Chances are, if you are a reasonably good home cook, in that you own or aspire to own the finest of professional kitchen appliances, any pot or pan that is French, cast iron that is new and a chef’s knife that cost more than $150, you’ve had these words said to you after a successful dinner party: “You should be a Chef!” Your well-intentioned and undoubtedly tipsy dinner guest, after plying him/herself with your food, your liquor and the products of your work, and no doubt feels grateful for what you have done, jealous that their significant other is now attracted to you and irritated that your plates perfectly complimented the presentation of the meal and wine, down to the cocktail glasses.
You had all day, all week even, to prepare this feast and you are feeling pretty good about yourself. As you mingle with your guests, in your Williams and Sonoma apron with your initials monogrammed on the front, a white clean towel from Crate and Barrel carelessly thrown over your shoulder you start to think some very dangerous thoughts. After all, doesn’t everyone love the roast organic whole chicken from Whole Foods that you carefully brined overnight and roasted in one of your dual Viking Ovens while reading “Cooking with Bobby Flay” with a perfect glass of Portuguese Tempranillo which has been decanted in a crystal vessel imported from France. You continue to muse over the possibilities while shining the stainless steel, marble and granite that adorns your kitchen. Normally the Hispanic help does this, but you feel like working tonight and he’s been a little absent lately. He was probably deported.
Then you come up with the following: “I SHOULD be a chef!”
Everyone says so, even your Mom. You look good on camera, can carry on a conversation of the pros of imported versus domesticated truffles with the smugness of one who lives for the next new Food Network show and religiously studies the “Washington Post” food section.
You’ve seen the idiots on T.V., who you vaingloriously emulate while shopping in the natural foods store. How hard could it be? You’re well-travelled, been to Spain, Italy and France and take great pride in knowing who the chef is in all the high-end restaurants that you’ve dined in. Only one other person that you know of has been to more of Guy Fieri’s DDD recommendations. You continue to muse away in your kitchen, running your fingers over the $400 cutting board, picked up in Vietnam (nobody goes to Hawaii anymore, you pronounced just hours ago) and had shipped back to your house.
It’s time for a mid-life change anyway, right? You eagerly open up your IPAD and do a quick search for “Executive Chef.” Hmmmmm. “Minimum fifteen years or kitchen experience, culinary degree preferred, experience running your own gourmet farm to table menu, the ability to motivate others with your own culinary creations and full fiscal responsibility for a medium sized restaurant in need of creative menu adaptations.”
You read it again. It’s a restaurant that you’re familiar with and, wonder of wonders, didn’t you meet the owner’s wife or mistress or something at a food bloggers “Food and Wine of the World” with all proceeds going to save the Ethiopian Puppies? Or maybe it was Himalayan Tiger Awareness. At any rate, you drift off to sleep with visions of perfectly plated roast duck and pork skin croutons dancing in your head.
You make some phone calls the next morning and after pulling some strings and political favors and promising that you would indeed make your famous bacon-banana-chocolate cupcakes with raspberry icing, you get through to the restaurant owner.
“Hello.” The voice on the phone sounds distracted, irritated. You introduce yourself hurriedly, somehow suddenly afraid. “Chef position? Yes, we have a chef position we are seeking to fill. What is your experience? Who are your references?” You explain that you have travelled extensively, attended multiple cooking events and host a wildly successful series of pro-bono dinners for charity. The voice on the phone sounds bored. “You’ve done what?” You decide a few name drops are in order. Now the voice seems irritable. “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for someone with experience. Have you EVER worked a line?” That seems like a reasonable request. The line, you distinctly remember, is something that Anthony Bourdain, that smartass, used to work.
“Yes.” You answer confidently. “Ten years sauté, five in menu design, tasting and expediting.” Even as the lie rolls of your tongue your thinking of Miguel, your lawn guy who has been deported. Didn’t he work in a kitchen now? How hard could it be?
The next thing you know you’re headed down to a local restaurant for an interview and a food demonstration. You load your Mercedes SUV with your best knife, designer towels and at last though, throw in a jar of truffles and some fresh rosemary picked from the bush outside your study.
You arrive at the destination, which is a little run-down, in your suddenly expert opinion, and find the kitchen in an uproar. It’s nothing like you imagined. Flames seem to be everywhere, with wait staff impatiently yelling at the cooks in a language you can’t even comprehend. It seems to be a mix of Spanish, English and restaurant jargon peppered with obscenities. You rather timidly wave to Manuel, who is manning what appears to have once been a grill, now transformed into a carbon-covered, greasy, smoking, filthy creature that you wouldn’t allow on your street. A runner passes you with a cigarette still clenched in her teeth and swears at you to move, PLEASE!
You can’t find the owner, or anyone else that seems to be in charge, except for the young, white, sweaty guy yelling orders across a stack of plates while clutching a fistful of white tickets. As you approach he screams something intelligible at a heavily tattooed Hispanic girl sporting giant biceps who appears to be chopping a whole animal.
Nervous now, you stand awkwardly a few feet away from the sweaty white guy, feeling a little ridiculous in your tie and favorite apron and carrying your Masakage Hikari Chef knife, purchased on your last trip to Tokyo.
“Whatdoyouwant?” You realize the sweaty white guy is talking to you while you were staring at the new and old burns, scars and tattoos that adorn his forearms. “I’m looking for the owner,” you say quickly, your voice breaking a bit. The cook replies that the owner isn’t there and grabs a stack of plates from a cart. Eager to help, or at least not flee, you follow suit and grab a similar stack of plates. You scream in pain and instantly drop the plates, which shatter in a deafening thunder on the grimy tile floor. Everyone cheers while you stare at your burned hand in disbelief. How the hell did he pick those up like that?
The cook shakes his head and keeps going, barking orders as he goes. He puts down the stack of plates, pulls a dirty jacket off a rack on the wall and motions for you to follow. By the time you get to the door, he has lit a cigarette and is rattling off what appears to be orders on his phone. He plants his bony ass on an upended bucket outside the kitchen door and takes a long, grateful drag on his cigarette. Squinting through the smoke, you feel that he is sizing you up or something. “So, you want to be the chef?”
You have never been so grateful to be back in the safety of your car. This story, with a few tweaks, of course, will be great at the next charity dinner. You’ll have to make sure and tell all of the owner’s friends that he sold the restaurant to some Hispanic guy.
Back on the line, Manuel picks up the Masakagi knife, looks it over curiously and turns to the other cooks. “Cuya consolador es esto?” While the other cooks, including the heavily muscled girl with the leg of lamb, which is now separated into recognizable cuts, howl with laughter, he contemptibly tosses the knife in the sink. He picks up his white handled serrated knife and proceeds breaking down a pork roast for house made enchiladas while mentally estimating the cost per serving. It’s tough being the owner.