I can remember the first time I had a dish thrown at my head. I was a 14 year old dishwasher with better reflexes back then. I was a loudmouthed high schooler that thought I knew everything, so I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t deserve it. I used to work with a cruel bartender named Brian, a jaded Iraq War vet who wanted to teach us young kids what it meant to have some discipline. In some ways I thank him for this, but his methods could have used more refinement. I remember my third day on the line working fryer. He came over and dumped a cup of ice in my basket then walked away laughing maniacally. I had to abandon my station as the steam hissed and hot oil bubbled over, flinging 350 degree fat over my mise and the exact spot where I was just standing. There was no real lesson learned there, but you can guess who had to clean up that mess at the end of the night.
It’s not coincidental that the food service industry draws the outskirts of all members of society. It offers a place of refuge for those that aren’t accepted elsewhere. The mistreated, the marginalized, the outcasts, the forgotten — we are all participants of a meritocracy when we are in a kitchen. It’s a level playing field for a group of miscreants that have always been in last place in the pecking order of society. The kitchen is place where talk is cheap; you can promise the world, but if you can’t deliver then you will quickly be put in your place.
Despite the roughage, it still had its perks. The bar would turn a blind eye when we pumped quarters into the cigarette dispenser at an age when it was difficult to get them on our own. More importantly, we had free reign to the pool table after close. I worked late enough to come home after my parents had fallen asleep smelling of french fries and cigarette smoke and no one was the wiser. During my first holiday party there, the unders were allowed to drink but only under one condition. While everyone else had full access to the bar, we had a stainless steel tub full of iced down MD 20/20s, a sugary cocktail almost guaranteed to give you a hangover the following day. Looking back, I can’t decide if i was living a dream or a nightmare. I had taken this job to put gas in my car through high school. In my nearsighted youth, I had fallen deeply in love with the counterculture that would become the north star of my career for the next ten years.
Fast forward six years. It’s my junior year in college and I’m cooking at the university’s catering company to pay rent. The professor is droning on about the economics of guns and butter, while I am frantically leafing through recipes I had gathered throughout my culinary career. I had been given the go-ahead to run the amuse-bouche on tomorrow’s plate-up and and I had no idea what I wanted to do. This was my coming-to-Escoffier moment. This is when I decided I was going to dedicate my life to cooking. I quietly stuffed that overpriced softcover textbook into my bag and walked out of the class. I called my parents and told them I was dropping out to cook for a living, and surprisingly, they were much more supportive than I would have thought.
I marched into work that night as any 20 year old would, and proudly told my Executive Chef my intentions. I was sure I was going to be welcomed with praise. Instead, I was grabbed by the sleeve and pulled into the banquet room. Chef told me that if I was going to cook for a living he was going to treat me accordingly. From that day on, he told me everyday that I’d only amount to being a shoemaker; that I would never make it as a chef and that I should have stayed in school. As hard-headed as I was, It pushed me even harder to prove him wrong. The Japanese have a word for this: kuyashii. You can call it stubbornness but I am still trying to prove him wrong to this day.
Three years and one chef later, I hit a wall. I was living in the same small college town cooking the best food I could, but the appreciation of fine cuisine only goes so far when people are on a budget. My chef at the moment told me it was time to go. As my official head coach of the emotional olympics, he gave me one last gift — an envelope with five glowing letters of recommendation, and as one last mind-bending hurrah, a letter with all of the terrible things I had done that had failed him and the organization in my five year tenure as a young, dumb, novice cook. He then shuffled the letter into the yellow envelope and sent me on my way. To this day I will still never be sure if I have included the right one with my CV.
Starry-eyed and bushy tailed, I sold off the contents my life and headed west towards San Francisco, the promise land of all things culinary. Short of a covered wagon, it truly felt like a 21st century version of Manifest Destiny. When I first arrived on the west coast, I stayed with my father and step-mother who had recently moved to Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz county. It didn’t take long for me to realize that any money I had saved from the southeast was evaporating into thin air. I had to get to work immediately. I had spent my pittance of a life’s savings to move from one small mountain town to another. I took some unfulfilling consulting gigs and even waited tables. Anything I could do to to jocky myself closer to the Bay. I had one shot and I couldn’t afford to miss it.
I decided to bite the bullet and join a restaurant slated to open in a month. The food looked ambitious for the area and I was itching to get into the mix. I was willing to take a paycut to get broken in. This is when I met Andy, another transplant hailing from Chicago. He had moved out here to help consult his friend who had a hot sauce side hustle that was starting to gain traction. Andy also joined the opening team. As a vet of the Hogsalt Group in the Windy City, it was quickly noticed that he was far too overqualified to be a line cook, and they threw the exec job his way.
As if I didn’t learn my lesson, I told him to push me. I had practically no line experience. I had spent five years in catering, and the past few months consulting for a dying golf course trying to fix an anemic menu that the locals wouldn’t let go of. I was never going to make it in San Francisco if I couldn’t hack it in the trenches. As with all green cooks, I started on Garde Manger. It wasn’t rocket science, it was gastropub fare with some nice local ingredients. Despite this, we got crushed by the volume. We were the hot new restaurant in town and everyone wanted in. Within weeks the saute cook broke, he packed up his roll and left without saying a word in the middle of service. The grill cook shifted to saute, and I took his spot mid service. When the owners forced the lunch opening, we moved the saute cook over to AM. I was told that day before service that I would be running the six burner range and the adjacent flat top in a restaurant that did more than half its sales in burgers. This was my moment. I exerted so much mental energy just trying to get my mise-en-place finished before open that I fell into a trance halfway through service. As the tickets came pouring in like a Tibetan prayer flag, I blacked out and then came-to as the last dessert left the pass. I had made it my first night as the point. I’ll never forget the euphoria of surviving that service. It was a drug, and I was hooked.
Fast forward a year and somehow I have managed to convince a leasing company I was making 48k a year. They wanted me to make four times as much as the monthly rent for a run-down apartment in Oakland. It took some smoke and mirrors, but I ended up getting the lease. I raced another couple to put a deposit down. I drove frantically around the town pulling out cash from ATMs on a Sunday because I didn’t think I needed a checkbook at an open house. Getting an apartment in the Bay Area is the hardest thing I ever accomplished. It’s truly impossible for a cook on the outside to get in playing fair. I remember my first night in Oakland. It was Halloween. I was listening to all of the sounds of the streets echoing in through my window, homeless people digging through dumpsters. As I listened to the arguments over who had rights to the cans within, I wondered what the hell I had just done.
Line life isn’t for the faint of heart. The amount of hurdles one must jump to follow the dream is rarely met with a medal. You can say that I am one of the lucky ones. After running the circuit in San Francisco I found a way out. I have lived long enough to become what I hated. I used to look out the pass at all the smug patrons in their zip-up hoodies and Allbirds, arguing over who was going to pay the bill. I wanted to kick myself for not paying more attention to deforms and dynamics, guns and butter, and my first chef. All career cooks are sold on a broken dream. Give up any form of stability because you love food that much. Give up your family so that you can dedicate your life to an exploited craft. Do this to make yourself stronger. Do this to prove them wrong. Do this for kuyashii. This mentality isn’t healthy, and there is a reason mental illness finds safety in a kitchen.
It’s time for us to have a talk. It’s time for patrons and restaurant workers to understand that this model isn’t working. The people who make our food are professionals. Although most of us are not college educated, the amount of time invested and specific knowledge needed are comparable. We need to pay more for food, that’s the bottom line. If you don’t like it then learn how to cook at home. In the end we still have shared our gift with you. We need to take care of the people that take care of the food we put in our bodies. I can climb atop a soapbox and scream this at the top of my lungs, but this movement has to start from behind the pass.
They say dress for the job you want. I want cooks to be paid like professionals, and although some us put on fresh whites everyday before service we have to start treating each other like professionals. We’ve all seen it: suggestive behavior, blatant harassment, inappropriate comments, plates hurled across the kitchen, physical altercations that involve the whole kitchen, rampant drug use. How can we expect the outside world to take us seriously if we act like a band of pirates? If you look around you can see that the rouse is starting to come crashing down. The kitchen is no longer a place for scumbags to hide. The world is changing and we have to change with it. So It’s time to ask ourselves what really brought us here to begin with. It’s time to choose. Was it the masochism or the food? Was it the guns or the butter?