Everyone wants to be a chef these days, except me. I’ve been a chef, and now all I want to do is stay home.
I used to think restaurants were all simmering stockpots, fine wine, and fellowship, but I was building kitchens in the air. At Al Forno, the simmering stockpots gave me second-degree burns, the fine wine had been hidden, and the fellowship was the kind between Christians and lions.
Al Forno is a trattoria-style Italian in Providence, run by a married couple named George and Johanne. Once named “Best Informal Restaurant in the World” by the International Herald Tribune, Al Forno specializes in rich baked pastas, superb grilled pizza, and standout desserts like fig crostata. The food is filled with love, and I still don’t know where that love comes from.
I was twenty-one, had just graduated from Brown, and got the job there because for some reason they gave a written test to applicants. I did quite well, particularly on the French terms; sadly, no one in the kitchen ever asked me to recite Baudelaire’s “The Albatross.” More likely I’d be asked to club the albatross to death and wrap it in pancetta.
Al Forno was busy. I can’t remember how many “covers,” or guests, we did per night, but I think it was upwards of 150 for each of the two kitchens. I worked Garde Manger: salads and cold appetizers.
My first order would burp out of the printer at 5:30, and by 7 PM I would have a row of tickets across my station. My brain became a blackboard with an ever-changing list: three Caesars, four corn and tomatoes, seven mixed greens, two garlics. When I went to sleep, I dreamt of salad.
I was slow and clumsy. I would cut my fingers deeply in the middle of busy nights and clutch at them, white-faced, looking around to make sure no one had seen me.
A boys’ locker room atmosphere prevailed. The breasts on that chick at table seven were admired. So were the purgative properties of Jaegermeister. A line cook who had deep-fried a whole turkey became a hero. The staff was split between young culinary school graduates and middle-aged Mexicans. I preferred the Mexicans because I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
There was one other woman on the staff of fourteen, Emma, a misanthropic vegetarian who worked the meat station. She became my only friend there, and brought me grapes preserved in grappa and purple green beans pickled with lemongrass. Emma worked the grill with the same grim industry that helped her puritan ancestors endure the Boston winter. I was never able to learn her toughness. In my family we don’t endure; we drink heavily, complain, and move to Florida at fifty.
I managed OK. Not great but OK. After a while I stopped having to come in three hours before everyone else to do my prep. I began to almost enjoy the evening rush, during which I would briefly experience myself as an unstoppable salad machine. One day George and Johanne even told me they liked the way I plated the mixed greens. They said I gave it a feminine touch, and promised to promote me to my dream job: pastry. Then came the Prosciutto Incident.
It was the middle of a rush. I was “in the weeds,” so backed up that I hadn’t stopped to pee all night. I was working four Caesars when the antipasto order came. My heart sank.
For Al Forno’s signature antipasto, I had to layer the bottom of a platter with paper-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma, then cover it with servings of agridolce, caponata, papa di pomodoro, candied garlic, carmelized onion, and diced tomato. It was a time sink.
I ran over to the deep freeze, where we kept the huge leg of prosciutto, to make it “easier to slice.”
With time and practice, most kitchen tools lose their scariness. My blowtorch gave me an initial frisson, but a few crèmes brulees later, it became my friend. Ditto for my meat cleaver and deep fat fryer. But deli slicers are different. No matter how much time I spent with it, the Al Forno deli slicer remained, in my mind, a whirling blade of death that belonged in Children of the Corn.
I flipped the switch and set the blade humming. As usual, the ham tilted precariously. This was because I had been cutting it at an angle, which I found easier, rather than straight across the grain. I was terrified that someone would inspect it, so I periodically evened it out by cutting off a chunk (at $28/pound) and burying it in the garbage.
I set the slicer to paper-thin and tried to cut. Nothing. I tried again, pressing hard on the ham. Unusable shreds emerged. I turned the dial to allow thicker slices, as across the room my printer spat out more orders. What was wrong with these people? Who would come to a restaurant famous for pizza and pasta and order a salad? The ham began to melt in my hands.
I set the slicer a full turn wider, approximately as thick as the Canadian bacon on an Egg McMuffin. Finally I got enough slices to cover the bottom of the plate. It looked hideous and would probably choke the customer, but I sent it out. I had to get back to those Caesars.
A moment later the antipasto returned, in the hands of a furious Johanne.“WHO SLICED THIS PROSCIUTTO?”
I gazed in terror at her spotless white coat, her bobbed blonde hair. She was that vicious, Martha Stewart type. I imagined her at home, stenciling her guest room with swastikas.
The whole kitchen waited. I cleared my throat.
“Um. . .”
The next few minutes are a complete blank. I believe memory loss of this kind is common among failed chefs and Vietnam veterans.
The next thing I remember, Emma had her hand on my shoulder and was telling me she would cover my station. I nodded silently and ran to the staff bathroom. I locked the door and sat on the toilet, sobbing so hard I nearly choked. Not only had I been humiliated, but I’d been humiliated in front of all those men.
I missed college so much. All my friends were thousands of miles away, enrolled in prestigious graduate programs. I was still in Providence, sitting on a toilet.
I knew that more orders were coming every minute. Emma needed to get back to her own station. I splashed water on my face and stepped out of the bathroom, barely under control.
Just then, Johanne walked by. She looked at me and knew I had been crying, a far graver offense than ruining an antipasto.
“Meet me in my office,” she said.
Johanne’s husband George sat, dark-browed and glowering, while his wife explained why I was a disgrace to their kitchen. She wanted me to understand how thoroughly I had failed. George didn’t say a thing the whole time, just examined his knives. I had to admire their management technique. It was very Turkish prison.
Johanne concluded by saying “this is why I don’t hire women.”
And this is why I no longer work in restaurants. I did have another cooking job after Al Forno, as an assistant pastry chef at Verbena in Manhattan. While my experience there was far less traumatic, I ended each week with aching feet, arms that looked tribally scarred, a check for $250, and the burning question in my mind: why am I doing this?
Now I cook in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, assisted by my sous chef Ethan, whose main duties are keeping my martini glass full and feeling me up while I do the dishes. My menu is seasonal American, heavily influenced by the Key Food across the block. Reviews have been glowing, and the happy customers keep on coming.