“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
It’s April 2007, a month before my 21st bday. A coming of age as some would say, or the beginning of the end, depending on how you look at it. I’m breezing my way through community college, acing mentally taxing classes like biology 101, math for liberal arts and of course the classic GPA boosters philosophy and anthropology. I’m riding my parents dollar with no shame but my 21st summer is just around the corner and I’m going to need to pick up a summer fling to pay my bar tabs. Craigslist is the first viable option. You didn’t actually think I was going to run around dropping off resumes and filling out applications, right? Retail positions are a tough summer gig where I’m from. Boulder, Colorado is a college town and a large population of the customers for any store that would hire me goes home during the sunny months. Hmm, what about a restaurant? That sounds pretty cool I guess. Never worked in one and I hear servers walk out with a handful of cash after a busy night of walking around with plates of food. That’s the type of gig I can handle. I actually score a couple of interviews for busser positions (apparently I have to be able to clear a tables dishes before I can competently write down a customers order, enter it into a computer and then run a plate of food back to said table). Disclaimer: If you work the front of the house and are thinking “Hey! I work really hard asshole, don’t patronize my job!” Let’s get one thing straight: You don’t actually have to make anything. I understand you put up with extremely disagreeable persons from time to time, but lets not act like everyone doesn’t know that cooks work harder and get paid less. I’m not complaining. I chose my road fair and square but speaking your mind is a basic human right and plus, it makes me feel cool.
None of my front of house attempts go anywhere. Maybe it’s my total lack of experience or maybe it’s just that obvious that I’m more a swashbuckling pirate than a tea-and-crumpets-serving butler (Ok really, I’m done with the jabs at servers. Many of my closest friends play on that side of the same chess board. Truth be told I have a ton of respect anyone that takes their job seriously, no matter what it is). Eventually I’m looking for anything and had actually forgotten about a call I placed to a local restaurant called The Red Lion. It’s location is just outside of town, a bit up the canyon and into the mountains. They serve a German-influenced continental game menu. The property is simply stunning; the building used to be an inn and they now house large events (specializing in weddings) on their multi-acre location that borders Boulder Creek with amazing views all around. While most of Boulder remains relatively quiet during summer, The Red Lion heads into its wedding season, beginning with a Mother’s Day that was my first look into how truly hectic a busy restaurant can really become.
The restaurant’s sous chef, Arthur calls me one day and tells me to come in for an interview. The job is the glorious position of dish washer. I actually put on a nice shirt before driving up that day. An action that years later is actually quite comical in my opinion. Or perhaps it was a small sign of how serious the kitchen life would become for me. When I arrive it is the head chef, Rudi who greets me. It’s 10 am and since the restaurant only serves dinner, he is the only employee present. Rudi is a bear of a man. So typically a European head chef that you if you think about it for one second, you have probably imagined the man almost exactly. A belly large and round from the many years animal fat and carbs and a mustache that lacks only a bit of wax to curl the ends. He’s not the one who left me a message and I know this immediately upon his first words to me, a Swiss accent as thick as the restaurants buttery sauces I will one day be I charge of: “So you’re Nick huh? Ok, let me show you around”. I expected something so much more formal. An interview, a waiting period, a call back if I had gotten the job. After a brief tour of the kitchen and dining area he turns so me. “So if your interested, come in on Monday and we’ll get you started.” Wow? Did I really get a job just like that!? “Of course, yes, I’d love to. Monday it is!”
I leave the restaurant giddy yet completely ignorant of what I have actually gotten myself into. I have not the slightest clue of what kitchen life is. Sure I’ve helped with dishes after thanksgiving dinner but in this brief moment in time, I have fully transformed my fate. A fate that does not follow a straight line, yet a destination has still been formed which will take years to realize, if you could even say that it has been yet realized.
Monday comes and the sous chef mentioned earlier shows me to the locker room. There aren’t any actual lockers in this room, it’s more of a closet where cooks and servers alike grumble about the day ahead or the night that has passed while suiting up or down like athletes before the big game. I change into a garb so classic that it’s first donning surely had something to do with the kitchen’s initial impression upon my life. Black and white checkered pants, and a white chef’s coat that I can just tell needs the sleeves rolled half way up. I go look in the mirror and there he is: a 20 year old kid facing his first day in the kitchen. I’m nothing more that a dishwasher but the uniform is transforming. I look cool, I think to myself. I feel cool, even. When I walk downstairs and arrive, for the first of many times into The Red Lion kitchen, I look around. Line cooks, prep cooks and other dishwashers are already busily preparing for the day. I immediately realize: Wow, they’re all dressed like me. And for the first time I felt it, I’m a part of something. I’m one of these guys now! Little did I know it, but in this small moment in time, there was no turning back, I had had officially crossed over to the chef life, well, at least, until the numbers end.