No-Man’s Land

By Jeni McFarland

he last restaurant I ever worked in, the chef was batshit nuts.  It was this superficially nice restaurant, an American bar and grill kind of place, brick building, good landscaping.  You walk in to a display of fine wines on the wall, stone-tiled floors leading into a brass and polished-wood bar, red carpeting in the dining room, tables draped in fine white linen.  They even had fancy chrome holders for the sugar packets.  It was an open kitchen, meaning the guests could see us working back there on the line in our chef’s jackets, white aprons, and black baseball caps with the restaurant’s logo on them.

 

I started working at the restaurant two weeks after it had opened.  It was a kind of last gasp at the hospitality industry.  I was tired of working nights, weekends, holidays.  Things were getting pretty serious with my boyfriend, and suddenly I wanted a more regular schedule.  But I hadn’t had any luck at interviewing for an office job, so I took this position out of desperation.  Despite the fact that I’d been to culinary school and that I had a decent amount of experience, I had been hired as a prep cook.  I thought it would be fine, it paid as much as anywhere else I’d worked, and I was scheduled for mornings instead of nights.  But after a while, this position wore on my nerves.  It wasn’t so much that the job itself was degrading; prepping needed to be done, and I had fun with the Mexican guys in the back of the kitchen.  It was more that, Chef’s attitude, and the attitudes of the line cooks, conveyed a sense that I was just a prep cook.  When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to learn anything new at this restaurant, I made a goal for myself: I was going to work on holding my tongue.  Every job I’d had, my mouth got me in trouble with my boss.  I knew if I was ever to work in an office, I wouldn’t be able to talk shit like I was used to.  Might as well practice now.  So this summer, there would be no mouthing off to my superiors, although my coworkers were fair game.  Baby steps.

 

Chef had obsessive-compulsive disorder.  He told me during the interview that he was OCD, and I said I was too, having no idea just how bad he was.  My little issues don’t even register on the same chart as his.  He had this thing that the floors of the kitchen had to be spotless.  Now, normally in kitchens, there’s food on the floor, bits of bread, French fries, a scattering of chopped herbs.  It gets ground into the tread of your shoes, into the grout between floor tiles, there’s nothing for it.  The oil from the fryers gets dripped on the floors too, making a slick surface, and you might throw down some kosher salt or an open-faced cardboard box on walkways to keep from slipping.

 

This restaurant opened at eleven o’clock in the morning, and before service, we all had to stop what we were doing and clean the floors.  Forget that we might not be done prepping everything we needed for service.  A lot of the guys dawdled, thought if they put it off long enough, someone else would do it.  But when ten thirty came, we were supposed to sweep the floors, then flood them with soapy water, scrub them, squeegee them, flood them with clean water, squeegee them again, and dry-mop the soak up the remainder of the water.  Then we swept them again, to get all the crap that had been flushed out from underneath the equipment while flooding.  Chef always came through to inspect, and always hounded us because we hadn’t mopped up all the water from the corners.

 

And it wasn’t enough to just mop.  We had to pull out all the equipment—the fryers, the grills, they were all on wheels—to get behind there.  At ten thirty in the morning, all the equipment was fired and going hot.  One day, one of the guys, while squeezing behind the grill the mop back there, slipped in the soapy water that was flooding the floor.  He tried to catch himself from falling, and bar-b-queued his arm.  His whole arm looked like beef jerky.  And Chef wouldn’t send him to the hospital.  My theory was, the owner of the restaurant was on Chef’s case about food cost.  We used the term “food cost” to describe not just the actual food, but, really, the entire cost of operation.  Labor was a part of food cost.  So was hand soap.  We must have saved a bundle on soap, because the soap dispensers fell off the walls in the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure, being the only girl, that I was the only one who went back to the bathroom to wash my hands with any regularity.  Also, the cost of sending an injured employee to the hospital was referred to as food cost.  You can’t go to the hospital, Chef would say.  We’re trying to get our food cost down.

 

Sanitation there was nonexistent.  And not just when it came to hand washing.  As clean as the floors were, the counters were equally filthy, as if to bring balance to the natural order.  I’d watched the broil guy open bags of raw chicken on the counter, spilling chicken blood across the surface, then mop it up with a dry towel.  Then he’d keep using the towel to wipe the counter, the cutting board, to handle hot pans, and he’d keep using the knife to cut cooked chicken.  Nobody but me seemed to feel anything was wrong with this.   Not even Chef.  But at the same time, Chef was crazy anal about how straight the rows of canned goods were in dry storage.

 

Before the end of my shift, one of my duties was to straighten up dry storage.  I’d spend an hour in there, sweeping up the roach traps, the flour and panko that was spilled on the floor, straightening the lines of canned goods, only to have Chef come in and inspect my work and tell me the canned goods weren’t straight enough.  I’d do it again.  When he came back to inspect it, he would rearrange the canned goods himself so that they weren’t just in line with each other, but with the bars of the wire rack on which they sat.

 

Chef was also particular about how things were made, but his particularities weren’t necessarily commensurate with food quality.  Case in point, we had this sun dried tomato vinaigrette.  When you prepped it, first you soaked the tomatoes in hot water, so they were nice and slippery, and then you chopped them with a good dull knife.  All we had in the kitchen were dull knives, which, as any chef knows, are more dangerous that sharp knives.  You have to force them, they don’t slice easily, and then you’re much more likely to cut yourself.  So I was hacking away at these slippery tomatoes, (which were still chewy, a bit of soaking doesn’t resolve that), with my dull knife and I nearly took the tip of my thumb off.  It was just this bloody cap, flapping on a hinge of skin at the end of my thumb.  Chef said it was my fault.

 

“If you’d curled your fingers, it wouldn’t have happened.”

 

And I said, “I did curl my fingers.  It’s the tomatoes.  We should cut them before soaking them.”

 

Chef said, “that’s not the procedure though.  You have to follow procedure.”

 

I thought I needed stitches, but Chef said no.  Food cost.  I always thought it was too bad OSHA didn’t make surprise visits to restaurants as frequently as the health department did.

 

Oh, the health department.  Instead of following health code, we had a system we called “Code Red.”  Everyone in the kitchen had a list of tasks they were to memorize.  The tasks might be something like, go in the cooler and put dates on everything on the racks.  Or fill the sani-buckets on the line.  Or wipe down the counters.  Or throw out the hotel pan full of cooked bacon we had to put on burgers, which sat out all day and all night.  And when the health department walked in the front door, the manager up front was to tell us “Code Red,” and then the kitchen would stop what it was doing and set about these assigned tasks.  Chef reasoned this made more sense than following health code all the time, since these things slowed down productivity, and, as you know, time is money.

 

During my first week at this restaurant, I walked into the cooler one day to find Chef yelling because someone had put a container on the wrong shelf.  I realized it was me, and said I was sorry, and that he could fire me if he wanted, ha ha.  I didn’t understand why Chef didn’t laugh, until one of the line cooks told me that it wasn’t funny.  In the five weeks that the restaurant had had employees, they had fired over fifty employees from the kitchen alone.  Over fifty.  And that doesn’t include dishwashers and servers, they weren’t considered kitchen.  The guy who told me this, a dude in his early twenties who’d been to culinary school, did good work, was a decent guy if not a little arrogant—Chef fired him later that day.  That guy was given the boot, and yet people like Broil Guy were allowed to stay.

 

Broil Guy lived in a double-wide.  He claimed he had a recording studio in there, that he was a producer.  He was always trying to get me to come over and sing for him, he said he bet I had a nice voice.  I do have a nice voice.  I didn’t need him to tell me that.  I told him I didn’t sing.  Broil Guy was always on my case, trying to invite him and his kids over to my apartment so his kids could go swimming.  My boyfriend was in Houston that summer on an internship, so I was technically living alone for a couple months.  And Broil Guy would oscillate between telling me I wasn’t black enough for him, and hitting on me.  He’d tell me I’d have a good time, that he’d stir it like coffee, making slow hula-hoop motions with his hips.

 

I told him, “I’m here to get paid, I ain’t here to get laid.”

 

He said he liked to take his time, light some candles, open a bottle of wine, draw a bubble bath.

 

“Damn!”  I said.  “What kind of woman are you bringing home that you got to wash her before you’ll do anything with her?”

 

He asked me if I didn’t get lonely with my man out of town.  I told him not to worry, I had it covered.  He said he liked his women black anyway.  I told him I liked my men tall, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Clark, one of the other line cooks who was, like, basket-ball star height, whip around and look to see if he’d heard me right.

 

This was just part of the job description.  I’d stand there while the guys showed me pizza dough replicas of their penises.  I could talk dick in multiple languages.  Chupa mi verga, they’d say.  Chinga tu madre, I’d respond.  But the Mexican guys weren’t the worst offenders.  Sure, they’d say shit if they thought they could get away with it, but if they knew you knew what they were saying, they’d simmer down.  Mostly, they tutored me in Spanish.  I asked Octavio how to say plate, fork, knives, French fries, how to say pig fucker.

 

“Pinche maricón,” Octavio said.  “That’s a rough translation,” he said.  “Maricón is more like a general swear.”

 

“No no,” I said.  “I want to know how to call Broil Guy a pig fucker, you know, like someone who fucks pigs, Deliverance style.  How do you say, squeal like a pig?”

 

At one point, things got so bad in the kitchen that Chef had to call a meeting.  There’d been a formal complaint of sexual harassment, one of the waitresses who worked nights.  Chef wanted to remind all of us to watch what we said to each other, although he understood playful banter, and that under no circumstances did we need to be playing grab ass in the kitchen.  Later that same day, while I was standing at the end of a counter using the meat slicer, Chef walked by me.  His hand bumped my ass.  It was an accident, I could tell the difference between a bump and a grab, but Chef turned several shades of red as he apologized profusely.  It’s okay, I told him.  It sticks out.

 

But the antagonism between me and Broil Guy would escalate until we were yelling at each other.  Very professional.  It wasn’t just because he teased me that I wasn’t black enough.  All the guys did that, so that I’d earned the nickname White Girl.  Even Wayne, the sous chef, called me that.  Brian, who was a white boy himself, used to insult me in Ebonics, and then laugh when I didn’t know what he was saying.  He also told me one day that he was going to put a mushroom on my head, which I didn’t get, especially since he was cutting mushrooms at the time.  I asked my boyfriend later on the phone, and he was pissed that they guys were talking to me like that.  But it was all in good fun.  No harm, no foul.

 

One day, when Broil Guy and I were yelling at each other, Chef called us each into the conference room individually for “a little chat.”  He was always calling people in for little chats, most of which ended in the employee’s termination.  Chef called me in first, asked me what was going on.  I told him Broil Guy was being a dick.  I relayed the gist of our conversation to him, and as I talked, I got so pissed—I committed the worst offense imaginable.  I started crying.  Yep, I cry when I’m emotional.  Also, I had PMS.  But just because I cry doesn’t mean I can’t kick your ass.  I didn’t need this job; I thought about walking out right then and there.  Chef told me he’d have a talk with Broil Guy.  He said to get myself cleaned up and get back on the line.  Clean myself up? I thought.  Clean yourself up.  Make sure your house is in order before you go saying shit like that to me.  Asshole.  But I didn’t say this.  I held my tongue.

 

On the Fourth of July, one of the waitresses had a party.  She lived a ways out in the country, in this little square house where the roof was sagging and the screen door was falling off its hinges.  There were brightly colored wool blankets tacked up over the windows for curtains.  The lot was big though, with tall trees in a huge yard that backed up into corn fields.  All the restaurant employees came with less booze than they drank, and they ate her food and watched her fireworks display.  I was caught in this no-man’s land because I wasn’t really one of the front-of-the-house staff, but I also didn’t want to hang out with the boys from the kitchen either.  But with my boyfriend still out of town, I had nothing else to do on the Fourth of July.  I ended up taking a seat next to Clark and his friend, because even though he was a little high, he was a good guy.  He was a mellow toker.  I’d brought a case of this sparkling ale from some independent brewery, because I’d never had it before and it looked interesting.  Everyone else there was drinking the hard stuff.

 

There were a couple of girls, a tall one and a short one, running around with a bottle of tequila, and every time the short girl took a shot, she’d smack her lips and say, smooth like buttah.  Joe, the guy who’d bar-b-queued his arm, had quit earlier that week.  When he quit, he told Chef he was a, and I hope get this right, a self-absorbed, egotistical, anal-retentive, fucking nutjob who couldn’t cook his way out of a camp of starving refugees.  Smooth as shit, except after he quit, Joe went home and told his girlfriend, who promptly kicked him out—she wasn’t going to support his unemployed ass.  Then Joe came back to work and tried to unquit, only Chef would only take him back part time.  So Joe came to the party with a fifth of JD and a straw.  By the time the fireworks started, Joe’s bottle was almost empty, and Joe was passed out on the lawn.

 

Broil Guy, who’d razzed me for bringing something as pansy as sparkling ale to a party, offered to fetch me another one before the fireworks.  He brought it to me, even opened it for me.  Now, I’m not making any accusations, but I got drunk that night.  Seriously drunk.  On two beers.  You do the math.  Before I realized it, everyone who was still conscious had left the party, and everyone else was passed out, except for me and Broil Guy, who had brought the sound system.  He asked me to wait up, he had to pack up his equipment.  I didn’t know where Clark was, I couldn’t find the girl who’d hosted the party, and the damn trees wouldn’t stop spinning, so I decided to slip away quietly in the night.  I drove home slowly on the back roads, hoping to God that I didn’t get pulled over, and that whatever had inebriated me would wear off in three hours before my shift started at the restaurant.  Fireworks were over at midnight.  I drove home at three.  Three hours I was out of it, and I can’t account for all that time.  I ate some hot dogs and mole sauce wrapped in tortillas.  I walked around a bit.  I smoked a cigar.  I don’t think anything else happened.

 

After a few more guys were fired, I was moved up to the line two days a week, to the load station, which grilled buns and cooked French fries, but also called out orders as they came in, and timed everything so the food all came up at once.  I was in charge of plating and garnishing, and sending orders out.  Less cooking, more organizing.  While working load station, I had more time to talk with Broil Guy, who was quick to let me know that, despite my education and experience, I was the lowest paid employee in the kitchen, aside from the Mexican guys.  Why, you might ask, was I paid less than, say, Broil Guy, who had no license, who’d been to jail for running drugs over state lines, who frequently came to work late, and who spent more time hitting on me than he did actually working?  Because I had a pair of tits instead of a pair of balls.  Fuck.  That.

 

After Joe quit, I started thinking that it looked like a pretty good idea.  My boyfriend, who knew I hated working there, finally convinced me that maybe restaurants weren’t my cup of tea.  I should go back to school, he said.  At about the same time, Chef had been pressured by the owner to overhaul the menu.  He’d come up with good entrees (or so he thought—guy put cornstarch in his Alfredo sauce!), but he was stuck on the dessert menu.  I heard him discussing it with one of the dining room managers, trying to brainstorm ideas.

 

Now, I used to be a pastry chef.  Chef knew that, or at least he should have known, assuming he’d read my resume.  But did he ask for my input?  Hell no.  I thought about going home and creating a dessert menu for him.  I’d even type it up all pretty, and put it in a binder with recipes, and present it to him at the start of my next shift.  I spent the rest of my day, working the prep station in the back, coming up with a menu in my head.  I don’t remember what all I had on it, but I’ll tell you it was fabulous.  It would have had something chocolate, something fruity, something creamy.  Well-balanced.  But when I went home, I took one look at my computer, came to my senses, and poured myself a glass of red wine.  Sat down on the couch with a good book.  Fuck them.  They didn’t even ask for my opinion.  I didn’t need them; I was going to go back to school.  I applied for readmission at Michigan State.  I kept it secret though, I wasn’t going to give my two weeks until two weeks before the semester started, but whenever anyone pissed me off after that, I’d only smile at them, and start whistling the MSU fight song.

 

 

One week, when I was on prep, I kept finding these rotten potatoes.  The bag was new, it had come in on the delivery truck just that morning, yet the potatoes had these soft slimy patches and an old beer smell to them.  I brought it to Chef’s attention, but the next delivery was the same.  Rotten potatoes.  After a week of it, I got a batch that had a gagging stench.  These potatoes were beyond the point of cutting around the bad spots; they were all bad spots.  I grabbed a particularly gross potato and brought it to chef.

 

“These are inexcusable,” I told him.

 

He was staring, aghast.  I looked too, and that’s when I realized the potato was moving.  Or, at least, it looked like it was moving, so full of writhing maggots was it.  I wanted to squeal.  I wanted to throw the potato in the garbage, and then maybe puke into the garbage too.  But I was well aware that I must have looked bad-assed, standing there, one hand on my hip, the other brandishing a magotty potato.  This might even make up for having cried in front of Chef.  Who needs to clean up now, bitch?  So I stood there, staring Chef down with my magotty potato, until he promised he’d talk to our purveyor.

 

That was kind of a breaking point though.  I put in my two weeks notice.  I couldn’t stand working there anymore, and even though school wasn’t starting for a month and a half, I was done.  On the phone the night before, my boyfriend and I had come up with the plan.  I would join him in Houston for a month, and hang out by the pool at his apartment and finishing writing my romance novel.  I could teach myself chemistry from Schaum’s outlines.  I’d hit the ground running when I started classes in September.

 

So I sat down with Chef in the bar to have a little chat.  Chef wanted to know why I was leaving.  It was just a couple of weeks after Joe had quit, and Chef, the smart guy that he was, was noticing a pattern.  Only I wouldn’t give him specifics.  I’d spent the entire summer holding my tongue, and I wasn’t about to lose it now.  I kept it vague.  I was unhappy there.  I was going back to school.

 

Chef asked, “are you leaving because of me?”

 

“Yes,” I said.

 

“What is it about me?” he asked.

 

I shrugged.

 

“Am I mean?” he said.

 

“Yes,” I said.  I wouldn’t give him anymore than that.

 

Mean.  He was insane.  I’d worked in a lot of restaurants, and I’d never met anyone worse off in my book.  And that includes the chef at the country club, who was an alcoholic.  And the bakery owner who used his employees as therapists to counsel him through his failed romances.

 

When Wayne heard, he took me aside, said he was sad to see me go.  He said that, although Chef never said so to me, when I was working the line, he knew he didn’t have to check on things.  Mine were the cleanest plates that went out in the dining room, and nobody ever sent food back when I was on load.  Wayne also said they’d lost a lot of good employees.

 

“Between you and me,” he said, “would you consider coming back after Chef’s gone?”  The owner planned on making the restaurant into a chain, and Chef was supposed to be leaving to start the next restaurant.

 

“When that happens,” Wayne said, “I’m going to call back a lot of the people who’ve been fired or who’ve quit.”

 

“Sure,” I told him.  “I’d love to work for you.”

 

 

My last day of work, the managers were having a meeting in the dining room at ten fifteen.  The kitchen staff decided to get together, and do the floors early.  We’d just sweep and mop, nobody would ever know.  Normally, when it came time to do the floors, people were slow to help out.  If they had prep left, they wanted to keep working, getting their line set up before service.  But that last day, we were on top of it.  I dropped the corn chips I’d been frying and grabbed a broom.  Brian was sweeping too.  Clark and Broil Guy filled buckets of mop water.  We did the whole thing in five minutes, before Chef could come back and see that we hadn’t flooded the floors.  Man, nothing brings a group together better than trying to pull one over on the boss.  Just to make sure everything looked to be in order, I filled a two-quart measuring cup with water and went around pouring it in the corners, where we always missed with the dry mop.  When Chef came back to the kitchen after his meeting, and saw that we’d busted out the floors ahead of schedule, he almost looked impressed.

 

“You missed the corners,” he said.  “Clean it up.”

 

Later, on the line, Broil Guy told me, “nice touch with the water.”

 

“Thanks,” I said.  “I do what I can.”

 

 

——————–

Jeni is a former pastry chef from Michigan.  She moved to Houston, Texas in 2008 with her husband, and received a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston in 2011.  Her writing tends to revisit her time in restaurants and her home state, but occasionally ventures out into the realm of magical realism.


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