Posts tagged ‘restaurant’
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far second semester? Bundle up. Sometimes when I step outside it hurts to inhale, like the breath freezes in my lungs. Snow packs into the spaces between bricks.
The other morning I took an extra long, extra hot shower and found myself running late to class. I got dressed, swept up my books, and headed for the elevator. I didn’t give my towel-dried hair a second thought until I was on the sidewalk. I couldn’t have been outside longer than a few minutes, but when I got to the classroom, my skull was so cold it burned. My hair had frozen solid, waves of ice brushing against my cheeks.
When the temperature is in the single digits, I try not to leave my building. But between classes and shifts at the restaurant, I’m getting the full New England winter experience.
Way back in September, one of the things I immediately loved about Boston was its color palette. Seattle is splashed grey and green and blue, with chrome and glass and buildings that reflect the clouds. While it’s gorgeous and familiar, Massachusetts was a welcome change. Boston is all brick and gold and off-white, rich with history and equally beautiful. But four months later the cars and streets and trees are burdened with dirty snow, and that’s all I notice.
I walk to work with the same philosophy I have towards other unpleasant things – get it over with quickly. Salt crystals crackle beneath my boots every step of the way. Scarf, gloves, earmuffs, two coats and a pair of tights under my jeans… Every accessory means the longer it’ll take me to change into uniform once I get there.
When my shift ends long after midnight, the sidewalks are quiet and clear. Sometimes a fresh blanket of snow has fallen and untouched white stretches in all directions. The air is just as chilly before, but windless, and the street feels unreal. I’ve caught myself standing in the restaurant’s doorway, breathless, suddenly reminded why I love living here.
The walk home is so dark, it’s like a different set of streets. The blackness swallows up the lampposts, so the bulbous orange lights seem suspended in midair. Taxi headlights cut through the darkness in wide, white sweeps. I watch my breath curl into itself and dissolve up towards the sky, which is either greyed purple or orange thanks to light pollution.
Boston is painted with an entirely different color theme at 1 AM. And as I walked home last night, past leafless trees embossed with snow, I suddenly thought of semifreddo.
When the semifreddo is made, a quick custard folded with whipped cream, it’s marshmallowy and soft. But after an overnight freeze, it becomes an entirely different dessert, with the creamy richness of ice cream. And this semifreddo has a gorgeous color palette, too. The base is flavored with dry white wine and a hint of orange, the color of eggshells. Every slice is studded with vibrant dried cranberries and sharp crystalized ginger, like gems held up to the light.
I realize it’s still the dead of winter, but I’m one of those people who orders iced coffee and eats gelato all year. I can get home from work, clap my snow-packed boots together, and enjoy a cold fruit smoothie straight from the fridge. I’m one of the lucky people who happily makes semifreddo whenever the whim strikes. This dessert is unusual and beautiful, worth a hurried walk through the chill.
I’m sitting in the dining hall, eating breakfast in the same black collared button-up and black slacks that I wore to work yesterday. Last night, long after midnight, after I finally staggered out of the elevator and fumbled with the key to my door, I was too tired to change out of my server’s clothes before I crashed into bed. This morning, up bright and early, I was too tired to change into anything else.
I’ve had a little experience in the restaurant industry, but working front of the house is an entirely different animal. It’s exhausting. I remember orientation, trying to remember how all the buttons on the computer worked and the numbering of the tables. They gave me two weeks of shadowing to get used to the lay of the land, and I couldn’t like the people I work with more.
My first non-training day was earlier this week. For the first time, I’d have my own section. “Elissa” would be printed on top of all of my receipts. And I’d take home any tips I made. I tied my apron straps into a bow and stepped through the kitchen doors onto the floor.
The first thing I noticed was that my shoes weren’t broken in yet. It takes a little adjustment to get used to being on your feet a whole shift. As a server, you don’t have much time to sit around and lounge. If you aren’t running plates, bussing tables or putting in orders, there is always side work to do – scoop ice into the water pitchers, refill the coffee thermos, work the bakery, restock napkins. You learn not to sit down. And on that first day, I felt it in my soles.
I needed to keep everything in place. This is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me, the ability to juggle five tables which all expect you to make them your first priority. I began to forget which table came in first, who ordered what, whether Table 5 wanted the decaf refill or the check. As the rush set in and my tables filled up, my mind became more and more jumbled, until everything was one overwhelming noise that never quieted.
You get used to smiling. Even though your shoes are slowly killing you. Even though you messed up 12’s order and you know they aren’t happy, even though the kids at 8 will ask a million questions and probably order nothing but hot chocolate. As a server, you need to be upbeat. You can’t let a bad afternoon show in your face, because it’s not about you – it’s about making every guest feel welcome and at ease, and when it really comes down to it, that’s so much more important than a tip.
I did the best I could my first day, and it wasn’t perfect. Or even close. I sent one table a free crème brûlée because I’d made a mistake with their order, and they’d waited patiently forever. At another table, the couple ordered a full out meal – drinks, soup, salad, dinner, and dessert – ringing up an enormous bill and leaving me with a tip of zero dollars, zero cents. A four-top of teenaged boys left me under 10%.
I pushed through the swinging door with a plate of dirty glasses to bus. At the dish pit, with three servers all working around each other, somebody stumbled, and a stream of dirty dishwater splashed through my collared shirt and down my leg, pressing the cloth against my skin in a cool drench. I didn’t have a change of clothes, or the time anyway. I walked back onto the floor to bring in another tray, and on the way to the kitchen, my wrist gave out and I dropped a towering stack of plates.
Every fork stilled, every face turned, and even though the background music continued to play, for a moment the restaurant stopped. I didn’t know the room could go silent.
It was rough. Nearing the end of the night I was so frustrated; I was trying with everything I had but I couldn’t make excuses. On top of everything, I would leave almost empty handed, with little more than a few callouses. I couldn’t bring myself to think about the homework I had left.
Closing drew near. The restaurant slowed to a trickle and we tackled the side work and remaining tables. One of my bosses, C-, called me over to the bar. I didn’t know what else could have gone wrong.
I almost couldn’t handle it. An ice cream sundae, filled to burst and topped with a ridiculous amount of brightly-lit rainbow candles.
“Blow out the bad juju,” she said. I blew out the candles.
In the back room, I dipped a spoon into the ice cream sundae and almost wanted to cry. The pastry chef, M-, had made it exactly the way I liked – with scoops of vanilla, coffee, and chocolate ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauce, almonds, brownie bits, a beehive swirl of whipped cream and a clown red cherry. I could only eat a couple bites before I had to go back to work, but nothing could have tasted better.
I tried to thank M- as I walked by, but nothing came out. She had a ridiculous smile on her face. And I pulled myself up and finished out my tables with a smile, and walked home with a pocketful of blown-out candles.
Next week, those callouses will have made me stronger. My shoes will feel a little softer. But until then, I’ll throw myself into my essay and wrap up my radio package, trying unsuccessfully to get my mind off of chocolate and ice cream.
[PS I'm falling behind, I know, but I'm doing my best. It's a struggle to find time to eat and sleep, but blogging is like breathing, and I'll continue to work it in whenever I have a minute.]
As boring as it might sound, I’m comfortable with the ordinary. I like routines.
I hit the snooze button twice every morning before crossing the cool carpet to get my fuzzy socks. I have the same cereal in my favorite breakfast bowl, the marbled blue and white one that says “Good Morning” in wavy print along the rim.
When school is finally over, I head to the same patch of parking lot, leaning from the weight of my backpack onto the bumper of my friend C-‘s car. As we carpool home, I look out the window and remark how much brighter each day is getting, and he smiles and turns up the radio.
I like routines, because I like the comfort of knowing what to do – it keeps me focused and organized, and I feel like I’m on target.
Sometimes, though, you’re forced to adapt, to step out of your comfort zone even if you haven’t put on your shoes or accumulated enough experience. Lately at Seastar, the restaurant where I intern, I’ve been working on banquets, which are uncharted waters for me.
Banquets are different from normally working on the pantry line. Instead of plating orders of food for tables, the Seastar chefs make enough food to feed a private business or organization. While the biggest ticket I’ll probably tackle on the pantry line is for 8 people, banquets can go up in the hundreds. And banquets, unlike salads or desserts on their own, are composed of multiple courses.
If you ask me, banquets are much more stressful. There’s a palpable intensity in the kitchen that I can’t quite handle. There’s a rush to cook and plate the food, and though I wish I could help, I just haven’t learned enough yet. For starters, I’ve never seen most of the entrees and appetizers, and for another, I haven’t picked up the skills to execute what my mentors are doing.
I tried to be helpful, running to plate hundreds of cheese-filled fingerling potatoes. I used only my fingertips, the way I saw the chef before me, to move each potato half from the sweltering pan to the platter. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t imitate the nimble way the other chefs worked. The blistering heat from the bubbling cheese seemed to burn holes in my palms, and I was slow and clumsy. I ended up stepping back because I felt like a burden.
It’s not like me to get flustered, to feel incompetent and to cast my eyes down in atypical introversion. So even though I didn’t like working on banquets, and could have said so – I think that ultimately this new experience will be good for me, it’ll help me acquire new skills and tougher fingertips.
I had the chance to go back to the pantry line, and I will sometime. But at the moment, it would seem like giving up, and determination is one of my stronger qualities when I put my mind to something. So I’ll keep working through the banquets, despite my frustration and the lack of coordination between my ambition and my ability.
I know someday the turnaround will come. I’ll be wiping down the counters after a night spent on my feet when I’ll realize I was helpful that day; that my presence made things run a little more smoothly. And everything will be worth it. Right now, I want to try new things in every area of my life, from the stainless steel kitchens at work to my quiet, sunlit kitchen at home.
I’m making a greater and greater variety of things now. In the past, unsure of myself or “realistic” as I called it, I stuck to simple cakes and cookies. Now I’ve made so many things I never thought I could tackle, from French macarons to bagels. I want to cross everything off my wishlist. Every success and every failure makes me a little more daring, and suddenly I forget the appeal of the routine.
When people ask me if I cook, I laugh and shrug a little, and when they ask about bread I deflect by describing my mother’s talents. I’ve said many times before that I’m scared of making bread because I’ve never worked with yeast. But now, I can finally proudly say that I’ve made a yeast-raised baked good – and it wasn’t any scarier than jumping off a diving board.
I don’t know what gave me the push to make doughnuts. I’ve been eying them for a while, longingly. But the thought of working with yeast, and the “probable failure” I expected overpowered my desire. Who knows what gave me the final push? Maybe 17 and Baking, a browse through Tastespotting, or simply a craving for something homey.
In an effort to avoid the plunge, I considered making cake doughnuts or baked doughnuts. But in my heart I wanted to make yeast-raised doughnuts, fluffy and tall and pillowy, and no talk of “healthier baked doughnuts” or “cakey rings of goodness” could really sway me. My refrigerator was stocked with homemade blackberry jam and leftover meyer lemon curd, and I rejected my reservations like a deep exhalation.
It seemed simple enough to let the yeast bloom in the water like a dusty ripple, and when I peeked underneath the warm towel I saw that the dough had doubled in size. From there it I felt like I was on stable ground, easily cutting the doughnut rings like they were sugar cookies, and chasing them in the bubbling oil with my slotted spoon.
And the first bite? Anything but ordinary.
[PS: The comments on last week's post were better than a hug from my mom or falling asleep with my dog Tilly (well, maybe.) It was unexpected and so uplifting. Thank you for being supportive, and I want to add that since the exposure has died down, I haven't had experienced any more negativity.]