Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rule #2: Don't Drop the Nuts--On Moving On from Your Mistakes

As I enter the kitchen this evening, tying my bandanna over my still-damp hair, it dawns on me that I only have five nights left in this kitchen. What makes this an even odder realization is that I can't immediately rattle off what I've learned: I know that it takes me less effort to wash a tub of greens, to scoop out a bowl of ice cream, to crush a tub of ice.  My knife skills are improved, my time-to-oyster-shucked ratio has dropped dramatically, and I'm starting to understand the idea of small, carefully utilized movements in the confined space of a kitchen. I call out "Corner" in a loud clear voice without near collisions, and cleaning my space has become an automatic part of the cooking process.

But I'm nowhere near as versed as I thought I'd be when I first set out on this adventure, and I'm certainly in no position to lead a kitchen. I lack the absolute certainty of where the basil flowers should go on a plate of lemon shaker tart, or how to keep that neat margin of white space on the plate. And I'm nowhere closer to making duck confit, portioning out a chicken, or searing a steak. My education has come more from the mistakes I've made than the new opportunities presented...

But that also seems to be the nature of a kitchen: that you only learn through errors, through the moments you failed to be completely present. While crushing a sheetpan worth of roasted hazelnuts, using a rolling pin to whack each one into submission, I skim through my emails and find a rejection from one of my favorite websites. I'd sent them my Saturday night post on "Where I'm Writing From," and they declined to run it on their site. It'd nothing so devastating or surprising--no literary site got a good reputation by being all-inclusive. But it leaves me unfocused enough that, when rounding a corner with the tub of crushed nuts, it slips out of my hands and pours all over the floor. Just like that, 3-4 cups of hazelnuts and 20 minutes of work, gone. Cursing under my breath, I slip on rubber gloves and salvage those nuts that haven't touched the floor, then sweep up the remains in a dustpan.

"That's nothing," Geddes says cheerfully, adjusting the sous vide machine. "We had a kitchen intern once who dropped an entire speed rack full of hors d'oeuvres for a part of 300 people."

"Oh then this is small potatoes compared to that! I mean," I say, trying not to look too casual about wasting a lot of expensive nuts, "at least me dropping nuts can be quickly fixed."

"Yeah, true. His mistake become everybody's problem," laughs Geddes.

In a kitchen, mistakes happen all the time. Ovens get turned too high when two people are sharing it, a sheet of croutons gets forgotten and overbrowned, a ticket gets misread and a dish goes out too early. Even if you've spent a lifetime in professional kitchens, the likelihood that you will be on the inciting end of a fuck-up is very, very high. When that happens, much like in an office environment, someone gets a talking-to. Tempers can run hot, and walk-in refrigerators becomes useful for post-rush cooldowns. But the crucial part is not to take it personally--your dropped pan of ingredients is not your loss of self-worth. You can only assess the problem, patch up for the remainder of service, and focus on the next dish to be made.

This ethos--of fucking up, acknowledging said fuck-up, and moving on--is useful in a career that is ultimately never about you, but about satisfying the person on the other side of the wall. As Annie shows me how to cleanly quenelle some frozen yogurt, she emphasizes not "overworking" the scoop. "It'll get too soft if you keep going back and trying to fix it, so just turn the tub around and try again," she says, turning our container of honeyed frozen yogurt around so I can dive my hot spoon into a fresh smooth ridge. By curling the tip of the spoon over the yogurt as I release it onto the dessert, I can leave it with a glossy point far better than before. Finishing with a flourish, ultimately, seems more important than self-flagellating over the scoop's shortcomings. There's no real moment of mastery, except the moment of moving on.

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