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Levels

by Jason Faulkner 5/30/2004

Here and there things hit me that bring about a pure inspiration something I couldn’t turn off if I wanted to. Cooking used to be that thing. I would work my ass off in hot sweaty kitchens with a chef coat two sizes too big hunched over a cutting board for 8, 9, 10 hours a day and I loved it! In that few years I learned more, worked more, studied more and drank more than any other time in my not so long life. And I loved it because it made me feel like I was doing something, like I was important or special or knew things that other people didn’t. I’d take the subway and growl at all the soft mother fuckers taking the late night train because they weren’t cooks, because they hadn’t done 120 covers and were therefore not on my level. Sizing them up you know they’d never make it, you know you couldn’t trust them under pressure. I could trust my other line cooks though they could trust me. I could trust the dishwasher to run into the walk-in and get another tenderloin for me or to stuff some more squash blossoms. The Chef, he trusted all of us and if for some reason there was one in the group that he didn’t it was made known and they earned his and our trust or they were soon replaced with someone who did. The front of the house, waiters, runners, maitre d were always a little suspect and passively aggressively/aggressively aggressively resented because it was known, but never acknowledged or god forbid mentioned that they made more money than us cooks. The front of the house trusted each other though and that was the important thing. The kitchen was a place of intensity, of immediate focus and attention to detail, a place that consumed you and dragged you out of the sunlight and into a brick oven basement to streamline all the energy that the average office worker pisses away day after day for half their life into a single practice, cooking.
After some globe trotting and a taste of an easier life the concept of levels wormed it’s way up into my brain and found some thing to grab onto because it seems to be expanding day by day. Social levels were never something I took the time to notice. Never took the time to see that in my kitchen rags I wouldn’t have been allowed out into the dinning room where the civilized patrons were seated. I was the no name grunt someone threw money at to entertain them with his skill , cooking, I’d been able to absorb and recreate. Next to the Latinos, who looking back seemed to have far more understanding of the situation than us crazy white boys, who cooked because we loved it. The main reason why I can’t go back to a kitchen, aside from my new found fear of hard work is a sense of shame, of failure and bottom line bottom of the food chain mentality. It got to the point where I tucked my tail between my legs and had to get a job at a café for $11/hr. I save a little face by finding a number of excuses why its acceptable and why it’s just an instance of convenience. Trying to make myself feel better, that I’m still the one the people give the order to, still the one washing dishes, still the one on payroll and still the one on the bottom. Fuck the bottom!!!
In another world I worked as an English teacher at a local kindergarten and made a great salary doing a fun and respectable job. I was the one trading money for services and seeing the levels magnified and blown up a thousand times. Another world where I’d buy meat kabobs and hashish off a Muslim street vendor who made in a month what I made in a day. Wondering if he had any idea how much space was in between us. In truth I pray that he didn’t because ignorance isn’t bliss it’s a bubble and once you pop it your stuck swimming in the shit you knew about and all the new shit you never realized was there. Careful now because to many people start talking that way and emotions get nasty, tempers get sharp and throats get opened. It’s happened before and history may not repeat itself, but certain cycles are hard to redirect.
In this world I’m starting to see just how well they’ve worked it out a place where we middle man peasants have houses, cars and kids in college. How we have dignity and pride and how we tell ourselves that these are choices not designations. That where we are is where we want to be, not where we’ve been put. God bless the bubble because it keeps us floating, keeps that energy streamlined into a society of life, levels and the pursuit of happiness.

Is the Turkey Smoked?  

By Chef Jacky Robert and Lance Barbakow

Article submitted to the Metro newspaper on 11/20/2003

“Is your turkey smoked?” a customer of our restaurant asked me on the telephone a few days before Thanksgiving. “No, Madame,” I replied. “Is your turkey smoked?” she asked once again.  Convinced that she was having difficulty with my French-accented English, I passed the handset to Spencer, my six-foot tall British sous-chef. “Is your turkey smoked?” “No Madam,” he replied. After that same question again, Spencer shouted angrily,” No!” and then passed the phone to Jason, our only American. “No, Madam, our turkey is not smoked,” Jason answered calmly. “Oh, can I make a reservation then?” the lady retorted.

 

            In 1972, I came to the Boston area to help my Uncle Lucien open his new restaurant. My English was poor. Foolishly, I wanted everybody in the kitchen to speak French in the style of Napoleon. The sexy legs of my English teacher many times crossed my mind as an excuse for not being more fluent. A Cuban dishwasher asked me, “Chef, do you speak Spanish?” “No,” I replied. “Then you are in trouble,” he moaned. One night, I was forced to let go a janitor of Chinese nationality. The next day, much to my surprise, the man reported to work. He did not understand me. I didn’t have the guts to fire him again.

 

As a French born chef working in a kitchen populated by a mainly Spanish-speaking staff, navigating through my workweek with my thick accent could be a boon or a burden. It was a very useful tool when it came to getting dates, embarrassing when I was asked more than once to repeat myself, and humiliating when ordered to “Speak English…please!” The worst, and most frustrating part was, during an argument, not to be able to tell my opponent he was an asshole.

           

            Since then, I have married a Korean woman who harbors a touch of resentment over my having chosen a name for our son that she cannot pronounce, Raoul. In spite of their parents, our kids speak perfect English. When I told my 20-year-old daughter about my idea to write an article, she said, “It’s not going to work Dad, stick with your recipes…and you cannot write asshole on a newspaper.”  My Raoul, eleven years old, was impressed; he wanted to know if I would use complicated words.

 

             Many Americans are uncomfortable with accents, and I can see panic on their faces as soon as I start speaking. I once asked if the Red Sox had won the previous night, which elicited the response, “No, it is not going to rain tomorrow.” There are thousands of new immigrants coming to our shores every year (I can say “our” now, I became an American citizen), all with different accents. Here are some helpful guidelines to follow when speaking with us:  Stay calm; chances are we are not terrorists. Try to spot words you recognize and watch the person’s lips without looking like a pervert. If, after that, you are still puzzled, ask a vague question that won’t make your interlocutor (how’s that Raoul?)  Think you don’t know what he’s talking about, and try to stay politically correct. If you have exhausted all possibilities, change the conversation or just smile. We people with accents love that.

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