Those of you watching the Cafewestword twitter feed over the weekend already know that I survived my night "cooking" at Mezcal without any serious difficulties. Nothing got burned down, no one got punched and, by the time we were done, we'd managed to serve several turns of the dining room plus a thirty-odd (some very odd) cover Herradura tequila dinner with no serious upsets.
And by "we," of course, I mean everyone else at Mezcal but me. I was there. I had a knife in my hand for at least part of the night. But I am not so stupid as to suppose that I was any real help at all. The guys on the line were nice enough to let me play with their kickball for a few hours, dress up like a cook, crowd their already busy kitchen with cameramen and a producer, and pretend I wasn't totally lost and bewildered. But really, all I did was make their night longer and harder than it normally would've been had I just stayed at home on the couch eating ice cream out of the tub.
It'd been over 2,500 days since I last pulled on a white jacket and stood a shift on the line. And that's a long time away.
From the very start of Friday's activities -- sitting in the dining room at Encore down the street frm Mezcal, having a quick lunch before shooting and a bracing whiskey and Coke to wake myself up -- I was trying to manage expectations, telling Howard, the producer, that I was giving myself only three-to-one odds of even remaining vertical through the entire night and much longer odds on being able to function in any useful way whatsoever. "I think it's pretty likely that I'll just pass out at some point," I told him. "Fall right into the Friolator and burn myself beyond recognition. Those kitchens are hot, you know? And it's been such a long time."
For his part, Howard just smiled and laughed -- no doubt envisioning the scene in his head and knowing just how great something like that would look on TV. He told me everything was going to be okay. He told me that the worse things went, the better it would eventually look on tape. I asked him how great it would be if I were to cut off a finger while pretending I still knew how to do prep like one of Mezcal's serious twenty-year veterans.
And he told me, with a completely straight face, that actually cutting off a whole finger might be a little bit too bloody for TV. But if I could just gash myself real nice...
Once we got to Mezcal, there were interviews. There were microphones to be fussed with, cameras to be set-up and synched and whatever else cameramen do. There were producer-y things for Howard to attend to. And me? I was just standing there, in the kitchen at Mezcal, smelling the hot fryer oil and old grease, the dampness of steam rising up into the hoods and the sting of vegetables being prepped. I stood there in a short-sleeved dishwasher's jacket and apron, with my one good knife in my hand, palms sweating prints onto the handle. I stood there, thinking to myself how I couldn't believe I'd ever walked away from these smells, these places, this life that'd been the entirety of my existence for so many years; thinking how embarrassing it was going to be as soon as anyone asked me to do...well, anything.
Some things that I learned on my first day back:
1) Kitchens move faster than anything else in the world. Journalism? That moves pretty fast. And compared to book publishing, TV moves like lightning. But nothing moves as fast as kitchens do, especially when they're counting down to a big night with a fully-booked floor. While the cameramen fussed and Howard rushed to get all his interviews done, I stood and watched while, one by one, items on the night's prep list got checked off. I wanted to jump in and help -- some old reflex, long dormant, making me want to grab something and start chopping, to help these guys who were already jumping in and doing the work that I'd been scheduled to do.
I restrained myself, though. Because kitchens move fast and I, as a 36-year-old man nearly ten years gone from the mercenary knife-for-hire I once was, do not. At least not anymore.
2) The morning of my scheduled return to the line, I'd managed to find my old knife kit in a box in my basement. I hadn't touched the thing since Albuquerque -- since the last time I'd come home, peeled off my stinking whites and thrown the battered, oddly sticky black bag on the table or the floor and sworn to myself that I was never going to touch it again. For a moment before getting in the car and meeting Howard for lunch, I'd sat with the thing. I'd opened it up and marveled at the tools I'd just turned my back on: a beautiful 8-inch Wusthof chef's knife, another 10-inch with the tip shattered but the blade shining and bright, a full set of Black Diamond ancillary knives (bread knife and paring knife, utility and boning and fish knives), a battered steel and a cheap, flimsy steak knife that I'd obviously stolen one day and thrown in the bag. I'd loved this gear at one point in my life. I'd worked with it every day. And then I'd just walked away. I was amazed how comfortable they all felt in my hand.
Of course, I probably should've thought to sharpen them before heading in for work, rather than just sitting there, fondling them and going all Remembrance of Things Past. All but one of them were as dull as children's toys, and the one that had a little bit of an edge left on it was still as dull as an average person's kitchen knives. The first time I approached the board and tried to cut a tomato with it? Squashed the thing without even piercing the skin. I borrowed a blade from Roberto, the chef de cuisine, and got straight to work.
3) The body recalls things that the mind has forgotten. My first task in Mezcal's kitchen was forming the posole cakes that would later become the bases for a nice bit of butter-poached lobster. Sean Yontz showed me how to make one, then left me to my own devices--needing 44 more. Granted, I was slow, but the part of my brain responsible for exacting mimicry was still there. A million times before, I'd been told by a chef, "Watch this. Now repeat it 500 times exactly as I've just done it." A million times before, I'd done just that. This day was no different.
I was about ten posole cakes in when Yontz came back and told me I was too slow. He brought over one of the girls who works on his line and had her help me out. She, of course, schooled me completely. And when the 45 posole cakes were done, she slipped away and went off to do something else. I just stood there, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
4) I am not as bad with a knife as I thought I would be. There was a time when performing any action without a knife or a saute pan in my hand felt strange. There was a time when I could easily spend eight or ten hours doing nothing but cutting things into smaller things. That was all a long time ago. But apparently, as above, my hands hadn't forgotten completely what they were made for. Again, I wasn't fast, but I did manage to show at least a basic level of competence when Yontz put a bunch of vegetables and chiles in front of me and told me to deconstruct them for a salsa. Dice? I remembered how to dice. Shiffonade? I could do that, too. There actually came a point where I had to pretend to be worse at it than I truly was just so Yontz could yell at me and tell me I was doing everything wrong.
Granted, I didn't have to pretend much.
5) Fryers are hot. Really fucking hot. I'd forgotten just how hot it can be standing in front of one for even just a few minutes. And with dinner service starting and those first few minutes of shock and gasping already over, I couldn't believe that I'd ever done this for six or eight hours at a stretch.
6) All food is death. I killed ten lobsters with my bare hands during prep. It's been almost a decade since I killed anything. I hope we did right by them.
7) I say a lot (in my columns, in my reviews, about a thousand times in my book) that I miss cooking for a living. That I think about going back to it every day. And while that is true -- while I do miss it more than just about anything -- I didn't understand how much I missed it until that first hot shock to my system came: Yontz standing at the end of the line, face screwed up into a scowl of annoyance, yelling that it was time to start assembling the tequila dinner. The guys on the line who were going to be assembling it broke in a wing like dive-bombers, surrounding the short stretch of stainless steel table where we would be plating everything, and I rushed over to join them. Standing there with them, waiting while the plates were pulled out of the oven and laid down, waiting for their first nap of sauce, I felt a brief twinge of the kind of camaraderie I used to know, a distant reminder of how it used to feel to be part of an army on the move. I loved this once. I lived for it. I screwed up relationships and love affairs, my life, my reputation and my credit, just for this.
Later, I would take Jesse Morreale aside, clap him on the shoulder, and ask him when he needed me to show up for my shift tomorrow. We would both laugh about it, but I was only half-kidding.
8) Cooking is a strong man's game. And I am not a strong man anymore. We finished up the filming around midnight. After a couple (more) drinks at the bar, I was in my car and headed home. Of course, I was still all juiced up on adrenaline. My hands were blistered (from holding a pan of rajas gratin just out of the oven, the choice being to take the burn or to drop it on the floor) and cut (from the final revenge of the lobsters whose spines cut the crap out of my palms before I remembered that they should be held with a clean towel while being executed) and my fingertips were shredded (from the fucking mandolin--the one piece of kitchen equipment that I hate and fear more than any other). I didn't get to sleep until maybe three in the morning. Years ago, this would've been fairly standard. Years ago, I would've dragged my ass out of bed around nine, brushed my teeth, had a cup of coffee and six cigarettes and been back at work by ten.
Not so much anymore. I needed the whole of Saturday to recover. I slept until noon, spent the whole day complaining about my back hurting and my arms aching. I ate generic ibuprofen like Pez and basically did sweet fuck-all until the sun went down.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
At which point I went out for a nice dinner, came home and then fell asleep on the couch. If I'd had to work another shift (even another abbreviated one like I'd done on Friday), it probably would've killed me. I have become a pussy. I have become the kind of person who sits in dining rooms rather than standing on the line. And I am a little ashamed, yes, but I also know I'm fortunate. Writing for a living? That ain't a bad way to make a buck. But even while I stood in my kitchen at noon, washing down a mouthful of pills with long swallows of flat Pabst and staring at the new cuts and burns on my previously soft and un-marked hands, I wanted to go back. I wanted to prove that tonight, I could do better--that I could be faster and more helpful, that I could carry at least a little bit of weight. That this time I would at least remember to sharpen my knives.
But hey, if someone out there in TV Land is smart (read: crazy and weird) enough to take a chance on this show, to think that there is money to be made by following me around to a bunch of kitchens and showing people the side of cooking that they never get to see from watching Hell's Kitchen or Good Eats or Top Chef--the part of cooking where real guys with real jobs actually cook dinner for people with no goofy competitions or puppets or people being voted off the island--then I'll be thrilled. I'd be happy to embarass myself in any number of kitchens if, by doing that, I'm able to show everyone what the life of a cook is really like and document the very real dramas and action these guys experience every night.
More than that, I'd be thrilled. I knew I missed the kitchens before I found my way back into one. But now I can't wait to get back.