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MOUTHING OFF

At your service: One of the questions I'm asked most frequently (though not always this bluntly) is, "Who the hell do you think you are to review restaurants?" The easy answer is that Westword told me I was the restaurant reviewer. But my background was one of the reasons I got the job.

I've written about my days in the kitchens of Tango and Palmetto Grille, where I did duty as the garde manger (really just a fancy term for "playing with lettuce"). But my experience stretches much further back than that. During college--where I majored in journalism--I got my first restaurant job at Amazing Grace, in Pittsburgh. I worked there for two months as a waitress, although I realized that wasn't my calling on the very first night, when I dumped six ice-cold beers all over a group of businessmen. The owner next trained me to be a bartender, a job I loved because the money was incredible and my college buddies could hang out with me while I worked. But the food coming out of the kitchen, a mixture of French and New Orleans-style cuisine, was so good that I started thinking about moving back there. Since a friend was a prep cook, I asked to help cut vegetables and assemble salads, then worked my way into making jambalaya and thinking up interesting combinations for the soup of the day.

During summer breaks I worked for a Chicago publisher and manned the pasta machine at a place called Guido's. But each fall I returned to Amazing Grace. My senior year, I was named sous chef. When the restaurant closed, I moved on to the kitchen at Oriental Star, where the Chinese chef taught me how to resuscitate chickens that had been left in buckets of room-temperature water for six hours. He also showed me a trick for moving a wok around a stove without benefit of a pot holder: Just use your bare hand and endure the burning pain until an inch-thick callous forms between your thumb and forefinger.

I did acquire some cooking skills that I actually used later, however, because at the end of the day, the chef and his family made the most incredible dishes for the staff--big platters of fried smelts, jellyfish stuffed with crumbled tofu, and lo mein flavored with freshly ground anchovies. I could never convince the owners to put them on the menu, though.

A year later I landed my first journalism job at a tiny newspaper in Butler, Pennsylvania, where my husband and I toiled for no money to "pay our dues." We both took second jobs; this time I hooked up with a little mom-and-pop Italian restaurant as a hostess. After about three months, I was given bookkeeping responsibilities and the title of assistant manager. I wanted to get back into the kitchen, but the chef didn't think women could cook--and said so to my face. Luckily, my husband got a job in Naples, Florida, and we moved. I had an atrocious experience there helping to open an Olive Garden (my boss was a little too friendly and the food a little too prepackaged), and after a few weeks moved on to a wonderful French restaurant called L'Auberge, where Chef Felix (all I remember of his last name is that it contained the word "roux") gave me some excellent advice: "Male chefs don't like women working in the kitchen, so if you want to learn more about cooking, pretend you don't have any experience. Then they will fall all over themselves to show you what great chefs they are, and you will get an education."

And so I did.

 
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