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The Wilderness Years

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dear Chef Bourdain;

I know this is a food blog, but this is not a post about cooking your book, but rather about the food service industry. I finally got around to reading “Kitchen Confidential” and remember my own lost years which, hey, go figure – also involved food service. I didn’t stick with it though, I had neither the culinary degree, nor felt the calling like you describe.

I’m not sorry, either. Let’s be honest, for all but a precious few who have broken out to a larger success like you, working in restaurants is a pretty shitty job. My very first job was at 13 years old as a dish washer/ prep monkey at a mom-and-pop Cheesesteak/Italian restaurant in Philly. Even at that young age, I was just tall enough to reach into the sink to do the dishes, even though the chemicals nearly melted my flesh off. It didn’t though, so I just missed ending up a supervillain there, I guess. I also used the industrial Hobart slicer to slice sirloin from giant bloody chunks of meat for the sandwiches. I had to stand on a cardboard box to reach the slicer, but hey, it was the 80’s, safety and child labor was less of a big deal, you know? Once I’d sliced the steak, I had to chop it into about 1/4″ chunks with a big ol’ knife. You’d think starting on the chopping that young, I’d have some pretty hot knife skills today – but it just isn’t so. I’m a plodding, pedestrian knife-wielder, even though I’ve tried to get better.

S’anyway, I did a year of college and then stalled out. Mostly because I was a knucklehead, not because I couldn’t hack it. I ended up waiting tables for the next three years or so – and while I never ended up addicted to heroin or really anything other than sloth and slovenliness, I also didn’t managed to get much done. Some stuff happened, and I realized I couldn’t see myself waiting tables or working in the kitchen for a living. I picked up some shifts as a cook, too – the station for salads, cold sandwiches and desserts. It was your basic T.G.I. McFunster’s, though so it’s not like I learned anything other than to really loathe my life.

Flash foward 20 years, and God, has it been that long? I’ve never worked in a restaurant or kitchen since, and I do not regret it one little bit. I’ve had some seriously shitty jobs in my life, jobs that involved things like jumping out of airplanes in the dark, or being the test case for a brain scanner, or working a tech support line. None of these jobs are even a fraction as shitty as restaurant work though. I mean, the Army was less stressful than waiting tables – doesn’t that tell you something?

So for the past while or so, I’ve been working for a company (and it’s a great job, and I’m really lucky!) that has constantly teetered on the edge of shutting down, getting bought, etc etc. No job security – and the economy is such that if I did get laid off it might be tricky getting hired again, there’s not much out there. So in the back of my mind, I’m thinking “Hey, I like cooking, maybe I should open a restaurant or one of those gourmet food trucks and dang, what’s on CNN, oh wait, I think I need a drink I wonder if I should get bigger pants or will I seriously get back to the gym heh I wonder what the dog is doing right now…” My thoughts wander, ok? You asked. Well, no you didn’t.

Reading “Kitchen Confidential” recalled to me my own wilderness years. Working till 2 or 3AM for a few measly bucks and then going out to drink and bitch about work with other waiters and cooks. Then getting a few short hours of restless sleep full of stress dreams before waking up and doing it again. I can see why heroin, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol were such tempting releases. Maybe I’d have been a happier loser if I had indulged. As it was I lived in a grotty apartment with two other slacker losers, and never  had enough money to pay all the bills, much less get even slightly ahead. It was a pretty miserable time.  On the other hand, I was skinny, so there was that.

So no. This is a great hobby, and I like taking my time to cook some really delectable meals, and learn new techniques – but I like not having to do it over and over again a hundred times a night under pressure to get it done RIGHT FUCKING NOW! No thanks. I’ll stick with computer geekery and really sumptuous meals with friends and loved ones – that’s the best of both worlds. And you know the biggest difference between me and professionals is? (Other than wearing clogs. Never.) I get to eat what I make. Better than just eating it, I get to share it with people I like, who I specifically invited over because I figured they’d really enjoy it, and be good company, too. That’s the part I like. So yeah, I’ve got a passion for food, but it’s for eating the food as much as making it! (Also why I’m no longer skinny.)

But I’m really glad you’re out there blazing the trail and reminding me how much it sucks.

Thanks, chef!


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