“Not Now, Katrin”
Chapter 1 from the prequel/sequel to
“The University Club — A Campus Affair” by Warren Laine-Naida
1: behind the scenes where I cook — not that anybody is interested
I look up at the big railway clock on the wall, brush the muffin crumbs from my lips, and blow those away which have landed on my keyboard. My own blueberry muffins taste a lot better. These don’t have enough blueberries and are too oily. I pick up the muffin paper and stare at it. Have you ever wondered how they get muffin papers so round at the bottom?
The sounds from the kitchen are only slightly less aggressive down here in the break room than they are when you’re actually working in it. Calls for orders, the clanging of pots, a lost container of cutlery as it hits the floor, the stamp of clogs up and down the stairway that separates the main kitchen from the pastry area, laundry, and storage here in the basement.
The break room isn’t actually a room. It’s an empty space surrounded by rooms. A space boxed in by coolers, ice cube machines, and a collection of faded patio umbrellas waiting to be taken away. It’s a big table with a bench and a few odd assorted chairs from the restaurant upstairs, the surface littered with the detritus of countless previous breaks. Ashtrays, energy bar wrappers, a torn paperback, coffee cups, the frayed cable from a broken phone charger. A copy of Food & Wine sitting across from me has already lost its cover. The break room is as far removed from what a room would aspire to be as imaginable. It’s a broken room.
“Kathy!” I look up to see Philip, the Sous Chef Garde Manger, pulling bottles of wine from the cooler nearby. “Are you almost finished your break?”
I nod and close my laptop, stuffing it into my bag along with my cigarettes and my phone.
“Great. Could you bring a case of the Geil Sauvignon Blanc with you when you come?”
“Sure.” I nod again, put my bag in my locker, shut the door, and tug at the combination lock twice to make sure it’s closed. You get the odd bag, or phone, or bike shoes go missing from time to time.
“Thanks. How’s your novel coming along?” Philip is the only one in the crew who doesn’t find it odd that a prep cook is writing a book. He actually encourages it.
I appreciate the support, and I can feel myself blushing. “I don’t know. A lot of editing.”
“I hope you’ll let me read it when it’s done.” He shuts the cooler door. “Creativity is good, wherever you find it.”
I smile hesitantly, put my toque on my head, and check my reflection in the mirror. I wish I were better looking. Does everybody wish this? Probably. I open the second wine cooler, find the right case of German white wine, then follow Philip up the staircase. It’s narrow and steep, the walls mottled with faded colour in places from being splashed by sauces or soups. The stairway has been the scene of more than one accident during a busy service.
“Watch the last step, it’s slippery,” Philip calls back. “Jerome! Bring a cloth and dry the stairs. Damn. This is dangerous!” I reach the top as Jerome, the dishwasher, lays out a dry cloth. I smile at him. “Thanks.”
The kitchen is loud, but not as loud as it will be in a few hours when we begin service. Now only the bistro terrace is open — mostly wine, a few salads, the odd bruschetta, or our famous veggie chips. I prep those. It will get a lot busier later — we do about three hundred covers for dinner and just as many in the bar. Ten cooks are moving about the large, square kitchen space carrying, slicing, chopping, flaming, baking, yelling, laughing, swearing, in many languages. A kitchen is a microcosm of the world — of life.
I carry the case of wine into the dining room and place it on top of the bar. “Hey, Judy.” I greet the bar manager, pull open one of the heavy cooler drawers, and take out a bottle of mineral water.
“Hey, Kath. Ready for a busy one?”
“Yeah, I guess. I only have the early dinner shift. Already done five hours prep.” I brush a few loose hairs out of my eyes.
Judy smiles at me, reaching over to straighten my toque. I hate these hats. “Then you’re lucky.” She winks. “I just got here, so it’ll be a long night for me. Don’t wait up.” She does a little duck face, “I’m going to get lucky tonight anyway.”
I laugh. “Maybe I should hide the good wines this time.”
Judy pouts. “I’ll bring something if I come back, but I hope Leslie will invite me over this time.”
Judy and I share a small apartment a few blocks from the restaurant. Sometimes she brings home a date, and sometimes our small collection of wines is a few bottles smaller the next morning. We were very lucky to get the place. Well, Judy was lucky to get it — I haven’t yet mastered the ability to bully my way through a line of potential renters. Judy can. Judy can do anything.
“Gotta get back. See you.” She smiles, whips out a dangerous looking box cutter from her back pocket, opens the box of wine, and begins stacking the bottles in the glass-fronted cooler. “Have fun!”
A glass of white wine would taste good. I like days off when I can have a glass of Riesling or Lugana with my lunch, or just sit on our small balcony sipping from a glass and watching the street theatre below. We live downtown. The streets are always a theater.
I walk back into the kitchen and catch a glimpse of Chef coming out of her office. I quicken my step and raise my hand. “Chef!” She looks up and smiles. “Hi, Katherine, what’s up?”
Jessica Waring is the Executive Chef of Maples, our restaurant and catering company. She’s really famous too — I think. She worked in Paris and Tokyo and even Moscow before coming here. She’s written a book on French Bistro cooking and did a series of cooking shows on TV. I know all this because I googled her as soon as I was hired. I’d like to be as good a chef as she is one day, though I get the feeling the men don’t like it, and well, there’s little chance I will be. Chef doesn’t take any shit from the guys — or the girls. I’m not really the ‘boss chic’ kind of person anyway.
There’s always some sort of ego problem in the kitchen that needs to be managed — not just ours, I mean, it seems to come with the territory. I swear if the guys didn’t wear toques — the tall white hats? — they’d be wearing huge white codpieces. I think that’s why kitchens are so cluttered — so that can’t happen. I’ve found most chefs I’ve worked with scary, Rambo-like characters who thrive on the adrenaline of a full passthrough of orders and twelve-hour shifts capped with a few hours of drinking. It makes me feel completely useless. How Chef manages them I’ll never know.
I like food, I like wine, and I like cooking, but the rest is too much. I make a great part of the planning team, working in the background of the battle, but I’m utterly useless in any of the front-line stations. I’ve tried it a few times. However, as soon as the orders start flying in, I immediately freeze, and they need to medevac me into the cold room until my blood pressure drops back to normal and the knife or the sauté pan I’m holding can be pried from my fingers.
Not now, Katrin. Chef is looking at me with a raised eyebrow as I shift from foot to foot imagining codpiece wearing chefs rappelling through the kitchen. “You OK Katherine?” Chef is the only one who calls me Katherine. Everyone else calls me Kathy or Kath, Kit, or Katie. Or You.
“Sorry, Chef. Yes. Did you see my vacation request? I need to book today just … I wondered … if I could.” Vacation requests are anathema in this business. You’re expected to work until you drop and then wipe the floor while you’re down there. ‘Vacations are for the weak’, I’ve heard more than once in the kitchen. Or from my brother — the proto man — the ‘Ur-chef’. I don’t even think he sleeps. I know he works. He lives for six hundred cover Friday nights, leading the assault troops into battle and I’m sure to wear a massive white codpiece.
Chef turns back and locks the office door, lifting a knapsack onto her shoulder. “You know there’s a huge convention in town next week — we’re going to get slammed. I’m bringing in some extra cooks. Sorry, but I need you, Katherine. I have to run.”
I lose whatever smile I had. It wasn’t a big smile anyway, more of a smirk. I look like a fool when I smile, and I don’t like my teeth. Chef has fantastic teeth.
Chef smiles at me. “Wait another week.” She moves through the kitchen and calls back over her shoulder, “Be happy! If you weren’t such a good cook, I’d let you take that vacation!”