telling a story


    I worked on the line at the restaurant for the first time last night, my previous days there having been spent proving my prowess as a prep cook. It was a good night to learn: busy enough to let me see most everything on the menu, slow enough to not put me “in the weeds,” as we say. I had a chance to see Chef at work, both in the way he ran the line and in the way he puts food together. The special last night was a pan-seared lobster stuffed halibut served with a mushroom-stuffed potato pancake, beurre blanc, and an artichoke and tomato salad. Here are some of the things I learned about Chef working with him last night:

    • he likes the sauce to go on the plate first, underneath the food;
    • he moves and works deliberately and intentionally;
    • he has a girlfriend who is also a chef;
    • he doesn’t like a lot of noise on the line (it’s an open kitchen);
    • he is generous and kind with his employees;
    • he’s a good teacher and looks for teaching moments;
    • he doesn’t waste time or food;
    • he loosens up as you get to know him;
    • he likes things to be clean;
    • he keeps up with everything in the kitchen;
    • he doesn’t ask as many questions as I do;
    • he has regard for everyone in the kitchen;
    • he pursues excellence quietly and diligently;
    • he’s a big Sox fan;
    • and I’m not sure he knows what to do with my exuberance.

    Part of working on a kitchen line is remembering you are incarnating someone else’s vision for the food. What I bring of myself is my passion, my expertise, and – when asked – my imagination, but my job is to create what Chef has envisioned, to make his plates look and taste good. I could see him watching me just as I was watching him, paying attention to how well I learned and remembered as he showed me how to put each dish together, as he explained what mattered most to him in the way the kitchen ran, and as he noticed how I completed the more mundane tasks I was given or I knew had to be done (there are always tomatoes to dice). When the night was over, we both knew each other a little better.

    Since my life is shifting back to the Restaurant Standard Time, Ginger and I began our morning with Breakfast Theater, since it’s the best time to watch a movie together. Today’s feature was 10 Items or Less, starring Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega. It’s a small independent film about “him” (Morgan Freeman) doing research for a part in a small independent film by going to Archie’s Ranch Market, a rundown grocery store in a poor part of Los Angeles. Paz Vega is Scarlet, the checker in the “10 Items or Less” line. The movie happens all in the same day and is as light and charming as it is thought provoking. What Freeman sees as research for a role, Scarlet lives as real life: what she sees as a job interview, he calls an audition. But Freeman is more than a thoughtless voyeur. He studies everyone he sees, from the file clerk to the guys at the car wash, trying to learn from the way they practice their crafts and embody their roles.

    “Did you know,” he says to the file clerk, “you deal with each folder for exactly two and a half seconds? That’s amazing.”

    I don’t think the file clerk had ever thought of himself as amazing, particularly for going through stacks of file folders. He didn’t know he was telling his story.

    The relationship between Freeman and Scarlet is not romantic, and yet the movie explores the romance in two people taking time for each other, even if that time is part of one day. “We live, we work, we’ll never see each other again,” they say as they part ways, both changed by what the other saw in the details.

    Even after one evening, I’m a different cook in this restaurant than I have been in other kitchens. The Inn was fueled by chaos, even on its best days, and I learned who I needed to be there to not only survive but to produce. My new Chef works hard to create a humane and humanizing environment, without chaos, and invites me to realize both what a kitchen can be and that this is the kind of kitchen I was looking for all along, though I had never seen one.

    The joy Freeman took in watching people act their parts in life was helpful to me. Watch folks for a little while and you start to learn their story, or at least begin to get an idea of what questions to ask. I stopped at our local grocery store to get a salad for lunch. The woman at the counter is there most every time I go in and she is always smiling and engaging the customers in a way uncharacteristic to New England, though her accent makes it clear she’s from here. When I finish typing, I’m off to the gym where the woman who sits behind the counter seems rarely happy. Her age and accent are not much different from her counterpart at the sandwich counter, yet their takes on life appear at opposite poles, at least in the way they tell their stories at work.

    I’m at the beginning of a new chapter in my story and already I feel my character growing and changing in my new environment: stuff to learn means room to grow; new faces mean new opportunities.

    I love a good story.



    1. Yep, I love a good story too, always have. Looking forward to hearing more of yours. Wish I could just “pop in” to that restaurant sometime. What a treat that would be!
      Later. Tom

    2. One more thing. I didn’t care for the movie, and maybe it was because I was always expecting something more than was offered, one of my many weaknesses. Have you seen Ratatouille yet?

    3. this is real encouraging stuff, thanks for sharing. I like your attitude toward work, I share the same on my better days.

    4. A really lovely post, Milton. I def want to see this movie now. It’s so hard for my husband and I to find something we agree on. I think we’ll both like this one.

      Congrats on the new job. I’ve always enjoyed restaurant work. Some people don’t get that.

      BTW, just wanted to let you know I’m having a blog contest.

      The prize this time is a kid’s prize pack including 3 computer games.

      Good luck if you decide to enter!

    5. Story is really, really important. That’s a realization that’s been working in me for a long time – and something I’d noticed in you for a while before you posted this. Milton, can you email me at hedwyg (at) gmail (dot) com? There’s something I’d wanted to ask you, but was (you’ll laugh at this, I know) honestly too in awe of you to bring up.


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