Behind Kitchen Doors

What I learned while making your food

by Nick Morales

This past summer, I worked in the kitchen of a tavern in Green Mountain Falls, Colo. I desperately needed a job, and although it was far from my home, there was money to be earned. It was probably the most disgusting place I’ve ever worked in my life.  I don’t think any of my coworkers had any formal concept of food safety. The people I met and the experiences I had forever changed the way I view food service.

In Washington, my home state, you have to take a class on food handling and then pass a test to receive your Washington State Food Handler’s License.  You need this card to work at any establishment in the state of Washington where you will touch food.

By contrast, in Colorado, you can walk into a kitchen with absolutely no experience whatsoever, and operate very dangerous apparatuses with no training.

“Nick, I need you to slice all the deli meats,” my boss, Karla, told me on the ninth day of my employment.

“With what?” I responded cautiously.

“Oh, just use the slicer.”

I glanced at the machine.  “You mean the one with no safety guard?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“The one that I haven’t been trained on?”

“Well, I guess… You know, as a matter of fact, I don’t really want to get sued again this month.  We can have Ramona do it tomorrow.”

On the first and only day that I received training, a masseur named Chris versed me in the art of stacking nachos and chicken sandwiches, while simultaneously consuming his shift meal.  I liked Chris, except for his general bossiness and know-it-all attitude towards the kitchen.  He taught me how to make everything on the menu. This was helpful, except I had to re-learn how to make everything because he had been preparing the food entirely wrong. This is why I wasn’t surprised when he was fired the next week for general incompetence and snorting cocaine off one of the tables with a customer. The sad part is that he didn’t even see it coming.  He thought he was top dog.  I guess he thought he was safe because all employee anger seemed to be directed towards Shane.

“You’re gonna be working with Shane tomorrow, Nick,”  Chris told me on my second day of work.  “You better prepare yourself.”

“I think I can handle it,” I responded.

“No, you just wait until you meet Shane.  He’s got two hands.”  This seemed like a queer thing to say, and I looked down immediately to examine my own two hands.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Naw, man, he’s got two hands.”

With no further clarification I decided to pry a little bit, “Is this some bastardization of ‘He’s got two left feet?”

“No, he’s just got two hands, man.”  I was starting to get frustrated; I think that Chris was catching on, “He’s got two hands, he can hold things and that’s it!

So this was some bastardization of two left feet.  Could he really be as inept as my co-workers seemed to find him?  The answer was yes, but honestly I should have clued into that on the day of my interview, when Karla expressed relief that my employment meant she could finally fire Shane.

On the only day I worked with Shane, he arrived half an hour late.  This wouldn’t have been too much of an inconvenience had Ramona not been waiting for him to show up so she could go home.

“He’s usually here by now,” she mumbled in her Texan drawl, “probably knows he’s gon’ get fired.”

When he finally walked through the door, a minor hissing match ensued.

“You were supposed ta be here damn near ‘n hour ago!”  Ramona began.

“I texted Karla, good ‘n’ early tellin’ her I coulnd’t fin’ a goddamn ride!”  he replied.

This conflict diffused in a few minutes, ending with Shane receiving the task to empty the grease trap before he left. I found it completely untouched the next day.

After Ramona left, Shane walked over to the table where I was cutting onions and proceeded to turn off the music I had been enjoying.  He pulled out a speaker from his pocket and shouted “Bluuuuuetooooooooth!!!” Grimy dubstep and a bizarre combination of country instrumentation with rap-like vocals emitted from the speakers. 

Fortunately, our shifts only overlapped for two hours.  In that time, Shane burnt three pizzas, messed up every sandwich, and argued with a customer about the edibility of her meal.  I was beginning to understand the whole “two hands” thing.  It truly appeared his greatest talent was using his hands to hold things.

To distract myself from the awful country rap and the fact that he was ruining everything he touched, I decided to engage him in some casual conversation.  He asked me about my hobbies.  Upon hearing that I play guitar, he pulled up his sleeve and pointed to a tattoo.  It was some random mess of ink and lines I couldn’t quite distinguish, but clearly it meant something to him as he then declared, “Music is my life.  I’m a musician, bro.”  He proceeded to embellish on his $3,000 guitar making claims to be the reincarnation of Jimmy Page.

The next time I saw Shane, he was coming into work for his (unbeknownst to him) final shift in the kitchen.  When Karla fired him, I felt a tinge of injustice.  He had no idea how badly he was fucking up.  He was under the impression that Karla was going to make him a bartender when he turned 21 in two weeks time. “Give him a break,” I remember thinking to myself.  Then I saw the grease trap that Two-Hands had kindly left for me to empty, and my compassion turned to a viscous black sludge, slopped into a bear-proof dumpster.  With both of my other co-workers recently fired, I turned to Ramona for social closure.

Ramona was the commanding officer of the kitchen.  She pumped out pizzas, chicken wings, cheese dip, French fries and sandwiches like no one I had ever seen.  She would have been my hero, had she not been straight out of West Texas and a practitioner of questionable food handling practices

After every rush, she would sprint outside, leaving me to wash a pile of dishes, and smoke approximately one quarter of a cigarette.  I assume that as a nicotine addict, and a fairly poor one, she needed not only her fix, but to ration it out sparingly.

Her smoking didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that she would never wash her hands in between inhaling her nicotine boost and making people’s food. Seeing the ashes on her fingers become seasoning the food was repulsive.

Oddly enough, Ramona was easily the most devoted and reliable employee.  She could send out orders faster than I could comprehend them.  I guess that’s the sort of speed you glean when sacrificing hand-washing and general cleanliness.

She held a very interesting conversation.  Actually, it was mostly her picking up her phone during her fourth-of-a-cigarette break and urgently discussing something with her epileptic husband, “Hooooooo, Lordy!” became a sound frequently heard in the kitchen: “Hoooooo, Lordy!  I’ve been swamped all day, Nick!”  Or “Hoooo, Lordy!  It’s raining!  I sure hope they don’t close that pass.” Every shift, when I arrived I would be greeted with one “Hooo, Lordy!” or another.  I thought it was pretty funny, especially one day when I said something to the subject of the “gnarly weather”

“Gnarly!?” She exclaimed, then repeated “Gnarly!?  I ain’t dun heard no one say ‘gnarly’ since them goddamn Ninja Turtles!”  It was at this point that she decided to start addressing me as “Gnarly.”  As though the way I spoke were foreign and hilarious.  I smiled in quite irony.

“Hoooo, Lordy!” she exclaimed one day.  “I sweargawd, Gnarly, if I ever see that bitch again, I’mafuckin’ kill her!”

This seemed like a rash statement; so I couldn’t just let it go,  “Who is this ‘bitch’ you’re talking about?”

I discovered that the “bitch” in question was her son’s pregnant girlfriend. As it turns out, Ramona lives with her husband, her son, and her son’s girlfriend, all in the same house.  Her son’s girlfriend had been talking to some man back in Texas.  Ramona knew about this but decided not to tell her son because it sounded as though he suffered from clinical depression.

It was the Fourth of July, an especially bad day for us as it fell on a Saturday.  Scores of people outside were drunk and cheerful as we slaved away at pizzas and chicken wings in the sweltering kitchen.  At approximately noon, Ramona learned that the man from Texas had shown up at their house. Her son’s girlfriend was going back to Texas with this unnamed man.  Quite the scene was taking place.

“I’m just glad I weren’t there, otherwise I’d be in jail right now.  I sweargawd I’dafuckin’ killed her.”

As her story came to a close, I looked up at her.  Here was this wrinkled white woman: somewhere in her late 40s with dark circles around her eyes, partially from the lack of sleep, partially from her misapplied eyeliner.  She rationed her cigarettes like meals in a desert, as though she’d starve if she ever got to the end of the pack.  She had a slew of issues at her household between her depressed son and epileptic husband.  She was the sole provider for her family, and was stoked to work illegal amounts of overtime in this hellhole of a kitchen.  I began to understand what would lead this woman to threaten to “beat the fuckin’ piss outta that bitch, pregnant or not!”

I fished for something to say for a few seconds before coming back with the only response I could ever find appropriate,  “Hoooooo, Lordy!”  I said, “That’s some shit there.”

“Yeah, but what’re you gunna do?”  She responded, “another day, another dollar.”  This seemed like a cliché, but coming from her mouth at that moment, it sounded like the voice of inspiration itself.

Working as cooks, we were not tipped out, which seems kind of strange when you get down to it.  I mean, these are the people handling your food, you would think that they should get some incentive to at least try to be clean.

After an especially large to-go pizza order, a bartender came back into the kitchen singing, “It’s you’re lucky day!  That guy who picked up his order of pizzas gave this tip and said give it directly to the cook!”

This was kind of awkward, as there were two of us and the ten-dollar tip had been delivered in a single, Alexander Hamilton.  I knew I couldn’t take it.  What kind of person would I be if I had?  I knew that it was a small bonus to Ramona for keeping the food pumping out of that infernal kitchen.

You don’t need a fancy diploma to prepare people’s food. You don’t even need that great of a work ethic (which is probably why the only jobs I’ve ever held have been in food service). All you need is a little experience and sometimes a piece of paper indicating your basic understanding of cross-contamination. Food service will forever employ people short term.  Why?  Because it sucks.  The hours are shit, the pay is shit, you’re treated like shit and oftentimes you serve shitty food with very little reward. 

This is why food jobs have such a high turn overrate.  Bars, bakeries, and restaurants need someone to fill a spot immediately because they’re one cook short, or a couple servers or bussers or whatever.  They hire people immediately.  Some people are incompetent and end up fired.  Some people know they can do better for themselves than throwing chicken wings into a deep fryer, and leave of their own accord. 

The jobs remain unfilled, except by those gems of human beings, like Ramona.  She may not have taken the path in life we are expected to follow, but she works damn hard.  Beneath her scraggly exterior, there is a kind, caring soul struggling to keep afloat in this world.  While I complained about closing on weekends, greedily hoping to get back home before my drunken friends fell asleep, she grasped at every opportunity to make ends meet.

So now when I walk into a cozy café to order my coffee and pie, I see the pain behind the barista’s smile.  I know he or she has already had a slew of unpleasant customer confrontations.  Talking to me in a pleasant tone is probably a challenge.  I know I can’t single handedly alleviate the conglomerate pain food service workers suffer, but I’ll always try to release some good karma into the atmosphere by throwing some bills in the tip jar.