Monday, August 3, 2009

It was upon discovering that my Spanish-speaking dishwasher had failed to show up on our opening night, that I began to realize two things. One, at the tender age of 24, my dream of running my own kitchen at a Los Angeles restaurant had already come true, and two, because this dream had come true at such a young age, that I was in way over my head and didn’t have the first clue what I was doing. I had been given the opportunity through a series of good fortunes to serve as Executive Chef at a restaurant near Larchmont Village and felt that with skills obtained working on a line and a culinary degree, that I would most certainly be qualified.

Though I had learned a bit of Spanish working in kitchens and through high school and college, when under the stress of an understaffed kitchen on a flagship night, the appropriate words escaped me as my absent dishwasher’s voicemail chirped at me to cue my message. I left an incoherent message, hung up the phone and looked around the sparse and chaotic kitchen at what material and personnel I had left and contemplated how it could be assembled to pull of a miracle. A silent start gun fired in my head as I looked at the clock, I realized that soon seventy o r more guests would flock to this restaurant, sit at my tables where they would eagerly select food from a menu I had created and then wait to be served. The race was on. In that moment I panicked and looked at my partner and asked what I was supposed to do. I realized that the only person to answer my question was me and I didn’t have the first clue, so I dove right into it.

My High School friend who had agreed to help me out was suddenly running the grill of the restaurant. His sum of his experience was made up of manning the grill at backyard barbeques in college and now he was cooking food for a high-end restaurant. With every minute, our lack of preparation became more and more apparent. There was no bar to tide over waiting guests with spirits and libations to distract them from the wait they would most surely experience. Our wait staff had one day to train and would almost certainly flock to the kitchen with questions about the menu, and yet here we were and the first guests were arriving.

At that moment, time seemed to stop, I accessed something deep within myself and surrendered to my circumstance. Suddenly, a hundred tickets for food I barely knew how to cook stared taunted me, and all I could do was to prepare them. My staff was equally overwhelmed and yet somehow, we began to find a groove. It was no longer about what we didn’t have or what was preventing us from completing each order, but what we could do with what was available to us. Meat was flying off of the grill, veggies were prepared (sub in here)……

In the background, I could hear the sounds of metal on porcilin as the patrons hurriedly devoured what I had created. Laughter and good humor was separated by the chaos of my kitchen behind a thin wall, and yet the customers seemed not to even notice. In fact, they seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. What had seemed like an insurmountable problem only hours ago, had come to fruition in a way far more compelling and challenging than I had ever imagined.

I barely recall those first chaotic hours, 20 but as the night drew to an end, I was covered in grease and dripping wet. Burns marked my arms like badges of honor and my eyes were red from the smoke from the grill. I could feel my heart echoing throughout my entire chest demanding that I take note of what it had allowed me achieve. I walked out into the dining room and saw that it was calm. Where before, there had been masses enjoying my food, now was an energy of family, camaraderie, and accomplishment. I had brought people together and nourished them in a way that went beyond what my imagination could have previously conceived. I am sure that not every dish tasted perfect. There were a million things that I could have done differently but those million things I could have done differently could not replace the one thing that I had done. I am certain that there were people who left not sure whether or not they would come back, but I knew that some would come back. My food, my energy and my love would bring them back. At that moment the chaos of impending failure was replaced with the profound realization that I had don e something few people my age had. I had achieved an impossible dream and I achieved it well. I had united a group of under-prepared individuals together to bring about the miracle of nourishment to a world that I had barely come to know.

Thank you Jay for giving me this experience.