Of all the rooms in the house, I am most comfortable in the kitchen. It has always been that way.
Through the years, I have lived in apartments and homes with many different kitchens. Some of the kitchens were fairly basic while others were more elaborate. I sometimes look back on the kitchens of my childhood and wonder how meals for so many people were turned out from kitchen ranges as small as 24 inches.
My grandmother would fry what seemed like hundreds of meatballs or several chickens for family and guests. She would make steaks in a cast iron skillet that I still have and occasionally use. There never was an exhaust fan or anything more than a window only cracked in winter.
Most of my family worked in restaurants so I was a frequent guest even when little. As I became older, I too ever so naturally joined the family business. As a senior in high school, a manager of the Plaza Hotel in New York offered me the opportunity to go to Cornell which was the preeminent hospitality school at the time. He just wanted me to work an extra year under his tutelage first. I declined.
If you had a New York wedding at a catering hall in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, I could have been one of those people who helped prepare your banquet feast. Working in kitchens helped pay the rent while completing college with a growing family.
This was long before the celebrity chef was invented. It was a mean nasty business. I never quite saw it captured for those unfamiliar with that “life” until Anthony Bourdain authored his seminal book, Kitchen Confidential.
In my early years, I worked in two places with a “dormitory” for employees. One had a room with mattresses where you could sleep between shifts so you would not have to travel if you had an early morning shift. I spent weekends there since as a kid I worked every shift from Friday dinner to Sunday dinner for about a year
The other was a place that employed many brothers who had come from the Dominican Republic. They lived in a room in the basement. I would occasionally sleep there if I worked the night shift and then was scheduled for the morning. What went on in that room wasn’t for the faint of heart.
Most professional kitchens, at least in my time, were viewed by the workers as a pressure-filled, exhilarating, terrorizing few hours when you were slammed. In some of the jobs I had, I was tasked with being one cog in the wheel. I was the vegetable cook or grill man. I needed to push out the dish to the chef’s watchful eye. And somehow it all must come out from the different stations at the same time.
In other smaller kitchens, I could have been alone or paired with another cook. I liked those best because while the meals were not as elaborate, I controlled the entire process. At other places, I did all the prep and made food for the following day without much time pressure at all.
What those early years taught me from watching my family to doing it myself was that no one should have to work that hard. After finishing a shift, I had a sense of real accomplishment and at the same time had never been more tired. Working in kitchens gave me confidence (sometimes undeservedly so) that I could do things I never thought I could.
It gave me the courage to make mistakes, and it also showed me how to recover from some royal screw ups. Lastly, it impressed me how valuable an education was to my future material success. If I wanted to be able to eat in some of the places where I worked, I couldn’t have done it on the money I made working in the kitchen.
Lastly, it was my responsibility to take advantage of the opportunities given, including pursuing higher education.