Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mastering the Art of Classic Rockery

"I'll never be
Your pizza burning..."
- The Stones

Every kitchen has one. Perched atop the metal shelving units that house the spices, tucked between buckets of dried fruits and legumes in the dry goods area, splattered with tomato sauce, smeared with buttery fingerprints and fuzzed by the ambient grease that saturates the air, the Kitchen Radio, battered nearly unto death, continues playing. Not so much like the band playing on the deck of the Titanic, more like the drums and pipes that lead young men into war.

How loud the music is played depends very much on the Management, and the time of day. In the incredible cacophony of a busy kitchen during service, where information is conveyed through either silent gesture or top-of-the-lungs shouting over the crash and clatter of the dishwasher, the endless retching of the printer, the Expeditor's commanding tones, pans hitting the stove, food hitting the oil, pans hitting the other pans in bus tubs on the floor, shouts of "Behind! Behind! Behind! Coming through! Hot! Screaming Hot!" or "Etras! Etras! Etras! Muy caliente! Cuidato! Etras!" as prep cooks and dishwashers wend their ways through the foxtrotting linecooks with refills of chopped garlic and portioned pastas, or to restock plates and grab filled-to-overflowing tubs of pans hot enough to melt holes in the plastic tubs before they reach the dishpit, the Radio isn't always heard, but knowing it's on is oddly comforting. Just as knowing a terrible thunderstorm is over because you can at last hear the busy gurgle of water in the gutters, we know the pounding service is over because we can hear the closing chorus of "Hotel California."

Left to their own devices, cooks will play the music a bit loud. (Of course, left to their own devices, they'll also be drunk before noon, smoke four packs of cigarettes a day, roll through a 300-cover night stoned to the gills, eat all the steak and crab, never refill the paper-towel dispenser or remove masking-tape labels from empty containers, never have a retirement fund set up, and never consider that the motivating force behind line cookery and the creation of beautiful food is nothing short of pure love.) Customers and servers have all experienced that moment upon approach toward the kitchen when the music from the dining room begins to compete with the music coming from the kitchen. These are the Borderlands, where servers and line cooks can mingle without fear of being mocked by their compatriots, and where customers behave erratically, suddenly unable to find the restroom or swerve to avoid a laden employee, as though their wits were addled by the competing gestalts. (In the decades I've spent in restaurants, only once in my experience has the dining room music synched with the Kitchen Radio. The song: "Don't Stop Believing," by Journey. So there's that.)

Past a line of demarcation, where you can no longer hear the dining room music and can only hear the Kitchen Radio, whether it is playing Mexican polka, death metal, KEXP, KBCO, or Classic Rock, past that point lies the Kitchen Proper, a land of flashing knives, 22-quart containers filled with onions, stocks, soups, sauces… and, on the burner, bubbles rise and pop through polenta, beans, rice, or caramel in rondeaux three feet across, as though the chef had put "Molten Lava with Magma Preserves" on the menu. Careful: that'll leave a mark. The music provides a sort of force-field around us, as well as a tempo and a soundtrack to the night's work, its tinny treble rising above the shouts of rage, the crash of pans, bringing us together around a slice of "American Pie."

In retrospect, my musical education seems to be a collection of well-timed exposures, gradual inoculations with catchy lyrics, a general impatience with Judy Collins and my own experiments with What I Like. That's probably not too unusual; everyone has a Collins Point. It's just science. Just as everyone has a moment when they discover the tuner on the side of the radio.

Christmas, late seventies: lazy plop of snow from branches, mess from burst pipes cleaned up. Santa had left me a clock radio! Musical independence! I could grow beyond Abbey Road, despite my whole-hearted love for "Octopus's Garden" (which I listened to about 100 times a day until late last week), and the disturbing, but fascinating, discordance of "Come Together." No more "Cat Came Back," except for during the deep melancholic days of late eight-year-oldness, when I needed a boost that Danny Kaye just couldn't provide. Instead, I turned on the radio to 56-KLZ, Colorado Countreyeeyee. My country music phase began, a time for which I remain unapologetic to this day. Despite the townkids' stubborn refusal to listen to anything but KIMN, I held on to my Eddie Rabbit records and Kenny Rogers lyrics until the turn of the '80s. And then, except for a certain fondness toward men with beards, everything changed.

I'll brush past the early days of the decade, pausing only to nod toward "Evita" and ABBA, both discovered when I lived with my father in Vienna, both of them currents that steered me toward Kitchens and Restaurant Work. Also, at one time or another, both helpful demonstrators of why I shouldn't sing publicly. My rock star dreams faded when people politely put their hands over their ears as I warbled along to "A New Argentina," although, much later, other hopes arose when I learned to grill an Argentine steak and was met with applause and napkin-waving.

By the middle of the decade, I was saving my babysitting money to buy cassette tapes by the Fixx, Big Country (only their first one), Depeche Mode -- to this day, the song "Somebody" makes my vision blur and my heart hurt -- Howard Jones, and did I mention the Fixx? My hair was short, my tail was long. My t-shirts were black. My shoes were jazz. As the inexorable slide toward the 90s, and college, began, I discovered Oingo Boingo, the Psychedelic Furs, U2, and while the noisiness of punk rock never quite grabbed me the way it did some of my high school crushes, I did take to the clever writing of the Dead Kennedys, the Suicidal Tendencies, and the Circle Jerks, and I did discover the Clash, a band that will forever be on my iPod, or whatever new technology we have in store for us -- a brain chip, perhaps.

Somewhere in there, the "Boyfriend Factor" began to crop up in listening habits, if not actual purchases. Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Later still: Dave Matthews, Sublime. All discarded, tossed overboard along with affection, concert ts, and the other jetsam of failed relationships. And my own taste emerged like a wet chick from an egg: the Weakerthans, Radiohead, Feist, the Fighters of Foo, the Cold Players, Tori Amos, Johnny Cash, M. Ward...

But a curious fact remained. With a few notable exceptions, I'd never purchased a single album, cassette, cd or single by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, the Doors, Boston, the Rolling Stones, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, 38 Special, Jim Croce, The Little River Band, or Crosby, Stills & Nash, and yet, I could sing along (quietly, really, practically under my breath) with hundreds of songs by these artists. Hmm.

September, 1987: I interviewed for my first Real Job (canvassing for SANE doesn't count. Never has anyone been less successful at anything). A friend had landed a job at Sea Galley, and her stories made restaurant work sound like great fun, so I'd narrowed my search from...well, actually, given the skill set of a 16-year-old, I guess I'd broadened my search from Babysitting and/or Weeding the Neighbor's Garden to include Kitchens. And I got the job!! And they were right in the middle of a run of Evita! Such fun. My first day, I pushed through the kitchen doors at Boulder’s Dinner Theater and into a bubble of Classic Rock: the Kitchen Radio was spinning yarns about Seeing the Southern Cross, Today’s Tom Sawyer, Godzilla Going and Going, and Mother's Little Helper. The Hobart dishmachine was crashing along in time (until the show started, when dishwashing became eerily quiet, a skill all kitchen employees should strive to achieve...just saying...), and I realized I'd been allowed into a circle that didn't welcome everyone, but, for those on the inside, there was nowhere we'd rather be. “More Than a Feeling,” indeed. These songs, at various volumes, in different kitchens form an intrinsic part of my restaurant experience.

If classic cooking is a convergence of ingredients and technique, the musical analog seems to be a combination of a band’s longevity and appeal, its “bandurability,” if you will. Epochs slip past and the same songs by the same bands are setting the tempo for the egg cooks’ mad scramble, the chef’s orchestration, and the prep cooks’ nightly playlist of tasks. Escoffier hums the Stones' "Satisfaction" as he tempers eggs into an Anglaise. The only difference is the gradual accumulation of bands that were, in my youth, just releasing records and are now being played on Oldies Stations. Makes me feel as though I should be carrying a cane. But you know, as I put on my dancing shoes (clogs) and get ready for work, it occurs to me that while Boy Bands may come and go, restaurants open and some fail, for me, through it all, kitchen work rests on the solid foundation of Classic Rock.

Dedicated to Brad Delp, who may have done it differently, or not at all, had he known how many Broiler Cooks his soaring vocals carried across the Rage.

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