BEHIND THE KITCHEN DOOR: To earn real cook’s stripes, you have to survive your baptism by fire – or wok
PHOTO (C) THOMAS LEPLUS HTTP://LEPLUS.ORG
It was half past ten on a Saturday night in January when the servers gave me their final tickets.
Shumai. Shumai and a chicken coconut curry holding. I turned the steamer up to full blast and started gathering ingredients for the curry. Two plates down from the racks: fistful of chopped red onion and bell peppers in one, one cleaned butterflied chicken breast cut into bite-size pieces in the other. I started salting the meat.
Chris from the sushi bar. I could see through the kitchen window he was holding up two fingers. I had been cooking on the Elmwood Strip in Buffalo for about four months, but the sign language had been ground into me the first day: two fingers meant two shrimp tempura rolls at the bar. I nodded and washed the chicken juice off my hands, ducked into the fryer station reach-in and grabbed four tempura shrimp and dumped them into the fryer.
I turned back to my prep area and took the lids off plastic quart containers filled with garlic, ginger, and finely chopped scallions. The water under the steamer was up so I placed ten pork dumplings in the basket and covered it. Back to the fryer to get the hot shrimp out for Chrisâ€™s roll. I had time; no need to call a server. I walked them out to the bar myself.
Easy, I thought. I was drenched in sweat and my muscles were burning, but I had made it to the end of my first good night in the kitchen. No help, no screw-ups, no late orders. The feeling you get on your first night truly hanging in a restaurant kitchen isnâ€™t one youâ€™ll get back. Itâ€™s a hockey playerâ€™s first goal, the first big fish caught in front of your dad, a writerâ€™s first byline. Itâ€™s a moment of public accomplishment under extreme pressure and after weeks or months of constant failure, and itâ€™s hard to fit in a scrapbook. Itâ€™s sink or swim every night you clock in. I had screwed up badly enough, often enough, that I realized sinking was no longer an option.
My night wasnâ€™t over yet and I still had to clean and close the kitchen, but when those last tickets came in I felt like kissing someone, anyone, just to see if they turned to gold.
As I waited for the pork to cook I set up the shumai plates with ramekins of dipping sauce. Two orders of pork shumai takes about six or seven minutes in the steamer, so by the time they were done I had everything ready for the coconut curry. At the time, I was still trying to toughen my hands up, so I barehanded the shumai out of the steamer and onto their plates, applied sesame seeds and scallions as a garnish, and put the apps in the window.
Too easy, I thought. I turned down the steamer and topped it off with water, though I knew I wouldnâ€™t be using it again that night; I was still working off of reflex. The server fired her curry bowl and I smiled. Even though it was the most nerve-wracking dish I had to prepare as a novice Asian cook, it was also the most fun.
I got to move fast and toss hot things around and sometimes the wok would flare up, little tongues of flame and spark on the far edge of the pan as I shook it or minor infernos if I was cooking with sake. Though Iâ€™ve seen it happen a thousand times or more since I started cooking, that little reminder that I am Man Cook Animal With Fire still gives me that heady, excited, semi-sexual jolt that men get when theyâ€™re doing something they think makes them a badass.
I grabbed the light wok from the rack over the stove and put it on the center-front burner and put the fire on high. Grabbed a squeeze bottle and spun a light circle of oil around the edges of the wok, letting the oil slide to the center so it would heat evenly and quickly, like Iâ€™d been taught. Pinch of garlic, pinch of ginger, pinch of scallions; shake the pan so everythingâ€™s touching the oil and cooking.
I waited for the aroma to hit me from the pan, then I dropped the chicken pieces in and waited. My instinct was to toss them immediately, but I had been wrong every other time Iâ€™d done that, so I waited for something, the sound or the look or just a feeling about the chicken to tell me it was browned on the one side. I tossed the chicken pieces, flipped over a few stragglers with my tongs, and waited some more. From there I dumped the veggies in, stirred and waited again, and then finally the prepped rice and coco-curry sauce.
I tossed, added water, tossed, reduced, and when the sauce had reached a dark orange I grabbed a fluted bowl from the rack, plated the curry, wiped the plate, garnish with bean sprouts, get â€˜er in the window, and -
It was done. My first busy double shift without a fuck-up. No more tickets. No more servers. No more sign language from the sushi bar. Done. I was still standing with my tongs in my right hand and my arms crossed, staring out the kitchen window, when Chris came in.
â€œGood job tonight, dude,â€ he said. â€œNo complaints.â€
I smiled, shook his hand, lowered my eyes. I wasnâ€™t being modest or deferential to the man that taught me. I was trying to look sympathetic. Here I was, Man Cook Animal, tongs in my hands, blood and sinew on my uniform, flames at my beck and call, and this poor schlub was out at the bar rolling rice burritos for the weekenders and the Williamsville wives. He even had to talk to them. It was awkward. I wanted to warn him to walk behind me as he left the kitchen, lest he stumble over my whale-sized penis.
Later, we went out. Chris got me a few shots. I spent nearly half that monthâ€™s rent money buying drinks for anyone that looked at me. I drank the mead of gladiators. Every man was my subject, every lady my concubine.
I didnâ€™t get laid or anything; success in the kitchen doesnâ€™t translate to success in the outside world. And the next Saturday I would be as bumbling as ever. The right combination of orders and mindset will have anyone falling behind, losing their shit, letting the side down. Or, for that matter, busting out every dish in record time without a problem. The business is just that fickle.
But I didnâ€™t think about that, not that night: I was a cook, damn it. Everyone else was just hungry.
Jacob Drum has dished, bussed, cleaned, cooked, and managed restaurants from fast food to fine dining, from Boston to Buffalo. His writing has appeared in The BEAST and LiteraryFever, and his blog, Master Caution. He lives in Buffalo.