Home > Sweetbitter(11)

Sweetbitter(11)
Stephanie Danler

It’s so hard in New York.

Allergy on 61.

It’s not really romantic.

I’d fuck the mom.

Does she come in drunk?

It’s just lemon, maple syrup, and cayenne.

It’s just Nicky’s martinis, never drink more than one.

I just need representation.

It’s like banging against a brick wall.

I need soupspoons on 27.

Chef wants to see you—now.

I’m dropping soup now.

What did I do?

Fuck—the midcourse.

“PICK UP.”

The tickets came from a printer on Chef’s right. They flew into the air like an exclamation and fluttered down in a wave. He yelled: “Fire Gruyère. Fire tartare. Hold calamari. Hold two smokers.”

From that code the cooks on the line went into action. Chef lined up the tickets, bouncing from foot to foot like a child who had to go to the bathroom. He was a small man from New Jersey but classically trained in France. He screamed anecdotes at the cooks, recalling “real” kitchens where chefs would slam you in the head with a copper pan if you couldn’t chop the parsley fine enough. Chef’s voice was too loud and he couldn’t really control it. The servers and managers were always complaining that you could hear him from the dining room. Everyone, even Scott, his number two, kept their eyes averted if he was on a tirade. The man paced the kitchen red-faced, primed for explosion.

The line cooks were a blur of movement while essentially staying in one place. Everything was within arm’s reach in their stations. Sweat funneled off their eyelashes. There were open flames or salamanders at their backs and heat lamps in the pass at their front. They wiped the rim of each plate before passing it to Chef, who inspected it mercilessly, eager to find smudges of stray sauce or olive oil.

“Pick up!”

“Picking up.”

I was the food runner, I was next. I covered my hands with bar mops. The plates heated up like irons, I expected them to glow.

“I heard you don’t know the oysters yet,” said Will, startling me. Will was Sergeant, the guy who’d been in charge of me on my first day. Even though I had my stripes now, he still seemed to think I was his project.

“Jesus,” I said. “Everything is a lesson around here. It’s just dinner.”

“You don’t get to say that yet.”

“Pick! Up!”

“Picking up,” I responded.

“Pick up!”

“Louder,” said Will, nudging me forward.

“Picking up,” I said, harder, hands outstretched, ready.

It was all one motion. The roasted half duck had been in the window for going on five minutes while it waited for the risotto, the plate baking. At first, as with all burns, I felt nothing. I reacted in anticipation. When the plate shattered and the duck thudded clumsily onto the mats, I cried out, pulling my hand to my chest, caving.

Chef looked at me. He had never really seen me before.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked. Quiet. All the line cooks, butchers, prep guys, pastry girls watched me.

“I burned myself.” I held out my palm, already streaked with red, as proof.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Louder. A rumbling, then quiet. Even the tickets stopped printing. “Where do you come from? What kind of bullshit TGI Fridays waitresses are they bringing in now? You think that’s a burn? Do you want me to call your mommy?”

“The plates are too hot,” I said. And then I couldn’t take it back.

I stared at his feet, at the mess on the floor. I bent over to pick up the beautifully burnished duck. I thought he might hit me. I flinched, but held it out to him by its leg.

“Are you retarded? Get out of my kitchen. Don’t even think about setting foot in here again. This is a church.” He slammed his hands on the stainless steel in front of him. “A fucking church!”

His eyes went back to the board and he said, quiet again, “Refire, duck, refire risotto, on the fly, what the fuck are you looking at Travis, keep your eyes on your steak before you turn it to cardboard.”

I set the duck on the counter next to the bread. The grating noise of tickets printing, of plates being thrown around, of pans hitting burners, it all throbbed with my hand. In the locker room I went to the sink and ran lukewarm water on it. The mark was already starting to disappear. I cried and continued crying while I changed out of my uniform. I sat on a chair and tried to calm down before I went back downstairs. Will opened the door.

“I know,” I yelled. “I fucked up. I know.”

“Let me see your hand.”

He crouched next to me. I opened my palm and he put a bar mop filled with ice cubes into it. I started crying again.

“You’re okay, doll.” He patted my shoulder. “Put your stripes on. You can work the dining room.”

I nodded. I put on fresh mascara and went downstairs.

THE MEZZ WAS seven two-tops on a balcony over the back dining room. The stairs were narrow, steep, treacherous. “A lawsuit waiting to happen,” they told me. I took them one at a time, up and down, and still soups spilled onto rims, sauces slid.

Heather was Debutante-Smile, and she got in trouble weekly for chewing gum on the floor. She was from Georgia, with a delicate southern accent. They told me she had the highest tip average, and everyone blamed the accent. I thought it might be the gum.

“Sweetness”—she snapped her gum at me—“start the stairs with your left foot when you go down. Lean back.”

I nodded.

“I heard about Chef. It happens.”

I nodded again.

“You know, nobody is from here. We were all new. And like I always say, it’s just dinner.”

FROM A SECTION of the handbook I neglected to read: Workers were to receive one complimentary shift drink after they clocked out. Workers were also to receive one complimentary shift coffee per eight-hour shift.

When this translated off the page, quantities increased, entitlement ran rampant. But I didn’t know that yet. They wound us up, they wound us down.

“TAKE A SEAT, new girl.”

Nicky was definitely talking to me. I had just clocked out and changed. I was cracking my wrists and heading toward the exit.

It was still a touch early. Cooks were plastic-wrapping the kitchen, servers swiping the final credit cards and waiting in the hutches. The dishwashers piled trash bags at the exit of the kitchen. I saw them peeking out, trembling like sprinters, waiting for the signal that they could take the bags to the curb and go home.

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