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TasteBuds: Prep School

Oct 08, 2018 04:59PM ● By John Lehndorff
It is 7:01 a.m. on a summer Friday as I clock into the Front Range catering kitchen lit by fluorescent lights. I am in uniform: an all-black outfit, a pristine white apron. I set up a cutting board at my station—a stainless-steel table—and pull out my knives.

“John, ignore the prep list. We need 58 lunch boxes set up stat.” It’s a last-minute lunch order. It means grabbing 58 flat boxes and setting them up on stainless-steel counters, with 58 paper liners, 58 forks, 58 individually bagged pickles, chips, cookies, and various California club and grilled vegetable sandwiches on ciabatta rolls. They get closed, taped, labeled, stacked, and wrapped on sheet pans. Now I can move on to the prep list, a sheet of culinary tasks I need to accomplish today. I will be on my feet until 5 p.m., working continually except for a restroom break. I hate standing all day.

First task on the prep list: pack up Caesar salad components for 40 people. That involves separating 32 eggs to emulsify into Caesar dressing using a “hand” mixer the size of a small outboard motor, weighing out 4 pounds of anchovies, shredding blocks of Parmesan cheese, and squeezing a quart of fresh lemon juice. Next step: cutting large focaccia loaves into cubes and toasting them into croutons as well as trimming, chopping, and washing romaine lettuce then drying it in a giant salad spinner.

This isn’t how my particular American Dream was supposed to be progressing at the age of 64. I haven’t worked in a commercial kitchen since I cooked in Boulder restaurants during the first Reagan administration in the early 1980s. I used to have post-kitchen nightmares about being chained to a fryer making onion rings for eternity.

Back then, I burned my greasy cooking clothes on a front stoop hibachi and swore I’d never cook again. I won’t bore you with the life circumstances that brought me here, but I found myself between a rock and an even harder financial place. I couldn’t make enough as a writer
to pay the bills. I realized that the only non-writing skill I had to sell was cooking.

I e-mailed a large catering company. I wasn’t even sure that I would hire me: an old, slow, big guy with an aversion to authority figures and recipes. My selling points were that I had a food encyclopedia in my head and already knew the peculiar language and lexicon of the working kitchen. Compared to the 25-year-old me, I’m an on-time professional who is dependable and used to working extra-long days, albeit sitting down. My final selling point was my salary requirements. “I want to make whatever you are paying,” I said.

Honestly, I never thought I’d last two weeks, never mind five months. I’ve got some gimpy 64-year-old conditions including arthritis, worn knees, neuropathy, old rotator cuff and elbow injuries, and a year-old hernia that make standing up all day and lifting heavy things seem like a bad idea.

To my surprise, I have found that I can stand up, chop, fry, and sauté for eight or more hours, but not without significant discomfort and pain. Thank goodness for NSAIDS and CBD.

I’m grateful the company gave me a chance, and the owners are happy because people willing to work in food service are hard to come by these days. Why peel potatoes when you can make $3 more an hour trimming buds for a dispensary?

Next prep list item: 5 pounds of fruit salad. That means hauling watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, and strawberries from the bedroom-sized walk-in cooler to my table. I stand and peel, scoop, and cut the fruit in semi-identical small cubes, then add grapes and blueberries. Pack it all into clear 1 quart plastic containers, labeled, dated, and color coded. Then I clean up for the umpteenth time this day. I make a delicious fruit salad.

The quantities are just staggering. We’ll make 150 tomato-basil-mozzarella skewers, 200 bacon-wrapped figs, or 100 spring rolls. It’s like Groundhog Day all over again as the tasks repeat.

As I chop, I’m enveloped by the aroma of the 30 pounds of bacon on parchment paper-covered pans in the oven behind me. It’s sweltering. I hate being hot, but the cacophony distracts me. The background roar of the overhead hood is joined by the syncopated pounding of chicken breasts with a metal hammer on a stainless steel table to make 150 rollatini for a seated dinner.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to making $11 an hour as a prep cook. I started enjoying it. I love working with food, learning about food, tasting food, and talking about it. I’m also in the best shape I’ve been in years. I tell folks that I have a personal trainer who drives me relentlessly 8 to 10 hours a day, three days a week. A 5-gallon bucket of pickle spears in brine is a major walking deadlift from the walk-in to the kitchen.

This kitchen is a friggin’ dietary gauntlet but wearing bright blue gloves makes it all seem rather clinical. I have lost 15-plus pounds, which makes my feet hurt less. I work a nose-length from the pastry chefs making bars, tarts, cakes, cookies, and buttery biscuits almost every day. M&M’s, bags of white, milk and dark chocolate, bins of every kind of nut and dried fruit fill the pantry. I try to ignore it all.

After working as a journalist alone at my home desk, it’s nice to have coworkers. Many are young enough to be my kids, and they all work incredibly hard. I’m happy that the banter is much
less sexist than it was 30 years ago and that the staff includes many women. I enjoy my kitchen role as know-it-all music historian. I have also learned more about Mexican ranchera music and operatic heavy metal than I ever expected.

I am the oldest cook in the kitchen, but I’m not the oldest worker. Our chief dishwasher, a rock star who faces down soul-crushing piles of dishes and pots each week, just turned 68. He also has a second dishwashing job. Cooks have come and gone in my short time here, and even the chef who hired me has moved on.

One of the nice things about the job is that a staff meal is served to everyone. One day, it was steak and eggs. Literally. Other days, there have been excellent pulled pork tacos and salad. There were pancakes and bacon one Saturday morning, served on china plates with metal utensils. There’s only one catch: Nobody in the kitchen sits down to eat. You eat on the run at your station. I bring my unprofessional knives from home because this job involves working ingredients from scratch. If you need 10 pounds of shredded carrots, you don’t open a nag. You peel carrots and push them by hand through a Japanese steel mandolin slicer. I have shed considerable blood using it and visit the first aid box often.

Kitchens are dangerous places. I’ve cut and bruised Kitchens are dangerous places. I’ve cut and bruised myself more times than I can count on my oft-singed fingers. People have expertly sharp knives in their hands all day long. “The line” is a wall of ovens, grills, and stoves pouring out heat. Boiling soups get splashed. That’s why you hear a steady patter of shouts all day long. “Corner!” “Hot!” “Knife!” “Caliente!” “Behind!” And the ever-popular “Hot! Behind!”

Cooks compare scars and burns like soldiers bragging about past battles. “Want to see my blisters?” asked one cook, almost cheerful. Injuries that would send most people screaming to urgent care merely get shrugged off. You bandage up and get back to making quinoa salad for a vegan wedding.

Final prep item: 10 pounds of tortilla chips. First, get 13 or 14 pounds of corn tortillas and cut them into sixths. Grab some kosher salt and hotel pans. You can’t get too casual when you
are leaning over two vats of boiling vegetable oil, filling baskets with corn triangles and eventually pulling up chips neither underdone nor too brown that are salted while still warm.

Listen: I know a modern kitchen is no country for old men. At the end of a 9-hour chop-a-thon, I feel like I’ve been mugged. However, I persist. If another job comes along and I have to leave the kitchen, I’ll miss it and need to replace what it does for me...well, except for the pain part.

On this Labor Day, I think about all the folks in kitchens all over the nation, sweating over our dinner. They do honorable work. The next time you eat out, tip the kitchen or buy a round
of drinks for the prep cooks. Trust me: they deserve it.

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JOHN LEHNDORFF’s favorite cooking moments were catering a Boulder party
and serving his chicken cacciatore to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and
William Burroughs.