Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Hard Work - First Day

I arrived early but of course Miguel and the others were already working. No hellos or paperwork greeted me, just my first order of the day: break down boxes and put them in the back. Then, Miguel had me come into the trailer and strain some beans into a quarter pan. "My guy didn't do 'em right," he said, "They have too much liquid." He gave me a measuring cup and showed me where to find a quarter pan. "Get one of the deep ones." The beans were still hot, but I dipped the cup into the liquid anyway and scooped them out into the pan.

Once I did that he showed me where to put them and then said, "Get back there and clean up those dishes." He pointed to the back corner of the trailer, where a huge mound of dishes awaited. I dove in, turned on the water and got to work.  Almost immediately, Miguel yelled at me, "Hey, we don't have a lot of water! Somebody show him how to do it!" I turned off the water and realized that of course, since it's a trailer, it isn't hooked up to a water system--there's got to be a tank somewhere. After that, I used paper towels to scrape out what I could, then washed each dish in soapy water, 'clean' water and a sanitizer. The whole thing broke down pretty quickly, as the sludge in each of the basins got thinker and thinker.  Finally, I drained and refilled them to start over, and at that point someone showed me how we refill the tank. Miguel gave me a key and I walked over to the corner of the Brodie Mart, opened the padlocked gate and turned on the spigot. A hose runs all the way through the parking lot to the trailer. I waited to get a sign from the guys in the trailer that the tank was full, then shut it off, relocked the gate and headed back to the trailer.

When I got back, Miguel told me to make potato salad. He showed me the station with a bin of cooked potatoes and a pan with a few ingredients already in it. Someone, he said, had started but he wanted me to finish it. He handed me the recipe book, pointed to the ingredients and told me to get to work. It only took me about ten minutes to get that done, then I packed them all up in small plastic containers and put them in the line fridge.

After that, it was back to the dishes. I did that for about an hour and a half. At one point Miguel asked me if I ate everything, to which I said yes and in the next minute he handed me a breakfast taco. I devoured about half of it before I felt the need to get back to the dishes, and I never finished it. I soon learned that in addition to washing the dishes, that station required me to keep an eye on the tortillas on the griddle. My job (or part of it) was to reach over and flip the tortillas once or twice, then place them in the holder for the line guys to reach back and grab.

The process of making tortillas was non-stop throughout the day. They are all made fresh and practically to order. The dough has been pre-made and rolled into little balls, which are then placed in tupperware containers stacked above the dish station. There is a tortilla press at the front up by the door, and the person making the 'torts' as they are called takes a ball of dough, tosses it around in a little bowl of flour, then smacks it lightly to compress it a bit before dropping in one side of the press. The they press down on a big handle at the back of the machine, press for about five seconds and release it and out slides a fresh tortilla.  This then gets tossed over to the griddle, and the person standing on the other side does the flipping and pulling. They also have to hand the tortilla maker the tubs of dough balls, and take the empties and wash them.

The next thing I did was to shuck and de-cob a bushel of smoked corn. Some of the corn went into an iron kettle, along with some butter and spices and I put that out into the smoker out back.  Next up was pulling chicken. This reminded me of my first kitchen job at the Treehouse, where the chef caught me deboning chickens with a knife and taught me how to do it with my bare hands. This time, I needed no such instruction. I put on a pair of gloves, grabbed a half steam pan and got to work, tearing apart the smoked chicken and placing the torn pieces into the half pan. The thing was, those chickens were hot! Not enough to actually burn my hands, but enough to make it physically painful to do. And, I had at least eight birds to debone, fast. I decided that a good defense makes for some good offense, so I opened up the foil on the other seven chickens and tore them in half, letting out the steam and heat. I also stripped off the skin, since that is easier when it's hot.  Then it was just a matter of putting my head down and my hands into the heat. Eight birds in the pan. Pan in the hotbox. Next?

Back to the dishes. Miguel told me to watch the line and the tickets, and I stared at them but it was still too soon for me to absorb that kind of information. In fact, most of my effort, mentally, was directed at learning where things were in the trailer. There is so much and everything is moving so fast, it can be disorienting. One thing for sure, it is dehydrating. I completely forgot not only to bring water, but to drink any at all, until about one o'clock, my hands started to cramp. Now, since I am so thin, that's where it starts first, and I already know if that happens, I am in trouble. I tried to drink as much as I could as fast as could, downing a coke and two bottles of water in desperation. This staved off the cramping, but I learned that hydration is a key to staying alive and safe in the kitchen.

Besides having a feel for the pace of the kitchen, I also have learned about keeping my body motions to a minimum and making the most out of a tiny bit of space, and this helps when it comes to my single biggest concern in that space: safety.  I do not want to get burned or cut or hurt a shoulder because that's the end of the job. Keeping the job means not getting injured. Of course I don't want to get hurt, but more than that, I have a responsibility to the team to stay healthy. When someone goes down with an injury, someone else has to step up. In this business, there is no sick time. I had forgotten this basic rule when it came to hydration and it almost cost me the job on the first day.

I did get burned a couple of times on the grill, and cut the inside of my thumb slightly on the edge of a pan while washing dishes. I figure my fingertips will become desensitized in just a few weeks so I can flip tortillas and buns without wincing. The cut on my hand took twice as long to heal as a 'regular' cut--there's a lot in that dishwater. No germs per se, but plenty of food for the microbes already living in me. So, keeping clean is important, too. I have learned to wear gloves--something we never had in the 'old' days--and how to keep a clean grill towel in my pocket. That's actually very important, as we are forever cleaning things.

So around and around I went, washing dishes, pressing limes and lemons, making tortillas, sweeping and cleaning, emptying the trash, cleaning, cleaning cleaning. Oh, and making tortillas. Cleaning, tortillas, cleaning, get the idea.

At six o'clock it was quitting time and I was beat. I was also not sure if I had the job. After all, Miguel had really only offered me a test, and I had to ask him if I'd passed. He smiled for the first time and said yes. "So I can come back next week?"  "Yes." That's when I blurted out, "Oh and I can also work in the evenings, after 6:30, like Mondays or Tuesdays." Miguel looked at his brother Alfonso and said immediately, "OK then, we can use you both days." Of course, I was thinking either/or not both, and I couldn't back out now, so I said "Ok, I'll be here."

After that I walked home, feeling happy, tired and hopeful.

Hard Work - Facts of a Kitchen

I found this posted on the wall when I got to work yesterday.


Working here, or any kitchen is mentally and physically draining

- NO EXCUSES - Always stay focused and BE READY to perform!

- Over-communication is KEY! Answer with a clear Yes or No

- #1 complaint is not about the food but rather how long it takes!

- You will stand for 10 hours without a break

- Rarely is there time to chill - Always be doing something

- Urgency and Precision are Paramount

This is not an office or warehouse job so if something takes a minute too long, 50 other items stack up causing you to slip into oblivion!


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Hard Work - The New Job

Author's Note: I know, dear readers, it's been a long time since I posted anything.  Both of you have been very patient, thanks, but it seems that I just haven't had anything to say for some time. Today, though, I want to write a bit about my new job and why I love it.  

Both of you already know that I just got a job in a BBQ trailer here in Austin, which, after twenty years of 'fine dining' in a very nice restaurant might seem like a bit of a step down for me.  After all, who would willing go from being a (well paid) 'wine guy' to a (low paid) prep cook in a trailer in South Austin?

Well the short answer is me. I love hard work. Now, working at my last job was often physically demanding--in a typical 6 hours shift I would almost never sit down, moving constantly through the restaurant in a circle.  I never actually counted my steps, but it's safe to say that I walked a lot.

I did a lot more than walk, though. I often cleared tables, carried trays, picked up trash and generally occupied myself with tiny but relentless tasks like folding napkins, polishing silverware and glasses and, of course, opening wine. After twenty years, though, the work had a certain routine--hard and fast at times, but often slow enough that staying focused could be a problem.

There is no such problem in this new job.  The work is hard, fast and hot. I love it. On my first day, I worked ten hours and I haven't been that tired since I tried working for a landscaper when I was in high school. I only lasted a few days on that job, but it wasn't because the work was too hard--it just wasn't a real challenge, mentally. Hard work isn't just about the amount of physical labor involved, it's also--perhaps even mostly--about the mental effort.

Of course, just learning a new job requires a great deal of mental effort, and some jobs require a higher level of sustained effort than others. I've come to realize that when a focused mental effort is combined with a demand for a strong physical performance, the result is just the sort of work that I crave.

What? Craving?

I have thought a lot about this in the past few weeks, and the best answer I can think of is that for me, hard work is the equivalent of physical exercise. Other than walking, which I love, I do not like to exercise. I certainly don't like to exercise just for the sake of exercising. With apologies to those whom I love who love to work out, I find that sort of physical effort to be, well, a waste of time.

Well, a waste of my time that is. Obviously many people do not find exercising to be a waste of time, and they are right. They crave it. I actually understand just why so many people love to run and do yoga and work out in general. Why? It makes them feel good. And that in and of itself is a good thing. The way I see it, the more folks who feel good physically, the more folks will be in a good mood generally and the better off we'll all be. It's not utopian, but you know, that rising tide floats all boats. We all benefit from all feeling good.

So, yay to exercise, but just not for me.

Actually that's not true.  In fact it's the very point here.  For most of my life, I thought I did not like to exercise. Until this month though, I don't think I ever made the connection between my love of hard work and my need for exercise. Now, it certainly helps me mentally knowing that the activity is 'work', and not just a 'workout', but really, does getting a few dollars an hour for doing something really justify doing it? I mean, I could sell my time for a lot more--in fact, I have for decades.  Taking a pay cut to work harder just seems nuts, right?

Well, to me so does doing ten sets of thirty reps on eight different machines in a sweaty, stinky, noisy gym.

Give me the aroma of cooking food (yes, even grease) plus sweat any day. Actually, these days, it's the aroma of smoked meats and hot, fresh tortillas on the grill that fill my senses, and when I am on the line tonight, making sandwiches and tacos, I'll be loving every minute.

Even at .25 cents a minute.

My theme song: