Quill Behind the Knife, 1/19: Combo Breaker

This week, I’d like to bring in a little c-c-c-combo breaker. Instead of me getting all judgmental on restaurants I’ve been to, I’m going to relate some of my experiences as a culinary professional, in the jungle we like to call the NYC cooking industry. Let’s call this series the ‘Quill behind the Knife,’ because “Kitchen Confidential” is totally taken.

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Me, hungry. Also, working as a culinary specialist with the NYC Dept of Health, teaching folks how to use their local, sustainable produce. One of the best jobs I ever had, actually, made me feel like I was saving the world.

I’ve been chopping and cutting my way through the kitchens of this delicious city for some years now, as a line cook, as a demonstrator, as a student, as well. There are guys out there with decades of experience who could cut circles round me and still have enough scrap left over for a score of decorative garnishes. I’ve often wondered what gives me the right to write about them, pass judgment on them, trash talk their hours of intense effort because of some slight on the plate. Is it truly the old adage, if you can’t do, criticize?

The truth is, I don’t have that right. Nobody has that right. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, as any good chef ought, and it feels like shit to have a customer send back a plate. Mostly, it’s the customer’s fault: for some slight, niggling peeve, they felt it appropriate to trash an entire plate’s worth of effort and ingredients, not to mention the food cost to the restaurant. I’ve seen customers send back racks of lamb beautifully browned and cooked to bleeding perfection, because they “suspected the source of the meat.” On the other hand, a customer often has the right of way, and their suspicions can turn out to have very real implications. I’ve seen obvious grift, disgusting money-saving practices, and owners who would rather have intercourse with their customers in the employee changing area than manage their businesses. I mean, you can do both. Really.

So what am I trying to accomplish on this blog? Really, its to act as a bridge. Most of the guys on the line are great guys, real brothers in arms, willing to pick you up out of the weeds or burn themselves saving your ass and share a beer with you later. That cry of chelas at the end of the night comes sweeter than the beer it heralds, mainly because you really feel like you earned it after 17 hours of grueling combat. There’s a reason we call it ‘holding the line.’

But, there’s also the reality of the situation. If you head over to Per Se, or Nobu, or any of the Boulud joints, you’ll find well-paid, happy culinary graduates, quietly honing their craft in pursuit of the perfect dishes, perfect flavors, the perfect plating. If moments in time could achieve nappe consistency, they would be found in New York City’s cramped kitchens and bustling dining rooms. Head a couple blocks over, and you’ll find illegal immigrants, convicted felons and people who through no fault of their own have some learning disability or other. That cook who made your perfect consomme, the soup that sent you back to the jittery feeling on your first date? Did juvy for dealing drugs. That garde mange who made the otherworldly sculpture of a flowering lily out of potatoes and tofu? Totally aspergers, man. Art comes from pain, and cooking is no different.

Basically, these chefs and cooks aren’t really in a position to speak for themselves. Many of them have never attended an American school, or any school. It doesn’t take a perfect SAT score to flambe a suckling pig. I, on the other hand, like to think I can hammer together a couple of prepositions when I have the time. A major reason I went to culinary school was because I was tired of writers laying it into their subjects for things writers have no idea how to do. Now, years later, I feel like while I’m no Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller, (and I never will be) I can at least try to give the unsung, hard working cooks a voice. Maybe, in time, they can get the recognition they so richly deserve, or at least some damned dental.

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