We are somehow damaged, us cooks. Just look around you dear reader when you are riding the tube, the wee hours of the morning, or taking the night bus at 4am, returning home from a night of dancing and drinking. I know who you are because I used to be one of you. Makeup on, fancy outfit, the smell of cigarettes blending with perfume, and a tired but happy look on your face. But next to you, there is definitely a cook. Look closer. You can tell who they are. The air around them is different. They have this roughness, a damaged look on their faces. They are broken.
N! The chef screams from across the busy kitchen. I need tomato vinaigrette! We are in the middle of service, rushing frantically to plate dishes, delicious salads and ceviche, busboys coming and going, shouting table numbers, taking plates with colourfoul food, us trying to create the same perfect dish time and time again, so that the chef is satisfied, so that the customers are satisfied, so that we are satisfied.
Nowwww! I run at the back, grabbing the thermomix and four tomatoes, quickly removing the stems and throwing them in, as his large figure rushes behind me. You are not thinking! The chef shouts. We are both now standing side by side, as he unsuccessfully pushes the on button but the freaking thermomix refuses to blend the tomatoes. Did you purposely chose the wrong tomatoes? (what the hell are “wrong” tomatoes”?) – these are firm! (ok, these are the “wrong tomatoes). You haven’t learned anything, he shouts. It’s been a whole year and you haven’t learned anything. Granted, in hindsight it would be better to actually cut the tomatoes in quarters so that the thermomix could actually blend them and they don’t get stuck. Bring me paprika, he shouts again, you people want to ruin my food! You are not paying attention, you don’t care, I know you don’t. And where is the garlic and fresh mint? How should I know what the hell he needs, I think as I run into the walk in fridge. I have never made tomato vinaigrette before in my life, it is usually one of the other cooks who prepares this, it’s not even something I serve. I leave the mint leaves next to him and I run again towards the dry goods cabinet and grab both paprikas (sweet and smoked), as I have no idea which one he uses. I am getting stressed because clearly there is a couple out there, patiently waiting for whatever dish this tomato vinaigrette is used for. Maybe they are on their first date. Maybe they are really hungry.
On my way back I take a few cloves of garlic and a pairing knife and, as I leave everything on the counter, I try as fast as I can to peel the garlic while he puts the sweet paprika in the thermomix which is now blending the tomatoes making a loud noise. Look at this mess, he says, as there is flour on the counter from a previous preparation. I feel embarrassed about the mess, like a 5 year old child that hasn’t tidied up her bedroom. I feel stupid for not thinking to cut the tomatoes in quarters and for not predicting that this god damn vinaigrette which I’ve never tasted before needs garlic and sweet paprika. Quickly, put it in a bottle for me he says leaving me behind, the counter now messy not only with flour but with paprika, tomato juices and unused garlic cloves. You want to become a chef but you don’t think, he says as he walks away. As I pour the tomato vinaigrette into the bottle and run to bring it to him I wonder what makes me come back to this life of hardship and humiliation, spending literarily hours being criticised about the food you create, the person you are, critisized by a big imposing man who looks you deep in the eyes with pure wrath.
One of my fellow cooks was telling me how he decided to follow this line of work. I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t even at home…there were…issues. You can see a darkness filling his eyes. But in the kitchen, he says, there is a structure, strict norms. The darkness has now disappeared.
We all carry baggage dear reader, but somehow the kitchen congregates people broken down from life in need of structure. And maybe in need of abuse. Why else would you willingly put yourself in a confined space, constantly on your feet, where you spend 15 hours every day with no time to drink water or properly eat food, being told what to do, shouted at, humiliated, losing sleep?
It’s self punishment, another fellow cook tells me without looking at me, as we are sitting side by side sipping cold beer, after having spend an entire day in the kitchen. The silence of the late night and the summer breeze in combination with the sweet taste of alcohol entering our bodies has never felt so comforting. It’s the need for self punishment.
I often wonder what void this feels in each of us. Maybe it is the need for attention, the need to belong somewhere. Or, what I see in me. There are days when I am longing for the chef to shout at me, to take charge of my pain and with his roughness to relocate it from something internal to something external, and to ultimately take it away. I find myself disturbingly looking forward to these moments, I need them. All of us do. We need the structure, the norms, the abuse, the roughness, the pain in order to cope with our lives, with the darker parts of ourselves.