My favorite time in a kitchen is the early morning, when things are still, and every pot, spice and spoon is in its place. I learned to appreciate this moment when I worked in college dining halls. After I graduated, I wasn’t making much on my writing, and the fact that most people don’t was no comfort. So I went to a local restaurant and asked if they needed any help. They did. They wouldn’t pay me much, but I could take home food.
Working with food provided faster satisfaction than scratching out a short story or a piece of journalism in my lonely apartment. I was around that crazy, disparate bunch of people you meet in the culinary world. Some couldn’t speak English but could blurt one or two words which would suffice for the remaining 9,998 in the conversational American English vocabulary.
Others were dreamers whose goal was not always opening a restaurant. One day the pot washer came to me with the sleep-deprived eyes of a human being who had been up all night for no good reason. “I finally figured it out,” he told me breathlessly. “I have to make a movie.”
He repeated this to everyone else on the shift and quit within a week. I don’t know if he ever made his movie, but, with so many films and TV shows about restaurants and chefs, maybe I’ll be wandering through the Netflix aggregator and I’ll see, all the way down at the end, Galactic Pot Washer.
In a restaurant kitchen, you learn to work fast and clean. You stay focused on what’s in front of you so you don’t burn yourself or cut your finger off. Between shifts you get one meal that’s better than anything you could cook yourself. And you never waste anything. The ends of carrots, the lettuce leaves you peel away, broccoli stalks, bits of this and that–if it’s organic, it goes into the stock pot and simmers for hours until it becomes wonderful.
If the food is prepared properly, if it goes out as it should and the chef is in a good mood and the owner isn’t around to come up with another way to save money, all is good. You go home genuinely, sincerely exhausted, with leftovers that will taste great the next day.
It’s no wonder, then, that I came to love that clean, still, cool aroma that greets you when you walk in to a restaurant kitchen in the morning. It’s like the dawn before a battle, or a theater a few hours before the curtain goes up. You know something’s going to happen soon, and it’ll be fast and crazy and over before you know it, but, before it happens, you take some time to breathe.
Sometimes, after I had that breath, the chefs showed me how to cook. Thus I learned how to chop onions quickly enough not to cry, and to make beef chili and french toast on a truly industrial scale. The chefs also used their mornings to experiment and improvise, especially when a vital ingredient had spoiled or not been delivered. I watched and learned new metaphors for the creative process.
This was before the era of branded chefs who may own, or have their names on a dozen restaurants they will never visit or cook in, because they’re too busy with their TV shows. It was also before just about every restaurant became a concept, with a menu that cannot be altered. Nowadays, most kitchen staff don’t cook. They assemble.
I didn’t expect to be reminded of my restaurant adventures until, in the sanctity of my own home, I put a roasting pan with chicken thighs in the oven.
Most mornings are ruled by the smells of coffee, bacon, sausages, melting sharp cheese, the vanilla and nutmeg in pancakes, the rich subtleties of eggs and the warmth of toasted bread–not chicken.
Unless you work in a restaurant (or live close enough to one to catch the fumes from the exhaust fans), you won’t smell chicken before lunch. In a restaurant, you use the morning to begin processes that may take several hours. One of them is baking chicken for lunch.
The chicken I cooked was to go into a salad for dinner. I put water in the bottom of the roasting pan, to steam the chicken as it bakes (and make the skin crispy). Within minutes the house filled with that grandmothery chicken-soup scent, and suddenly I was back in restaurant land.
The chicken baked beautifully and I remembered the big, steaming stock pots that gave the kitchen its characteristic afternoon aroma. I channeled the chefs who had taught me.
I searched the refrigerator for leftovers that retained their integrity. Into the broth went some bits of cooked Pennsylvania Dutch bacon, a carrot, an onion, some raw dipping vegetables (more carrots, with celery and broccoli). In the pantry I found a jar of gray lentils that almost begged me to jump into the chicken broth and turn it into soup.
In they went. I did not add any seasonings because I wanted to taste the ingredients: the warm richness of the chicken and bacon, the sweetness of the vegetables, the earthy splendor of the lentils.
I took a taste and the lentils brought me to backward (or forward–I’m writing this on a humid August day) to winter, where lentil soup is both a comfort and redemption.
But a question sent me back to the present, in the same way that, when I finish a piece of writing, I cannot have a feeling of accomplishment while a stray phrase, a murky passage, or a recalcitrant adverb torpidly remains to be adjusted.
I took another taste. Should I add salt?
My chefs told me that though no dish was perfect, no dish could be duplicated, every act of cooking was unique–the last thing you wanted to see from the spy hole in the restaurant kitchen door was a customer adding salt. Pepper was a performance, with the waiter coming around with what looks like a wooden table leg, twisting one end and hoping that whatever came out the other was really and truly pepper and not flakes from some dark piece of wood that the owner had slipped in to save money.
But salt? That should be done in the kitchen.
And so, a pinch later, it was close enough to perfect for me to have lunch.