A Cook’s Story, So Far | Payson Cushman

from Gastronomica 9:2

My first job in the food industry, and I do consider it one, was dusting the shelves of a liquor store on the main street of the very small town where I grew up. I was twelve years old. I remember being horrified by people who were willing to pay one hundred dollars, let alone three hundred, for a bottle of wine. Being a boy who was saving up for a bass guitar that cost the same amount as some of those more expensive bottles, and making only fifteen dollars for a day’s work, I considered such an expenditure frivolous and, although I didn’t know the word at the time, extremely bourgeois.

My feelings changed when I had my first glass of great wine (a 1993 Caymus Conundrum). That drink was part of a great meal at the restaurant Biba in Boston (now, sadly, closed). I had what the menu described as “The Dream Lunch.” It consisted of a spherical mound of potatoes, fresh herbs, gobs of crème fraîche, and an ungodly amount of beluga caviar. Suddenly I understood why people, if they could afford it, would spend so much money on wine and food: it tasted so amazingly good.

Now, one might reasonably surmise that this extravagant meal is my “origin story,” the first step I took on my way to becoming a restaurant cook. Not true. My mother has always cooked well; both sets of my grandparents respected good food and seemed intent on instilling in me the same sort of appreciation for it, starting when I was a child. There is no doubt that all these factors contributed to my familiarity with fine cuisine, but they had little to do with the real reasons why I decided to cook professionally.

More relevant was a summer job I had in my later teen years as a landscaper. It developed my taste for hard work, which is exactly what the life of a cook is all about. My first day on that job, an older coworker called to me, “Hey kid! You know Manuel?” Sheepishly I replied that I was new and didn’t know anyone on the crew. He laughed. “I’m talking about Manuel Labor. You’re gonna get to know him real well.” And I did.

Katherine Streeter ©2009

In a couple of ways, working as a cook is not much different from working as a landscaper. The hours are crazy, and every night you go home exhausted from trying to maintain a certain level of excellence while working as fast as you can. I hated it. I loved it.

The biggest difference between landscaping and cooking, I found, was that, at least with the former, I was off work at the same time as everyone else I knew. If you’re thinking about becoming a cook, come to terms with this: when your buddies are out having fun, you’ll be getting your ass kicked. I hate this. I love this.

When I was doing a stage in France, a kid who had spent time in the United States said to me, “You’re a cook? Man, you must get laid all the time. Chicks love cooks.” “That might be true,” I responded. “Girls might like a guy who can cook, but most of the time, when people are looking to get laid, I’m in the kitchen working.” Jesus, I was telling the truth.

Many cooks say they enjoy their work because of the immediate gratification that comes with serving people food. There is a widespread notion that every night you receive feedback from your customers. I don’t find this to be entirely true. Usually I’m so focused on putting out a high-quality product that I don’t have the time or inclination to discover how much people have enjoyed their meal. Of course, it’s always nice when you do get a compliment, but it’s not as if every customer gives you a report card. I almost wish they did. I always got good grades in school.

In fact, I did well enough to get accepted to an extremely competitive college in the same small town where I first worked as a shelf-duster at the liquor store. During my college summers, I worked in restaurants as a dishwasher, pizza boy, and prep cook, all the while figuring I would study law after graduation. But I simply couldn’t get excited about that kind of career, and once I had my diploma, I just stayed in the kitchen.

People ask me all the time whether I regret getting a liberal arts degree instead of going directly to culinary school or simply working in a restaurant for those four years. I always say, unhesitatingly, “No.” Without that college experience I never would have learned how much I didn’t want to sit all day typing reports about things I didn’t care about. I liked my summer jobs well enough and cooking wasn’t law school, so I committed myself to becoming a decent cook. At the outset, it was just that simple, but another reason I decided to do the cooking thing for real was because I associated it with a certain kind of lifestyle.

To me, it offered freedoms that many other professions could not. True, for weeks at a time you might be working nonstop, but after six months, it’s totally acceptable for a cook to move on. In fact, it’s almost expected. Plus, you can find a job cooking almost anywhere in the world.

I was also drawn to the colorful, independent individuals who are part of kitchen culture. I do not mean to equate professional cooks with some sort of rebellious band of ne’er-do-wells—culinary pirates, if you will, whose work life alternates between Spartan militarism and over-the-top hedonism. To the people who picture it like that, I say, “It’s not that simple, see.” Ah, but then again, it just may be.

One way I used to justify my change in direction from law to food was that I wanted a job that wouldn’t require me to shave every day or get up early. I also wanted a workplace where I could swear freely. True, I can sleep late, but at both culinary school and at a Manhattan restaurant where I once worked, I was required to be clean shaven, and these days, in the kitchens of most better restaurants around the country, professionalism is paramount, and swearing is therefore out of the question.

As for decadence, while there is no denying that the lives of many cooks are characterized by indulgence, still others avoid excess, going home each night to their families. And then there are those, like me, who travel the road between.

What can be said for sure about kitchens is that they may be the most diverse workplaces on earth, where you’ll find college grads and high school dropouts working side by side, doing whatever it takes to get things done. Despite this diversity, there is one element that we all share. You’ll hear this from the lot of us: we just love to cook.

In my experience, cooks also generally take enormous pride in working with their hands. Some like to show off their burns, cuts, blisters, and calluses, as if they were badges of honor. Others like to boast that they have avoided such “decorations” over the years. I, for one, especially like the satisfaction that comes from taking a moment to observe all the mise en place I’ve produced in just a few hours or to check out the piles of dirty plates stacked next to the dishwasher.

That’s not to say there is unbridled camaraderie in a kitchen. I think the toughest part about getting to be any good as a cook is gaining and maintaining confidence in what can be an intimidating environment. And you do need confidence to do well. It not just the harsh and sometimes demeaning way that chefs often treat line cooks. When you start out, for a long time it seems as though you can do nothing right. Given the steepness of the learning curve, it’s tough to keep coming back, knowing there’s a very good chance you’ll screw up. Just one day in a new kitchen, working with much more experienced cooks, can do a number on you. But if you return the next day, and the next, you’re almost guaranteed to get better by learning from everyone around you.

As I mature as a cook, I am coming to understand another element of the job that drives the best of us. It’s that in order to be truly successful, you have to have integrity—replating a dish when you could get by without doing so, changing out containers even when you’re rushed, taking on extra work instead of shying away from it. Along the way, you learn to cook to a standard higher than you’d ever thought possible.

One other aspect of a professional kitchen almost obligates you to strive for greatness. It’s not the grumpy chef who intimidates coworkers or the waiters who snap at you to “move your fucking ass” that make you work better, faster. It’s the hum.

There is a hum in every kitchen, and if you don’t respond to it, you don’t belong there. That hum is all-encompassing. There is no better feeling. We all become part of it, reaching a level of synergy that is almost incomprehensible and that can be truly beautiful. When the restaurant is really busy and you’re on the edge, about to go down, about to fail, and you succeed, you want nothing less than that feeling every night. It’s the most wonderful sort of fear. Once you plug into this flowing, humming system of stress, it’s almost impossible to escape. And in any case, why would you want to?