“Where’s Stephen?” asked Ravi Sharma, the chef de cuisine at Paowalla, the recently established culinary powerhouse of SoHo, wiping sweat off his forehead with one hand while checking on the shishito pakoras with his other.
“Stephen? Uhm, Stephen ran downstairs,” I responded, shaking a little, worried I would somehow be blamed for Stephen’s sudden absence.
Ravi peered left and right across the cramped, steaming kitchen before solemnly looking me in the eyes. “He must be in the freezer again,” he said. “Can you go get him? We have fire on two halibuts and a vindaloo. He needs to get started on them now.”
“Yes, chef. On my way.”
I walked to the narrow staircase leading downstairs, where, as in many New York restaurants, the prep kitchen, dry food storage, fridge and freezer are located. “Coming down!” I yelled, so as to avoid any potential collision as I headed down the vertiginous steps. I turned the tight corner of the prep kitchen, walked two doors down and came to the entrance of the freezer.
There were a pair of black kitchen shoes with socks stuffed into them waiting on the outside. The door was slightly cracked open. I could hear Stephen incoherently mumbling to himself inside the freezer. “Onion … fuck … shit … fire … fuck … tamarind,” was all I could make out. I was genuinely worried for his mental health but didn’t want to be the one to drag him out of there. Then again, I also didn’t want to go back upstairs to tell the chef de cuisine that my mission to retrieve Stephen was unsuccessful.
Stephen was the most experienced line cook working that evening at Paowalla, which specializes in upscale Indian cuisine and is operated by the well-known chef Floyd Cardoz. Stephen was in charge of the grill, the oven, the stove — the kitchen’s most important station, always manned by an accomplished and competent cook. He had been sweating buckets all night. Standing directly over the grill, he’d looked like he was going to pass out at any moment. The air conditioner in the kitchen was broken and only a small fan kept the staff semi-cool in the 90-degree heat.
I built up some nerve and slowly opened the heavy freezer door. Stephen was in the far end of the walk-in with his back turned to me, head in hands. I quickly eased the door shut before he had the chance to notice and rushed back up the stairs where I came back face-to-face with Chef Ravi.
Stephen took a three-year hiatus from cooking. He fell in love with a sommelier who came from money, but something inexplicable drew him back to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, chef,” I said. “Stephen seems really upset and since I just met him today I don’t feel like I can be the one to get him back upstairs.” I realized I was blabbering.
“Don’t worry about it,” Chef Ravi replied. “It’s his fifth shift in a row. I’ll go get him.”
His understanding was a relief. This was my first day on the job and what little I knew about kitchen work was that you never disobey an order. I took a deep breath and returned to finely slicing green mangoes to be brined. Stephen returned to his station at the grill and successfully finished his shift — an impressive feat, done night after night, anonymously.
• • •
I’d never desired to become a chef, but, as an aspiring writer, I thought that finding a menial job with aspects of repetition would keep my mind from wandering off. I also needed money. Impulsively, one Saturday evening after spending too much at a bar, I began applying for line cook positions at culinaryagents.com. Following a string of emails and phone calls, I was set up as a “kitchen trail” at three respective restaurants: Loring Place, a New-American restaurant in Greenwich Village opened by ABC Kitchen alum Dan Kluger; Shalom Japan, a Japanese/Jewish fusion restaurant in Williamsburg; and Paowalla. I was expected to bring my own set of knives and spend evening shifts helping around the kitchen. On Tuesday, it would be Shalom Japan; Wednesday, Loring Place; and on Thursday, Paowalla.
After a couple of nights as a trail I began to wonder why anyone would choose to spend their life in a small, 95-degree rectangular box, working 13-hour-days, cutting, cooking and cleaning, making hardly any money in order to craft cuisine for an apathetic clientele who take food for granted and are usually too consumed with their own vacant existence to appreciate the sacrifice that nameless and faceless cooks put their backs into.
Before the freezer episode, I got a chance to talk to Stephen at Paowalla during family meal, when leftover meat and vegetables are served to front and back house staff before each shift begins. Stephen, the son of Korean immigrants, went to University of California, Davis, but dropped out in his sophomore year to come to New York. He found a job as a back-waiter at Balthazar on Spring Street before saving up enough to enroll himself at The Culinary Institute of Education. Once he graduated he landed a 9-dollar-an-hour job as a line cook at Morimoto in the Meatpacking District. He often wound up assisting Chef Masaharu Morimoto himself — a man famous for his obsessive standards and kitchen discipline.
“It was like the army,” Stephen recalled. “It was painful but I’ll never regret it.”
After slaving it at Morimoto for two years Stephen took a three-year hiatus from cooking. He fell in love with a sommelier at Morimoto who came from money, but something inexplicable eventually drew him back to the kitchen.
• • •
Chef Daniel pointed to the smelly staff bathroom. “This is where we go to cry,” he said.
The culinary underworld is a cult of identity composed of eccentrics, mavericks, oddballs and individualists who find in the kitchen a place where they finally fit in. The fast-paced, all-consuming environment of the back of a restaurant gives them purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. They possess a desire for belonging as much as for fine cuisine. When you step into a kitchen all else is lost, all that matters is the here and now. Food needs to be prepared and served and there is no time to dally or navel gaze.
There is a bizarre paradox between the front and back of the house in the restaurant industry. Few things are more intense than being in an open kitchen, hearing the chef de cuisine yell out orders while each line cook has the utmost focus on the job at hand, sweating profusely, trying to get food out as soon as possible, while beyond the kitchen walls you can hear families singing “Happy Birthday.” Meals that are painstakingly assembled and often take days to prepare, sometimes go cold on a table, waiting to be eaten, or are gobbled up without a thought. I sometimes wanted to yell at the patrons, “Don’t you assholes realize the hard work that’s gone into that?” Never again will I take food for granted.
• • •
Masculinity, homophobia, abuse and racism are classical tropes of old-school kitchen culture, but Shalom Japan was the only place where I felt any pinch of these workplace qualities — mostly from one line cook in particular.
“Do you like Spanish girls?” a fat, bald chef asked before introducing himself.
“Sure,” I responded, uneasily cutting up celery by the back kitchen window. I don’t like these types of questions, they never lead anywhere good.
“Well, we call this window mamacita heaven,” he said proudly. “You wouldn’t believe some of the ass we see walking by. I’m Daniel by the way.”
Chef Daniel wore a bandana, made gay jokes all night and could talk about cocaine without end. Yet, for all his vulgarity, there was also something strangely personable about him. He showed a great deal of patience with my abominable knife skills, spending plenty of time teaching me how to properly cut scallions even though he had many other things to do. In the constricted downstairs prep area, Chef Daniel pointed to the smelly staff bathroom. “This is where we go to cry,” he said.
• • •
Dan Kluger’s Loring Place was the most modern kitchen I worked in. It was picturesque, almost out of a Nordic lifestyle magazine. There were six stations in all: a deep fryer, a wood-fired and a gas-fired grill, a brick pizza oven, a pasta station and a cold appetizer station. In a nearby corridor, there was a rack filled with long-sleeved chef’s t-shirts, pants and aprons — all clean, immaculate and bleached white. When I stepped into the uniform I felt more official, like my life suddenly had a defining aspect. It’s incredible, the instant sense of identity that a uniform can provide. There was a thrill to it too, like playing dress-up.
Chef Seth Seligman showed me around the basement work area.
“This is our butcher room, rare for a restaurant in New York,” he said, briskly. There was a surprisingly tall man in there taking apart what must have once been a cow. “Here’s the refrigerator, everything dated and labeled. Here’s the freezer. Over here are our newly arrived fresh fruits and vegetables. “And back this way… ” Chef Seth turned around and escorted me back down the hallway we’d been walking through, “is the prep kitchen. Grab a cutting board.”
Loring Place serves New-American food, which basically means many different kinds of cuisine; in this case, a fusion of Italian and Mediterranean with a subtle Asian influence. Due to Chef Dan Kluger’s time spent under Jean Georges-Vongerichten at ABC Kitchen, Loring Place has a particular concentration on the use of fresh vegetables.
Before customers arrived I had destemmed 40 artichokes, plucked the tops off of thousands of strawberries, diced pile on pile of zucchini, garlic, onions, kohlrabi and weird sea vegetables. I was told to go upstairs when dinner began. Chef Seth advised me to try to spend some time at each station, with one caveat: “Don’t do anything unless someone asks you to.”
I spent the night as a slow cog in a well-oiled machine, annoyingly hovering over each line cook, helping them quickly assemble dishes. One chef had me finely cut tomatoes and garlic because he had run out of what had been prepped earlier. At another station, I was tasked with scooping a dollop of hummus into a small dish, topping it with olive oil, roasted chickpeas and exactly 11 pieces of cut radish, then placing precisely 12 whole grain crackers beside it. The crackers and the hummus, like nearly everything at Loring Place, are made in-house.
One luxurious aspect of working in a kitchen is the opportunity to taste almost everything on the menu. At Loring Place, I was given small bites to eat by cooks from each station in the kitchen. Their baked ricotta with wood-grilled broccoli is fantastic. At Paowalla, the deep-fried squash blossoms filled with goat cheese linger in my memory too — although, I once made the mistake of dipping cheese naan into the squash blossom sauce, a faux pas that Chef Ravi did not appreciate. In fact, I thought he was gonna slap me in the face. Fortunately, in the end, all I received was a dirty look.
Toward the end of the night at Loring Place I found myself at the dessert station. I wasn’t so enthusiastic about preparing desserts but I knew they would give me some to try. There was also a very pretty pastry chef named Allison working there that evening, making fruit salad. She had light brown eyes and an ironclad demeanor. I got in her way several times and she abrasively ordered me to use a different sink than hers. Her commands reminded me of what it was like to be reprimanded in grade school.
“How did you end up here?” I asked, attempting to make small talk. The question struck me as funny the second it left my mouth — as if she had been dragged from her home, given a trial and sentenced to labor as a pastry chef.
Allison giggled. It was the first bit of humanity and laughter I had seen from her, or anyone really, all evening. “I went to Notre Dame to study English, I thought I wanted to be a teacher but here I am.” She laughed some more. I caught her eye and we laughed together — a moment of respite from the busy evening.
Chef Dan Kluger came downstairs. “How’s the night going, kid? They feeding you or what?”
Chef Dan is a massive bald man with a big, joyful demeanor. Born and raised in the Bronx, he named his restaurant after the street his father grew up on. His persona resonated through the kitchen and service. Although in Loring Place, like all high-end restaurant kitchens runs on militaristic discipline, no one shouted abuse at one another. Uncommonly, there were plenty of women in the kitchen too, probably a 60:40 ratio of women to men. The calm kitchen and its gender equanimity seemed to have a positive effect on the food itself.
• • •
“The temperament of that kitchen comes from me,” Chef Floyd Cardoz told me in the middle of service at Paowalla, explaining that Dan Kluger of Loring Place trained under him for five years. It was my last shift of the week and I was exhausted, ready to go home. Floyd was impressed that I had the gumption to step into three different kitchens without any experience, even if I wasn’t sure that it was what I wanted to do. It reminded him of himself, he said. He had no experience when he started. He’d been on track to become a doctor when he realized medicine wasn’t his calling, so he dropped out of college to attend culinary school; first in Bombay, India, and later in Bluche, Switzerland. “My parents thought I was crazy but look where I am now,” Floyd said.
Per his life story, the bottom of all of Floyd’s emails contain this cliché but fitting Robert Frost quote:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
To my surprise, after a series of quick-fire questions — What the best thing I had ever eaten? (My mom’s roast potatoes.) Why did I want to work in a kitchen? (I love food.) What I liked about Paowalla? (The Cheese Kulcha.) What I didn’t? (The stuffy kitchen.) — Chef Floyd offered me a job. Because I was inexperienced he would start me off at $11 an hour. He would work with me a lot personally and from that he said I would be able to gain invaluable experience.
I was flattered at the offer. When I got home after my shift, I sat at my desk, exhausted, staring into space. I couldn’t think of much — other than how much discipline I needed to gain. Was I deserving enough to join the thankless who dwell — day by day, night by night — in the claustrophobic, cramped surroundings of New York’s bustling kitchens, churning out haute cuisine until closing time finally comes along; this poorly paid army toiling at a job where benefits are scant and a social life impossible, all for the love of food and a sense of belonging?
I sent Floyd an email the next day thanking him for the offer. I wasn’t ready to join the cult of the kitchen, I explained. I do, however, look forward to eating at his restaurant one of these days.
Some names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
Illustration (top) by David Hollenbach.