The Silver Polisher

This is for Matthew, per his request: “AND SO I ASK YOU: have you been in the restaurant club?”

Winter 2004 (Philadelphia PA)

“What did you do with that plate?” barks the chef de cuisine. I don’t answer. I am holding the replacement salad in my hands, for the woman on table 87—Jack is asking about the first salad, the mistake. “Did you give it to the waitstaff?” he asks, appalled. The first salad—sliced pear, local, organically grown green apple, and grapes served with slices of St. Nectar, a nutty, semi-firm Gruyere-like goat cheese–is gone; six waiters and assorted buspeople bore down on it like a swarm, every morsel gone in thirty seconds.

I remembered how he had slammed another mistake salad, earlier in the evening—the dressing was supposed to be on the side, an oversight of the waiter who sent the order—down on the stainless steel line and threw it in the trash, glaring at us in warning.

“What?” he spits, “You think I should reward you for your mistakes?”

“Take the fuckin’ salad out!” shouts a chorus of line cooks.

Waiters know they aren’t high on the restaurant food chain. We are mediators, suspended between guest and kitchen; cooks and chefs act as though we were ordering all this food, were personally responsible for requesting dressing on the side, no potatoes but extra Tuscan kale, steaks medium rare-ish, more rare than medium but not exactly rare; customers balk at us when their steak is the wrong temperature, when they think the potatoes are over-salted, when they wonder why the trout is so “moist.” On the dining room floor, we are beatific, sweet-voiced, lilting, accommodating. When we push through the double doors of the kitchen with our feet, carrying armfuls of dirty dishes and empty martini glasses, we enter a jungle where the rules of civility are suspended.

“RUNNER!” shouts the expediter, calling for someone to take food to the dining room. “I need two lamb and a risotto right now, or I’m dry-fucking you up the ass!” he says to the new young line cook.

“A guest wants to know if there’s parsley in the scallop entrée,” says a waiter to the expediter.

“Why?” he says, intent, rhetorical.

“Because she’s allergic,” the waiter says.

“You should know if it has parsley,” the expediter says before rattling off a new ticket: “Two lamb, one rib eye med rare, one mahi, three venison, ORDER FIRE!” The waiter waits.

“Is there parsley?” she asks.

“YES! There’s fucking parsley! Fucking WAITERS! Read the menu!” he screams. The entrée is new; the menu only specifies “caraway broth.”

What we say to the expediter (we’re not allowed to directly engage the cooks on the line) is invariably repeated in sissy voices or turned weirdly sexual as soon as we re-enter the dining room, the world of the living. When we’re in the kitchen, on our narrow landing strip behind pantry, where we make coffee, brew espresso, steam milk, retrieve lemons, and refill butters, six at a time in a space the size of a toilet stall, we hear the cooks over the din. Isaiah has Turret’s syndrome; he fires a blue streak of “fucks” for every third word of his nonstop narrative. Jason, the grill man, tells Puerto Rican jokes. Ray, the Puerto Rican pantry kid, stays quiet. Isaiah tells the crew about the strip club he went to the night before. Casey, the sous chef, calls him a faggot and tells him to shut up.

“Jack,” I say evenly.

“What?” He whirls around.

“What do you recommend for the venison?”

“Medium rare, like everything else,” he snaps.

“Well, you recommend medium for the pork, so I wanted to make sure,” I say.

“Says who? Is that a direct quote?”

“Says management. Since we opened.”

“Management, who’s management?” He pauses. “Get out of my kitchen.”

At night, I walk the twenty blocks home. I give the evening’s highlights to my boyfriend over the phone. He is an architect; he is older than I am and works with grownups. “That’s so condescending,” he says, aghast, when I repeat whatever it was Jack said to me that night. I laugh.

Cooks, in my experience, relish their outlaw status, their lack of employability for anything but this, a line of work requiring air-traffic controller precision, Olympic inexhaustibility, and indifference to extreme heat and the occasional threat of severe bodily harm. As such, they are a rare phylum separate from the average population: sadist, adolescent, foul-mouthed workaholics with an eerie genius for making things you’d want to eat. They are immensely entitled. Their job is absolutely harder than mine. They assume I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I am probably a vegetarian, that I might look good naked, that I am liable to quit at a moment’s notice to pursue performance art or yoga instruction.

They want me to shut the fuck up. They want me to know the intricacies of French, Italian, and Pacific Rim cuisine and their New American “fusions,” to have psychic knowledge of every ingredient in Jason’s free-form broths, and to never, ever ask what’s in gremolata again. If I open my mouth, they hope I say something embarrassing so it can be repeated for the next half-hour, and they can remind me of it when we hit a lull and they have nothing to cook.

Once, in a fit of sincerity, I asked a pantry cook how, exactly, you were supposed to filet a bell pepper. “Ooooh, show me how you cut the bell peppers, Jeffrey!” they squealed for a month.

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