Saturday, June 11, 2011

Friday: The Mad Rush

Morning hike into town, and I get just lost enough to work up a sweat. On the way, with no warning in sight, an enormous bald eagle swooped low over a nearby fence, carrying a whole fox in its talons. The animal snags on a fence, and the eagle loosens its grip. It's barely five feet away from me, but I'm frozen to the spot. The eagle doesn't go back to reclaim its breakfast, but instead circles back up into the air and flies off. I wait until it's out of sight (in case it decides to divebomb me), then peer in at the fox. It's clearly dead, but also cleanly dead--its belly fur remains snow white, its muzzle still wet with dew from the early-morning grass. I make far more mess with my breakfast than this eagle does, and I almost feel jealous at its efficiency. A few paces farther down the road, a few deer cross the street. A bicyclist crosses between each of them, but they don't go scampering back into the woods. Instead, they each pick their way steadily across the road, disappearing into a nearby meadow. They watch me as I pass them by, but there's nothing so threatening about me that would make them bolt.
I'm suddenly feeling very small and insignificant to the life going on around me. The animals are far more adjusted to Orcas than I am, and they've carved out routines that make sense to them. I am the intruder in this environment, not the eagles or the hawks or the deer on the highway.

And for the first time since I've been here, I feel like one when I get in the kitchen. Annie's back from her two days off, and already I can feel myself aiming for perfection in her presence. Maybe Wally expected very little of me--except, maybe, to keep up with him--but when Annie sets me to work on chopping rhubarb and strawberries, I'm a little disappointed. Shouldn't I be learning something new, showing her what I can do? I'm eager to demonstrate my skills, and probably a little overconfident, so when the dinner rush hits, I'm suddenly flustered and more than a little overwhelmed. The tickets start coming in at a rapid pace, and they're all long, complicated orders--3 plates of different combinations of ice cream, 6 different salads with different modifications, and a handful of oyster-shucking projects that leave my hands aching, even as I try to sweettalk the oysters, begging them to open. And I commit the following mistakes, in order:

1) In plating a slice of the chocolate cashew tart, I neglect to think about why the dish is positioned the way it is: instead of laying down sesame seeds as the bed for the ice cream scoop (so it doesn't wander all over the plate), I scatter them across the center. The ice cream slides everywhere, and I have to replate the whole thing.

2) I'm having a helluva time scooping ice cream--every spoonful seems to either mush into pure liquid or stick to the smooth and come off in big icy globs. Annie tells me to dip my scoop in water to make the scooping easier, but getting that perfect smooth ball is still a problem. When she scoops and plates ice cream, it could be a glamour shot in Gourmet. I toss the first plate and try again. Ice cream and sorbet, I decide, are my nemesis. They are impossible to scoop, and required on almost every dessert. Damn you, customers, who we must appease with frozen treats.
3) I'm hurrying to run a cobbler out of the convection oven, and accidentally smash the top of it with my oven mitt. I'm also putting the candied ginger into the crevices of the dish, rather than scattering it across the top, creating more problems for myself. We cover it up with ice cream and send it off. I spend the rest of the night handling the cobbler dishes with my bare hands, just to be sure nothing else gets crushed.

None of this is technically catastrophic--we still send the food out on time, and no customers send complaints back to the kitchen--but I'm hyper-aware of how many things Annie is correcting in what I do. The logic of the kitchen hasn't become intuitive to me yet: I don't immediately connect certain plates with certain dishes, or certain orders of preparation to final tasting experience. And because it isn't second nature to met yet, I start to wonder and question if all these steps are necessary. Why does it matter that I use a chilled plate for the blue greens and organic greens salads, but not the spinach salad? Why should it matter that I scoop a round ball of ice cream versus an oval one? But then a second wave of self-flagellation comes over me--why is it so hard for me to remember and repeat these steps? Do I assume that, because I've eaten in fancy big-city restaurants, each element on the plate should be second-nature to me? And what kind of a jerk would I be if I treated the deliberate choices of these chefs as ephemera to my own appreciation of the dish?

Disgust and defeat wash over me as I stand at the prep station, staying by the wall as Annie and Wally clean up the remaining big orders during the rush period. I feel like an intern again, and when I'm called upon to whip up a spinach salad (greens + roasted cipollini onions + mustard dressing/herbs/S&P, garnished with hardboiled egg and bacon), I'm floundering and swearing like a longshoreman. I try to pile my greens as Wally has told me--"criss-cross, like you're playing Jenga"--and they slide out of my constructed tower into a plate-spreading mess.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," I say, as I try to reassemble my tower while spooning on the chopped eggs. The greens collapse under the weight of the egg--it's now more like a trashpile than a tower. "Fuck you greens," I mutter, trying to fluff them up with my fingers. I fish the hot chunks of bacon out of the pan with my bare hands, swearing even more as the bacon grease stings my fingertips.

"You know," Wally says as he sidles up, "you can use the tongs to place those." He reassembles my salad and tops it with a nasturtium blossom. It looks perfect, effortless.
I guffaw a little--partly because he's right, and partly because I was too focused on doing things correctly to also do things logically. "No shit, Sherlock," I laugh. "I'm just doing things the hard way." I don't know how he moves the salad around so gently, but I wish I had his touch. He caresses the greens--I'm manhandling them.

"It'll get easier," says Wally as he loads up another bowl with greens.

Either that or I'll start doing things that make more sense, I think.

Even though I'm covering the non-rush orders fairly well, I'm still disappointed in myself enough to keep making mistakes. Fishing four hot cobblers out of the convection oven, I sear the top of my hand on the grill rack, leaving a tender pink welt. Annie watches me shake my head in shame as I run the burn under cold water.

"Anything I can do?" I ask her, as the sting starts to dissipate.

"Nope...Wally's prepping a fruit plate, and I'm taking care of wedding prep for tomorrow..." She watches me as I straighten up, my face blank with frustration, exhaustion, or both. "And, you know, we're just making food."

She's looking at me with a wry, weary smile, the kind that you only get once you start to see your job as a job. It's a smile I'm sure I've held many times in publishing--a smile that says, Yes, what I do is important, but it's not the end of the world. 

"Don't beat yourself up," she says softly. "This isn't New York--and I'm not saying that because we're less professional, or less ambitious or competitive. It's just don't have to be stressed out here. You can move at a more normal pace. You have time to learn things. And we make mistakes all the time. The trick is learning how to get over those mistakes, how to keep them from affecting you."

"I know," I say. She's got a hardiness that I haven't yet mastered--in any jobs, friendships, or in really any aspect of my life. "I guess I just get bent out of shape when I want to do something well."

"That's cool," she said. "But just know that while you're getting stressed out, I'm never going to get stressed out. So I'll be here to help. You don't have to do everything right away."

I'm just like an intern again--out of my depth, for the first time in ages, and learning something new. Perhaps the adrenaline rush I'm experiencing is more about the novelty than about the nerves.

1 comment:

  1. An eagle drops a fox (dead or not) at your feet first thing in the morning?!? This could be the avatar for your whole prep cook adventure. Maybe it's because I have been re-reading the ILIAD for the first time since high school (everything I have forgotten I learned in high school), but such accidentals now look to me like omens. Perhaps you should consult a Lummi shaman on the island, because this random occurrence first thing in the morning is pregnant with great symbolic resonance in the world of signs & portents.

    The eagle has always been considered a messenger of the gods by cultures throughout the world, as well as a symbol in and of itself of courage, strength, freedom, & self-renewal. It balances power with grace and intelligence and its sharp vision allows it to see what might otherwise be hidden. It inspires us to soar above the mundane; to be free of past realities and see clearly as we pursue our heart's desires; to work smarter not harder as we pursue our goals. Because its hunting pattern associates it with dawn, it is also a powerful symbol of new beginnings, a new awareness.

    The fox echoes some of these same symbolic qualities. As a nocturnal animal foraging from dusk to down, it has always been seen as a mediator and guide between this world and the next, a wise and noble messenger. It too symbolizes intelligence, skill, and clear focussed vision. When hunting, the fox functions almost like an index finger as it becomes taut and tightly aimed at its prey. Thus, in the realm of portents, it urges us to adopt a focussed and determined mindset if we want to "hit our target".

    Above all the fox is a liminal animal. Its habitat- border areas such as the edges of forests & open lands -is like its life cycle which begins at twilight and ends with dawn, both transitional, transformational periods of the day. So it should be no surprise that in myth and legend, the fox is also the archetypal shape-shifter and thus a symbol of adaptation, transformation, and transition. When you cross its path- dead or alive -it alerts you to a turn in the road of life; to opportunities for change, either present or in the offing, and usually ones which will be crowned with success. In this guise, the fox also suggests we approach our circumstances from a different perspective than we normally would; adapt, and adopt a different "plan of attack"- one which is mindful of and makes use of our surroundings. The most favorable approach is to blend in, become a part of those surroundings, and not call attention to oneself. Like the fox, take a step back; be still, quiet and patient; observe, absorb, and then pounce when the time is right.

    A messenger eagle- a potent sign in itself -intersects your path at dawn and delivers you a message in the form of a fox-- this barebones premise might strike you as just so much woo-woo and high weirdness, but the pertinence to your own undertaking on the island struck me so deeply that I had to comment. A bit OT, I know, on a food-oriented blog, but you might end up with a nice marketable t-shirt design to peddle once this over: "I Spent A Month As Prep Chef And All I Got Was This Damn Dead Fox" (with appropriate graphics, of course). In the meantime, best of luck and continue going from strength to strength as you make the utmost best of this opportunity. It may not lead to anything more than a deep sense of self-satisfaction and self-awareness, but one thing is already clear: You are as skilled with words as you are with ingredients.