Altitude Sickness

A few weeks ago I took a chance and a plunge and started working in a professional kitchen. I’ve worked around a few kitchens, in more than a few kitchens, done more than my share of bartending, waited a few tables and cooked most, if not all, of my life but I had never actually took the plunge and entered the world of professional cooking. Honestly, I was and still am more than a little intimidated. Everything in a kitchen will either cut you, burn you, trip you or sprain your back. That includes the environment as well as the cooks themselves. Cooks are by nature a clannish group, not particularly open to outsiders or the inexperienced, as the slightest of mishaps or foolish mistakes can upset the delicate balance between getting an entire meal out to a dining room slammed with paying customers hot, perfectly cooked and on time and the whole dinner service turning into a catastrophe, complete wait staff threatening to commit seppuku with dull steak knives.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I interviewed with an award winning chef hired to whip a newly renovated but very old resort and hotel into shape. Located on top of a mountain in Southwest Virginia near my home, the place has mystique all its own. The locals have long regarded the place as their own, attending the restaurant when they felt like it for various festivals and uninviting buffet service, driving the place into disrepair and bankruptcy. The new owners have a bit more vision for the place and have dumped a ton of money not only into the hotel and grounds, but into the kitchen and staff as well, rapidly transforming it into something that I always felt resembled The Overlook from “The Shining” into a place worth visiting, complete with its own rustic, if not a little haunted, charm.

Despite my intimidation with the environment and my new responsibilities, which I wasn’t exactly sure of, I honestly felt ready for the new job. After all, I knew the lingo, understood the difference between rare and medium rare and the horror of well done. I knew how to make risotto, chop an onion, flip an omelet, julienne a carrot, mince, Meniere, roast, rub, slice, dredge and properly season. I felt reasonably certain I was ready to work the line.

I was wrong. I didn’t. I wasn’t. I stumbled out of the kitchen after my first shift with my shoulders in knots, my feet burning and my pride thoroughly humiliated. After burning a steak, cutting my hand, blistering my fingers, falling into a potato mixer and wasting an ungodly amount of time deciphering which dial worked which eye, none of which were labelled, I was properly relegated to the back line where I was placed in charge of a single pot of simmering soup, a steamer and filleting fish. It turns out I didn’t know how to do that properly either. I didn’t know the lingo – I was mystified by what exactly the “shit racks” were and difference between a reach in, walk in, meat cooler and meat locker. Holding room was also a mystery and pantry seemed to mean anything that housed anything, anywhere, that didn’t need to be refrigerated. It felt a lot like my first shift in coal mining when I was eighteen years old.

I grinned the whole night – and the next, and the one after that. Am I accepted? Not yet. My stubborn work ethic and general tolerance towards pain (although I still don’t have the balls to grab a pan out of a 600 degree oven with my bare hands) have propelled me a long way, but I still have a way to go before I can be trusted with a 300 top dinner service.

Maybe I never will. That’s ok. I’m enjoying the work and I feel productive and have a hedonistic bent that actually enjoys being burned, cut, calloused and unflinching in the face of flambe or blow torches. I think what made me part of the group, at least to some extent, was my tolerance in the face of the worst head cold I’ve had in recent memories.

I sneezed, snotted, coughed and my eyes watered. My nose ran constantly and my ears rang. Did I mention that the hotel is located on top of a mountain and it’s generally wet, miserable and cold, especially during the fall and winter? That’s part of its appeal, but not when you are manning a grill outside in the rain and fog over a sickly anemic propane flame that is doing very little to cook the meat or relieve a pounding head and stuffy ears.

After nine hours of misery and swearing at myself for not wearing a coat to one of the highest (in elevation) hotels in Virginia, I stumbled back to the main kitchen, opened all the ovens on the back line and basked in the red hot heat.

Another saving grace for me in kitchens is my willingness to eat and largely enjoy, anything. I’m usually the first to try the ghost peppers, the steak tartar from questionable origins and raw quail eggs. That day it truly was my saving grace. Our Mexican chef brought me a giant bowl of steaming lentil soup with dried chilies, hablano peppers and hot sauce with delicious bits of pig feet and chicken legs, bacon and other scrap bits. He grinned at me. “It’s good, right? It’ll make you feel better.” With my face flushed and eyes streaming, breathing in the delicious steam with every bite, I guiltily slunk out the door, sat in the sunshine and ate every wonderful bite. I sneezed, sweated and my head felt giddy with heat-induced endorphins. My cold cleared, I could breathe and my back quit hurting.

I headed back to work. I did indeed feel better. I think I might like this job.