Notebook: Speaking the Language

It’s my first week in New York City, and I’ve just started my culinary school internship at a fine dining restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

Chef naturally starts me off at the bottom, amongst the prep team. The team arrives early in the morning and stays until late. It consists of three Mexicans: Alfonso, Lorenzo, and Armenio, along with Juan, a Dominican.

The team is in charge of receiving deliveries, processing produce, breaking down large cuts of meat, filleting fish, and making the fresh pasta. Although they’re near the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, above only the dishwashers and porters, these four men are the backbone of the restaurant. They speak little English, but are well versed in the food industry. Their strong work ethic and reliability make them irreplaceable members of the team.

I work alongside them for those first few weeks, and the group tentatively accepts me into their circle. I eat family meal with them, all of us silently shoveling food into our mouths around the steel prep table. They liven up staff meals with their own bottle of hot sauce, or better yet, Alfonso’s signature salsa. They converse rapidly in Spanish, and I smile and nod, acting like I understand, seeking to be part of their family. Our prep table is a peaceful refuge from the intensity of the rest of the kitchen. We still have a lot of work, but we work on our own time, at a steady pace.

Alfonso is the designated pasta maker. He’s quiet, and barely acknowledges my presence in the first two weeks that I work there, even while we eat alongside one another. I observe him making pasta, his swift fingers crafting the dough into various shapes, and decide that I want to learn. So, on my third week in the kitchen, still in my internship period, I approach Alfonso and tell him that I want to watch him make pasta. He looks at me, slightly confused, but I don’t walk away. And so he says, “Ok”. That was the extent of our first conversation.

With Chef’s approval, I spend a week making pasta with Alfonso: cappelletti, cavatelli, gnochetti, ravioli and fettucini. We always start off the day making dough. Pasta dough consists of eggs, flour, water and salt. Seemingly simple, but difficult to master. It comes down to knowing the desirable texture in the dough by touch. It should be moist, but not sticky; elastic, but not tough.

Mas agua,” Alfonso says with certainty as he pinches the dough.

He hands it to me to feel. I study the dough, and try to commit the texture to memory. It’s the only way I will learn.

Next we crank out the dough with a mechanical pasta maker and form the various pasta shapes. Alfonso first demonstrates, and after a period of me observing him he hands me the dough, and I attempt to imitate his movements. I watch Alfonso’s small fingers as he deftly transforms the flat, circular pieces into multi-dimensional cappelletti, “little hats” in Italian. He takes great pride in his work. If a single pasta is imperfect, he tosses it to the side, either to be redone or thrown out. Within just minutes he has made dozens of them, while I am still fumbling to maneuver the dough into something that resembles a sombrero.

Alfonso didn’t learn to make pasta in Italy. He comes from Puebla, Mexico, and learned everything he knows about pasta by working on the job. He’s worked in city kitchens for several years, and got his current position through his friend Lorenzo, the restaurant’s butcher. He smiles often, and usually seems happy to be at work.

Alfonso glances over at my misshapen hats, smiles, and shakes his head. He demonstrates the movement for me, once again, and motions for me to keep going. He’s warming up to me now, and we’re becoming comfortable working side-by-side in silence. Pasta is not our native language, but we converse in it. Alfonso teaches me, without using words, how to work in the restaurant. He teaches me to command respect through solid, steady work.

After my first month I’m offered a position as a line cook. I’m assigned to the pasta station, where I blanch Alfonso’s pastas and toss them with sauce. I’m also in charge of soup, as well as a few items coming out of the fryer. It feels good to have my own station. At the end of the day, I walk to the subway and feel a sense of satisfaction, knowing I put in the work and did my best. Other times I walk away frustrated, wondering why I chose to work in this unhealthy environment, in a job that is both physically and emotionally exhausting. Chef is a man who constantly performs under stress, and known for losing his temper during service. I am a sensitive perfectionist, and I berate myself, usually even worse than he does, when I don’t get things right.

Although we now work at opposite ends of the kitchen, Alfonso and the other prep guys remain my kitchen family. They’re protective, and often come over to check up on me. If a new male cook tries to chat me up Juan will step in and tell him to back off, like a protective older brother. If I get behind in my own prep I know that I can ask Armenio, without shame, to help me out a bit. And Alfonso will always take a few minutes, even in the midst of his own work, to help me get the pastas out from the freezer for service.

Our moments in the freezer are a welcome break from the heat and buzz of the busy kitchen. As we get closer and closer to the time of service, the energy in the kitchen picks up in intensity. In the freezer we are allowed a calm, cool breath. Alfonso and I are friendly with each other now. As he pulls down the marscarpone ravioli from the shelf, he jokingly calls me his novia, or girlfriend.

I laugh, “Alfonso, no!” I say. “Solamente amiga.”

“Ok, mami,” he says, and hands me the tray of ravioli.

Being a woman in a kitchen like this can be a tough proposition. In the beginning I felt that I had to prove my worth — that I could keep up with any man. Now that my work ethic has more or less been established I am largely ignored — still an outsider, but at least spared from the harassment dished out among the white male line cooks.

Despite the challenges, I start to feel like a part of the team: a team of misfits who somehow come together to produce noteworthy food. I like the feeling of sending out dish after dish, during a busy service. I enjoy the thrill of being pushed to my edge, the rush of defying expectations. I wear my cuts and burns proudly. Each time I send out a dish it looks, and presumably tastes, better than the day before. I’m getting more consistent, and the motions become increasingly more intuitive for me.

Like pasta dough itself, the kitchen has texture. There are smooth and then rough moments that come together to form my experience. One day I come into the kitchen to find that my lowboy – the fridge which stores all my prep from the day before – has blown a fuse at some point during the night. Everything that was left in this fridge is now at room temperature, and must be thrown out. I have to discard most of my mise-en-place, leaving me with very little prepared for the impending lunch service.

I’m frantic and working madly. I tell the sous what happened, and all he can tell me is that he’ll get the maintenance guy out in the afternoon. I run around like mad and manage to prep out most of what I need, yet there’s still a lot to be done when the order tickets start printing out at noon.

My prayers for a slow service are not answered, and it turns out to be one of the busiest lunches that I’ve worked. I have six different pastas going, and I’m actually starting to feel pretty confident as I roll them out, one by one, onto the pass. Chef garnishes them, and then the runners whisk them out into the swanky dining room.

Chef calls out the next ticket. “Order in: One gazpacho, going with an arugula.”

I’m out of gazpacho. Completely out. I knew this, but foolishly I figured I’d have time to whip it together during a lull. Now I’ll have to make it on the fly, à la minute. I frantically throw tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, shallots, olive oil and sherry vinegar into the Vitamix, hoping that in the general commotion of things Chef won’t notice.

Of course he does. “Gazpacho? ON THE FLY?!” he bellows.

“Yes, Chef.” I avoid his eyes. I just have to wiz this soup together, pass it through a china cap, plate it in a chilled bowl, garnish it and send it out. I do this in ten minutes, probably less, yet it’s still far too much time, and he continues to yell at me.

My station, which I take great care to keep clean and organized, has devolved into chaos. Knives, deli cups, tomato skins, blender, tasting spoons everywhere. Chef is commenting loudly on the general disaster, and the tickets continue to print out in an endless stream. The noise they make coming out of the ticker is making me cringe as I struggle to balance the task of cooking, cleaning, and getting my orders out.

I’m sweating and I can feel my face growing hot with embarrassment. I’m deep in the weeds now, and I’m having trouble keeping track of orders. I’m struggling to achieve cohesive timing with my fellow cooks. I burned my forearm, and it’s starting to really hurt. I’m reaching the end of all my mise-en-place. I dig deep. I keep cooking.

Now it’s almost the end of service, and Chef is again yelling at me for something or other. I’m beaten down, exhausted, and I know that I’m about to cry. My cheeks are red and hot, and as soon as I start to feel the tears starting to well I grab Aaron, the sous chef, and ask him to watch my station. I walk briskly through the kitchen, averting the eyes of the other cooks.

I manage to just make it to the locker room when the tears start to come. I go into the restroom, lean against a wall, and try to make them stop, taking deep breaths.

When I come out of the restroom there’s Alfonso standing by his locker. “Okay, mi amor?” he asks.

I attempt a smile, and nod. He goes into his locker and pulls out some Visine and hands it to me. He watches me put a few drops in my eyes, I thank him, and we stand there in silence as I wipe the final tears.

I am the immigrant, and Alfonso is teaching me the language.

I go back into the restroom and splash cold water on my face until it looks normal again. When I return to the kitchen the orders have stopped coming in, and there is a calm buzz as the cooks break down their stations. I stay the rest of the day and prep out what I will need for lunch service tomorrow. Chef says nothing more to me. The maintenance guy comes in to fix the fridge just as I’m leaving. Aaron assures me that, “Tomorrow will be a new day.”

Once we clock out Alfonso and I walk together to the subway.

Mucho trabajo,” he says to me.

Si,” I reply. Yes, every day, lots of work. And as I play back the events of day I’m not sure if I can do it all again tomorrow.

Sometimes I want to ask him if he wants to go grab a beer and “hang out” like my friends do with their co-workers after a day in the office. But before I do, I stop myself. After all, what would we talk about? My Spanish is not proficient enough to get beyond a few simple phrases, and his English is the same.

Not wanting to sit in awkward silence, I say goodbye to him. “Hasta mañana.”

And so we go back to our respective homes, mine in Williamsburg and his somewhere in Queens, where we presumably live very different lives. Yet tomorrow we’ll work together under the fluorescent lights of the kitchen, and we’ll make pasta. He’ll make the dough, roll it, shape it, and then I’ll cook it. We’ll serve it to the customers whom we never see. We’ll do it because it’s our job, and it’s what we’ve been trained to do. We’ll do it because underneath the drama it is what we know and love. And for just a brief period in time we’ll be speaking the same language.

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