Soldiers of the kitchen

I remember with pleasure and deep gratitude the first time I was paid a sincere compliment in a professional kitchen. As a recent culinary-school graduate, I was working a very busy pantry shift in a downtown restaurant on a “show night.” (A “show night” means there are one or more concerts, plays or sporting events in the area; nearby restaurants get hit hard just before curtain or buzzer time.)

I was still in recovery from my former career as a desk jockey, and I had been working in this particular kitchen for only a couple of weeks. This night was ridiculously busy. The tickets just kept coming and coming. Still, somehow I kept up. I was in the zone, baby. And then, as I was putting the finishing touches on another salad order, a line cook across the kitchen elbowed the guy next to him and said, “Yo, man — she’s a soldier!” and proceeded to salute me with the tongs he held.

Oh my goodness, I thought. Me, a soldier! I still get warm and fuzzy just thinking about it. I remember rushing home later to tell my boyfriend about it. “They called me a soldier! I can really do this! I might even be good at it!”

Professional kitchens and dining rooms across the planet are filled with “soldiers.” Of course, I mean to take nothing away from actual military service members with the analogy, but there are definitely a few parallels.

The barely controlled chaos of a restaurant that’s rocking at capacity can have a battlefield atmosphere. Not that it’s cooks and servers versus the customers; rather it’s us against the night’s service itself. Can we keep up? Can we serve the best possible food in a timely manner, with as few mistakes as possible? There are dozens of scorching hot surfaces, not to mention sharp things everywhere, and actual fire. Can we do it without injuring ourselves, or each other?

And it’s noisy — oh god, is it noisy. By all accounts, Thomas Keller’s kitchen at the French Laundry is quiet and serene per his mandate, but in my experience, that’s an anomaly. Restaurant staffs have to keep communication going, especially when you’re at the apex of service time, so everyone’s talking (or even shouting) as they work. Pots clang as they get lobbed into the dish pit. Oven doors slam repeatedly. Sauté pans bang on cast iron burners to get them to light. The dish machine is roaring and whooshing in the background. Someone’s yelling, “Get me that other pan of backup steaks from the walk-in!” and someone is answering, “Steaks, heard!” (translation: “I’ll go and get those steaks for you momentarily, sir”) at the top of his lungs. The radio is blaring. The expediter is calling out the latest ticket: “Walking in — three rib eyes, one medium, two mid-well! Sauce on the side!” A manager is begging the cooks for the last entrée to finish a table. Two busboys are arguing about who’s lazier. Some cook is putting the moves on some server, and that banter adds to the decibel level.

As the evening goes on, it’s hot — a busy kitchen can easily reach 120 degrees behind the line. Tempers fray. Folks are dehydrated. Thighs chafe. Feet and backs ache. And while most of the time we’re not in danger of actually losing life or limb, you do find yourself thinking stuff like, “Chef is gonna KILL me if I overcook that filet one more time!”

But there’s really nothing like the satisfaction of rocking out a successful service, despite all the crazy energy it takes to make a restaurant run. And you do feel like you’ve been in a battle of sorts by the end of the night.

I know some chefs who have been in a field kitchen in tornado-battered Henryville, feeding people with donated food and borrowed equipment. They tell me that the Red Cross has pulled out of the area and FEMA’s writing checks but not feeding anyone. They are volunteers. One of them took a week’s vacation to devote himself to it full time. When I see them, their faces are sunburned. Their voices are hoarse. The stories they tell are heartbreaking, but you can tell they are proud and grateful for the opportunity to serve.

Yo, man. They are soldiers.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.