Posts tagged ‘restaurant’

Cocoa Meringues

Cocoa Meringues - Hand

I never thought I was the kind of person who would be fired.

I’d been waitressing since my freshman year. The restaurant hired me my first month in Boston, even though I’d never taken an order or carried more than two plates across a room. I think what ultimately sold them was my interview–I walked in with a firm handshake and no doubt I’d find a job, so I did.

I liked waitressing right away. My first day of training, I wanted to be the fastest learner my boss had ever seen, to earn solid 20% tips from every table and have fun doing it. Two years later, I felt pretty good. I was not only the server who’d worked there the longest, but also the server with top sales. I always planned to work at that restaurant until I finished school.

I can’t pinpoint exactly where things started to go bad, or which Bad Thing was the last yanked thread that made the whole thing unravel. One by one, most of the staff had either quit or been fired. My three favorite managers left, one after another. Turnover had never been so high, business so slow, or my earnings so meager. I didn’t look forward to work, but I kept coming in.

Cocoa Meringues - Box

Then one morning last October, I had bad stomachaches and a forehead that could melt butter.

When I called in sick for my shift that evening, the manager said I needed to find my own replacement. Determined, I called all of my co-workers, even the ones who worked at different locations, but nobody wanted to come in. Trying to stay calm, I called my manager again, and told him I honestly couldn’t do it tonight.

“People don’t get sick on a Saturday night, a few hours before their shift.” He continued that if I didn’t come in, things would be “very bad for my future there.”

If I’d been feeling sick before, it was nothing compared to the worry his words sent pinwheeling through my stomach. Just like that, I knew it was over.

I’d never been fired from anything before. I prided myself in being a great employee, a great intern, a great student, a great whatever. I actually liked learning. I always wanted to be the best I could be. Now, to be unceremoniously fired from the first real job I’d ever had? After two solid years? What was wrong with me?

Cocoa Meringues - Raw

It was around that fall I first realized something was different. Looking back I know it was depression settling in, but at the time, it was happening so slowly I hadn’t really noticed.

I was bored with my classes, which weren’t challenging enough. I was so comfortable with my friends, I never went out and looked for more. There was a time I could juggle two jobs, four classes, an internship, and all the relationships I wanted to maintain. But as I sat on my bed that afternoon, phone on my lap and tears welling in my eyes, I felt like I couldn’t do anything.

I was going to be fired. Fired. I felt like such a failure.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I called my dad. We hadn’t talked in a while, partly because I didn’t have anything positive to tell him, and I didn’t want him to know how I’d been feeling. When I heard his enthusiastic “Hey little girl!” I was ashamed to have this conversation. He heard it.

“What’s wrong?”

“Dad,” I said. “It’s not good.”

Cocoa Meringues - Baked

He let me explain what had happened without saying a word. At the end, I finished with a horrible, nasally “So I think they’re going to fire me.” I stared at my toes and hoped he wouldn’t be as disheartened with me as I was with myself. The dead air rang in my ears a few moments, and then he finally spoke.

“Screw them,” he said. Except he didn’t put it quite so nicely.

I was so shocked and so relieved I started crying, more emotional than I would’ve been if he’d yelled. “You’re not mad? You’re not disappointed?”

“Honey,” he said, “you work hard. You gave them all you have. And if that isn’t enough, you don’t need to take this. If you aren’t happy, by all means, get outta there.” He paused. “Mom says, ‘Tell her you’re right.’ So there you go. We’re with you.”

Cocoa Meringues - Bitten

We talked until my tears were dry and a reluctant smile crept in. After hanging up I drank a cup of tea, watched some TV, and went to bed early, glad I hadn’t been too scared or too proud to call. I got better. And two days later, I went into work for my next shift, head held high, ready to face whatever happened.

Fragility is natural. It’s what makes porcelain and lace and new flowers so beautiful. It’s what makes a good meringue cookie so addictive. And it’s what makes us human.

In the end, I wasn’t fired. But I did quit. And when I finally left that job, I learned something else—it’s okay to feel breakable sometimes. It’s okay to let other people see that vulnerability. Because the people who care will always be there to support you, to comfort you, and to believe in you, even when you can’t do those things for yourself. Especially when you can’t do those things for yourself.

And they’ll be there for you when you can.

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July 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm 42 comments

Apricot Walnut Rugelach

Apricot Walnut Rugelach

It takes exactly two minutes to walk from my dorm building to the restaurant where I work.

I know this because I usually tumble out of bed, still sluggish from my afternoon nap, and throw my work clothes into a bag. I half-jog, looking down at my watch at every intersection. In the basement I twist my hair into a side ponytail and tuck a bundle of pens in my apron. I step onto the floor, barely on time.

You’d think I’d learn, but I frequently forget to eat before realizing my shift is in five minutes. Most days I arrive at the restaurant on an empty stomach, thoroughly unprepared for the physical and perhaps emotional stress a nine-hour waitressing shift demands. I’m not really supposed to snack while working, and I don’t have time anyway between running plates and dropping checks.

It takes me six minutes to walk back from the restaurant. I’m considerably slower on my feet by the time I’m through. Eight months experience and I’m still unused to the soreness that seeps into my body at the end of the night. Sometimes the rumbling in my stomach distracts from the tenderness of each step home.

Apricot Walnut Rugelach

One night, after a particularly taxing shift, I walked straight to my boyfriend I-’s room and pounded on the door, still in chocolate stained work clothes. “I really need to eat,” I said. It was 1:15 am on a Thursday but he shook off the sleep and grabbed his keys. “Wherever you want to go,” he replied, and then we were back outside.

I picked a dumpling house in Chinatown, one of my favorites. I like it because the food is steamy and succulent, I find the Korean pop music they play hilarious, and best of all, it’s open until 2 am. He wasn’t really hungry, and I over-ordered: fried rice, beef kabobs, eggrolls and dumplings. But just before the waiter grabbed our menus, I- added, “And an ice cream sundae too.”

For whatever reason, the sundae came out before the meal. Just a few scoops of store-bought vanilla ice cream, with a quick drizzle of chocolate syrup and a ruffled dome of spray-can whipped cream. For a second, I considered not eating it. But then my hand automatically reached for a spoon and dug in, beyond caring. I don’t know if it was hunger, exhaustion, or the happiness that overcame me sitting with I- in that empty restaurant, but the first bite comforted like cool watermelon juice in August. I scraped the spoon against the bottom of the bowl.

The food that followed was predictably satisfying, but when I look back on that night, what I remember is the sundae we demolished.

Unrolled Rugelach

Since then, I- texts me throughout my shifts – “Do you want Chinese, pizza, or Mexican when you get back?” Whenever I can, I try to bring him something back from the restaurant in return. Usually, it’s a cookie. The cookies at our restaurant are tangible temptation beneath a glass cake dome. They don’t often last, but if any remain at the end of the night, I snag a peanut butter cookie for myself, a sugar cookie for I-, and triple chocolate for I-’s roommate D-. Mine usually disappears in the six-minute walk back.

I’m a quiet fan of the cookie. They’re irrefutably a childhood staple, considering that at 19 years old, I experience nostalgia when I eat them. I think of the butter cookies my grandma and I made for holidays. The coconut sugar biscuits my Chinese teacher offered during recess. Gingersnaps return me to the 8th grade, sitting Indian-style on the kitchen floor with my nose against the oven’s glass window, watching the tops crack.

As much as I like them, I don’t bake many. I get bored scooping mound after mound, or I get frustrated with the capriciousness of roll-out cookie dough (it’s too soft! Too cold! Too sticky!) With that kind of time, I’d prefer to pipe buttercream onto cupcakes or delve into yeast-risen territory.

This rugelach, though? Worth it, worth it a million times.

Apricot Walnut Rugelach

As cookies go, these ones are a considerable amount of work. The dough needs to be chilled, requiring some forethought. Then you have to roll out, sprinkle toppings, slice, and bundle into crescent-shaped pillows of brown sugar and apricot preserves. An egg wash coat and dash of cinnamon before the rugelach bakes.

But the resulting cookie is pure heaven. The apricot preserves bubble and transform into a sticky sweet filling, alluring as honey and perfect with milk. The walnuts add just the right textural crunch. Throw in the moist chew of dried cranberries and the soft flakiness cream cheese introduces? An all around winner. Even better than those peanut butter cookies.

Maybe, when I get my hands on a real kitchen and kiss finals week goodbye, I’ll make these cookies for I- and D-. They might not know how much effort goes into them, or how long I spent with floured palms. All they’ll know is that it only takes two minutes to polish off an entire plate, and an afternoon to shake off the smile.

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April 27, 2011 at 7:26 pm 78 comments

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

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.

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

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.

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

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.

Ginger, Almond, and Cranberry Semifreddo

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.

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January 27, 2011 at 3:42 pm 47 comments

Chocolate Molten Cake & Coconut-Hibiscus Sherbet

Chocolate Molten Cake & Coconut-Hibiscus Sherbet

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.

Chocolate Molten Cake & Coconut-Hibiscus Sherbet

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%.

Chocolate Molten Cake & Coconut-Hibiscus Sherbet

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.

Chocolate Molten Cake & Coconut-Hibiscus Sherbet

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.

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.]

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November 6, 2010 at 2:11 pm 62 comments

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Elissa Bernstein



I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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