Sunday, July 3, 2011

How Do You Know When It's Done?

Every time I put a tray of muffins or crackers or sliced bacon into the convection oven, I turn to the person I'm helping and ask "How long should I leave it in for?" Inevitably the response, whether it's coming from Annie with a beleagured grin or from Wally with a mischevious simplicity, is "Until it's done." I roll my eyes. "Okay, that's helpful..." If you grow up on recipes, which are essentially formulas, you almost always anticipate a clear sign of completion to a dish. The bread puffs up, the pot of cream erupts with small bubbles, the butter's milk solids and fats separate. And recipes promise times to go with those indicators--10 minutes, 15 minutes, 2 hours. Those times enable you to walk away, do something else, forget about it for a bit.

But in this kitchen, you have to be present. You know that the crackers will be done when they're crisp and just turning golden on the edges, but how exactly long that will take, you can't say. If you don't wear a watch in the kitchen (and many people don't), you clock the duration of time by how much you manage to get done while waiting for something else to finish. It takes me exactly the time of fetching the oysters, Littleneck clams, ice and bucket of tools for the crackers to finish.

The scheduling of flights back to New York have structured the ending of this project, but what really tips me off to my departure is the light bulb going out. In the track lighting above our station, one of the lights has gone dark--a bulb Wally replaced the week I arrived. "It's a sign!" I moan with sadness as we look up at it tonight.

"Maybe it's just not meant for that socket," Annie says, as she pulls together her garnishes.

"Is that supposed to be a metaphor for something?" I ask her, half-teasing, half-truly wondering what she means.

", not a metaphor. But hey, if that's how you want to read it..." she laughs.

How something's done may have everything to do with how much you enjoy it--and how ready you are to move on when it stops becoming enjoyable. The challenge is useful in continuing to see what you do as "important," so when it stops becoming a learning experience, it stops becoming fun or valuable. I've got so much more I could be learning, and ultimately what I've gained by being here has a lot more to do with soaking up community and atmosphere than actual skills. The attitude of a kitchen, the values of a community where everyone has a connection to what they eat, this is what I'll take away and think about most. But the timing is everything--as I get ready to pack up, the season is finally arriving. For tonight, in essence our July 4th dinner, everything is coming to a head--packed tables, extra supplies. I'm preshucking oysters to lay out on ice, to minimize the waiting time (a good thing too, since the first order in is for 18 of them.) It will be a crowded night, one that necessitates a lot of focus and patience. (I will most likely be standing back as Annie and Wally tackle the rush.)

"Yeah, you kinda picked the wrong time to come," Geddes says, as he slices into a massive piece of just-caught salmon for tonight's service. "I mean, every night in July will be like this, just packed."

"Well, I'm far from done learning," I say. "And it was good to come in a slower month, if only to have more time to take it in."

"Oh sure. And you never really stop learning. I've taken time over the years to do lots of 'remedial things.' You know, chopping garlic and onions, nothing else. Just working on my skills."

Knowing that even someone as Zen-ly creative and efficient as Geddes would take time off just to whip himself back into shape is a huge consolation. And it's a consolation, in general, to know that my learning wasn't at the expense of the kitchen's running smoothly. I can't do everything, but the little things I can do felt important and necessary.

"Yeah, Tuesday's gonna be...hectic," says Wally, raising himself up on the cold station so he keeps his newly twisted ankle off the ground. "I mean, you think of all the little things I forget. The garnishes, the oysters..."

"Well, all the stuff I know how to do," I retort.

"Yeah, but I'll have to remember them all again."

"Hah, that'll be a rude awakening."

And yet, as I'm watching them go through service, a night with busy patches despite long periods for talking and laughing it up, I realize that this kitchen will absolutely go on functioning after my departure. Angela will watch each ticket and methodically assemble her dishes, moving smoothly and deliberately between each stage of plating. Chris will zoom from steak to chicken to pork in the same of a nanosecond, and sear each dish to perfection. Wally will plate up elegant salads that look more like works of art than edible dishes, and though he won't have met to race against, he'll do just fine. And Annie will look at a long ticket with multiple modifications and tackle it with the grace of a figure skater, moving from freezer to plate to window without a single stumble.  I'm barely making anything tonight, minus a few orders of blue greens and ice creams, but it's a chance to take in what Osa asserted last night: "I've never worked anywhere else where people are so excited about what they're making." I've been an asset, but I'm also barely a blip--the kitchen will definitely keep functioning without me. All they need are customers to keep serving.

And all of this comes from, and maybe in spite of, a continued assessment and pursuit of "what works." After a Friday night filled with meat orders--nothing but chicken and steak all night, despite the newly opened salmon fishing season--Angela and Geddes agree to tweak the side dishes for the salmon to maximize its popularity. Instead of offering it with lentils and chopped olives as we had yesterday, tonight we swap it out for tiny roasted new potatoes, a shaved fennel salad with hints of basil, and an orange aioli. It's still a sophisticated dish, but more traditional than before, and it sells like gangbusters. "Sometimes you just hit the sweet spot with the customers," Angela says as she wipes down her station after family meal. "I used to work at this restaurant in Seattle--little neighborhood place. And we had this chicken dish--roast chicken, potatoes, garlic jus, nothing too complicated. But we would always sell tons and tons of chicken. And eventually the chef was like 'Sorry, guys, we're keeping it on the menu.' I mean, it's predictable, but people would come in every night just to have the kitchen. So if that's what people wanted, and liked, then that's what we'd give them."

Giving someone what they want--satisfying an unnameable hunger or craving--is maybe the best way to know that you've done your job. If a steak comes back underdone, or a runner comes back with a request for more sauce, more dressing, a second helping of strawberry shortcake, you start to get the sense that you and you alone can meet that need and fix that oversight. And when a server comes back with good news--a customer rhapsodizing, saying "The black cod was extraordinary"--it's enormously gratifying. "It puts the wind back in my sails," says Angela, "when I know that they like what I'm doing." The preparation is much more than just another task to complete--it becomes a real gesture of generosity towards another hungry person. They walk out full, drunk, and happy--this may well be the highlight of their week, the thing that made everything better in retrospect.

And feeling that sense of purpose on the prep end makes all the difference. As we wrap up the night, and as Chris pours me a glass of Tempranillo, he tells me that he's always felt a pull to this profession. "In 10th grade, they brought a career counselor to our school and asked, "who knows what they want to do for a living?' I was the only one that raised my hand...because I knew I wanted to be a chef. And that sent me on my way, into vocational training. And I've worked lots of other jobs, man...I've been a mechanic, a carpenter, a store clerk, a chimney sweep, a stone mason..."

"...And you just keep coming back to this."

"Well, yeah. It's what I'm good at. It's my passion. And all through school, we were getting this emphasis on learning computers, knowing computers so that we could get good jobs. But I know that this is something a computer can never really do."

"It's a much more organic process." I sip on my wine, which carries just enough bitterness for me to wonder if it's coming from the wine or from my sadness in departing. I envy Chris for having so much certainty in his day-to-day work. I'm jealous of Angela's sense of validation from how customers respond. I wish I could soak up this proximity to useful work, this immersion in a life of service, and bring it back with me to mix into my office job. Would my emails then carry the same feeling of necessity, of urgency, as my completion of a order ticket?

I snatch up a paper copy of tonight's menu and pass it around to the servers, collecting little tokens of their farewells like signatures in a yearbook. Their notes are teasing and sweet--Darlene calls me her "Greek Goddess," for my newly sun-soaked nut-brown skin. Our host Christopher teases me for sneaking into the back of the first week's wedding. Wally reminds me not to drop the nuts. Chris gives me a bear hug so big and warm I almost tear up with appreciation. If this were a comedy about a misfit sports' team, there'd be a lot of winks and begrudging smiles and probably a nuggie or two. But this may be what I miss the most--the people, the jokes, the chatting in between moments of frenzied preparation. I will miss the people that make it happen every night, with focus and humor and joy. Those are the ingredients I most wish I could take back with me...

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