Two dinner invitations are extended during my brief day trip into Toronto for a tattoo consultation and I have to turn them both down. One at Canoe, where a friend who I worked with during my detour through diner land (I’ve never quite recovered, really) is working as head of garde manger after three years of judicious, concentrated effort and sacrifice, and another to The Beech Tree where I learned pretty much everything I know about cooking under the unblinking and critical eye of Chef Daddy. There’s a service to work at six in Guelph and Jude needs to be fed and walked and loved and frankly, I miss the line so much during that hectic, white noise confusion of service that sitting in a dining room lit for date night ambiance without being a part of the behind the scenes action seems a bit wrong.
”I want somebody else to cook for me,” is a pretty common comment of mine throughout tree season. And it’s true that after a grueling three month long season with no real full days off I want to be cooked for, but it’s more than that, I want to be looked after. Camp cooking is a different beast than working the line. Camp cooking sucks your soul out of you and you are required to offer it, uncomplainingly, to whomever desires it. You’re a shoulder to cry on, a therapist, a mom, an offerer of first aid, an instigator of parties. You’re tribeless and there is nobody for you to lean on. But on the line you’re a hired mercenary and you can spend the entire service cursing out the full dining room in ever escalating vulgarity (in a closed kitchen, of course) while you’re plating their octopus that you butchered earlier in the day, blanching to curl the tentacle up appealingly. You know other cooks, getting off work at the same awkward times, by their flour smattered super birkis, their slouched seated consumption of cigarettes in alleyways, the telltale blister of a careless grease burn. There’s nothing more I want than these proffered dinners, but it also widens the divide and I can feel the choice looming, an exam I’m unprepared for.
Do I want to keep working in kitchens, or not?
The varicose veins in my legs from being on my feet for stretches of fifteen hours say no, as does the stress and beer fed fifteen pounds that pack my middle. The aching pain in the arches of my feet and anxiety driven burnout and the newfound ability to go out for a beer on a Friday night also scream “Fuck no!” The demoralizing detour through chest-beating testosterone driven talentless kitchens says “No” most of all. If I ended up in another kitchen with a chef who had administered that title to themselves after a three year stint at a Swiss Chalet I’d probably commit hara-kiri. Most of my body says “No,” and I want to listen, I want to wake up early and eat my homemade granola and yogurt and go for a run with Jude and then write and travel and drive across country again and just do as I please with my time. But the display case of knives at Nella calls my name, a nice boning knife settling against the callus of my knife finger as I hold it up. “Rats.” I don’t need a damn boning knife, I have no intention of going back to the line.
But they have nice aprons, too, that I caress between thumb and pointer finger, and the jackets I like with the short sleeves and the good pen holders, and Microplanes of every description, and nice wooden rolling pins and I wander through the aisles stocking a dream kitchen in my head, upgrading ones I’ve worked in mentally, thinking, still, in the recesses of my mind, “Oh, yeah, we need more nine pans,” then remembering that was four years ago.
Every minute I spend cooking in the bush there’s a lesson ringing through my head from somebody I’ve worked for. I admonish myself, “That’s a five minute job,” remembering my early days of prep, prior to developing any knife skills, and how long some simple tasks took. Sometimes they still do, to be honest, having strayed out of the world that demands speed and finesse. I carry my knife tip down when I walk down the line, close to my body. Many years ago at The Pink Grapefruit, just learning how to prep out of necessity, Daniel sharply admonishes me for carrying a knife dangerously. “If I ever see you carrying a knife like that again…” he hisses. I pick parsley from the stem with precision and care even when it’s just the bush, peel ginger with a teaspoon, automatically prioritize prep lists and anticipate needs, pirouetting around whomever I’m working with in the most carefully coordinated dance I know.
finishing service and watching endless episodes of red dwarf while discussing the minutiae of the nights happenings
eating out at every single competing restaurant in town, furtively, but somehow they always knew we, too, were industry comrades
family meal on a sunday with no dinner service, spanish tortilla and pastis and the snow raging outside
pints, pints, pints and lucky peach and pints and breaking down chickens until two am
milk crate seats, meals eaten hunched over a garbage can
‘shit. shit shittington. of shittsville. crapshire.’
a dramatic reenactment of the boy, peeling potatoes
There’s a comfort in kitchens, that they just don’t seem to change. Chef Daddy’s still holding court over the tiny line, turning too quickly and smashing his forehead off of the low hoodvent. A recent call to help out a homie who’s sous-chef let him down let me know I can still work the line, that some things don’t change, that once you know kitchens you can navigate your way around ‘em all. Neatly nested bowls, clean stations, the deafening rattle of the hood vent, shaking cornstarch into your asscrack before working a sweltering brunch shift in a kitchen the size of a Caprice Classic, vague heckling about anal sweat, a trail of half-drunk coffee cups, a banh-mi sandwich as a token of forgiveness, small sample bites of specials, beautifully organized mise-en-place in a rainbow of nine pans, a forty item prep-list, unloading an order and finding a gift of an unusual cut of meat from the butcher who knows you like to play with charcuterie.
It all calls to me and repels me at the same time.