Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Cook's Life #3 - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

there is an old adage "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." it originated as a nautical reference, and according to the International Maritime Dictionary by Kerchove, the devil is the seam in a wooden deck which bounds the waterway or a seam in the planking of a wooden ship on or below the waterline. if you imagine yourself standing at the top mast on a footrope under a yardarm, and are at the risk of falling, you'll most likely land on the deck within the devil's plank or in the water outside the devil's plank, and be killed.

this sense of being between a rock and a hard place has dogged my steps ever since i changed careers. a lot of people don't realize that once you become a cook, your life is completely different from most of your friends. unless you're a veterano, you will work at night and put in your dues. this means working from 2pm til closing and breaking down, which could mean 11:30 pm or if particularly busy past midnight. you'll also get paid around $8 or $9 an hour which means that you'll get a second job to make ends meet. if this surprises you, know that this is the standard. even working for a hotel may get you $12 an hour, but it doesn't get much better. most culinary students after graduating have a debt of at least $50K, and after working in a restaurant for a short time, change careers because they can't pay their loans. i did this for around seven months, working at two different kitchens a lunch and dinner shift, sometimes only getting one day or staggered half days off. i only ate the food provided by the restaurant (couldn't afford regular groceries and i was never home anyway) and had as many butter sandwiches to keep my energy going. i only saw Matt because we lived together, i never saw my friends, still barely made only enough money for gas and rent, and lost my mind.

thankfully, i have only the one job and with some careful lifestyle changes (getting rid of the car and walking to work, not much) i am...still barely able to make ends meet, but at least i am more rested and in a positive work environment. i had been working the lunch shift at my restaurant for a year, and once i quit the night job, took some time and enjoyed getting out of work at 3pm, and having weekends off (two full days in a row off? incredible), and seeing my sweetie. i made the conscious decision to start working double shifts, at a moment's notice, and 6 day weeks because after working two jobs, you start to feel kinda lazy, or at least i did. this eventually turned into a split work week where i had three nights and three days as the kitchen suffered a major cook shortage, mainly due to the cooks not being able to earn a living.

i've now been working solely nights for the past month (maybe longer) and am being trained as lead cook. this means i set the pace for the other cooks and need to be on top of everything as far as knowing what's going on, communicating with Chef, and i have the most intricate and highly technical dishes to deal with. as of this week, i've been lucky to have the lead station for four nights in a row, so i'm really starting to get it. it is a marked change working at night vs day, as the cooks are hungry with ambition, and menu is more extensive with a tasting menu and longer service. just last night we had a special tasting menu and it was amazing to see Chef in action.

this is where the devil and the deep blue sea come in again. i am lucky to have a support system with my wonderful boyfriend both financially and emotionally, but i do miss him terribly. the schedule change is being tolerated, and the recent mini-break has eased tensions, but it will get harder as the holidays come around since i will most likely be working. i'm lucky to even have a relationship because a serious cook's life forsakes everything to the point that you are selfless, and are working for an intangible, far off, and sometimes unrealistic goal. however, because i have started working nights, i have become that much better. cooking is a craft, and i believe a cook to be an artisan, one who is skilled in making food into art. it is the only form of expression that engages all of our senses, and no matter how breathtaking the sistine chapel is, you can't eat it so it doesn't interest me ;P.

the conflict is that if i could, i would work at night, but still be able to see my boyfriend and have a day schedule, and make hmmm, $20 an hour would be fine, i'm not greedy, and not get yelled at by Chef EVER because every service would be easy and nothing would go wrong, or better still would win the lottery (i'd be happy with $6 or 7 million) and that way i could still cook, but afford to eat at restaurants and travel and stage at other restaurants around the world and then buy some land up in portland or new zealand and run my own organic farm and attached restaurant with only 30 seats and make sheep's milk cheese.... i know, 'tis a fantasy. i've also been looking into becoming a culinary instructor, and while it would give me the financial freedom and schedule i desire, i would be away from all the amazing things i learn EVERYDAY at work. i also believe that if i'm going to teach, i need to be responsible to my future students and learn as much as i can, just i hope they would. i'm not ready to give that up just yet, but i also don't know realistically how much longer i can afford to NOT make ends meet.

so, the devil is every selfish desire for normalcy in my life like dinner with the family and weekends off, while the deep blue sea is every selfish desire for culinary greatness, and i don't mean getting my own show on the food network, but becoming the best possible cook i can, and in turn understanding Food so that i can write about it responsibly, and eventually teach new cooks that it's not just a job but a way of LIVING.

the devil whispers in my ear every afternoon when i walk three blocks to work, and i think of the time when i was able to put in a good day's work, come home, relax and read, cook dinner for Matt and i, perhaps meet up with friends that night or on the weekend. the deep blue sea whispers to me every night when Chef says to break down, and i realize i've done a good job, and i could keep going, and how i want to have such a noble sacrifice and purpose, and reach a true goal after many years of dedication and become a real chef, like the Chefs i work with who are so exceptional and so fully realized in their faculties that sometimes it makes me weep; they have become the EXTRA-ORDINARY, and chose to do what many others could not, and perhaps what i cannot because i refuse to give up those things that i need in life to be happy. thus, i am a knight of infinite resignation and not a knight of faith.

i have made compromises, but all this treading water wears on the body and soul. at least i've reached a sort of balance; as if the lesser of the two evils have cancelled each other out. i do have faith that ultimately things work out. no matter how horrible a service, things get fixed and are worked through, and no matter how terrible this busy season may be with at least 200 on the books every night, it will pass.

i can only do my best, and until i no longer feel that, i will keep on keeping on. today i woke up at 9 am, tidied up the loft, put in three loads of laundry, loaded the dishwasher, walked the dogs, written this post, and now will be off to start my day (night) at work. i'll get home around 11:30 pm, eat SOMETHING, then sleep (if i'm good) at 2 am. this is my life, every day, until it changes again, hopefully for the better.

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