Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Are you tough enough?

When we're healthy, we tend to take it for granted.  We forget all the moments we were sick or injured or depressed.  We get careless, we stop paying attention, we rush through a critical moment and our health is suddenly in jeopardy.  Our bodies are so complex that it doesn't take much to throw them off balance.  Our health, our livelihoods can change in a heartbeat.

You might not think of a chef or baker's job as being especially dangerous, I never really gave it much thought.  But once you're in a working kitchen, you realize that the smallest misstep could end in a serious injury.  You're surrounded by hot ovens, open flames, scalding hot fry oil, boiling water, sharp knives.  And you don't just have to worry about injuring yourself, you have to worry about your coworkers as well.  You have to respect the space that you work in, the tools that you work with and you have to continually be aware of your surroundings.

When Louie was working at the Farmhouse, he would make fart noises constantly.  Entertaining? Yes.  But the primary reason he did it was to let the other cooks know where he was.  On a small crowded line when you're working with hot pans and food, you have to coordinate your movements and be aware of the others around you. His 'farting' was like the horn of a car, letting his companions know he was behind them or next to them.

Since I had never worked in a professional kitchen before, I wasn't aware of this etiquette at first.  I'm sure I startled the line cooks on more than one occasion when I was attempting to get in and out of the ovens on the line.  Later, a fellow baker would explain to me, 'When you come around a corner or come up behind someone, you have to let everyone know.  The kitchen is loud, they might not hear you coming.  And you never know who will be around that corner with a pot of boiling water.  So you call out 'Corner!' or 'Behind!'  I was really uncomfortable with this practice at first.  I'm somewhat of an introvert, so for me to shout out anything is a bit of a stretch.  But over time, it became habit.  And I realized how much of a necessity it was.  It saved me from more than one close call.

Still, the possibility of injury was high.  I am not the most graceful person, and being clumsy in a kitchen is not ideal.  I also get careless when I move too quickly or get flustered.  This resulted in a number of burns to my hands and arms over time.  Javier started to joke that I needed oven mitts up to my armpits.  After a while, I learned to take pride in my battle scars.  Each one had a story to go along with it - a cautionary tale of sorts.  When I rode the train or bus I started recognizing fellow cooks by the similar scars on their arms.  It was like I was part of an elite club.

Til now, most of my burns had been minimal, healed over time and paled in comparison to other injuries I had seen and heard about.  Once Louie told me about a time he was interviewing for a chef job.  The prospects for hiring him didn't look good - they didn't seem to think he was the right fit. Then, in the middle of the interview, they heard screams coming from the line.  One of the cooks had cut off a finger while doing some prep work.  The executive chef motioned Louie over to the line, "Can you start now?"  And just like that, he had a job.  Another time, a cook at the Farmhouse was sauteeing some food.  He was tossing the food in the pan with the flick of the wrist technique that I've become so envious of, when he jerked his hand a little too hard.  Hot oil and food splashed onto his wrist.  It was one of the worst burns I'd seen up close, but he just wrapped it in a paper towel and went on cooking.

There is definitely a tough guy attitude in the industry.  Staffing is always tight, so when you're scheduled to work, you work.  There is no one to fill in for you and there is usually no paid time off.  Many times, this means working through illness and injury alike.  And if you do take time off for one or the other, it's likely your coworkers will mock you - either to your face, or behind your back.  A professional kitchen is not a place to be if you're feeling sorry for yourself and want others to do the same.  Sympathy runs short.

All the same, I couldn't deny that the kitchen was where I wanted to be.  Dessert baking at the Farmhouse was going well.  I was still baking apple pies on a regular basis and I had gotten used to working alone in the back prep kitchen.  I even grew to like it more than being in the main kitchen.  I wasn't battling for counter space or getting tangled up in the line cooks' feet, worrying they might drop a hot pan on my head as I worked with the ovens.  I learned to master the use of the new convection ovens - noting the temperatures needed to be significantly lower than conventional ones, cooking times were shorter, cheesecakes had to be covered so the tops wouldn't brown and dry out.  It was a process of trial and error, but I was starting to figure out the tricks.

Then one night, Michael approached me.  "Did you hear what happened to Pam?" I had not.  "She apparently burned her whole arm and had to be rushed to the hospital yesterday!"

After asking around for more details, I learned that she was working next to the fryer when it happened.  She had bent over toward the floor to do something and the handle of the fryer basket got caught in her shirt.  The basket, its contents and scalding hot oil flipped up out of the fryer and onto her.  She shielded her face with her hands and arms.  Her head and neck were spared, but her whole arm was severely burned. One cook who witnessed the accident described it as though her skin were melting away.  I shivered at the thought of it.  I could only imagine the shock and the pain she must have felt.  I had never really liked Pam - we had our differences.  But I would never have wished this on her.  And for a chef to lose the use of their arm? That was significant.

The burns were so severe that Pam was out of work for a while.  She would call in to talk things over with Julius, the sous chef or Tim, the owner, but her presence was missing.  All at once, Julius was assuming the chef position in Pam's absence and my position just sort of fell through the cracks.  No one was supervising me.  The possibilities were endless.  The dessert menu was mine to manage (or munge) as I saw fit.  I marveled at the thought.  Here I was, someone that had literally no experience seven months ago and now I was calling the shots.  I would need to remember though, not to take this for granted.  As Pam's accident had reminded me, nothing in a working kitchen is permanent - and moments like these are especially fleeting.

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