I’ve barricaded myself in the sweltering hot garage away from the family cleaning the kitchen as I ferret a cigarette secretly stowed behind an abandoned hamster cage.
Poor Mr. Squeaks, he had a good run while it lasted, I opt to believe the ending my son knows: Gone to live on Grandma’s farm in Wisconsin. I slide down the side of my car, knees to chest, between boxed winter clothes and forgotten toys to spark up.
My mind drifts softly alone in the garage free to think of undomesticated thoughts; I notice a spider web interlocked in the hamster wheel. Floating to the surface, two words: “The Pooch” drifts into mind from nowhere. Scott Pampuch: Pampooch: The Pooch. Funning with kitchen nick names, anyway. I read he landed an executive chef job at a Bloomington country club in addition to owning a veggie loving, local-touting café. Rabble! Rabble! called the one eyebrow arched, head-cocked-sideways-postings in the foodie network. There’s the same nervous tension watching a tightrope walker as when a chef moves from place to place. Will he or won’t he fall this time?
True, it’s ‘simply not done;’ going off and getting a job, not consulting but slinging someone else’s sautés. Interesting but Scott never seemed to me as a solo-me-o-chef, he presents more of a collaborative aura. My guess why he did it: It’s good to change, sometimes it's absolutely necessary at certain stages. In chef years, three months roughly equates to a year, and if you calculate hours worked and results demanded to get the job done right, it seems strange how we don’t fully embrace transition. Truth is, sometimes chefs get bored, often you need the cash but most of the time you need to recharge your batteries.
During my apprenticeship, I would check in with my school’s job office and be dispatched to any number of assignments. One day I found myself preparing delicate canapés at Number 10 Downing Street for a swanky ambassadorial event and the next, I was at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children mixing high fat chocolate milk shakes for chemotherapy patients. The variety and challenge of the new systems engaged me. This was when I fell in love with the potato, not just because of the taste but because how differently each new venue treated it. Some manhandled the molecules into starchy wallpaper paste, others transformed it into lightness beyond whipped cream, while others still impassionately utilized it as workhorse side dish.
That’s what really gets me off about employment in this industry, each kitchen has its own lessons and I want to work in as many as I can and learn as much as I can maneuver around my own ego to absorb. I also want to have a personal life, and I don’t really want to stay beyond the learning; all of which is contrary to the Good Chef Ideal, which is fine with me because that old way is paved with the broken backs of tenured line cooks. I applaud those who are thrashing a different route, think of Travail Kitchen & Amusements closing for a few weeks to rest and recalibrate. Grumblings of "Why would they do that? They’re hot, a line of customers at the door, goodness sakes there’s a recession going on!" I was empowered to see them take a breather; it feels like the new way, a sustainable way. There’s a nonnegotiable point of diminishing returns of human capital, you know. As a disciple of the old way, it’s odd if I cook in anything other than a proper chef’s jacket, or not cost a menu, among the many things I learned growing up in the brigade. There is a feeling of safety and order for good common sense reasons (take your apron off when you go to the restroom, write an exact prep list every night, FIFO) but a lot of the old way hampers and hinders as outdated things do.
I stand and balance myself, thinking, churning ideas such as Mr. Squeaks on a peanut . . . how about creating a freelance pool of chefs who work exclusively on call, pitch in for group health insurance, that could save a ton of payroll dollars and how about . . . I open the garage door and the air conditioning takes my breath away.