A COOK'S HEADSPACE
Welcome to page one of mindlessness. In the following pages, we’ll begin the work of changing your relationship with a wasted career. Maybe you just read an article about how some people don’t have inner monologue. Maybe you were referred to this practice by a urologist because you thought for sure you were dying. Whatever it is, let us start the exercise as we always do. Make sure you’re comfortable, where you won’t be disturbed. Begin with a few deep breaths, eyes open, just soft focus.
I’m sitting hunched over at the Good Days employee break table. It’s set up down a long hallway up a concrete ramp. I face the dry storage area, the door to the office upstairs behind me. My head is angled down as I shovel in the last few forkfuls of what the servers call “Sam’s special rice.” I’ve worked here too long and stopped making myself food from the regular menu.
For my break meal, I get creative to the best of my budding culinary abilities. My “special rice,” which I used to enjoy making for other people, is a simple heap of egg-less fried rice pilaf and various omelet fixings and pasta ingredients. It’s simple and satisfying. I’ve been good at staying away from the bacon and sausage, always at arm’s reach.
When I finish, I slouch low in the metal folding chair. It scrapes against the floor as I push out slightly from the table. I rest my right arm on the plastic tablecloth and rub fingers together like there should be a lit cigarette in my hand. I stare off into white gallon jugs of hydrogenated oil, giant cans of corned beef hash, and orange “cheese” sauce. The shelves on both sides run to the back wall, where a fifty-pound bag of flour sits on an empty milk crate. I fixate on that, sort of. I don’t know much about meditation, but I do know that when I finish the first half of a Saturday double, I’m a beaten man. But after a few minutes of “zoning out,” as I label the practice, I walk back down that hallway for the second half like I picked the entrance song.
I sit in the driver’s seat of my burgundy Mercury Mystique (dubbed “The Mercury Mistake” by my father)in the same spot as always. These days I’m working a new kind of double shift, dividing my time between the diner and Rustic Kitchen, an Italian American Bistro in an outdoor shopping mall that plays classical music in the parking lot. There are no breaks at this job, no sitting staff meals. I’m lucky today because traffic between gigs wasn’t bad. These 15 minutes before I head into the dinner rush will be as good as it gets.
Acoustic guitar comes through softly on the stereo as the sun tickles the ripples of a small pond in front of me. It’s manmade. Sometimes there’s a long chain of green and black garden hoses running into the pond from somewhere behind the mall. There’s a prominent, fully exposed sign that says, “The Hidden Pond.” Though the hours are long, I’m excited about work again. Even the morning shifts at Good Days are relatively tolerable. Knowing that soon I won’t have to work there at all helps. A few months ago, I felt my whole world caving in on me. Now, I don’t have much time to think at all. Maybe that’s what it’s all about, keeping busy, moving on and up.
When I was a 21-year-old breakfast cook living in a house with a ping pong table in the basement specifically for beer pong, I used to cherish my afternoon naps. Now, if I arrive more than twenty minutes before my shift, I’ll recline and squeeze in a snooze. Rubenci enjoys blaring the horn of his red Ford F-150 if he arrives while I am getting some shut-eye. My coworkers, who all have at least two jobs, like that I do, too. Rubenci works as a carpenter all day before washing dishes all night.
Today, especially on a day of such wasted glory, I keep my seat in its upright position, staring forward. I don’t drift off but drift away, out into the middle of the hidden pond. At five minutes to four, I’ll walk in the back door, feeling like I just kicked it down.
On the next exhale, gently close your eyes. Pay attention to the physical senses. Any sounds, any smells. Notice the points of contact the body makes with the floor, the glass rack, the milk crate, the inverted 5-gallon bucket. Pay close attention to that feeling of weight as you settle in.
I peel back the paper on a pound of unsalted butter, trying not to get too much on my hands. I’m standing in the back prep room of the Boston Rustic Kitchen, five years deep in my tenure with the company. I’m alone for a rare moment of potential peace, but I’m not finding any. The exhaust vents rattle above my head; I can see that it’s time to have them cleaned. I think about a Dylan lyric I heard this morning before coming down the elevator for my twelve-hour shift. I can’t even remember what it was/ I came here to get away from. I can, however, and a feeling of futility is clearer than ever.
I drop the butter in the double-handled rondeau and the butter spits and sizzles as smoke rises. I can feel the heat on my cheek. I grab the plastic container of mirepoix and dump it in, stirring with a clanking metal spoon. I remember the feeling of absolute hopelessness right before I got the opportunity to start at Rustic Kitchen. I think about how that feeling returned after a few years, before I got the opportunity to work at the Boston location. It’s crept back faster this time. The seeds of doubt grow nothing but craters where meaning should be. Back at Good Days, I wrote it off as heartbreak mixed with a little post-time blues. I figured I was simply stuck at the starting gate and just needed to shake things up. As I find myself back in the same place, I wonder why I keep setting my expectations too high, letting disappointment run my life. I should be grateful and try to will that feeling inside of me. I try to stop thinking about it so much. Nothing works for long. I turn back to the pan.
The onions turn translucent as the smell of Thanksgiving takes over the whole back kitchen. I think about Dave, the washed-up line cook, who tried working at Good Days but couldn’t handle it. He scratched lottery tickets religiously before every shift, perhaps hoping to escape that way. An arrogant, cruel version of myself enjoyed overwhelming him with my speed, which I know now was only a product of my youth and not any kind of lasting skill. I think of myself, then, with regret. I think about all of the million minor tragedies that bury a burnt-out line cook. All I want to do is go back to when this place was too busy, too new, too engaging to think.
Before throwing in the wild mushrooms, a wave of butter breaks over the side of the pan, landing on the back of my left hand. I wince, stifle a grunt, and wipe it off with more disgust than pain. It burned, but not the kind that would last beyond a little redness the rest of the shift. I stare up at the greasy white ceiling tiles.
Each time I’ve started in a new kitchen, it’s everything I can do to just try to hang on. All the skills I’ve learned to that point deteriorate until I adapt to the new surroundings. The struggle to survive, to earn the respect of my new comrades, to not make a fool of myself, frees the mind of the big existential questions (I’ve heard religion can do the same thing). But as I master the moves, the shiny turns dull again, and I find myself back where I started.
I don’t know when, but I know for certain I’m going to quit. A moment of clarity of sorts, an acceptance that it’s not going to get better. No paid vacation, on-paper promotion, menu change, or love affair was going to make this any less intolerable. I grabbed the other container and scraped the mushrooms into the pan. I have something to look forward to now. Let the shrooms soften as I sink into my rubber shoes, thinking about the future.
Now bring your attention to the body. From the top of your head, the thinning hair for years matted under hats, to the soles of the feet. Scan down slowly and evenly past the tense shoulders, expanded waistline, and the ankle that you should have had looked at when you fell all those years ago. It was a Saturday, though, they needed you. The body. Slowly and evenly. Not thinking too much, just getting a picture of how the body feels.
My black beanie is drenched with sweat. Though it is effective at holding my waxed hair back, the hat reaches its saturation point not long after I put it on. Perpetual beads of sweat collect on my face that has now taken on the usual sickly combination of post-shift pale and pink. I don’t think about the busted A/C or the insufficient makeup air. I don’t think about ways in which the situation can be improved. When it’s this hot in the kitchen, it’s best not to think about any of it. I know there’s no legal maximum temperature listed on the OSHA website, only minimum. I look up at the clock and see it’s past closing time, yet I’m still plating pastas. I don’t think too much about that either. I stay until the job is done.
I used to wear the thick chef’s coat in all temperatures but have since conceded whatever point I was trying to make. The light and loose-fitting snap-ups are more comfortable even if the folded collar rubs lines into the sides of my tightening neck. I put the last plate in the window and continued wrapping up. I think about a cold drink and the clean, dry change of clothes that sits in my office.
I definitely don’t think about the article I read on the dangers of constant heat exposure or the research article on chefs’ sperm count. The physical fatigue is a blessing at times, whatever it takes to slow the mind. I feel my knees grind like a tinman as I squat down to sweep debris out of the low refrigerator. I use the same towel to wipe off my rubber shoes while I’m down there and toss it in a pile. What these clown shoes provide in safety, they sacrifice in breathability. After I stand, I slide my foot out, curl it to a fist against the inside of my shoe, crack my toes, and repeat with the other foot.
The rubber mat slides in the grease and water beneath my feet, so I kick it under the line in frustration. I take a breath as I see a glimmer of hope reflecting off the large, condensation-coated pitcher. Rubenci divides the Coors into plastic quart containers. I reach for mine, take a sip, and close my eyes—like I’m being filmed for a commercial. It’s so cold it hurts. It helps, for the moment.
Now bring your attention to the breath. The rising and falling sensation. Not breathing in any special way, just following the natural rhythm of the breath. You want to get to the point where you don’t have to scratch the itch. Notice the chest expanding as the lungs fill with air. Recognize your tendency to resist the moment. You’ve spent your life dwelling in the past and poisoning the future. For now, try and just notice how the body softens when you exhale. If it helps, you can count the breaths as they pass: one on the in breath, two on the out. You can do this all the way up to a count of ten before starting again. Over and over again, until you get it right.
In the early years, one of the highlights of Sunday Brunch was that Chef Mike had the day off. My buddy who got me the job and I ran the show. Now, I’m glad that Mike’s here. I’m standing on the pasta side and he stands by the grill. We split the middle section’s duties. In the twilight of our Rustic careers, we can still do the work of three.
In the morning, starting with a simple question, we compiled a list of the worst employees in Rustic Kitchen history. We have an inanimate RK Hall of Fame, but never spent any time on this list before. There’s a paper towel marked with black sharpie hanging on the line with names like T-Bone (Tom), Whale-Skin (Wilson), Eddie Murphy (Eddie Murphy, no relation), and Claudio (1 and 2). We’re laughing as we reminisce about some good times in the old days. The sentimental picture we paint beats my usual ruminations; I keep those mostly for myself. After the initial rush on the inept characters that have passed through this kitchen, it seems the truly terrible have all been accounted for.
“How much time do you think we spend just reminiscing,” Mike says as laughter fades.
“All I do is think about the past. To hell with the moment.” I say, gathering a bunch of chives to chop.
“Out. Listen, I’m sorry, dude,” I say to CTM, a busser. “You’re out...well alright, hold on, here’s the deal. If you can keep Ken out, then you can be the last one in before we lock the door.”
He accepted the hypothetical conditions.
Sundays are complicated days. The early and late rushes can be the hardest of the week since you’re already softened up from the weekend bludgeoning, but there are also these strange lulls between services. In those moments between the consuming chaos, where the mind drifts to the unfortunate doldrums of reality, we escape with little games. This one is called “Rustic Kitchen Bomb Shelter.”
We imagine there is an impenetrable basement bunker underneath the quarry tiles and a nuclear holocaust on the way. There’s endless food and water supplies down there. The logistics are not really important to the discussion. The time-passing exercise is focused as a debate. While everybody on the Rustic staff can be accommodated, the question is whether they should.
In poker, they say if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s you. During the rush, whether it’s brunch, lunch, or dinner, when it starts to all fall apart, it’s best to fixate on the person freaking out. Whether it’s your chef throwing pans and threatening the life of an elderly dishwasher, or an otherwise level-headed veteran server slamming the same refrigerator door repeatedly to the rhythm of sexist obscenities, it puts your situation in context as “not as bad as,” which is oftentimes the best you can do. I’ve heard people say they find their calm in the storm. I, too, find myself most relaxed the closer I am to someone having a full-blown freak-out session. It helped me early on. I took the compliments on my composure with pride. I lost grip of it as the years went on.
Out of all the weapons to select for the “Rustic Kitchen Battle Royale,” mine was the best, but I’m sure everybody felt the same way about theirs. Factoring the importance of distance as well as damage, I imagined, if you were to take twenty-five or so little neck clams out of the 100-count bag, it would be perfect. The empty space in the sturdy, net-like bag would provide the perfect amount of room so that the business end could be wielded like a mace. After the first few kills, the shells would begin to crack and only increase the damage. My second choice was three or four French onion soup cauldrons tied together with kitchen towels and swung in a similar, skull-crushing manner.
We imagined and compared our weapons of choice during dull moments. That three to five o’clock time where you start thinking about the beach, or the movies, or the concert. The Japanese film of the same name inspired the RK Battle Royale time-killer. We’d imagine that at some point during some shift, and it was understood that this would be a recurring event, the restaurant would go dark, the doors locked. Red floodlights would be the only source of visibility as the announcement came over unseen speakers that it was time to thin the herd. The new and uninitiated would perish immediately, in gory fashion, as veterans would then battle it out with sheet pans modified with kitchen knives, giant can openers, pizza peels with the handles whittled into spears, etc.
“I’m fucking using the slicer back there. That thing is lethal,” said a young garde manger cook, eager to impress. He was referring to the immovable electric deli slicer.
“C’mon, man,” I said, disappointed. “Think about it. I’m coming at you with the crocks, and you’re about to get decapitated by the cheese knife behind you. What are we going to do, both trip and fall headfirst into the slicer? Because that’s your only chance.”
“You’re right, Sam. I’m sorry.”
“You should be. You’re better than that.”
In the Spring, after a six-month sabbatical, I came back to Rustic Kitchen. I had just started classes at the local community college. I had a disappointing run there, in the culinary program right out of high school, but left because the thrill of Rustic Kitchen made it feel pointless. Back after nearly a decade, I sat in my first class, an elective introduction to journalism class, feeling like a fool. For years, I quietly judged my comrades in the service industry, those who went back to school, those who spoke about getting out, like it was some kind of organized crime outfit or something. I too easily accepted the circumstances of my employment as a fixed reality. In that journalism class, we’d go on to learn that exposing hypocrisy was one of the things that people found most compelling.
Outside of the kitchen, I was a different person. I’m shy, I guess. I always hated that word, but self-diagnosis never sat well with me either, so I’ll use it. I disguised my insecurities with a manufactured misanthropic stance that I used to explain my behavior in crowded grocery stores or social events. I’d keep quiet, never feeling comfortable, whereas on the line, I frequently led the discussion, if for nothing else, to get out of my head for a minute. I wondered for some time which one was the real me. I felt like I was playing a character, thinking I’m nothing like that out in “real” life. I thought about it. I thought about it a lot.
In films and reality television competitions, depictions of professional kitchen work are never quite right. They capture the madness, the toxic masculinity, the bullying, the danger. They capture the more artistic side of it, the devotion to craft, the execution of tremendous skill. Many who have other career options are drawn into the culinary life by some combination of these representations and usually the fact that they love or at least like to cook.
What they don’t know is that professional line cooking is more like factory work than anything else. You do not create. You do not express. You get blasts of something resembling that stimulation the first hundred or so plates of whatever new dish just came on the menu, but it fades. The best line cooks master a menu when they operate as machines. It’s repetition, motion without thought. I flip a spatula or spin some tongs every now and then to remind myself I’m human, but even those bits of flair become mechanized. At first it felt good, getting to the end of a shift, not remembering how I got there.
Every shift there was some kind of catastrophe hanging over our heads. There’s great solidarity in suffering, even if it’s just a job. Whatever was happening outside of work, the morning deathbed visit, the broken heart, the past-due rent, all drowned in the day’s demands. The punishing occupation provided relief. Every day the same rock, the same hill. The comfort of manageable misery.
Out front there’s some kind of disturbance. It doesn’t seem to be anything of great concern, just a general commotion. I look back down and start another order of creamy orzo. Just as I turn back for the heavy cream, a host bursts in the “out” door and says, we’re all going to die. The front-of-house manager yells at her for using the wrong door and takes their lunch into the back office. It was a slow weekend, too slow to be 86-ing the signature butternut squash ravioli. I take comfort in the fact that the situation is not my fault, but that doesn’t matter to all the tables that swear it was the only reason they came to the restaurant.
I’m actually chiffonading herbs and zesting lemons for the rush. Carlos, the pizza cook, lays a pizza under the heat lamps in front of my station. The word “outrage” was used by a table when they found out they couldn’t get their favorite dish, but it never escalated to any kind of violent confrontation. I crack a half-smile as I imagine the Mezzaluna Riot Massacre on Derby Street. In my head, I am quick to take action, naturally. I pull the host and straggling servers into the kitchen, barricading the doors with the tall stacks of plastic glass racks. Unfortunately for Carlos, I’m too quick. He’s trapped in the exposed pizza bar. He can be heard banging on the door and pleading for help. An overly sympathetic server reaches to unblock the door, but I hold her back. The thudding stops and is replaced by a high-pitched scream as he’s ripped to shreds by enraged diners. It’s too late; he’s already dead.
A server gets my attention, asking about the specials, and I snap back to reality. I sweep my herbs into a clean container, look up at the clock, surprised at how fast the day is going.
Institutionalized. That’s how I felt the first time away from the kitchen. In a Shawshank Redemption, world-moving-too-fast, kind of way, I found it hard to function. I didn’t ask permission to use the bathroom, but I still said “behind you” when passing people in the supermarket. For ten years, I operated on instinct—confidence in every move provided by constant repetition.
The absence of calamity in my daily routine left a fertile patch in my mind for existential dread. I thought for sure once I quit the kitchen, everything would turn around. I’d have time to date outside of the workplace, time to write, to do anything I wanted. I flailed in the freedom, wasting it so spectacularly I couldn’t stand it. So, without a constant barrage of whack-a-mole kitchen crises to fight or fly from, I provided my own. Longing, dread, panic, doubt, insecurity, disgust, dominated my thought patterns. Family, career, love, politics, passions all seemed like just another occupation to me, hollow sanctuaries, little games to get by.
“Outstanding,” I replied, almost automatically, when asked how I was doing by one of the servers. The old executive chef overused the word to a comical degree, so now we carry on the practice. I’m soaked again, this time not with sweat but dirty dishwater, as I chip away at massive stacks of food-crusted plates and metal containers. We lost another dishwasher today. No call, no show. I had a couple of options. I could have made someone lower on the totem pole hop in there, or I could have reached out to some of the other dishwashers and see if I could get coverage. I did what I usually do and dove in there myself.
It takes me back to a simpler time, slamming the plates as fast as I can, spraying them down, before forcing the plastic rack onto the conveyor belt. I should delegate, I know, but convince myself that I’m doing the right thing. It’s good for morale to have the boss washing dishes. I dominate, as the combination of rotting food, warm water, various chemicals, and dumped drinks creates the same olfactory cocktail they did when I first washed dishes 12 years ago in an entirely different kitchen. I often say I am the greatest American dishwasher that ever lived. My Brazilian and Salvadorian comrades would agree, but they would further emphasize my self-deprecation.
It all turns automatic again. It’ll take a robotic focus to get us out of here at the usual time, but I’m making good progress. I shoot back and forth from one end of the machine to the other, taking only quick stops to stack the cleaned plates on the rack. The dining room manager threatened to call one of the other dishwashers in for me, but I called her bluff. She said I’m making it so much harder than it has to be. I’ll think about that later. But for now, I’m too busy grappling with a crisis, essentially of my own making. I’m too busy focusing on my manufactured suffering, the easily conquered chaos. I don’t know much about facing problems head-on, nor acceptance, nor mindfulness. I do know that I’m crushing these dishes and it’ll feel good when it’s done. As far as living in the moment, an impossible idea that I found insulting, this is the best I can do.
Now, take a few moments, and just let the mind do whatever it wants. Don’t focus on the breath. If the mind wants to think, just let it think. If it wants to punish you with rumination, let it. If it wants to analyze something someone said five years ago for no particular reason, let it. Just allow the mind to be free.
“Don’t shoot me, Santa Claus...” I hear Brandon Flowers screaming in my head. Or is it me screaming in my head as Brandon Flowers, or my head screaming at me as Brandon Flowers. I’m getting to-go containers from a back shelf of a Bakery Café, a year after Rustic Kitchen closed down. I can feel my throat tightening and my heart quickening. It’s a week before Christmas, which means it’s busy, and that I’ve started listening to my “XMassacre” playlist. I’m halfway through reading Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, and while the title would have made me gag years ago, I’m finding it useful. I feel like I’m catching on to my old tricks.
At Rustic Kitchen, I used to encourage the practice of deliberately getting songs stuck in your head before a shift. I could tune into the rhythm of The National’s “Anyone’s Ghost” or Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat” and ride the wave all the way to the end of the night, going back to the song in moments of stress. Moments of stress, being the persistent voice in my head telling me I’m fuckin’ up. I knew I was close to something with this practice. Close, but not quite there, just another trick to drown out a negative mind, always waiting to close the gap.
Now, I start breathing, slowly, thankful for my pandemic mask to exhale through the mouth without drawing attention. I focus on the packing of product. I focus on the plastic snapping in place between my thumb and index finger. I stack them all facing the same exact way. The Killers begin to quiet.
Ok, now let’s start focusing on the physical senses once again. The sounds, the smells. Just becoming more aware of that space around you.
A slight feeling of lightness comes over me. I forget all about the back of my hand. There would be things to plan now that I’ve decided to quit. The softened mushrooms sizzle and soak up some of the butter. The aroma of shiitake overwhelms the cremini, the oyster. Just then, I hear Paco, a 60-year-old dishwasher who landscapes in the mornings. He’s sticking his head in from around the corner.
“Sam-well!” he says, holding five fingers out low, as if he’s half-concealing them.
“That’s it? Only cinco? Too easy, man.”
“Is nothing. So betta.” So betta, meaning so better, meaning very good.
It’s the general consensus that counting down the hours of the day is the best way to add drag to the shift. I disagree. I convinced Paco, or at least he plays along. We round up, so that when the clock hits 1:15pm or so on a 10pm closing shift, you say you have eight hours left. Like working check to check, when you’re always in the next day, the next Friday. The countdown blasts away the hour you’re in, jumping to the next.
I think about that as I add the arborio rice to the pan. Paco struts back to the dish room, rolling his shoulders as he walks. There we were again, wishing away the finite hours of our lives. Every day I had one foot in the past and one foot at the end of the shift, my next day off, or my next vacation. The waste is difficult to comprehend. I smile and think about how I’m going to stop counting down hours as soon as I’m out of here. I feel as if I made the first step towards breaking out of some kind of cycle.
I get the risotto good and hot, so the short-grain rice begins to toast. I tilt the pan and dump in a quart of marsala wine, causing a brief blast of orange flame, the way I used to before. I can feel the heat on my face as the alcohol cooks off. I begin stirring it with care, the way I used to.
When you’re ready—
I’m walking out the back door of Rustic Kitchen for the last time. I know this because there won’t be a Rustic Kitchen here tomorrow. The remaining staff, those who went down with the ship, just wrapped up the impromptu Irish wake. I stood up against the bar and got sentimental, just like everyone else. I shared the moment with three girlfriends: two ex, one current (hopefully much more than that). I’ve got a good feeling about her. She won’t make me happy always and forever. She won’t give my life meaning and purpose or solve all my problems. I won’t ask her to.
We walk out together, through the back kitchen in our civilian clothes. We walk over the deathtrap rubber mats, the stainless steel, and the decade of memories. Cutting ties with this restaurant permanently won’t solve anything. I’m graduating from college in two weeks, and I know that won’t solve anything either.
We walk out back into the parking lot for the last time. I have a box with one of the original, signature Rustic Kitchen custom pasta bowls as a gift, a memento. I wasn’t ready when I quit the first time, or the time after that. I wasn’t ready when I quit Good Days. I wasn’t ready when I went back to school or traveled to here or to there. I feel ready now because I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen, and I’m fine with that.
When we get to my car, she gets in, but I stand outside. I look into the darkened Hidden Pond. They didn’t fill it this year. Waves of tall dead grass replace the water. I think about how long I spent trying to get away from this place. I put the bowl in the back seat and shut the door. I looked back to the loading dock and the dumpster. I take a few, slow, deep breaths and feel a twinge in my throat.
—open your eyes. •
Samuel Tarr is a writer and cook from Weymouth, MA. Going from dishwasher to Sous Chef, he spent more than a decade in kitchens before returning to Massasoit Community College to pursue his love of writing. He went on to study journalism and creative writing. Now, a grad student at his hometown Bridgewater State University, he works as a teacher's aide and cooks on his longtime friend and former Executive Chef's food truck.