ears than some hot shot beet slicer with an attitude.”

I thank him as he leaves for the night. As we pack up the fridge for the night, the kitchen brigade (myself invited and included) takes shots of mezcal and knock back Tecate. I learn how an immersion circulator works, and Sophie wants to know all about me, what I like to cook, and when I’ll be by again. She’s a sweetheart. I smell like Marlboro Reds on the walk home, still feeling the reel of the Restaurant Week rush and the singe of the tortilla griddle.

I’m still missing every minute of it.

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13 Responses to “Have Some Sympathy, Have Some Taste”

  1. Sydney Gallimore April 21, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Beautifully written, Tommy! I felt like I was there.

    Although now that I’m done, I realize I’m not there and all I want is smoked cashew salsa and tacos.

    • boopandbear May 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

      I know, this is so beautifully written I can actually smell the tacos (someone on my train is eating something not unlike what I imagine the kitchen to have smelt like). And I have a grumbling stomach. Thanks Tommy!

    • trwerner May 16, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

      Thanks, Sydney! I’m sure there’s a great cashew salsa recipe out there someplace. Now, whether it comes with the awkwardness of a first date, only taste can tell!

  2. shadowheartstories May 15, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

    Wow. Looking at this from a distance, I realise that the content is something in which I would never be interested normally, but you managed to captivate me from the very start. Wonderful.

  3. Reticent Mental Property May 15, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    Opulent without feeling indulgent…i am way behind in my ordering system but no a different sensual plane…a nostalgic run of food memories…i feel as timeless as that Stones song…THANK YOU for the post. Delicious in the read.

  4. pndrgn99 May 15, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

    Wait up Sydney I want to come with!

  5. fashionforlunch May 16, 2014 at 1:15 am #

    Great post!

    http://Www.fashionforlunch.net

    • trwerner May 16, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

      Thank you. I love the clean photography on your blog!

  6. amlakyaran May 16, 2014 at 2:54 am #

    very nice post…

  7. chroniclenews May 16, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    Reblogged this on The Chronicle News and commented:
    Have Some Sympathy, Have Some Taste

  8. ditchthebun May 17, 2014 at 1:55 am #

    Sounds like a great night.
    Also, you have made me quite hungry 🙂

  9. ashokbhatia May 17, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    Mouth watering!

  10. agnestadia June 8, 2014 at 11:49 pm #

    palatable both in body and mind,,, thanks for the post….

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