I take a deep breath and prepare to faint. I try to keep my eyes open but the lids feel like stones so I let them slowly close. I breathe again and feel bile rising in my chest. I suddenly realize that I may both faint and throw up at the same time. In the background of my brain, I can hear someone talking somewhere beside me, or maybe behind me? the direction is unclear it’s just a cloud of a voice hovering around my head. I work very hard at opening my eyes again, and when I do the ceiling looks like creamy vanilla pudding. Is there supposed to be pudding on the ceiling in the kitchen?
As I stare up into the pudding contemplating how lovely it would be to lay down in that softness a hard hot hand claps down on my left shoulder and stirs me out of my nauseous fog, but only slightly. I’m trying really hard to focus on the features of the mouth and the head talking at me, but my chest seizes up with hot fluid and once again I have to breathe very deeply to manage the very dull pulse of control I have left within me.
Suddenly the hands are pushing me towards a big tall white panel and my jelly legs are also doing their best to try and follow the pushing motion coming from my back. All the while blobs float past my line of sight as I lumber forward towards the big white thing before me. A long arm reaches around from behind me and opens the panel and shapes and smells assault my face. The force behind me gets stronger and I am shoved hard into a large box. I hear loud words in my ears that make their way into my brain and I understand them as saying BREATHE.
I obey and take a deep breath, and the voice says again BREATHE and I do this over and over again with the voice. Like a bullet to my brain, my conscientiousness explodes back into action. I’m in the walk-in freezer. I am now very aware of real life and also of the vomit building up in my throat. Slow down, and relax for a minute says Chef. You’re going to hyperventilate breathing like that. My tongue feels like a thick snake and I feel like I cannot speak but I somehow mumble my apologies and deep embarrassment. I’m piecing together what just happened and I feel like a huge fucking dick head.
Chef pats me on the shoulder and gives me a look. I know the look. It's the, you’re a girl and I knew you couldn’t hack this job but you’re cute so I thought I’d give you a try look. The, your male friend vouched for you and I told him a chick couldn’t hack this job but we smoke weed together and I kind of agreed to let you come by and stage for a couple nights and now I’m regretting you being here look. Fuck.
I swallow hard. I will not vomit in this walk-in freezer during dinner service. I will not vomit on the line during dinner service. I think, I say, I just need a minute to wash my face and I’ll be right back on veg Chef and I somehow find the coordination to swiftly walk past him out the freezer door. I do not look at the line guys staring me down as I walk towards the staff room. I just keep my eyes forward and will my body to move in some kind of rhythm that does not resemble Frankenstein towards the back of the kitchen. When I get there, I throw up in the toilet.
Sadie the hostess has snuck in behind me without me noticing. She hands me an icy cold ginger-ale, two pieces of mint gum and a container of soft and warm flour tortillas. She hands me a cool bar mop towel and gives me a wink. I can barely stutter a thank you before she’s silently out the door, just as she came in. I wrap the bar towel around my neck and slug back the sweet soda and inhale the tortillas. I wipe my face and hands, pop the gum in my sticky mouth, and grab a new apron and head back to the line. The line guys are all sneering at me. I’m the only female in this kitchen. I’m scrawny and smaller than anyone else here. On my first night, I’m working the hot vegetable station. That's five burners. Each meal comes with two sides of vegetables. This little episode put me back nearly 6 chits and not a single one of these assholes is going to help me out of this mess, I can sense that for sure. They wanna see what I can do. I try to think quickly, but my brain is like the pudding ceiling I was so interested in about 15 minutes ago. Everything on the stove is currently burned so I start there. I look over at the dish guy who I knew from high school. I yell out his name. Ethan, I need a pair of hands here for a second. He pretends not to hear me. Ok, remind me to put you on my mental kill list, Ethan. My brain is finding the light in the fog. I’m on my own. My ears begin to also resume functioning and I hear the chit machine crackle down the line. I look around at my feet and see there is room under the oven, so I just start throwing pans under the oven. I hear them crashing up against the bottom of the oven but I have no time to give a shit about this. I’m spilling food all over myself. I’m fairly sure I’ve burned my ankle with hot oil, but my face is already burnt with shame so I shut that part of my feelings off and figure out my next move. All of a sudden from every corner of the kitchen I hear the line guys yelling for veg. All of them. All 9 of them at once. I want to cry. I want to throw up all over them, one by one. I want to take my hot messy pans of burnt food and bash them all in the fucking head as I walk out the damn door. Their calling becomes a cacophony of bullying. I know what they are doing. I'm literally stunned into inaction. I look over to the meat guy. He’s a real country boy. I saw him coming in for his shift wearing a real cowboy hat and boots. I know from Nestor that his dad owns a farm and that they fight all the time because he drinks and keeps crashing the farm equipment. His big tanned arms are working the grill deftly, despite him reeking of liquor, he has a sense for cooking and it’s obvious. He jeers at me and laughs. Come on cutie, pick up the pace or pack up your ass and get out. Ok, think. I look up and grab 5 pans and get them on the stove. I turn around to my station and look for my oil bottle but it’s gone. I start frantically searching my mise when I see that all my inserts have been taken out of my station. I don’t remember moving them but there were about 5 minutes of time that I can’t recall anymore as I was negotiating with my body to stay erect and not faint onto the line. Looking for something? I hear and look over my right shoulder to see the salad prep guys pointing up towards the ceiling. My mise tray with all my veggies and cooking supplies was up in the dry storage loft. I’m sweating so much that beads of perspiration are flowing into my eyes. They are stinging and start to water. We got a crier I hear Ethan the dish pit guy calls out as he walks past me with a full bus-bin of dirty pans. I refrain from tripping him. I take my towel and wipe my face. I grab any empty insert I can see on the way to the walk in. I get in there and start grabbing any vegetable I can find. Whole heads of cauliflower, whole peppers, mushrooms, carrots, and beans. I run back towards my station forgetting to yell behind and I get bumped by the prep guy who wears glasses and looks to be a hundred years old and slip on the greasy floor spilling one of my inserts. FUCK ME. I’m covered in food from the pans I had to discard earlier. I stand up, grab the veg that hasn’t ended up on the floor and just start tearing it all apart with my hands. By now I’m so behind this is all just an act of futility but I cannot, will not allow them to make me quit here and now, like this. There is what I can only assume to be more than 20 chits on my station and again I will myself not to cry. My pans have overheated and I have to start again. Old pans to the dish pit, BEHIND. I grab new pans and run back. BEHIND. I grab a chunk of butter with my hand and start dropping full blobs of it into each pan to grease them up. I wipe my hands off on my apron and start dropping my torn and ravaged veggies into each pan. It looks like a fucking mess. But the veg is on. I have double each portion to try and make up time and I reckon that once it’s cooked and hot I can chop it up and plate it to look normal. I worry that because the pieces aren’t all the same size that they may not cook evenly but at this point, I’m Hail Mary-ing this play and I need to trust in the universe that I can somehow pull this off. I go to wipe my soaked face and on my sleeve and peer out from under my armpit over to my chef. He’s looking at my mess of a station and shaking his head. He’s talking to the sous who I see look over too and nod, with a smirk on his face. They’re coming to relieve me I know it. I turn back to my pans determined not to give in. I’m shaking the veg but I see that they aren’t cooking at all. I look over at the cowboy and he’s crying laughing. Looks like your oven ‘ain't working right he bellows at me and howls with laughter. As the others join in laughter and mocking I realize they’ve turned off my stove and I have no idea how to light it again. I start to tense my body because I’m going to punch him square in the face when I feel a hand on my shoulder, just as before. It's Chef. He tells me in a low voice to head out back for a break. He’ll come to get me to tear down my station. Do not cry. Do not cry. Do not fucking cry.
I walk out. I’ve never understood the term walk of shame, but that’s what I endured as I left the kitchen. Not one of those assholes wants me here. I sat out back on a greasy pallet next to the dumpster where no-one would see me. I did not cry. My hostess friend came out and handed me a cigarette. I don’t smoke, I said. Well, I think you can get a pass on that one tonight honey, she said softly. What the hell happened tonight? She asked once I’d adjusted to the smoke in my lungs.
I have been looking forward to this chance for weeks I began. I love cooking. My good friend Nestor told me that his place was looking for a line cook. Something easy to start. Nothing too crazy. We had cooked a bit together in home economics class and he thought I had some knowledge and skills that would suit an entry position in a kitchen. My interview was great! I loved Chef and we even had a beer afterward. I was so nervous before getting here I didn’t eat very much, and the heat was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Mixed with nerves, an empty stomach and the pressure of being on a hot station my first go around I crumpled like a wet paper bag half an hour into dinner service. I’m never going back in there. I can’t.
Well then, nice knowing you. Good luck kiddo she said as she stubbed out her cigarette and stood up to go. I watched her open the back door and stood to take off my filthy apron when she turned around and said to me, It’s too bad those fuckers got the best of you though. You looked like you had a bit of grit to you. Take my advice and stay out of kitchens from now on, cause they sure do get hot. She walked away letting the back door slam behind her. I stood there alone in the dark back alley of the restaurant with my mouth open like a fly trap. I felt like someone had seen me naked and was pointing and laughing at my exposed body. I sat back down and finished smoking. It tasted awful and made my head feel like a balloon. FUCK ME. And fuck you too Sadie I thought.
I looked at my watch. Almost 10 o’clock. Service was nearly over. I put my face in my hands and breathed in the stink of rotting garbage and grease. My stomach heaved. I rubbed at my face. My skin felt like rubber from hours of sweating. My hands smelled of butter and garlic. I was filthy. My hair was glued to the back of my neck. My socks were soaked with oil and my legs burned from trying to stay steady on the greasy floors. What the fuck am I doing here?
I weighed my options. How could I show my face in there again? This wasn’t a team. They had literally set me up for failure, not once, not twice, but over and over again and when I tried to show them I could take a licking and keep on kicking, they tripped me, kicked me when I was down and laughed at my resolve. I’m intelligent and social and kind and fuck, I’m better than this. I’m better than these losers. I’m not a drunk with nowhere else to go or an ancient dinosaur who’s probably going to die here and be fossilized in the walk in. I could be somebody in a kitchen. Just not this kitchen. These people are beyond me and beneath me. I waved away the hostess’ scathing comments too as I unraveled myself from my apron and threw it in the dumpster beside me as I figured it was too dirty to save. I walked through the back door and back towards the kitchen to grab my stuff and peace the fuck out.
The kitchen was closed and the music was turned up as the staff was tearing down their stations and starting to clean up for the night. Nobody seemed to notice me thankfully, even still I was trying to be as silent as I could humanly be. As I passed the ladder to the dry storage loft I looked up and saw my all mise inserts still up there. I have no idea what possessed me but I climbed up and grabbed them and brought it all down to the dish pit. Ethan the dick head smiled at me as I dumped each inserts contents into the trash and handed him each piece for washing. He leaned over the stainless steel table, his rubber apron squeaking with his weight as it rubbed against the steel and said: congrats, you survived the first night. You call that surviving I asked incredulously.
Look behind you he said.
I turned around afraid of what I would see coming at me. 9 line guys, including the sous, were hovering around my station scrubbing and cleaning and collecting all the pans and scattered food that I had discarded, or more accurately lost, during service. All of them, on hands and knees, cleaning up the mess of my first shift. One by one, they walked over to the dish pit, hands full, smiling and laughing, talking about where to grab a pint after work, who was in tomorrow, normal end of night stuff, like nothing, had occurred. Stunned, I stared at them as they noisily dropped pots and pans and dishes on the steel table behind me. They talked around me, like I wasn’t a human standing there among them. They filed out into the restaurant or staff room slowly. I looked down at myself thinking that their actions were intentional to test my metal. That bringing me to the point of tears on the very first day of a new job would somehow give them an indication that I was good enough to be allowed to stay, or that I could handle this kind of what, twisted camaraderie? I felt like I was in the fucking twilight zone. I heard Ethan close the pit up and he hung up his sopping rubber apron. He was about to enter the staff room when he stood in the doorway and turned around to me, See you tomorrow?