Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ghosts of Kitchens Past

     We are rapidly approaching the point of declaring our restaurant a disaster zone‒ At lunch, booze-fueled Christmas parties wreak havoc on eardrums, the bartenders (Another bloody mary?? I just made five!) and our carpets, strewn with the crumbs of bread-devouring hordes, and littered with scraps of wrapping paper and forgotten gift bags; Dinners are filled with awkward family reunions and staring out-of-towners who don't "dine" much. Soon I expect to find my fellow servers (or myself) hiding in a corner somewhere rocking gently and murmuring: "No we don't have white zin! No white zin!"
     I have a few things to be incredibly thankful for this season: We are NOT open Christmas eve or Christmas day this year (yay, doing a dance in my seat as I type); I haven't as yet had to work a double; And the fact we have the most awesome, efficient kitchen staff.

     Seriously, our cooks are restaurant ninjas. Night after night they crank out dishes that so rarely get sent back, I almost forget what it was like to work in a place where I had to cringe in fear every time I did my "two bites, two minutes" check back with tables. We are constantly complimented on Yelp and OT about our speedy service, which is largely thanks to them.

     Even better, we have little of the drama usually associated with FOH/BOH relations: No yelling, no insults, no imminent threats of thrown, sharp objects. Instead I get songs (reliving our inglorious past attempts at karaoke), smiles, and a maybe a grumpy-but-funny "What the fuck, how are you?" from the sous chef.

     In previous jobs I was not so fortunate. Here are some of my least favorite ghosts of kitchens past:


     Kitchen workers are not always happy with their lot in life, understandably, and with their relative level of income in particular. I used to work with a prep cook who was handsome and smart enough that, with better opportunities, he could have been in the movies, or cutting high-stakes business deals somewhere, not baking brownies and making whipped cream for minimum wage.

     This cook's anger was regularly visible in his glinting eyes, his huge biceps flexed and threatening. Any question was met with an immediate "no" in spite of it being our policy to agree to special requests. To one of the girls, sensitive about her looks, he would pull out his ears and make loud donkey noises. Dread and tears became the typical result of having to ask for a simple side of salad dressing.

     Once, I was chatting with the cooks about how I'd visited Palo Alto earlier that day. "Palo Alto?" Mr. Raging Testosterone asked me. In Spanish this translates to "tall stick"; He grabbed a huge meat mallet and slammed it with all his roid-enhanced strength on a countertop a foot away from me. I spent the rest of the night with my ears ringing (I never let him make me cry though. Asshole.)

     His aggressive use of stimulants ended up being his downfall. The cops busted him driving drunk and in possession of cocaine, and that was the last I saw of him. I felt the smallest twinge of sadness for him, as he did have a more charming side, evident when he was out dancing; But this sentiment didn't last long, as our kitchen was blissfully peaceful after his departure.


     I am still haunted to this day by the memory of a salad cook with large, empty eyes, and her broken record-like refrain: QUUUEEE? QUUUEEE?

     Peppers, a large corporate chain, had one constant frustration: the salad, fry and grill sides operated independently of one another, forcing servers to do a hokey-pokey juggle between them. On busy nights, getting all of a table's food to appear at the same time was a miracle.

     It was never sizzling fajitas or burgers that were our usual hang-ups however, but salads, a station worked at a turtle's pace by a resentful cook with big, frozen brown eyes. Simple questions or condiment requests were met with one response: "QUUEEE?" One time I was stiffed by a 6-top, who was livid that it took ten minutes to receive a side of guacamole for their fajitas. Management got tired of having to comp salad items for tables, and one day she disappeared.

Toast Wars

     At a mom-and-pop breakfast place, my first serving job, the unassuming side window where the toast came out became a battle ground every Sunday. I knew that the myriad of toast options was confusing and annoying to a kitchen much more concerned with omelet preparation; Unfortunately to our customers, toast wasn't nearly so unimportant, and they would loudly remind us of this at every opportunity. We would in turn, pressured by our tables, sit at the toast window begging for our damn English muffins and rye. A very meek, polite server was surprised once when a plate and its buttered, crunchy contents came flying at her, hitting her in the chest.

     One table of regulars showed me what they thought of the situation. Their five orders of toast came out as they were finishing their meal, in spite of me pleading with the kitchen and risking having plates thrown in my direction. As a reward they left a few pennies and dimes on the table, and a dollar bill stuffed into a syrup ramekin.

     All of these lovely experiences make me *heart* my current kitchen staff and their smiling faces so much.

     Have a wonderful holiday everyone!
submit to reddit


  1. UGH those are horrible stories! How do any of us trudge through those disgusting first restaurant jobs to get to the good ones?!!!! A customer tonight picked around all the kale in her soup, and I could feel the Olive Garden induced nightmares creeping in. It's been five years since I worked there. Not a kitchen story, but still...

    1. I know, sometimes I feel like I have server PTSD, those memories are like yesterday!