The madness of back-of-the-house work
I am a masochist. My boss is a masochist. My manager, my coworkers, and the owner of the business are all masochists. I’ve served Drew Barrymore. Twice.
I don’t work in some twisted sex dungeon. No, I work in the kitchen of a four star restaurant. Most people cite college as among their best memories at this point in life, but I cite work. I get be around talented and passionate people, outstanding food and demanding work.
Plain and simple, it takes a somewhat masochistic personality to work back-of-the-house jobs. I only have two seasons (about six months) of experience, but I regularly work 10-or-more-hour shifts a day, six days a week. I wake up at noon, carry out my “morning” routine and get to work at 2 p.m. or earlier.
As soon as I walk through the door, I clock in and set up my prep station: knives, cutting boards, containers, towels, sharpie marker. Then, I work on my prep list, which usually includes skinning and cleaning two or three fluke, 10 pounds of tuna tail and half of a sea bass; blanching shrimp and calamari; dicing/chopping/slicing vegetables; frying taco and tostada shells; making churros; mixing one or more sauces; setting up my workstation; and making part of the staff meal. All of this needs to be completed by opening at 5:30 p.m., a total of three and half hours with a 15-minute break for dinner.
Then service begins, which lasts five hours, and my station can pump out 50 or more dishes. During the height of the season, our four-person line serves about 150 to 200 people per night. Every dish has to be made at a certain time to ensure the table receives their whole course at once and in a timely manner. To facilitate this, there is an “expediter” who tells us what to fire and when to fire it, reminds us of custom orders and organizes our tickets. They are the general to us, the soldiers. Most of the time they are the guiding light to the chaos of service, directing servers and cooks alike, but when mistakes are made they are also the first to snap. Failure on their part could mean anything from a disgruntled customer leaving a small tip and bad Yelp review to the untimely death of someone allergic to onions.
At all points during a shift, it is considered an “all hands on deck” job. There is no such thing as a task not being in your job description. As long as you have the training, you are expected to do any task at hand. A popular saying is, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” I have seen servers work the fryer, chefs run food to tables and the manager cook food.
After service ends at 10 or 10:30 p.m., we continue fulfilling the remaining orders on the board, and there is another two to three hours of breakdown, clean up and night prep for tomorrow. I may leave work anytime between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m., depending on the day.
And then I wake up the next day and do it all again. My friends question my sanity each night and every morning, but I love the work. My coworkers, who I spend a majority of my time with, are excellent people and professionals. Even on nights where stress is high, when I’ve personally fucked something up and we have a “customer from hell,” I know that as soon as service ends and the last dish leaves the window, everything will be all right. We laugh and joke and drink as we clean. We bitch and moan about the hours with smiles on our faces. My sous-chef, Alex, talks smack and gives me shit, but when I talk back I get a louder laugh from Head Chef Ivan. We have running jokes. These are the little things that get us through the week and keep the kitchen running smoothly.
I was exceptionally lucky to work with and under the people I did. With the combined tutelage of chefs Alex, Ivan, and my co-worker Greg the ex-sushi chef, I was given the opportunity to design a dish. I spent days thinking of it, hours experimenting, all on top of my regular work. At the end of the night I presented my final creation to the chefs. After some overly dramatic shows of caution, they tasted it. The first and final verdict from these masters of the culinary world, men who had lived and breathed the kitchen, and outclassed my knowledge ten or twentyfold?
It has so far been the crowning achievement of my culinary career. Unfortunately, a month after I returned to campus, I found out the restaurant had closed because the building was sold. I know that I’ll be able to find more work, possibly a better job. But I will never have the same experience as I did at Corazon del Mar, and I can only hope to find an establishment as challenging and with a staff as close-knit.
Jonathon Gould is a sophomore politics major who knows that you doubt his sanity. Email him at [email protected]