Week Five in Hell's Kitchen: Ballroom Blitz

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Jason Sheehan is no fan of Hell's Kitchen, but he watches it. And now he's playing it, as he describes here. Now on to the final week:

Here’s a sampling of my old kitchen playlists. Bear in mind that my time on the line is now far enough in the past that most of these would’ve been part of mix tapes -- greasy, cracked, often cryptically labeled cassettes (The Meatloaf Conundrum, Dickhead’s Favorites or I’m a Torso!, each name having some meaning at the time, usually forgotten soon after) run hundreds of times through an auto-reverse tape deck until they snapped.

“Ballroom Blitz” by the Misfits: A galley classic, excellent for starting off the night, often cued up on the sauté end just as the first shivering blast of the dinner rush rolled in.

“Dark Night” by the Blasters.

“Fiesta” and “South Australia,” both by the Pogues: “Fiesta” is an excellent filler song -- something for the middle of the list, that’ll come up unexpectedly and get the boys bouncing with its freaky accordions and bouncy brass section -- and “South Australia” was what I’d often play while we were swinging out of service and into clean-up at the end of the night.

“I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones.

“Black Betty”: Can’t remember who did the version I liked, but it’s a cover of the old Lead Belly song gone southern- fried with a lot of dirty guitar solos -- excellent for getting the blood moving when you’re in the weeds and need to move.

“Blitzkreig Bop” by the Ramones.

Pretty much anything by the Ramones, actually.

“Thieves” by Ministry.

“Rise” by Public Image Limited.

“Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones.

“Thrashers” by Neil Young.

“The End” by the Doors: This one doesn’t have as much to do with the song as it does with the way the song has been used – namely, during the opening scene in Apocalypse Now, the scene where they’re dropping napalm into the treeline. We’d play that song sometimes during prep for kicks, wait for it to start building, flame the trench on the flattop with cooking vodka. Fun stuff.

“Bring Tha Noise” by Anthrax and Public Enemy.

“Venus in Furs” by Velvet Underground: I know this sounds like a weird one, but as Rob Gordon says so wisely in High Fidelity, “The making of a great mix tape, like breaking up, is hard to do… You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

A lot of rules…. You have to consider your kitchen and your crew, their tastes and what keeps them going. If the line is full of Mexicans, you’re going to have to switch it up and throw some Spanish stuff in there (though I gotta say, I worked a hotel gig once where the mostly Mexican banquet crew all had some weird thing for Billy Idol, the song “Rebel Yell” in particular, with which they would sing along in rough Spanglish). I worked closely with a guy who loved thrash and rockabilly, so I cooked to a lot of Brian Setzer and Clutch and freaky space-jam surf music by the Ventures. During prep, I liked cool jazz, because prep time was quiet time in the kitchen. In some kitchens, we’d keep a special tape for when things started going bad—straight roof-shakers, to be used only when we’d gotten ourselves so deep in the weeds that we were all shitting daisies. “Die With Your Boots On” was on there. “Let’s Have a War” by Fear. “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn” by the Beastie Boys and “Sonic Reducer” by the Dead Boys, the pride of Cleveland, Ohio, recorded live at some show in Japan with sound quality so bad that it didn’t sound like much more than a three-minute long shriek, plus drums.

Music was important in my kitchens because music was a soundtrack, lending some order to what was otherwise chaotic, fast, ugly and rough. Music could pick you up when you were running down; could keep you on rhythm when everything around you seemed to be flying apart. A loud radio tucked away on the shelf above the pass forced everyone to shout, and I liked my kitchens to be full of raised voices. And there were moments when, through some weird coincidence of beat and timing and track-list, an instant would come along where everything just synched -- where the opening bars of Shriekback’s “Nemesis” lit up, pounding out in counterpoint to the rattling of the ticket printer, downbeat hitting just as you spun a rapid-fire six-top onto the rail and, for just a second, it could feel like you were living inside your own movie, god’s own cameras looking down at you and making you glow from within. Rare, yeah, but fucking priceless. Better than a million dollars and a hundred blowjobs. Gives you the juice like nothing else in the world.

For my final week in Hell’s Kitchen, I put aside the gimmicks and the booze and went instead into my past -- knocking around a bunch of old boxes that have been following me from house to house and apartment to apartment for years, looking for some of my old music. I went hunting around the Internet, filling up my MP3 player, assembling one last virtual kitchen mix tape, loading it with all the songs I could remember listening to when I was still in The Life. Some of it was goofy (outside the weirdly insular and fire-buggy setting of a working hot line, “The End” is not so much fun as annoying, and too long by about seventeen minutes), some of it was like opening a vein (listening to “Heroin” by Velvet Underground was gut-wrenching because, more than any other song out there, it reminds me of when I was still using—like just hearing it was enough to get me high again, dislodging flakes of crystal from my veins and sending them speeding for my heart, reminding me of lying blasted and wigged out, naked and skeletal at the foot of my ex’s bed, spine packed with ice, grinding my teeth and feeling the bass line thrumming in the floorboards). Most of it, though, was sweet, allowing me (with my eyes closed, my hands held up, jittering, in front of me like I was reaching for ghosts) to almost touch those moments again.

Of course, eyes closed is not a good way to cook -- whether for real or on the computer -- so eventually I had to get over the rush of memory and get down to business. The fifth week in Hell’s Kitchen is the toughest. Everything has been cranked up a notch. Multiple tables, all four-tops going for apps, entrees and desserts, a full spread of ingredients and four stations to juggle at once (three burners and one oven). And now, no one has any patience. The virtual Ramsay is barking at me, the checks hanging on the slide are smoking, everything has to come up within a second of everything else while, on the floor, the digital floorman is making his rounds, adding on more tickets, seating more tables, putting me further and further into the weeds.

But the music is like magic. “Ballroom Blitz” comes up on the random rotation, I waste two seconds cranking the volume, and I’m right back in it again. “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers hits next, then the Offspring doing “All I Want” and then “Fiesta” -- Shane MacGowan mush-mouthing his way through a flurry of lyrics that have never made any sense, half in Spanish, half in shitfaced Mick English. I grind through the nights, doing brilliant, knocking out the checks as fast as they come in. Four stars on Monday night, five on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, five again on Thursday. Friday, I fumble it a little, walk off with three, nail it on Saturday: five again. I put sixty tracks on the playlist—plenty to get me through.

My last night, the virtual Ramsay tells me that the critics are coming in and everything needs to be perfect. In the digital dining room, they’re easy to recognize—the man wearing a pince-nez, a beret and an ascot (because that’s how all restaurant critics dress, the hundred or so of us out there in the world single-handedly keeping the ascot-manufacturing industry in business), the woman in a sensible dress and large hat. Keeping track of the roll of the floor, I can spot the VIP ticket on the slide, focus, make everything just right. And by the time the last table has cleared, I’ve got four stars out of a possible five. My total for the week comes in at 31 —just four short of perfect -- playing with the headphones on. Without, I’d scored just 28.

I blip the MP3 forward until “South Australia” comes up, step out onto the patio and light up the night’s last cigarette. Best thing about cooking on the computer? No clean-up to do when all is said and done. I can just turn it off and walk away. -- Jason Sheehan

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