At a certain point in my career, working drunk (or worse) became a job skill rather than a liability. True, it was a dangerous one--my world filled with knives and fire, pans of hot duck fat and blazing stoves, innumerable things with which I could’ve wounded, crippled or just flat ended myself—but necessary.
I was drinking quite a lot during the middle stretch of my years in the kitchen, and considering that I was working, on average, about eighty hours a week, I sorta had to drink on the job because I didn’t have enough time to do it anywhere else.
At the roadhouse, we kept a couple six-packs cold in the snow out in the dumpster corral where anyone could just duck out fast, drain a half a bottle of Labatts Blue in one long swallow and be back inside, on the line, in less than a minute. At the Irish pub in Buffalo, there was always a bottle of whiskey in locker number 13—the one with the broken latch, the door dented in the exact shape of an ex-sous chef’s head—and a pour-top in the speed rack over the flattop filled with gin and sour mix. I worked with some heavy drinkers at a French restaurant where no one even tried to hide it: keeping beers cold in the lowboys, drinking the cooking wine, taking a bottle from the bar and pouring it out, nice and civilized, into proper glassware for cooks and chefs and dishwashers to sip from whenever they had a free moment. From a Swiss chef, I learned to love the restorative powers of water-thinned cabernet sauvignon grown warm from sitting close to the grill. And from a dishwasher, the way to drink the line vodka: pouring it out into a water glass through a coffee filter to screen out all the grease and flotsam that collected in the bottle, and then mixing it with ice, simple syrup from the pastry section and six lime wedges from the bar. Some nights we’d doctor a bottle with crushed red pepper flakes, let it sit overnight, then make coffee with it in the morning. Called it a Fog Cutter, and it was delicious.
In Florida, at a terrible fish restaurant off the highway, the owner’s wife would walk around with an iced case of MGD longnecks during prep and the owner himself would put away a half-case of Coronas during service all by himself. It was so hot there, on that line with all our gear cranked, and we would get so thirsty that I could take an entire swallow of ice cold beer and it would disappear before I could swallow; I could drink down three, four, five beers in a row—pounding them, one after another, and feel nothing, sweating out the alcohol as fast as I could put it into myself. The crew there was really more into heroin than booze, but at the end of the night—after fighting off a siege of a thousand with up-from-frozen fish sticks and fried onions in lieu of baked potatoes—it would take at least two rum-and-pineapple juice cocktails served out tall by the bar manager in smudged highball glasses before any of us could even speak.
So I’m just saying, during my time on the line I spent many nights cooking that I can barely remember – and I never once lost a job for being a drunk. I lost jobs because of the things I did while drinking, sure. But never from the drinking itself. The beer and wine and whiskey was only the fuse. The bomb was all me.
Thus, I figured that playing Hell’s Kitchen drunk ought to be no problem. Keeping track of a few tables, a few orders on the slide? Pointing and clicking my way through a simulated dinner service now populated by digital yuppies and businessmen who’d get pissed if everything wasn’t perfect and thereby cause my virtual Ramsay to shut the kitchen down, call me donkey and send me home for the night? I wasn’t worried a bit.
Until, that is, service actually got under way and I immediately fell into the weeds—forgetting to make apps, forgetting to send my maitre’d to pick up tables at the front, forgetting that I was supposed to be timing out these dishes and burning virtually everything I pretended to cook. Two beers in and my reflexes had degenerated just enough that I one-starred the first night’s cooking test (out of a possible five), then proceeded to get either one or two stars for the next three nights running. After three beers (and one long cigarette break) things seemed to even out a little for me and I was able to pull things together enough to make it to Friday, when I caught a break in that some of my prep would now go faster while I was waiting for dishes to be assembled, but the service was a wreck. Another table had been added to the floor, and as in real cooking in a real kitchen, the Hell’s Kitchen simulation requires that plates be timed out precisely so that every finished dish hits the pass at the same time. Working with just three burners, this is a neat trick that requires a concentration I simply couldn’t muster. Four beers didn’t help, and by the time the fourth was in me, I was also having more fun just fucking around than I was actually performing as I was supposed to.
Dead sober, I’d managed 22 stars out of a possible 35 for the week. Half-cocked, I did 13 -- and twice I’d had to re-do a night after the virtual Ramsay shut me down. It was embarrassing. -- Jason Sheehan
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