I must be a total doofus. Yesterday, I was sitting on a city bus and then got off it without taking the canvas tote bag containing all my kitchen gear. Everything is gone: my chef’s knife, my paring knife (it sucked anyway, good riddance), my uniform, my notebook, my shoes! This struck me as the physical version of a Freudian slip, my inner someone is trying to tell me something, though I don’t know what it is. Perhaps the deeper meaning is that I am a big ole spaz, which Greg, the inimitable p.m. sous chef, confirms: “Yes. You are.” I’m sure Greg has done something similarly spazzy in his time as a soldier in the restaurant trade, but he’s certainly not going to console me by telling me about it at this very moment. So far, Greg is the most intense guy I’ve met on the floor. He has these deeply socketed eyes that he’s not afraid to use as a kind of organic bullshit detector, not unlike the X-ray machine you send your briefcase through at the airport. The first day we met I tried to make friendly chitchat with him by saying the first inane thing to pop into my mind. “It’s a great time to be in the restaurant business,” I chirped brightly. “Why?” said Greg, flat as a pancake. “Oh, you know, there are all these great little boutique restaurants opening up,” I said, clearly fumbling, not having expected someone to challenge me. “Like which ones?” And on and on.
Don’t get me wrong; Greg is a nice guy. It’s just that he has no time for assholes. And, if he likes you, he can be a valuable ally. In just two days he has given me lots of very good advice. Such as 1) “Bring everything to the same level.” This is a usually unspoken rule of good prepping. Example: Say you have 10 onions to dice. What you don’t do is take the skin off one onion, cut it half, score it and then dice it, and then move on to the next onion from the top. It’s a waste of time to cycle through these different types of movements: picking up your knife to trim off the top and bottom of the onion, putting the knife down in order to remove the skin with your fingers, picking up the knife again to resume cutting, and so forth. The better way is to skin all of your onions, then halve and score all of them, and then dice all of them. 2) “Walk like you mean it.” This, I suppose, is part of Greg’s larger philosophy that goes something like, If you’re here to work, then work. Or, maybe, it’s more like, Don’t pussyfoot around. Example: I was julienning some onions for the snapper entrée and Greg came over to inspect my knife skills. He watched for a minute and then took up his crazy-looking black-bladed knife to give me a lesson. “Look,” he says to me. “You can cut the French way,” he says, demonstrating what I’ve seen a million times but have so far failed to master, which is a circular cutting motion that leaves the tip of the knife on the board as an anchor. “Or, you can cut the Japanese way.” Greg demonstrates this technique with flair. He wrist loosens up considerably and his blade is suddenly a blur as he whacks it up and down in a staccato chopping rhythm. I don’t know how he does this without taking off the tips of his fingers that are holding the onion steady. Pick one of these methods, he reiterates, and “do it like you mean it.” As opposed to what I was doing before he showed up, which was more like one’s experience of L.A. traffic: Stop and go. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. 3) “Do everything as fast as you can.” The reason for this, says Greg, is that you should train yourself to work under pressure, even when there isn’t any. That way, when you’re slammed on the line, you won’t freak out when you discover you don’t have any tomato concasse left in your prep bin. You’ll be able to do it super fast because you’ve practiced in the off hours.
At the opposite end of the personality spectrum from Greg, there is Addy. She’s a mild-mannered Thai woman who left a job as a secretary in Bangkok 25 years ago to move to the United States. Here, says Addy, she can “do everything.” It’s also true of her cooking skills, which I watch studiously as I trail her on the garde manger (cold foods) station. She has unconventional technique—like, the way she takes the bark off a cantaloupe by pressing the skin of the melon between her index finger and the side of the paring knife as she slides the blade from pole to pole—but she gets the job done. She may be the only woman on the hot-line side of this kitchen (there are many women in the pastry department), and her very presence gives me confidence that I may be able to do this job by myself one day. But just because she’s a girl, don’t think she doesn’t hold her own with the boys. One of the waiters is bugging her with a special request from one of the tables. “Tuna tart. No pastry,” the waiter tells her for, like, the third time in two minutes. “You want to say that one more time?” asks Addy, archly. She’s dead on the money, and the arrow flies to its target. The waiter disappears without a peep, and the comment gets well-deserved hooting from the guys at the stoves and Greg, who is standing nearby. Me, I just look at her and smile.