Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Glimpse in the Kitchen

A professional kitchen can be intimidating. So much is happening from some many different directions. I think this is what is so facinating to so many people about shows like Iron Chef and Kitchen Nightmares, seeing what appears to be chaos turned into a harmony of flavors in 40 minutes or so.

Kathe Tanner is an award-winning reporter and columnist for The Tribune and The Cambrian. She has lived in Cambria since 1971, and her column has been published since 1981. She has begun wading through earlier editions of her columns and re-working them. I found this one today and wanted to share it.

I was definitely being watched.

Sure enough, behind the Knudsen truck that had brought seven, 8-foot-long sections of cake from our Cambria bakery to this most unusual site … hiding over there behind the left corner of the truck was a young girl, watching my every move.

The child’s mouth was open as wide as her eyes were, and she clearly didn’t believe that she was seeing what she knew she saw.

I snuck a look at the girl as she watched me, and my thoughts snapped back more than 20 years. Then, I was the little girl on the outside looking in.

For the first time I was watching my new stepfather at work. I had finally been allowed into the hallowed sanctuary of the kitchen at Jenny Lake Lodge, where he was the sous chef. Later, as I became more familiar with professional kitchen-dom, I would realize that one was really rather unsophisticated … a small, rather ill-equipped facility with an uneven floor, old fixtures and a drop-dead gorgeous view.

However, at the time to me that kitchen was enormous. I saw pots big enough to swim in, knives suitable for use in logging redwoods, and a mixer substantially taller than I was (and am). Clearly, I was impressed.

Daddy had transformed into a 5-foot-8-inch-tall tyrant from the funny, loveable man who’d bewitched my mother. He was obviously a force to reckon with, which his crew would rather not do unless it became inevitable. The whole thing was fascinating, invigorating and unquestionably terrifying.

By the end of my first half-hour session of observation-in-awe, Daddy had me over in a corner, cracking eggs.

Correction: trying to crack eggs. In a professional kitchen, there is always a more efficient way to do things than the way your mother taught you (unless your mother was Julia Child).

At the restaurant, Daddy would take an egg in each hand, crack them both simultaneously on the edge of the bowl, and squeeze. Out would pop two beautiful eggs with yolks intact. But when I did it, we got instant scrambled eggs, with a little extra egg shell (for extra calcium, mebbe?).

My right hand was borderline cooperative, but the left hand was reacting like a fingertip-to-shoulder cast at a quilting bee. Crack, crunch. Crack, smash. Crack, shatter. Couldn’t I ever get it to go crack, plop ... the way my stepfather did?

It took me almost two months to master it.

That insufficiency was a feeling I was to suffer many, many times in my ensuing years in the professional kitchen, part awe, part eagerness, part fumble-fingered exasperation.

As I left the kitchen that first time, I turned around for one last look at that intriguing new world. The waitresses were arriving with a tidal wave of orders, and Daddy had gone into triple high gear ... a pure Texan blur behind the grill. He was professional to the core, ultra efficient and not overly tolerant as he growled at one of the girls, “I said to pick up your order, abulita! My grandma’s slow, but she’s 90 years old!”

That was my introduction into the wonders, terrors, temperaments and inevitably salty communication of professional cooking.

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