The recent death of Anthony Bourdain got me thinking about the years I spent in restaurants waiting tables and cooking.
Bourdain rose to fame with his book “Kitchen Confidential,” a book about life working in a kitchen. The book details his beginning as a dishwasher to prepping and cooking food for the masses. Something I can relate to.
Working in a kitchen in a busy restaurant is not easy work.
A night in a bustling kitchen can be filled with anxiety, stress, a lot of sweat, and at times, foul language.
While living back east in Alexandria, Virginia, I chose a path as a restaurant worker. I started as a server. The tips were good and I liked the hours.
I moved up the ranks and became a professional server working at a swanky joint called Portner’s.
I worked there until I moved to Portland, Oregon where I waited tables before leaving the restaurant business for a couple of years. The money wasn’t steady and I wanted to learn something new.
It wasn’t until I moved back to Iowa that I dove back into the restaurant business, but chose to learn the back end of the business and not wait tables. I'd previously filled in other kitchens when I was needed while living in Portland and out east. So it wasn't completely foreign.
My journey to the cook line began at an Irish pub in Coralville, Iowa. It was a chain of more than 100 restaurants. The Coralville location was the busiest of them all.
I started in the dish room and eventually worked my way to cooking on the line.
Washing dishes at this place was extremely fast-paced. It was a dance to keep up with the mess. There were no breaks or slack time. It was a wet, stinky job, but I enjoyed it. People left you alone. It wasn’t like waiting tables where there was constant chatter.
After proving that I could rock the dish room, I was promoted to the prepping station. This was a lot of repetitive work and involved using boning and chef knives. I became pretty good at chopping and dicing.
The conversation was livelier than the dish room and it was one step closer to being in the trenches: the cook line. That is where I wanted to be and the opportunity came.
A pantry cook working the line couldn’t handle the heat and fast pace. He left his post in the middle of a lunch rush. This was my chance. I asked if I could fill the vacant spot. The answer was yes.
The pantry cook took care of the flat top grill to prepare quesadillas, among other things, and made salads and desserts. It sounds easy, but it wasn’t.
Never had I worked a job where I panicked, stressed and been “in the weeds” at least an hour every shift.
Being “in the weeds” meant I felt that I couldn't get caught up on orders as meal tickets were printed so fast they began to reach the floor.
During these moments, it wasn’t uncommon to see a cook walk off the line and go to the freezer to scream some explicative language. Then they'd walk back to their station like nothing happened. I’ve done it.
The reward happens late into the shift when the window clears and the place closes down. All the stress instantly leaves the body. At closing, it’s the cook’s time to let loose.
We had a boombox blaring in the kitchen as we cleaned. There was very little talk. Just daydreaming, cleaning and yes, drinking. It was our time.
I’ve heard cooks say once you get the itch to work the kitchen line it doesn’t go away. I believe it. I miss it at times. Maybe someday I’ll have one last hurrah slinging food.
“Few things are more beautiful to me than a bunch of thuggish, heavily tattooed line cooks moving around each other like ballerinas on a busy Saturday night. Seeing two guys who'd just as soon cut each other's throats in their off hours moving in unison with grace and ease can be as uplifting as any chemical stimulant or organized religion.” – Anthony Bourdain