Kitchen Apprentice: A View From the Pasta Closet

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgI am not a morning person. I have a case of the Mondays almost every day of the week, especially on Sundays, when I have to get up an hour earlier to get to The Restaurant.

My alarm rings at 6:15 a.m., and I am so comfortable in a womb of blankets that I become irrationally angry when I finally peel myself out of bed and lumber to the bathroom. I've been starting at 8 a.m., which means out the door by 7 a.m. Weekend trains always seem to shift through the bowels of the earth at a crawl.

When I arrive at The Restaurant, I grab a set of whites from the linen shelf and get changed in the women's lockers, which double as a boiler room on most days. Rarely is there a full uniform in my size left on the shelves. I don't know why.

There is always a preponderance of clean, starched and folded uniforms when I leave. With a bigger jacket, I can fudge it a little: it doesn't need to be fitted, so all I have to do is roll up my sleeves another turn. Things can get tricky with bottoms: when they are too big, I button them up all the way (all the pants are kind of high-waisted, a wardrobe phenomenon I haven't cared to experience since grade school) and then roll down the waist once or twice to tighten things off. If they're still too long, I cuff the hems once or twice as well.

I am sweating already. I am cranky. My sprout of a ponytail is subdued at the back of my headbanded scalp. My pants don't fit. I clock in. I march, baggy-bottomed, upstairs and into the pasta closet to start my day.

And just like that, my crappy attitude melts away.

The kitchen is already filled with cooks prepping for brunch: vats of pancake batter and oatmeal are getting stirred, surfaces are covered in loaves of bread, fruit and flats of eggs, cooks are hustling up and down the aisles stocking their stations for service. I can hear silverware getting organized, sauté pans getting distributed all along the line. In the pasta closet, Jeff already has some Dave Matthews Band or Lupe Fiasco playing on his iPod. After laying out the day's production list, we begin to make pasta.

The repetition in pasta production allows a prep cook to zone out. In the closet, you're not cooking, just making. If you're not careful, you might get your fingers sucked into the pasta machine, though I've never heard that happen before. While you have to stay attentive to maintain consistency and quality, you can still zone out and hum along to music during your shift.

I love getting visitors in the pasta closet; it happens sporadically. The closet is off a little wing located in the back of the main kitchen, across from the staff bathroom. The line cooks regale us (or just Jeff, really, I eavesdrop) with snippets from their nights out while they wash their hands, or they moan into paper towels, dripping and red-eyed from all the smoke and heat. They bring us news from the front lines: what we're having for family meal, how many covers are pouring in, kitchen gossip du jour. Jeff plies them with game scores from his iPod.

On Saturday, my brother asked if I knew of any cooks who were taking the day off for Super Bowl festivities. I snorted. He seemed truly confused, and figured they must not be football fans.

You see, these cooks cook on New Year's Day, on Thanksgiving Day, on Christmas eve, and on Christmas day. They cook when the rest of the world is on holiday—it's what they do.

Was it such a stretch to think they'd be cooking Super Bowl Sunday too? Sure, there are plenty of football fans at The Restaurant, but they're awfully fond of their jobs as well.

It was a humbling moment, remembering that in between the pasta closet visits, in between the snatches of gossip and forehead mopping, these cooks busted their asses service after service. They get burned, sliced, nicked, steamed and bruised for hours on end. There will always be someone who came in earlier than me, and stayed later.

I didn't have to do this, I get to.