When I began working at the restaurant at Duke, my traveling companion was Ramon, a wonderful guy from Mexico who was interested in doing more in the kitchen than just washing dishes. He’s a good guy, he works hard, his English is limited, and he really wants to learn.
In order for the place to get on its feet, we are the only two in the kitchen. I get there early and do most of the prep work. He comes in and helps set up for the dinner service and washes all the stuff I got dirty during preparation. We cook together and then, at the end of the night, he washes dishes while I clean up the line and finishes by mopping while I take out the trash. I created a small menu that had good variety but was something we could do together, and I trained him on two or three of the dishes that became “his.”
Since we have started to find a pretty good rhythm, I upped the ante this week and added more dishes to the menu and gave him a couple more things to add to his repertoire, one of which was Chicken Parmigiana. I had hoped to start the menu on Monday night, which we expected to be slow, but Ramon ended up with the day off. Tuesday, when we did get it off the ground, was really busy, which made the learning curve all the more steep. We went through the steps together several times and even made a couple of practice dishes (also known as supper for the cooks). About an hour into the dinner service, we got hit pretty hard and Ramon ended up with five orders all at once. I had my own board full of requests, and so I didn’t get to check up as much as I would have liked. A few minutes later, three of the Parms came back because the chicken was not cooked all the way through.
Since we were in the middle of dinner service, there was not time to do much more than fix what was wrong and give some instructions to make sure it didn’t happen again – all in a rather task oriented manner. (I’m talking about me here.) I don’t mean I was angry or yelling, just that if we stopped too long we would lose track of everything else that was on the board; I had to keep things moving. Ramon responded well and finished the shift in good shape.
Which brings me to the other side of the line.
The two women who serve in the dining room get good feedback from our customers for their friendliness. In my three weeks there, that spirit has not necessarily carried back to the kitchen. I’ve made several changes in a place where change is not necessarily welcomed and I’m the only new guy in a while. They aren’t mean or disrespectful, but curt or terse in their interaction with me. And that’s when things are going well. When the dishes started coming back, my second concern (after fixing the food) was how it was going to play with the front of the house. When the shift was over, the servers cleaned up and left quickly, so we didn’t get much of a chance to talk about it.
I asked Ramon to come in an hour early yesterday because we had so much prep work to do after such a busy night. Tabitha, one of the servers on Tuesday, was working again. I watched as Ramon approached her and worked hard with his broken English to apologize for what had happened the night before. It took her a minute to figure out what he was trying to say and then I saw a side of her I had not seen before.
“You talking about the chicken last night? Shucks, Ramon, don’t you even think about it. Those people were fine. Nobody was angry or nothing.”
“But I sorry,” he said. “I made mistake.”
“Listen, honey, you’ve been working up here how long and that was your first mistake. That’s pretty good. Don’t you worry about it anymore.”
Funny – until that moment I had no idea grace had snuck into the room.
Bill Mallonee is one of the best songwriters around and works in parallel realtive anonymity to our life in the kitchen at Duke. One of the songs that sustains me comes from his Vigilantes of Love days, “Skin.” The chorus sings:
now look if you’re gonna come around here
and say those sort of things
you gotta take a few on the chin
you talking about love and all that stuff
you better bring your thickest skin
sometimes you can’t please everyone
sometimes you can’t please anyone at all
you sew your heart onto your sleeve
and wait for the ax to fall
His words came to mind as I drove home last night because I realized, even in three weeks, I had let my skin thicken to the point that I didn’t expect grace to abide at work. I was allowing myself to become accustomed to the division between the front of the house and the kitchen, to the blank exchange when they placed orders, to just getting through it. Because one short overheard conversation, I saw the whole place differently, and the people in it as well.
Thick skin is no good when I let it grow over my eyes.
At the bottom of the index finger on my right hand are two calluses that have grown because of the way I hold my knife when I cut and chop, the kind of skin that thickens to prevent blisters and ongoing sores. Though I’m grateful for them, they don’t really work as Mallonee’s metaphor. The point is not to grow indifferent or impenetrable. The point is to keep growing, to keep coming, to keep talking about love and all that stuff with unflinching resolve, regardless of what is offered in return: to wear my heart on the sleeve of my chef’s coat and wait . . . .