lessons from the kitchen


    Lesson One: Remember What It Feels Like.

    Sunday nights I work at the Durham restaurant. The guy who is my second at Duke works there also, after doing the brunch shift on campus. When he got to work, he told me our Duke dishwasher had not shown up, which meant the cook got to wash all the pots and pans and plates and glasses and, well, everything. Neither of us had phone information for the dishwasher, but my cook knew where he lived and was going to stop by and make sure he was coming to work on Monday.

    We need all hands on deck the first day of the week because it is the big preparation day: everything has to be made. I go in about eleven to get started and to do my part for the lunch shift. My second is due in at two. About one the phone rang and he told me, first, that the dishwasher was coming in. Then he told me he was in Greensboro and wouldn’t be in until three-thirty or four. At two,, he called back to say he wasn’t going to be in at all.

    Thanks to the dishwasher, a Duke student who wants to learn more about cooking, and anyone else who happened into the kitchen, we got the prep work done and the meals cooked and served. I got out of the kitchen at nine-thirty, rather than eight o’clock. I drove home wondering how the guy who got stuck with the dishes on Sunday could turn around and do the same thing to someone else on Monday. I don’t know what kept him in Greensboro; he didn’t tell me. I do know, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” feels particularly poignant this morning.

    Lesson Two: Ask for Help.

    The dishwasher and the student are a study in contrasts. The dishwasher has been in this country for a dozen years, has worked as a landscaper since his teens, and is always looking to learn more. The student was born in this country, has not really had to work for his station in life, and wants to learn, but begins from a position of what he thinks he already knows, rather than what there is to learn.

    When the dishwasher started working for us, he came to me one day and said, “I want to learn how to cook. Will you teach me?” Each shift, my second and I have brought him up on the line and taught him one of the dishes. He both listens and remembers well, down to the details. He has become our go to guy on the pasta dishes when things get busy.

    The student loves food and cooking and does know a good bit about it, but more from books and meals he has eaten rather than those he has cooked. He has no restaurant cooking experience. Yet, when I ask him to do something, I have yet to hear him say, “I don’t know how to do that. Will you show me?” Last night I asked him to julienne some red peppers, which means to cut them into long thin strips. I think I could have grown peppers faster than he cut them. When he was done, he asked if they were all right, and then said, “I’ve never done that before.”

    I wish he had started there.

    Lesson Three: Be Willing to Learn.

    The glue that holds our operation together is a guy who makes deliveries between the two restaurants and the catering kitchen. We all have his mobile phone number and you know you can call and say, “I need (whatever it is),” and he will bring it expeditiously. When I called to tell my Chef I was playing shorthanded, she called back to say she was sending him over to help, which was great news to me because he’s a pleasure to have around, even beyond his willingness to work and do whatever needs to be done. He showed up around four-thirty and stayed for about an hour and a half.

    I should back up and add one thing: he started to work about seven yesterday morning and was due to get off around four.

    One of the tasks I had for him was to pound out the boneless chicken breasts so they would cook evenly for our dishes. “No problem,” he said. “Just show me how to do it.” (He obviously has already mastered Lesson Two.) I showed him how to put the chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap and how to use the side of the mallet, rather than the end with the points, so the meat stayed intact. He made short work of the rest of the chicken and moved on to other things. As he was getting ready to leave, I thanked him for his help and he said, “No problem. And thanks for showing me how to do the chicken. I learned something new. If I can learn something, it’s a good day, no matter what else happened.”

    By the time I got to the end of my day, I had three lessons worth learning and re-learning (and probably re-learning again). The day was long and I was tired on the drive home, but he was right: it was a good day.



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