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Locker Room Talk

I have never worked a fine-dining kitchen but was a short-order fry cook for many years and absolutely loved the work. It’s the closest I have ever been to becoming a star athlete: the physical challenge, mental focus, and team effort of the average brunch service was a rush no matter how many times I got through it. I would sit eagerly after the line was clean, watching the waitress tally her tickets so I could go home with my head full of fresh stats: 200 covers, 8 hours, no walk-outs, no comps = perfect game.

And I was good. I have no idea why. I walked into the diner of my future as a 21-year-old anthropology student and applied for a part-time job I (falsely) assumed would be as low-accountability as my former pizza kitchen work, where as the only woman in the back of the house I was treated with all the novelty I deserved and none of the (usual) hostility. Like a kitten in a nursing home, my male co-workers gave me just enough to play with in that kitchen so I didn’t run away, all the while relieved to have a distraction from their own tired dynamics.

I learned about fry-o-lators (a mysterious box where various chunks of tan were dumped, a button was pushed, and the chunks of tan would eventually emerge at the bottom, tanner than before), I learned about rolling dough, I learned about Alfredo sauce in a bag, and I learned how to somewhat master a pizza oven.

Coming from that niche background, I suppose I was emboldened to try a faster-paced environment. I was ready to kick some flat-top ass, and the tracks of oven burns lining my arms and flour-encrusted Doc Martens must have indicated to my future boss that I was ready for battle. But the line at this diner was something else entirely — unrelenting, public, sweltering, rude, and goddamn tiny. Every nook and cranny of the 15-foot line held something crucially valuable to service. It was like a battleship, and the notion that I had to memorize these details without the crutch of pizza bros to guide me must have been daunting at first. But I’ve always had a head for trivia and I knew I never really needed the pizza bros, so I threw my back into it and committed to training.

My boss was extreme. She counted sugar packets. She hid bananas under the cooler to make sure we swept all the way back. She threw toast at another line cook working beside me once. “What is this?” She held the stuff in front of the cook’s face, and the cook, a tougher woman than most, replied with unusual timidity. “Toast?” My boss threw the offending object toward the cook, and it repelled off our cutting board and sailed onto the mat below. “It’s WARM BREAD. Make it again.” My boss was tough as nails and didn’t take shit from anyone.

We were situated in Duluth’s Central Hillside before the Whole Foods Co-Op had even heard of jackfruit. There was a thriving knife, meth, and random attack scene in that part of town at the time. These were the early Bush years, when the hospitals’ eminent domain was still being protested, when we could smoke in bars and almost anywhere else, the Days of House of Donuts.

Our clientele ranged from extremely self-satisfied hungover college students to regulars who had lived above the Chinese restaurant across the street for the past half century. Although this array may seem like a healthy cross-section of the dining public, the commonality in clientele was the ability for everyone who came in to offer up piles and piles and piles of bullshit. From flim-flam to guff, our customers had a story, excuse, or alibi for every situation. Lost wallets, counterfeit coupons, and dine-and dash attempts were common. My boss, who had what I believe are still the most beautiful green-blue eyes I’ve ever seen, could somehow look right through potential shysters, shut them down, serve them a perfect gyro omelet, collect the money (no checks!) and send them on their way.

I learned absolutely everything from this woman — how to cook like a machine, how to move with efficiency, how to communicate with my co-workers. I learned to look at my line with cook’s eyes: I could scan all my various coolers and wells and instantly read the prep list — no counting needed. On a good day, I could keep a running tally in my head and be able to call out a list from memory even after a busy service. It’s a miraculous feeling, and actually sort of spiritually satisfying, to have that much control over your surroundings.

It’s normal in food service to have some kind of emotional breakdown, and recently, in my current job (which is still food service but I’m now the “boss”), we were talking about our own. Average triggers include maniacal managers who taunt you as you try to put out perfect, lightening-fast prep, waitstaff who collect several tables’ worth of tickets and then jam you with them all at once, tables that cannot (or will not) accept a plate until they’ve sent it back three times, or just the plain-old slam that pushes you to the edge of endurance.

I told a story that was only half true, and it left me wondering why. The story is that my boss, the aforementioned take-no-shit mentor, took me to the back office in the middle of steady service, calmly opened a locked file drawer, retrieved a bottle of Jack Daniels, and invited me to take a slug (or two) when she saw me crack on the line. When I say “crack,” I mean cry. None of this part is made up — I can still remember my astonishment as she pulled the bottle out from amongst the invoices, thinking right up to that point she was likely pulling out a write-up form or perhaps a weapon to punish me for my wimpy behavior. She was not a mysterious woman, and I knew she had no time for teardrops in the corned beef hash. I also recall the welcome warmth of the whiskey, and the nice buzz it gave me on a Saturday morning and an empty stomach. She didn’t ask me anything at all (not right then anyway), but encouraged a second slug, patted my shoulder, and sent me back to the line, where the unorthodox buzz served me just fine all through breakfast.

What I made up was why. My current co-workers are as friendly and sympathetic as anyone could want, perhaps even more so. But, prompted by no one, I told them I had my freak out because of a super busy slam — that I crumbled under the pressure and the tickets got to me. It’s really weird that this was my default, because I never even came close to tears on any line. Even now, away from any conventional commercial kitchen, I still find myself in high-pressure catering situations and I (mostly) love the pressure, and even when I hate it, I don’t cry about it.

The real reason I cried is a long story, but the abbreviated version is that a man I knew had come into the diner for breakfast. He wasn’t an ex or anything — he was an acquaintance who had physically assaulted a friend while I was in the same house. I hadn’t seen him since before the attack (I hadn’t seen him then, either — just heard him and witnessed the aftermath). He terrified me. He represented all the chaos in the world that was just outside the door, jangling the doorknob to see if it was unlocked. I had nightmares and insomnia for months after this event, and many years later I still go to all the locks on my doors at night and check them twice before I can sleep. But when he came into the diner, confident and normalized, like the boogie man with a Patagonia puffer vest, it wasn’t the fear that made me choke my perfect game on the flat top that day. It was my insignificance. It was my powerlessness. It was that he could star in my nightmares every night and he expected me to make him extra crispy hashbrowns. It was that he never even thought to say he was sorry. And it was everyone around me who, whenever I got angry talking about it, would remind me he was having problems, too. It was chaos and danger and imbalance and ambiguity.

So, why is it preferable (at least in my own mind) for me to cry over too many Denver omelet orders rather than to admit all this? Brevity, maybe. But I think it’s something more: it’s the hollow reality that my world and everyone else’s isn’t a flat top. We can’t adjust the temperature and lay out perfect strips of bacon and time the eggs just right. Or we can, but then bloody horror will walk in, sit down at the counter, light up a smoke, and invade your psyche. Better to crumble over solid pressure than to admit existential dread. So I was good at flipping pancakes. Now I’m good at Excel spreadsheets. I was there. Now I’m here. But sometimes I’m back in that office, silently taking a shot of Jack Daniels from the toughest lady I ever knew, shaking it off and getting ready to get back in the game.

4 Comments

Kathleen Anne Murphy Edwards

about 11 months ago

What a great article, Mary! I could feel myself in both the kitchen and the fear. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I so admire you and every woman stepping up to publicly tell their story. It is so very overdue!

Anna Tennis

about 11 months ago

Thank you, Mary. You are so good.

Karen Gustafson

about 11 months ago

Fine writing. Important message. Many thanks!

Cashia Pokoju

about 11 months ago

Holy buckets, lady, you rocked this.  The writing,the telling, the living of it.  Sure am grateful to know you.

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