Notes on Working in a Restaurant Kitchen

June 20th
I need to be at work in an hour. At any time of day or night, I always feel like I need to work in an hour. I’ll wake up in a cold sweat, yelling, “I gotta be at work in an hour!” It’ll be three in the morning, but I’ll yell it so loud that birds fly out of trees.

June 21st
I almost feel like I shouldn’t have asked for a raise because now I’m under examination and assessment by management, which makes me anxious, which makes me unfocused, which causes me to underperform and sweat more. This is how I will be perceived. As an underperforming, sweaty person.

If I’m not sweating in front of the pizza oven, I’m sweating in the prep area in the back of the kitchen where the air conditioning is on the fritz, and if I’m not there you’ll find me out back smoking and sweating under the sun.

June 22nd
Two cooks, Marcus and Justin, are in the walk-in cooler arguing about the tomatoes.
“You have to throw those away.”
“Well, if you cut around the mold…”

June 23rd
I don’t mind shooting the shit with Luca, the kitchen manager. He thinks highly of himself. He prides himself on fitting into the hypermasculinity of kitchen culture as if he thinks he’s a young Anthony Bourdain. He’s also proud of himself for flirting with so many servers, which is a joke to a lot of us, so when we hear that a new server slept with him, we say that she fell for it (the joke). I get the impression that he thinks that I’m impressed with him.

While Luca and I were talking, Lindsay came up to us and started telling me about something that must’ve happened to Luca years ago, and then Luca yelled “NO,” which I think even silenced the noise of the dish machine. I walked away. Too tense and mysterious. I don’t need that in my life.

I saw the hostess, Hannah, repeating, “I think there’s something wrong with me,” while peering out of a window. I decided not to pursue that mystery either.

June 24th
The music drives me crazy. It’s mostly dance pop trash. The same songs play all night. I’ll hear them repeat at least three times during a shift and I’ve realized that I’ve been hearing these songs for the last year and a half. It reminds me of the U.S. interrogation methods of playing music to detainees to cause discomfort during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I genuinely feel like I’m being psychologically tortured. It doesn’t matter if it’s pop music or black metal, as long as it’s too loud and plays too often. A person could be tortured with the Pure Moods compilation albums.

However, I do like when children sing with all their hearts along to whatever song is playing and their parents bury their faces in their palms and say things like, “Please baby, no more singing.”

June 25th
Slowest of days. Only a few tables during lunch. I doubt that anyone will come in for dinner. Maybe I’ll just air guitar for the next six and a half hours and then, hopefully, I’ll die.

Marcus and Justin are arguing about whether or not the mushrooms should be washed.
“You have to wash the dirt off them.”
“They’re supposed to have dirt on them.”

June 26th
It’s one of those days when I’m jumping through micromanagement hoops, trying to complete several tasks, but many more steps keep manifesting and I’m going from one part of the restaurant to another and it’s raining and soot is coming out of the chimney and getting in the food and the computers are down and I’m thinking about leaving a cardboard cutout of myself in the kitchen so I can disappear unnoticed.

June 27th
The managing server’s name is Jeff Pitts. He looks like a Jeff Pitts. Jeff told me that he’s afraid that the new girl is too dumb to work here. She’s just quiet and unassuming. I said, “You can’t tell what a person thinks based on how they appear.” He nodded his head, and then we stared at each other for five long seconds.

June 28th
This guy Kevin always shows up in a white v-neck t-shirt. Looks like Michael Keaton. Middle-aged. Talks low. A steady mumble. Barely looks anyone in the eyes. Always gets free food. Friendly with managers, kitchen staff. Gets a lot of respect. They put their hands on his shoulders, talk to him close and quiet. Probably sells coke.

June 29th
I don’t mind making pizzas for coworkers if they ask nicely and don’t ask often. That’s why I don’t give food to Thomas. Giving food to Thomas is a waste. I might as well throw the pizza in the trash as soon I pull it out of the oven. Thomas has the personality of a bottomless trash can. I’m mean to Thomas because it just feels right in my heart to do so.

I was eating a pizza on my break and Thomas walked up to me and said, “I want a slice.” He didn’t even ask politely. I said, “if we’re just going to bluntly state what we want then I want you to not have what you want,” which was fine because I didn’t have to give him a slice of pizza, but then I had to follow him around all night slapping things out of his hands: food, drinks, phone, cigarettes, money. Didn’t get much work done today, but I think I made my point.

Don’t go around stating your desires to people. You can’t just walk up to a person and say, “Give me what you have. I want it right now.” Nobody gives a shit.

June 30th
Am I getting a raise or not? My feet are in shambles. I’m on my feet for hours on end. I feel bad for my ankles as if they’re a couple of sad bastards. It takes a lot of time to be able to look at parts of your body and say, “That doesn’t work so well anymore.”

If you work in kitchens for long enough, you may not get much respect from people, but what you will have is a damaged body. Considering the discipline of working laborious jobs in general, body damage is what you end up working for in the long term. It takes integrity, ambition, and willpower to cultivate such a high degree of lower back pain. You have to believe in yourself.

Marcus and Justin are standing over a pan of week-old spicy sausage.
“This is bad.”
“It’s supposed to smell like that.”

July 1st
Good to know that the day dishwasher understands the importance of positive reinforcement and self-improvement. At least there’s that guy. It’s good to have people to hold your temper down when you’re working, people who can detect the volatile emotions of others and keep them at an even keel.

July 2nd
I just saw the owner high-five the dishwasher. Where the fuck is my high-five?

July 3rd
Every time the ticket printer prints a ticket, the sound that it makes is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and Grandma Spiess, who fed me and made sure I was comfortable when I was in elementary and middle school, died not knowing my name or face because of Alzheimer’s, which I think says a lot about the sound of the ticket printer.

July 5th
Here’s some insight as a cook: if business is too slow, your brain will be fried from standing around doing nothing, and if it’s too busy, your brain will be fried from doing the same mind-numbing, monotonous work. And it’s never just busy enough. It’s always too much or too little, so either way: fried brains.

Date Night

“Please don’t make a scene. Please don’t make a scene.”
-waitress at Easystreet Cafe

In the restaurant at the corner of the square, he takes a seat at a table for two, rose in one hand, ring box in the other. He holds them in front of him at chest level like ritualistic offerings and gazes out into the middle distance.

Wide-eyed, borderline dilated, he sits with a statuesque posture in a perfectly ironed napkin white shirt. Clean shave, crisp collar. Gelled hair, possibly plastered. No movement. Not a twitch, not a blink.

The stillness rings the serving staff’s ears.

Thirty nine minutes pass. Condensation builds on a worried glass of water. He’s sucked down half of it. One full hour. Beads of sweat bloom and coalesce on the glass of his forehead, an army of choking fish sliding into a shiny film. Hair product drips down to his cheekbones. Each glass bead reflects light from the lone lamp above and streaks downslope to the tip of his stoic nose as if the hot shine paws at his face. Two hours. The curled sweat soaked collar of his shirt. The heat of his chest, the cold of his toes and fingertips. Urge to pick at shirt cuffs, pick at ear lobes, scratch his neck, to wipe himself away with cheap thin napkins. So many sighs shake his Adam’s apple that his throat dries. The skin of his face drags down. Countless more minutes stare blankly into the middle distance.

Shrunken-pupiled, this man exhales stale air and slowly the rose hand drifts to his dry mouth. Soon enough, rose meets open mouth, teeth passionately gnashing at petals, ring box drops to the floor, waitresses gawking, whispering, and appalled as he stares into the middle distance.

Untitled Story Sketch

It was as hot as it was going to get late in the afternoon even though there was some wind and the sky looked white, almost grey. The flies were lively and sirens tore through the heavy air somewhere far from the gas station downtown, where Mark and Lauren were standing outside.

“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” she kept telling him. “Don’t worry.”

Mark furrowed his eyebrows and scratched the skin under the thin new hairs on his face. Everyone he saw driving by bit his or her nails. They did not smile or sing along to the radio.

Lauren held one of her arms close to her chest out of habit, which made Mark feel nostalgic. She’d been doing that ever since he knew her, but for all she knew she never did this. She pushed her sunglasses up her nose which made his right leg shake a little bit and he hoped she wouldn’t notice.

“Is your leg shaking?” she said.

“Why didn’t you call someone else?” he said. “I don’t want to do this.”

“No one else answered my calls,” she said.

“Sure,” he said.

“You’ve bought cigarettes before. It should be easy. It’s all about confidence. My confidence gets me a lot of things. Don’t you want to feel like you can get what you want?”

He didn’t say anything.

“My confidence gets me a lot of things,” she said again. Mark waited for her to list her benefits like money and power and respect and sex but she didn’t say anything else. “Is your leg shaking?” she said, finally.

“No,” he said.

“It looks like it is. Try hard to stop doing that,” she said. She kept thinking about how he’d bought cigarettes before, how the cashier couldn’t tell how young he was because of his facial hair, how it can’t be any different. He just had to attract respect when he walked.

“It’s not easy,” he said and the fact that she doesn’t understand this brought his eyebrows down.

Lauren kept cracking her knuckles, each one individually over and over again as Mark pushed against the door but it did not budge so he pulled it open and walked inside.

Mark shuffled his feet in the middle aisle of the store while sucking his teeth. The sirens rang outside as he scratched his beard. It smelled cold in there. He picked up and replaced several different items, feeling the smooth plastic of the packaged snack foods, noticing how much was inside each bag. Finally his attention landed on a bag of pork rinds.

He glanced out the glass doors to see Lauren looking in, cracking her knuckles. There was no way he was leaving. He heard footsteps from costumers that he couldn’t find and someone quietly speaking German around the corner.

Mark looked around for the general manager. He was a balding man that wanted to be able to look at you in the eyes and the floor shook when he walked by, but Mark didn’t see him around anywhere.

Instead, he watched a man standing in front of the cashier slam his palm against the counter. “Talk to me,” he said.

“You’re unavailable,” the cashier said. She backed away from the register.

“Is there something you’re not telling me, or are you telling me nothing?” he said.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “There really wasn’t anything ever promised. Considering that you owe me you’re in control. What I gave you is gone. Considering that you have nothing, I can’t take anything from you. And I am not one to fight.”

A chorus of ambulances outside and the howl of a train passing through.

“If you’re so smart, why don’t you know that?” said the cashier.

Mark walked up to the counter and stood next to the man. He looked out at Lauren one last time.

“Get out of here,” the man said. “The store’s closed!”

“You can’t do that,” the cashier said. “You can’t turn away our customers.” Tires squealed in the parking lot outside. Mark paused. “I just need some…a pack of Marlboro’s,” he said.

As Mark fished through his wallet for the right amount of money, he listened to his heart beating. He listened to everyone’s hearts as they beat faster. He swallowed and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his bare forearm and pulled a ten dollar bill out of his wallet. He wasn’t shaking, but he wiped the sweat from his forehead again. He handed the cashier the money and she paused, staring at him for what he believed was far too long. She was a petite girl. She had a very coy look in her eyes despite the bruise under the left. She handed him his change and he took it, immediately scratching his beard.

“Thanks.” His nonchalance cracked a little and so did his voice.

He walked out the door like everyone else because it was easier to move through the motions than not to. He saw Lauren waiting outside, a semblance of a smirk on her face, and beyond her was a guy and a girl standing on a sidewalk holding each other tightly.

Pulling Yourself Together

Listen, you need to focus! Stop pacing aimlessly in your kitchen. Stop talking to yourself. You must find your wallet, your cigarettes, and your cell phone. You need to find a lighter. Get money fast. If there isn’t any money in your wallet, use your bank card at the ATM. Don’t worry about overdrawing if your account is low in funds; you can pay it back later when you get hired somewhere after submitting those job applications to the several restaurants around the city like you’ve been meaning to do. There is also a phone number on a strip of paper lying around for a bike messenger job that you ripped off the bulletin board at the Laundromat. Relax. Maybe the Laundromat is hiring.

Your wallet is probably under all the trash on the coffee table. Check under the magazines, ashtrays, and empty cigarette packs. Your cigarettes are probably mixed in with all the empty packs. Shake them all until you hear something rattling inside other than loose scraps of tobacco; search for something solid. There is a chance that you might find a single forgotten cigarette. Nothing? Nevermind. There’s your cell phone, under the photograph of your mother smiling and drinking iced tea on the patio back in California. Put that in a place where you won’t see it. You will not think about your mother. You will not miss her.

Call that guy Pockets. You should have his number. Did you see him a few days ago, or was that last week? Nevermind, because there is his number. He told you he would front you again if you paid him back. He likes you. Don’t ask him for his real name even though you want to because it’s not a good idea to get too personal with people like him and it’s all just business anyway so forget about making friends for now. Just find your wallet.

Search under the couch cushions. Nothing but some pennies and plastic wrappers. Are those your cigarettes? You must feel so relieved. Now, find yourself a lighter. Move the couch and check underneath. Don’t put the cushions back because it’ll add that little bit of weight and you don’t want to strain yourself. You are too tired for that, and you don’t have time. What do you see under there? Nothing but crumpled plastic bags, fast food trash, and cigarette butts. There’s a lighter! Reach for it and test it out. Is it empty? Shake it up. It must be completely dry. Forget it. Just find your wallet.

Look around on the floor. It’s that simple. This place is a mess. Everything you see belongs in the dumpster. And maybe you eat too much fast food. You should take care of yourself. You should vacuum. Make a note to clean yourself up and organize your belongings later. Is that the number for that bike messenger job? What is that tiny piece of red material behind it? It’s a portion of a pill. There must be at least twenty milligrams left. That’s all you need to balance yourself. Once this is in your system you won’t feel sick anymore. You don’t have enough to get high, which would be ideal, but at least you won’t feel this disease and depression that has been dragging the skin on your face down all night and causing your eyes and nose to leak like a sieve. Your bones won’t feel so hollow and fragile. You’ll even be awake enough to begin submitting job applications, and you should probably call your mother.

But you need a dollar bill and something to grind the pill with. First, rub the red casing off with some spit and a tissue. If you can’t find a grinder, find the closest Wal-Mart in your immediate proximity and buy some hose clamps. It works as a miniature grate to grind a pill into a pile of fine white dust. In order to buy these, you need to find your wallet. Buy several hose clamps for when you lose one, because you will lose one. You will lose them all eventually.

Remember: there might be a dollar bill in your wallet. Just relax. All you need to do right now is smoke a cigarette, but your eyelids are falling. Maybe you should make some coffee. You shouldn’t sleep even when you’re tired, when you’re too exhausted to function properly.