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An Unqualified Employee Tries not to Fail
By Mike Long
For two months during 2011, I was mistakenly hired and maintained a job as an assistant-chef at the Museum of Asian Art in San Francisco. It was a mistake because at the time, I had never worked in a kitchen in any capacity. Or used a knife, really. I had just finished college in Washington where I split my time between working at a pizza place, studying art music, and walking around in the woods. My partner is from the Bay Area, so after college, we packed up all of our possessions into her old Volvo and headed to the land of opportunities in an old, sweaty, station-wagon.
When we arrived, I surveyed my new home: My girlfriend's old home, complete with original parents still intact, probably concerned that we had failed to figure out a career path. While I relished the thought of living out my days bearded, in the basement of her very successful and well-studied parents, it seemed like I should go ahead and get started on my dream job. Unfortunately, since my dreams have always been bizarre, meaningless and twisted like a big ball of friendly snakes, it was impossible to figure out where to begin. Like being in a house of mirrors, I was paralyzed by too many reflections, realities, and choices.
As my funds dwindled and I began to feel burdensome as the resident guest of the house, I set out to find some work, even if it wasn't “the dream.” With a pencil behind my ear, a stout cup of coffee, and a quiet Californian morning in my midst, I attacked Craigslist like a pack of wild dogs, tearing the “food/bev/hosp” section apart like wounded prey. I applied to pretty much every job, including a few listings seeking architects, and sat back to let the responses flood in. And flood in they did not. But there was a trickle.
I received a call with a voice on the line asking if would come in for an interview.
“Ahh, yeah, where is this?” I asked, since I really had no idea which ad was responding.
“For Cafe Asia, in Asian Art museum.” she said. “You need address?”
“No, I've got it. I'll see you tomorrow.”
And that was how I become an assistant chef in the Museum of Asian Art.
I am not from San Francisco which made the circumstances of my hire all the more stressful. I am from a city of 3,000 people in Washington state, so being in such a huge city made me tingle with nervous excitement. I clearly remember taking a series of buses to the museum and as I had freshly plopped into the big, flashy city that so many people love so well, I was transfixed by excitement and made sick by anxiety. When I get nervous I salivate and yawn, and many bore witness to the pigeon-toed guy walking toward the Asian Art Museum, in the heart of downtown, yawning and drooling. I awkwardly informed a woman bussing tables that I was there for an interview and she seated me in a corner seat. I tapped my feet wildly looking around the spacious cafe that smelled of Japan, Korea, China, and Lysol.
Eventually a short, squat Filipino woman in her 60's came and sat down. She looked preoccupied when she waddled up but she radiated unfiltered joy when she smiled. Her questions were terse and to the point, delivered in a rough, truncated version of English. She had floppish, short, dark hair and thick glasses. Her hands were still skillful and quick despite her age.
“Okay, hello,” she began, shaking her head up and down and smiling as she spoke. She spoke as though continuing a previous conversation. I stood up, extending my hand, and saw that I towered over her.
“Hello,” I said, nervously. She quite launched into the interview.
“You work with Asian food before?” She questioned, tilting her head down and peering at the sweaty alien that sat before her.
“Uh, well, not professionally, but I have a lot of experience with prep-work and...noodle based dishes.” I should say at this point that. I had no idea what I was talking about and I was committed to the road of deceit in order to get the job. I had worked for three years in a pizza place, and I figured I could make that seem like a transferrable set of skills to working as a chef with Asian food. I could, I reasoned, justify it because I would, given time, do the job as well as anyone else.
“But I enjoy and sometimes cook Asian cuisine.” I made sure to say 'cuisine' because it would sound more professional than, “I love to cook Asian shit.”
“Okay, what kind of food you make?” she jabbed.
“Um...” I said. My minded flicked across all the Asian menus I had ever encountered and randomly picked words that popped out and said them. “Curries and...vietnamese dishes, and, uh, I, chow mein.” I still don't really know what chow mein is. To anyone watching the scene, it must have been obvious from my flying and fumbling fingers on my lap and my darting eyes looking around for answers that I was inexperienced and nervous. The chef, somehow, seemed to miss these details.
As the interview caught fire and crashed into the hillside I fabricated my personal history of cooking and prep work at my other job. As she probed into the specifics of this work, I regaled her with the complex tapestry that was the history of my career working with Italian food. I bolstered my pizza-cutting and delivering into five-star culinary delights. She looked at my resume for a moment and then looked up. She studied my face through her large glasses.
“Okay, you come see the kitchen,” she said, gesturing for me to follow in her tiny wake.
Hazily, I followed her around into the back, where there were six or so people hard at work. A few of them were Hispanic, one Korean, and one was white. She pointed out different apparatuses that would soon become instruments of pain and shameful inadequacy: a steam kettle. A deep-fryer. Various grating implements.
She asked if I had used “this,” gesturing to what appeared to be some sort of time-travel device. I, of course, informed her that I was “familiar” with the general concepts behind it. It later turned out to be a salad-spinner.
I realize that so far as this story is concerned, I am turning out to be the villain, but I was building a tower of lies so I could reach the cookie jar of new and interesting culinary skills. If I had been motivated by money alone, I could have taken a job anywhere. But I had just graduated college, and I was now “too good” to work delivery, fast food, or something like that. If I was going to work in the service industry, I was determined to learn new skills, work with modern or morally-grounded people, or wriggle my way into something upscale.
It was a confusing time in my life, with my goals like beanstalks shooting off into the sky, San Francisco waiting before me like a dense spaghetti of sights and opportunities, and the ultimate questions lingering on as I tried to make sense of my new life.
Chef Kiri introduced me to my future coworkers and it was clear that I was hundreds of feet taller than them. They looked up as I passed through and seemed nice enough, but they knew not my dark secret: I was a completely inept liar, and I would drag them all into the ground as they grew to quickly loathe me, and probably lots of white people as a matter of consequence. And it would be fair. I got the job.
I remember leaving and calling my girlfriend, as from a dream. How had this happened? What did it mean? Was it possible that Chef Kiri's English and ability to judge people was so wretched that she had thought I could be a shining new star on the team? Was it so bad that she even thought I would pass for acceptable?
I quickly went out and bought some shoes at Goodwill, preparing to look my best when I went in the next day. My girlfriend's family seemed as surprised as I was at the turn of events.
“Oh, that's fantastic, Mike,” said her mom. “I didn't realize you had experience as a chef!”
“Yeah, my experience was pretty limited, but I guess we'll see how it goes,” I said. I was always trying to impress Loren's parents, which was impossible. Her family had traveled all over the world and were frequently asking me what my opinion was on the legislative changes that were happening in Germany, or the present role of social media in relation to the burgeoning crisis in the Middle East.
Simply put, I feel that working with one's hands in the service industry is considered to be of low-value, and obviously, it is of low pay. But for now, I was just trying to live in San Francisco and figure my shit out so I could save the world, feed the children, help all the homeless sharks and so on. So I would blindly claw my way into the role of an assistant chef in a museum and see what happened.
When I began my first day, the next day, I felt elated with promise and crushed by anxiety as I rode the bus downtown. I had never lived in a city big enough to require buses, much less transfers to different buses, and I absolutely loved the experience. I got on at 6:45 on California Street, when the bus was packed with a form of diversity I'd only theorized in my all-white college seminars. As the bus trundled along, I felt like a happy dummy, excited by all the big city things, watching the people get on and off the bus, trying to memorize my new neighborhoods, pick out cool-looking bars and so forth. My excitement slowly gave way to anxiety as the fun of traveling in the city reached its inevitable terminus of work. I didn't really want to work. Work was just an obligation that allowed me to be in the city.
In my new used shoes and Carharts I walked into the museum and tracked down Chef Kiri. She wasted no time and beckoned me to follow her.
She walked up to the front of house, out of the industrial kitchen and showed me how to set up the area for service, which involved a ton of different bowls and plates, one for each item on the menu. After she had sufficiently confused me, she took me to the back and showed me the salad-spinner, some spices, the cutting boards, and finally, a two-gallon crate of onions.
“Okay, you dice onion.” she said, stepping back and watching me.
“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Uh, really quick, though, how do you guys dice onions here?” I asked, maybe implying that I had diced them differently before, perhaps in a much-more complex fashion than she was used to, possibly involving fractals and algorithms.
She raised an eyebrow. It signaled the beginning of my long, horrible downfall. This was the first time she realized that there was a basic hole in my knowledge. She would come to find many more holes, despite my attempts to cover them with twigs and straw, until she had so chipped away at the facade that she could clearly see the “true” me, working at the controls of an unwieldy machine, trying to present a confident air. She took a knife from the counter and plucked a hearty onion from a bucket. She swiftly cut off the ends, cut it in two, laid one half flat-side down, made a parallel slice through the center, gracefully cut the onion into strips perpendicular to that cut, then, rotating the half onion ninety degrees, she sliced the onion again into 1/8 inch slices. When she lifted her hand, what was left was a cleanly diced onion. It had taken her maybe 10 seconds.
“Okay, just checking,” I said. I would attempt to repeat and fail many times.
“This cut for the Japchae, okay? You make them very skinny. All the same.”
As the chef scooted off to the office I took my knife up to mimic the task she had shown me on an onion. There were dozens of onions to practice on, and like a child trying to screech out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a violin, I crudely tried to compose something beautiful with the knife.
After a few minutes of uncoordinated cutting with full tongue-wagging concentration, Jaime, a youngish man from Honduras came up to the counter. I quickly realized that the counter was intended for someone his height, whereas I was hunched over it like some kind of ghoul with a blade.
“No, man, like this,” he said, taking the blade from me.
He took up the knife, demonstrating again.
“You done this before?” he asked.
“Uh, sorta.” I said.
“Sorta?” he said, looking quizzically. He laughed.
I got back to my task until they were gone, and tracked down Chef Kiri again. She was in the front where they served people one of many dishes of the day, cafeteria-style. She was talking with a guy on the other side of the counter and laughed hard at something he said. Her whole face lit into a beaming orb of joy as she bounced up and down.
“Oh hohohoho!” she laughed.
I waited for the action to die down and let her know that I had completed her first trial and was ready to face other tasks.
My presence seemed to discontent her.
“You cut everything for Japchae?”
“All the onions are cut.” I beamed.
“Ahh, but Japchae is many vegetables. You cut carrots.” She stared at me. Her inflection was hard to decode. Was she asking me if I had cut carrots, or telling me to cut carrots?
“No, I didn't cut carrots?” I ventured, warily.
“Yes, but for Japchae we cut the carrots, too, okay.”
She showed me how to cut the carrots in a very specific way, cutting them into cubic strips at a 45-degree angle to the carrot. This was much harder and slower, and eventually, she had Jaime take over the task.
“You have knife? You go home and practice. Japchae, japchae, each piece the same, okay?” she smiled very big at the end of her sentence, which made me like her.
“Okay,” I said, though I was pretty sure I was not going to be practicing any Japchae cuts in my free time.
“Okay, you watch Ranaldo today,” she said, pointing to an older, Middle Eastern guy with a severe look on his face serving people food.
Ranaldo and I would not become friends, despite my moderate efforts.
I tried to introduce myself to Ranaldo, and he may have responded, but he was the president of the Quiet, Mumbly Speakers With Heavy Accents of America club, so I couldn't really understand him. I had to ask him to repeat himself at the end of every sentence, which I'm sure was as uncomfortable for him as it was for me. He was self-conscious about speaking English well, I think, and I didn't want to draw attention to it. Fortunately, he was also a member of the Society of Being Outwardly Aggressive Toward Mike, so he pretty quickly had his fill of my existence. I struggled with him, trying to stay positive on my first day.
He showed me how to make the curried lentils, how to sauté all the vegetable dishes in a huge wok, and how to make the various salads that people requested.
I'm not sure if I was an unteachable fool, but that's definitely what I got out of that first day. Ranaldo would show me something complex one time, like how to put together a kimchi dish, and what garnishes to use, and I would try and fail to remember. He talked fast, quietly, and aggressively, and I, feeling totally consumed with anxiety and a desire not to be a burden to the staff, would try and decode and remember his directives, but I pretty much always failed.
As customers to the museum came through and ordered from him, he tried to explain how to make and serve the dishes, but it was impossible to train me and work, so he stuck me on salad-duty, because it was a simple task that I could sort of complete: Greens go on, chicken to be placed atop in a tee-pee-esque arrangement, several slices of pear to reinforce the tee-pee. Now that the foundation of your salad-home was strong, it could support the roof of dried noodles, bean sprouts, and so on. Ranaldo frequently stepped in and corrected my work. Chef Kiri would witness my work and say the same thing:
“No. I want you to let it high. You understand?”
When she said 'let it high,' I deduced that she meant to build it up.
I never really got that great at letting it high so they had me take on the role of transferring a five-gallon pot of boiling soup on the stove to the soup tureen. Clearly, someone that struggled with moving arugula around should be given the task of moving buckets of boiling liquids.
I approached the pot as one would approach a cage of snakes, using only my two very small, ratty dish-towels to defend myself against it. They didn't have mitts, everyone just used thin towels. I took a stab at trying to lift the thing, but it was very heavy and I was concerned I'd drop it without a certain plan of where to go once I lifted it. I let go, looking at the beast, reassessing.
“Your towel.” said Ranaldo, quietly.
“What?” I asked.
“Your towel.” he repeated, pointing to my hand.
The towel in my hand was on fire.
“Oh,” I said, trying to look nonchalant asI freaked out, beating my flaming hand against my pant-leg. “Thanks.”
Apparently underwhelmed by the new guy who was lighting himself on fire, he sent me away.
“Go see if Kiri needs anything,” he mumbled.
“What?” I asked.
“Go see if Kiri needs anything.”
I am certain that Ranaldo wanted to destroy me. Sometimes he would smile when he gave me directions, and I'm reasonably confident it was because he was watching a film in his mind of running me over with his car.
In the back I reported to duty from the chef, and she sighed like she'd been handed the hot potato. I sighed also, realizing that this day was only half over, and it was already turning into a constant battle. If only we had both known the other's struggles, I guess.
This is, without respite, how I spent the next two months of my life: secretly living in a hellish kitchen built out my own incompetence and my superiors' inability to articulate what they wanted from me exactly. I was the hot potato.
I worked 50 hours a week there, doing whatever was needed of me, poorly. Sometimes I spent all day in the back, hacking away at carrots for 50 minute stretches, or peeled squash for an hour. I cherished those times because it provided moments of quiet zen where I didn't have to interact with anyone. Of course, I did get yelled at, but if everyone else was busy with other things, I, the giant of the café, could disappear. I would spend 9 hours in the kitchen, trying to dodge detection until it was time to go home, and I would walk the hour home through the city, eating leftover curry, trying to simultaneously decompress and gear up for the next day. I would vent my sorrows to my girlfriend and insist we watch “Twilight” movies to bury the pain. I would go running and go to parks when I had a day off, go explore the woods, drink microbrews, and play guitar.
But mostly, I spent my time in San Francisco standing over a cutting board, willingly chained to the Asian Art Museum. Sometimes Chef Kiri would stand half of her face in the office, the other half staring at my hands using the knife.
I could feel her beady eyes judging me, deciding whether or not she should fire me on the spot, if she should come show me, again, how to do it, or if she should say nothing. Every time I felt her eyes on me I would stand up straight, shake off my numbness that developed through the madness of dumb repetition, and start cutting again anew, trying to put my best skill on the table to keep her at bay. When he face disappeared from view I sighed in relief. When she approached, terror ensued.
“What is this?” she said one day, gesturing to the way I was cutting carrots for curry.
“The carrots. For curry.” I said.
“Oh nonononono,” she went on, “This not how I show to make the cuts!”
She slapped the carrots I had cut off the cutting board in disgust, sending my work flying all over the counter terrified animals.
“Each piece the same!” she barked.”Each piece the same! You start again!”
As she walked all over me I tried to disassociate myself from her yelling. I held back the urge to start crying in defeat and focused my sense of failure and discomfort at a tiny scrap of onion, sitting on the cutting board. I stared into the depth of it, trying to escape into it as she her tirade continued.
She looked at me blankly. “Are you here?” she asked, annoyed.
“Yes.” I took the knife and kept going.
Jaime had witnessed the scene and I think it changed how he viewed me. Some of the guys working didn't care about anything other than working quickly and efficiently, an understandable goal since most people in low-paying service jobs are not seeking friendship and approval. It was irrelevant that I was sort of a young weakling. Jaime and the white dude, Scott, while occasionally exasperated by my incompetence, seemed to appreciate the fact I had made it past the two-week mark despite having nine hours a day filled with being verbally beaten up by the Chef. I had endured a lot, and that earned me something, I guess. There was another prep-cook, Jesus, who was friends with Jaime, but clearly more evil. I asked what the best way to clean the steam kettle was:
“You just gotta learn on your own, you know?”
If I had a dollar for every time he told me that, I could have quit the job and made my full time profession having Jesus be a jerk to me. He just simply refused to help me, ever. Even in situations where it took more time for him to be an asshole than to just point to where the cumin was, he would take the low road. When he left me in the dark to figure out how to, say, prepare the miso soup, sometimes Jaime would creep in help me out, but even Jaime had to know which team he was on, and it was not Team Pariah. It was Team Self-Preservation.
Sometimes after everyone else had gone home, Chef Kiri would have me stay late into the night doing other prep work. One night I stayed for an extra 90 minutes picking tiny peppers off of a vine. It was slow, toiling work, and soon after I started, I began to feel a fiery pain creep up from underneath my fingernails. I sweated out the last forty minutes and left work, hands swinging in the cool night air, hoping to find some relief.
Getting out of work was an intensely relieving experience. I felt like I was spending the day collecting small shocks and blows, and if I was still standing when I clocked out, stepping out into San Francisco was a moment of salvation. The twilight air would pat me on the back, telling me to relax, that I'd made it. Sometimes I would take the 15 minutes on the bus to the Richmond District where I was staying, but most nights I walked home for an hour or so. This slow walk was my way of feeling like I was living in the city, not just working and then sleeping. I would see people walking their dogs, coming home from yoga, going out to the car, blasting rap music, and getting off buses. It all seemed a complex weave of activity, the city was sometimes overwhelmingly rife with action. Everyone appeared to be having fun, laughing, going to parties. They too, I supposed, were happy to just not be at work, like me.
As I strolled along in my used work shoes, splattered with muted yellow curry, I would rewind and unravel the events of the day. I couldn't understand why the chef wanted to keep the slowest and least cost-effective employee around, except, I guess to break his spirits and make him quit, or to try and slowly mold him into something functional. Both of them were slowly happening, but in the meantime, they were paying me pretty good money to waste a lot of time.
As the weeks dragged on, my skills improved in the back, but only marginally. Chef would peek out at me from her office hideout and my success/failure ratio was improving. I got screamed at less. Sometimes she would even engage me in what appeared to be pleasant conversation, inasmuch as we could both understand each other.
“Oh, Johnny Depp is so cute!” she said to her assistant manager, another woman in her 30's. Her face lit up with delight like a stern jack-o'-lantern at last revealing a lovely core.
I was nearby.
She said, “What that movie he is in with...uh, chocolate...?”
“Oh, Chocolat?” I offered, helpfully.
“No...” she went on, “you know, Johnny Depp and there is, ahh, chocolate...”
“Are you sure?” I said, “The French one? Chocolat?”
“No...” she looked up, nabbing the thought from her brain. “Chocolate Wonka!” she proclaimed proudly. She chuckled happily, and was transformed from my spiteful mean grandma to my bustling, rotund grandmother.
The fact that she thought the movie was called Chocolate Wonka is one thing, which speaks to her squishiness of mind, but the fact that it was the conversational post-cursor to the concept that Johnny Depp is a cute person is a tangent that I find confusing, if not alarming.
Though I mostly had failings of this nature at work, I gradually found my calling amongst my coworkers. Space was limited in the kitchen, so many things were high up on shelves that presented large obstacles for my coworkers. They would require a step-ladder, or at least several cookbooks to reach the bay leaves, for example. I, on the other hand, could reach these objects without mechanical assistance, a special gift, I knew.
Many times my spirits were hoisted up when I was feeling generally shitty about my ability to do anything useful, and then having one of my moral captors, or coworkers, ask me to grab some papadum from the top shelf. There was no question: I would never use a knife in this lifetime with the honed focus of any of my coworkers, but I was the uncontested champion of being tall. Need a rice cooker? Got it! Can't find that recipe? Found it! It felt good.
In addition to my penchant for being tall, which prevented me from getting instantly fired, was my keen ability to be white and speak English fluently. I ended up working up front serving food with Scott, the other white guy. Scott was in his early 30's maybe, thin, from Philadelphia. He was slightly balding, but you would never know it because we all wore small, black chef's hats. He had a fast and mean way of talking and was a self-proclaimed opponent of all things 'bullshit.'
When customers would ask him simple questions he did nothing to mask his loathing of them, which frankly made me uncomfortable. I thought eventually someone would notice that Scott was being a jerk, but nobody ever did. Or at least, they weren't willing to fight a chef in a museum about it. They would walk away with their food and, sometimes when they were still in earshot, he would give me a Brooklynish, “These fuckin' people, huh?”, gesturing toward said people. I would, of course, not nod.
“Yes. These people indeed.” I would say.
I began to notice that Scott ended almost every sentence with 'huh?', which made him seem kind of cool, like a gangter who cooks a lot. His use of 'huh' as a suffix to every sentence also made it seem like he was pointing out something I was doing that was wrong, not telling me I was wrong. Instead of, “You're spilling soup everywhere,” it might be, “You're spilling soup everywhere, huh?” The latter felt like he was bring the soup's spillage to my attention, not bringing my manual inadequacies to my attention.
Scott was obviously no fool, and plainly saw that I was trying really hard to maintain an air of competence. No one could say I wasn't trying, but I was just new. Scott, however, had gone to culinary school and worked around a lot, and he was Kiri's advisor. I worked up front with Scott, trying not to slow him down, and ended up earning my keep mostly by agreeing with him when he talked trash about various customers and generally being okay at conversational English.
Gradually, his trash-talking spread to some of our coworkers, which was very comforting. It meant that I wasn't crazy, that Ranaldo really was an angry low-talker, and that Kiri was impossible to understand. The fact that he shared this insight with me also meant that he didn't loath me. He was sort of a friend.
Scott was very rough around the edges and by all accounts a little mean and I ended up being his cartoonish sidekick, appointed by the chef. Had he been a little more intolerant, things may been different, but for some reason, he took on something of a mentor role for me.
Sometimes Scott saw my spirit get broken by getting a routine shouting from Chef or Ranaldo, and when the coast was clear, he would walk up like he was walking into the enemy camp and give me some advice and say quietly, and with an air of being watched by Big Brother:
“Man, don't take it personal. She gets a little crazy, huh?”
“Here, let me show you how to do that right.”
And for this reason I hung around Scott as much as I could, trying to passively or actively absorb some of his culinary skills. He taught me how to toast the almonds, how to prepare the spice mixes, how to properly use the industrial salad spinner, and everything I should have already known when I got hired. Even though Scott seemed sour on life, I like to think my ability to simultaneously be very upbeat and positive but to tacitly agree to be a sounding board for his negative thoughts on all human beings crippled his ability to loath me. Perhaps it was because he was the seasoned pessimist and I was, outwardly, the optimist machine, but we seemed to get along.
On the days when Scott wasn't working, I was left to struggle on my own with no protection or assistance. I had no one to seek the counsel of, because when anyone shouted directions at me, I could only ask “What?” once before they got furious and just did the task themselves.
And that was the thing: almost everyone here in the Cafe Club spoke the same members-only form of mumbled, jagged English which I struggled to comprehend. So when Chef Kiri gave me directions, the specifics were often implied and left out the sentence and I was left to (always wrongly) interpret the words that were never spoken.
“Okay, you go get radicchio for salad.” She would say. Then, I would come back with a head of radicchio (after quietly Googling radicchio to see what it was), and look at her expectantly, holding it out. She would look at it, look at me, look at it, and look back at me, as if she was trying to gauge if I was joking.
“One head of radicchio for the salads? Nonononono, you bring all! Bring all the raddichio.”
And so that's what I did for two months. By the very end, I still got yelled at, but it was less frequent and severe. Plus, since I had so much time to practice getting yelled at by the chef and Ranaldo, I got pretty good at it. I soon developed the skills to astrally project to a tropical isle while my dummy body took all the punches. I could officially passably do the job, but only barely. That was when, of course, it was time for me to go.
In December, in the depth of a Californian winter, I got a ticket to go to Italy with my partner and visit her family. It was just for pleasure and learning, but I told Kiri and everyone, of course, that I was going to teach English in Italy. Why I told this lie is unclear. Maybe it was my way of trying to show them that I did have skills, even if they didn't involve food. I felt pretty bad about myself being here all the time, and I wanted them to think that this dummy in their midst did have some value. It's actually pretty sad when I think about it.
After I put in my two weeks, things were great. Everybody was nice, and while I can't say that I was “good” at my job, I had improved measurably. My work was no longer routinely dashed to the floor by the quick hand of Chef Kiri. I even joked with her sometimes, with limited success. Jesus stopped hassling me all the time. I talked with Jaime about his life in Honduras, and he told me about his daughter, and what it was like to be raising her alone.
Ranaldo also quit a week before me after three years of working there. On one of his last days we got into a pretty good fight.
I was breaking down the front of house for cleaning and he insisted I stop because I was doing it wrong. I told him there was more than one way to do things, and more than one way to learn, and his shouting things at me wasn't helpful. I was definitely channeling my liberal arts background, which is probably not helpful in an industrial kitchen setting. At that point, he informed me of my idiocy, and I repeated that I was going to do things in the way that worked for me, so he was welcome to fuck off.
Then he quit to go off to who-knows-where. In my last two weeks I started asking Scott why I was working here.
“Doesn't it seem like I'm incredibly unqualified?” I asked one day.
“Yeah, I mean there's a lot you don't know, for sure, huh?” he said.
“So...I've been trying to figure out why I haven't been fired. It doesn't make sense, from a business point of view. I mean, I definitely don't know why I was hired, or why I made it this far.”
He hesitated. “I think Chef thought you knew more than you did,” he said. Wiping down a counter with his towel. He stood up tall, now. “I probably shouldn't tell you this, but she was going to fire you after the first week. She told me about it, and I was like,'Kiri, the kid doesn't know a lot, but that's not fair of you to hire somebody and then just fire him like that.'”
I had no idea, but I guess I should have.
“Wow, well, thanks. I know it hasn't been everybody's dream come true to have me working here, but I've learned a lot. So thanks.”
“Don't mention it. You seem like a smart guy, you'll do well.”
On my last day, Scott gave me a gift. He didn't want to make a big deal out of it because he was a wise-talking guy from Philly, but he gave me a book about a chef's experiences working in Paris. It was sort of like having a big brother who pretended to be indifferent and tough pat you on the back, because he's not real comfortable with emotional displays, especially man-to-man.
Chef Kiri was very happy in the last days. She puttered around the kitchen and the office, vacillating between brief but good-natured shouting bouts with Jaime and laughing in her grandmotherly chirp.
On my last day I said:
“Thanks for the opportunity to work here. I know I wasn't a really great employee, but it was fun! I'm still going to use you as a reference if that's alright.”
And she said:
“Yes. Of course. You learn slow. But it was good training for you. Good luck, okay bye-bye.”
Then I clocked out and walked the hour or so through the winding streets and beneath the grim skies of San Francisco to my temporary home from my temporary job and felt like a pummeled alien.
I thought about my time as a chef in the Museum of Asian Art. I reflected on my daily lunch breaks, how I would desperately call my girlfriend for moral uplift before heading back into the fires. I thought about Jaime picking up his daughter for school, about Scott riding mass transit for an hour to get home, I thought about Kiri not cooking, but hanging out with her grandkids, maybe watching a movie. We all had lives we wanted to live, but we all had to suffer together, and we still managed not to notice our common plight and just help each other out. Instead, we ostracized the new guy, hated the customers, and talked shit about the dishwashers that smoked too much weed to function.
I can't say what makes everyone show up and go to work every day; I can't even really say for sure why I kept at it as long as I did. As I realized that I was in way over my head, it made it that much harder to quit. I reasoned that if I was struggling so much, it must have meant I was learning or improving. I've always felt like I learn to swim best by being forced to not drown. I learn nothing by lounging on one of those floating chairs in a large pool, collecting paychecks.
The intersection with my coworkers was an unlikely one and my two months of overlap was laborious for all. I didn't develop any lasting relationships with them, but I slowly realized their humanness during that rough, confusing move to the big city. When I go visit San Francisco, where most people would think of Haight Ashbury, Redwood Trees, or familiar Trolley rides, my mind pangs with memories of the Museum of Asian Art, home to treasures of India, ancient Chinese scrolls, and struggling service workers.