service.

I had thought the morning shift buzzed loudly and ran like a machine. I was wrong.

It's the night shift where the kitchen shines. The change happens gradually. The din picks up at 2.30 when the line cooks arrive. A pressure hits around 4, when the a.m. shift leaves and front of house arrives. The diners come promptly at 5 o'clock. 

I said I wasn't on the line. I was also wrong there. 

 

"You're going to be plating desserts. I'll show you the station at 5.30." A nervous tangle of snakes rises in the pit of my stomach. I wipe my hands on my apron at 5.30 and head to the station. It looks like a battle station. There are pint containers stacked neatly. Bottles. As it's an open kitchen, I'm behind a glass countertop, directly facing customers. Two lowboys filled with ice creams and cakes are at my feet. And the ticket machine, the ever-present ticket machine, is at my left hand.

This is where the dots of sauce go. This is where you place the cake, the garnish, the drizzle. The lights dim and I cut cauliflower florets while waiting, my ears pricked, for the ever present sound for the ticket machine. 

I stumble, like everyone does at first. I try to send out the vegan tart with meringue dots. Come back, fix it. I struggle with getting that perfect scoop of ice cream until I learn to start taking the containers out right away when the order comes in and scooping last. Slowly, I get better. I start taking desserts two at a time. Dot ice creams with carrots that look like flower petals. Torch meringues. Draw perfect circles with sauce bottles. 

Plating is an art, one that exceptional care must be taken with. This is the final product, the ultimate event, for everyone who touched each component of the dish. This is what the customer sees and it must be perfect and beautiful. Do honor to it, to everyone, with your hands.

At 11.30, I pack up my knives and venture out to the busy Lower East Side. 

I'll be back tomorrow. 

fire to order.

There are little things that betray a kitchen worker. I open my bag and find six Sharpies. 

The first six weeks are the hardest. I find a rhythm in movement, like a dance. Slice scallions. Perfectly on the bias. Fill a pint with them. We need three quarts of pickled sunchokes. I find a poetry in terms I'd never come across a year ago. Half-sheet, nine pan, cambro. Cooks and chefs are pursuers of excellence, of a demanding perfection that plays dangerously well into my organized Virgo mind. Do not do it if it won't be perfect. Throw it out.  Save it for family. Do it again. There is a continual competition with our own selves to be better, faster, more precise. Your knife cannot be sharp enough, your hands steady enough. 

There are two main shifts of kitchen staff - morning prep and night service. I come in with the morning prep shift, leaving the house at 7.20 and fully set up at my station (do you have your cutting board? your pint and quart containers?) by 8 am. There is a quiet buzz beyond the a.m. playlist. We flit back and forth, up and down countless stairs hauling 8-quart containers of hot sauce and broccoli, cauliflower and pickling liquids. Yell corner! and hot pan!. There is a special soundtrack to a kitchen. 

Here, we honor vegetables in a way. Transform them. That's why I'm here and not anywhere else. To learn how to transform and elevate fennel and cauliflower, cabbage and corn. My culinary school education had focused so heavily on meats, chicken especially, that when I graduated I felt somewhat still at a loss in the world of vegetables. 

And I want to know everything. To be an encyclopedia of knowledge on food and cooking. How? I ask. Why? The concepts come easily to me - I've always been a good test-taker, retainer of information. The muscle mastery is harder. Where do I cut? How hard? How can I swing my knife to get those smooth, quick motions? This is practice. It will take years. 

Today marks my first day working a dinner service and while I'm still prep and not on the line, the pressure is there to perform. This is theater. The diners arrive promptly at 5 pm. I'm ready.