Nancy Hinton, Food writing 2006
You know what I mean… the worst case scenario of what ever it is that you do in life. When everything goes awry, and all your worst fears come true. In the restaurant business, when any given minute, so much can go wrong, whether you’re a manager, waiter or cook, hell is always on the horizon. Maybe it’s because we brush with disaster so frequentlly, that the fear is so real, and the nightmare so common. We’re talking stress dreams here, I’m sure many people have them, not only in the restaurant business. Neurosurgeons and air traffic controllers, even politicians, face more daunting stress levels than we do, but they are likely a less emotional, volatile bunch. Who knows, they probably have them too. If you’re someone who takes your job seriously, and brings your work home, you’re bound to either suffer bouts of insomnia and dreams relating to work when you finally do nod off.
In any case, that’s me, whether I’m stressed or not. In university, I had the never-ending, impossible math problem that I tried to solve all night. When I was a waitress, it was food hitting the floor, drinks spilling on people, customers walking out, others going into anaphylactic shock. The restaurant was always full with a line-up, no food coming out of the kitchen, everyone calling my name. As a chef, it’s still about the food hitting the floor and everyone calling my name, but also supplies not arriving, fingers getting cut off, mutiny among the brigade, and detrimental reviews. And always with the sound of the chit machine spewing out an endless number of orders, and we can never keep up. At the ever busy Tavern, that sound plagued me, it was always there in the background.
The nightmare takes on many forms, but generally, it goes like something like this. You’re putting out a table of eight, and the last dish comes out late while the other dishes have been waiting, the waiters are tapping their heels, but then catastrophically, it hits the floor and splatters, and it was your last piece of fish. Now you have to tell the customer you don’t have the fish he’s been waiting for for 30min, and all the other dishes have to be redone. The backlog of orders behind will suffer, everyone’s timing is off, everyone is steamed. And this is only the beginning. When you collided with the dishwasher and lost your fish, a glass was knocked over, falling into your MEP. Normal activity has to come to a halt, glass is serious business, all of it is garbage. You have to suddenly rechop your shallots, whip up an aioli, slice some procuitto, starting with the things you need now for this order... you will have to think about the rest later which is a scary thought, because if that isn’t in two minutes, you’re screwed, other tables are waiting. The team goes into crises mode, and those who can help, do. Your mate is nice enough to leave his station and run off to slice you some proscuitto, he slices his finger off, he can’t work for a few minutes (if he’s a tough one) while someone else sets him up with a make-shift bandage, the board is full, and the kitchen is flooding. You step through the puddle, trying to catch up a bit and pump out another order once that one is fired, but you forget about the garlic allergy, it goes out. A salad comes back because someone found a bolt in it (what the f..k!, must be from the fridge...who knows), give the gardemanger crap, make another one, comp wine. A customer has to leave because he’s not feeling well.. shit, the garlic! A plate of oysters comes back, and I can smell it coming..how did that make it to the table? Hit the gardemanger over the head again. Meanwhile the first dessert orders are coming in, and we suddenly realize that the freezer isn’t working, the ice creams are soft, the sorbets have separated. Nothing is coming out of the kitchen, the maitre d’ is freaking out. An oblivious VIP wants a tour of the kitchen, you smile and pretend everything is cool, but can’t do it, you flip out and get fired. On and on.
Or it’s 5pm on a fully booked night, and your fish order hasn’t arrived, it’s a new menu night and everyone is scrambling, the dishwasher has called in sick, everything you taste is not right... You want to yell at everyone. Or could it be your tastebuds? Take a deep breath, have another coffee. The coffee doesn’t taste right, alert the manager, not your problem, tell him there is no time for staff meal tonight, order pizza. He’s upset, fuck it. Showtime is approaching and nothing is ready, you have to pull it together, but you can’t. Then, all the customers show up at the same time, early, and order the not yet tweaked tasting menu, along with umpteen special orders. This night will be hell. On and on.
Some nights, the dreams aren’t so bad. On a good night, I just slice smoked salmon all night very methodically and perfectly, to a nice beat. Or I just roll dough or make ravioli all night. Or I like to chop fragrant herbs with a knife that never dulls. Those are the best dreams, so relaxing, so Zen. Otherwise, the only break I get is with a drunken stupor.
It’s not so bad now with my life here in the sticks. I occasionally wake up to someone dying of mushroom intoxication or François and I strangling eachother or the weak, non-commercial hood blowing up in flames. But now that I’m writing, it’s more likely that I am rewriting or editing a piece all night, and I write whole new pieces that I remember segments of the next day. I guess I was just meant to work by night.
As far as the cooking dreams go, I think they probably make me a better cook, by making me more prepared, motivating me to take more precautions so that the nightmare doesn’t become reality. So far, it has served me well I think, because although all of the above mentioned mishaps really did happen, they weren’t all at once, they were quite few and far between, and ressolved promptly, with no one walking out or getting fired or dying on the spot. I do believe too that a really good cook works with this underlying fear, or at least a constant humbling respect for the wild nature of the business, of the unknown. And as one of my first chefs told me, with all the details to attend to, a good cook needs a little fire under the ass, a certain anxiousness inorder to rise above it all. Of course, getting a good night’s sleep is important for anyone’s performance, so again, it’s all about balance. As long as I have the odd gravelax dream, I reckon I’ll be ok.