Cafe Society

Sheehan: First Week in Hell

Jason Sheehan is no fan of Hell's Kitchen, but he watches it. And now he's playing it, as he describes here. Week One: FNG

The game is divided into five seven-day weeks with no days off and no quitting until the last table is served and out the door -- appropriate, I thought, considering some of the schedules I used to work. My plan for week one? Simple. Just get through it. As Ramsay’s virtual double says, it’s everyone in the pool, sink or swim. A situation very similar to what most rookie cooks would find on their first day on the line.

My first day of work was no different. I was fifteen, going to work for a mom-and-pop pizza joint just walking distance from my high school. I remember the smell of ripe dumpsters, acidic like hot tomatoes and yeasty like stale beer. I remember the crunch of my shoes as I walked alone down into the alley beside the place, the shattered glass and cigarette butts strewn on the broken concrete. And I remember reaching for the door that let in through the back -- the kitchen --of the pizza restaurant and feeling the dry heat baking through the screen on the palm of my outstretched hand.

“Wow,” I thought. “That’s uncomfortable. Maybe the air conditioner isn’t working.”

I was a witless little shit back then -- an FNG, as green as they come and with absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d taken the job not because I had any burning desire to cook, to become, someday, a great chef like that rat in Ratatouille, but rather because that job in the pizza place was the only one being offered to me, at fifteen, with a bogus work permit and talent for absolutely nothing. But intent aside, I fell hard and fast for the kitchen, mostly because it was precisely the kind of place where a boy of little talent and less ambition could be simply thrown into the work and left to fend for himself.

In Hell’s Kitchen, each day’s performance is scored from one to five stars with one being awful (and coming complete with impressive putdowns from the digital Ramsay) and five being perfect. On my first day’s work in this simulated Hell’s Kitchen, I scored a perfect five out of five. On my first day’s work at Ferrara’s Pizza in West Irondequoit, New York, I managed to break the dish machine, steam-burn my own face, do eight solid hours of work that should’ve taken me all of twenty minutes and then flood the entire kitchen with the overflow from a clogged-up thingamajig somewhere deep in the guts of the Dishmaster’s drain mechanism. But then, in Hell’s Kitchen I only had one table to serve and two ingredients in my kitchen that needed dealing with. At Ferrara’s, things had been somewhat more…hectic.

The rest of the week went by almost as easily as new game elements were introduced and new techniques explained. In the dining room, I never had more than two tables of two -- occupied by dumbass teenagers who were impatient and snotty (even going so far as to look around the dining room, grumbling and groaning when they realized they’d have to wait) but satisfied with food of any quality, and on the line there were never more than two burners going, never more than a couple ingredients to click on, wait for or fuss with. Still, there was an elementary sense of dining-room flow being established (lessons in how to make customers wait at the host’s stand if an order needs to come out on the fly, how to maximize the time given to the kitchen by having your virtual maitre’d wander aimlessly around the dining room rather than actually helping diners with their orders), and a certain rhythm developing in the kitchen where every action works on a countdown timer and the trick is to get every plate to come up at exactly the same time.

In the end, I scored a 31 out of a possible 35 for my first week’s work. Not too bad. And while this was certainly nothing when compared to the brain-zapping strangeness of dropping a fifteen-year-old kid into the kitchen of a very busy and very popular neighborhood pizza joint, I didn’t really see how it could be. My first week working at Ferrara’s was one of the most formative experiences of my life, representing the crossing of a boundary that I’ve never really re-crossed, even twenty years later, and a kind of initiation (though rather gentle, familial and Italian) into the world of food and the people who cook it. My first week in Hell’s Kitchen? Well, that was just a video game -- interesting for an hour, but far from life-altering.

Let's hope week two, and the beginning of my altering the environment, will be more engaging. --Jason Sheehan

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