The Long and the Short of It

As soon as people hear I’m working in the kitchen of a French restaurant, they drop their voice a notch—sometimes to a whisper—and ask me, “What’s it like?”—as if I’d just returned from a tour of duty in Somali.
Not wanting to disappoint, I say, “It’s intense. It’s exhilarating.”
I also find it satisfying and totally absorbing. Finally, it’s humbling in the extreme, as you’ll see.

fork2So . . . “What’s it like?”
Though nothing like a trip to Baghdad, it is, in fact, like visiting an exotic land where you understand neither the customs nor the language. First day, I came in early to do the paperwork before the night crew arrived. Afterwards, the crew chief introduced me to a set of three sinks to keep me busy—each with decreasingly hot water in them, two containing chemicals for washing and disinfecting—ecofriendly, of course, since Print Works Bistro is the first restaurant in the United States to get LEED Platinum certification as a totally green scene. Beside the sink is Mount Rub-a-Dubmore, a stack of pots, pans, trays, skillets and cauldrons in various stages of goopiness. I knew what to do. And I did it for a hours, though the stack was constantly replenished.
When Abu and Sule arrived—the other two members of the clean-up crew, both from Niger—I learned that the three-sink area is a post that you work your way up to. I also learned that even getting the dishes ready to send through the dishwasher is a spot to be earned.
What I did after I was politely put in my place was to catch the white-hot dishes (180 degrees) issuing from the Hobart, a steam-belching and roaring behemoth that makes your local car wash seem anemic. Which is what I did 40 years ago in the ARA Slater dish room in college. The difference? At UNC-G, I caught large plates and small dishes and stacked them neatly into a cart. Issuing from the business end of Print Work’s Hobart were 100 different types of kitchen essentials—basting brushes, brioche molds, broiling pans, baking shells, bar accessories, bundt pans, bread bowls—and that’s just the B’s. Each, of course, with a proper place somewhere or another on the hundreds of shelves, nooks and crannies in the cavernous kitchen.
In a space of this magnitude, putting the chef’s favorite ladle where he or she can find it the instant it’s wanted is a matter of some import, as you can imagine. Not to mention having a very specific place for each unique serving platter. Learning there’s a place (and plate) for everything, and getting everything (and every plate) in its place is dizzying. The hitch, of course, is it’s all done under intense pressure as the hungry crowd out front swells to a crescendo. If the person sorting the dishes—me—is clueless, then the person putting the dishes into the machine is affected, as are the people waiting for clean dishes, pots and pans. “Get ‘er done” becomes the imperative and “now” becomes the absolute.
As I worked frantically to sort the blizzard of cutlery and utensils streaming from the Hobart, Sule called the operation to a sudden halt and walked around to offer me some guidance. He took one of the containers I’d been madly stuffing with forks. He reached in and took out two of them. “Long,” he said in his lilting accent, holding one in his right hand. “Short,” he said, holding a salad fork in his left hand, and flashing his brilliant and winning smile. Ghee, I don’t guess they taught me that when I got my university degree, eh? Funny how the guy who’s been writing professionally about food for years somehow missed that subtlety.
Here’s the point, though. Abu and Sule were generous and patient to a flaw, as was everyone else, something that amazed me. Having started at other jobs at the bottom of the pecking order, I expected to be pecked. Or hazed. Or at least to be kidded about my gray beard and my total—Is there another word for it?—ignorance. And I got nothing of the sort.
I kept waiting and in the week I’ve been there, I haven’t seen a hint of it. Part of that comes, I’m sure, from Quaintance-Weaver’s exhaustive training program, which I wrote about for Southern Living some years ago and which is what got me interested in QWRH. The program is dubbled Lucky University—or Lucky U (Get it?), after their first restaurant, Lucky 32. Bigotry and discrimination of any sort are expressly forbidden. And it shows.
That, of course, is a start, but more than that, the people I’m working with love hard work. They thrive on the adrenalin of creating something extraordinary on deadline. They’re generous and glad to share their knowledge and expertise because it makes the final product better.
Just as it does on a good newspaper or magazine.
It may sound a little dramatic, but after only a week at Print Works, I feel restored, back in motion, validated. Part of it is I’m working again, something I’m obviously addicted to. But there’s also the element of being part of something larger, something more important than my self, even if it’s only washing dishes. Late in life, I discovered that we’re put on the planet to serve. How much easier and more productive my youth would have been if I’d realized that earlier. Working with Sule and Abu, I once again feel that I am serving.


4 Responses to “The Long and the Short of It”

  1. Rob Lamme Says:

    youdaman. i sent this link to dick gordon’s people at the story, fyi.

    now get back to work . . .


  2. Duncan Christy Says:

    The writer combines humility and curiosity with great insight, a most winning mixture.

  3. Lynn Coulter Says:

    woo hoo! david, you rock! serving others; satisfying your soul; yes yes yes.

    i admire you for stepping out into this new adventure. I also sense a book-in-the-making as you continue to write about this experience.

    blog on!

  4. Leigh Somerville McMillan Says:

    Lucky U indeed!

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