"Now and forever now." - Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Somehow, in the eighteen years I’ve spent in kitchens, I managed to work every station, climbed from the Hobart dish machine to the dizzying heights of becoming a Chef de Cuisine, ran a multi-million dollar restaurant for three years and thirteen menus, and never worked as a prep cook. Dishwasher, yes. Grill cook, Sous Chef, Lead Line, yes yes yes. But it wasn’t until I decided to step down from management for a minute that I discovered the allure of the Prep Shift. Even though I am again a Sous Chef, because I can't seem to help myself, I don’t work on the Line. I wallow in the luxury of simply making food, as though I am preparing for a huge dinner party every night. Of course, there is a bit more stress (and fewer martinis) than if I were cooking at home. There is an element of riverboat gambling to what I do – I look at the numbers, plan my night, and push my chips in; if I’m on a roll, none of the cooks will rush over to me with wild eyes and sweaty faces, waving an empty six-pan around. I will hit my marks and the food will be ready before the guys need it. It usually works. But some of the items are a bit process heavy – I can bust out blanched rapini in under ninety seconds, but then there are the spicy-sweet accompaniments to charcuteries, the forcemeats themselves, the tiny-cubed caponata, and the humble little dough balls we call “gnocchi.”
What begins as a tub of ricotta, egg yolks, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt, white pepper, and flour spends some time in a stainless steel bowl, a lump of dough, resting, a bland illustration of potential energy. This mass goes through several iterations: The rolled snakes, the cut pieces, like pillows, perfect for a tiny bed and a clothespin-sized doll who doesn’t mind getting a little flour in her hair. And then the finished pieces, grooved and thumb-dimpled, the declivity perfect for a single drop of sauce, one flake of parsley.
The longer the cut pieces sit, the more they want to return to their original state. The longer the dough itself sits on the table, the greater the chance one edge of it will begin to crack with unincorporated flour. So I have to work fast. There are two distinct flour piles on either side of the table. One pile for my palms so I can roll a chunk of dough into a shape I haven’t really dabbled with since kindergarten play-dough and high school pottery. It’s a long cylinder, slightly smaller across than the diameter of my ring finger. With a bench scraper, I start cutting the pieces – if it were my ring finger, the first cut occurs just between the cuticle and the first knuckle. These first cuts, these first few gnocchi, mean I’m out of the woods – if the line needs more, well, see: We have more! The gnocchi exist, only to a point, but this is a good point at which to have arrived. In gambling terms, I’m now holding a pair of twos instead of bluffing with a six-high hand.
I have time for these reflections because the Pantry cook called in sick and the other prep cook is trapped on the line making salads and desserts instead of standing next to me, either rolling and cutting or rolling across the board and onto the sheet tray. The thirty minute, two-person prep task has become a Buzz Lightyear affair, the snakes and pillows stretching and piling to infinity and beyond. I have two choices. I can go insane, or I can roll the gnocchi and get on with the next task in about an hour, depending.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll, roll, roll.
The gnocchi are like snowflakes, no two alike, or, as I prefer rolling across the diagonal, the little gnocchi resemble sea-shells, the sheet tray is a strewn beach.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll.
There is a closed-in-the-closet sensation below my belly, claustrophobia brought on by feeling trapped in a never-ending task. I think, I’ll throw away a pound of dough. No one will be the wiser.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll.
But then I pass the mid-point, take the filled tray to the freezer and line the second with parchment paper.
Start again. Rolling and cutting. Rolling and cutting.
The clumps stick together like eight-year-olds in a haunted house.
Roll, roll, roll, roll.
The tension has given way to calm, the realization that this too shall pass. I will reach the end, roll the last gnocchi. In quantum terms, in a parallel universe, this task is finished, and gnocchi exist in a perpetuity of completion… It’s okay. Rolling gnocchi is finite, like life, love, peace, and hot showers. The task, like so many seemingly-endless prep list items, has changed the way I approach any seemingly endless task. Knitting, writing, walking, reading The Classics: Just one sticky little square after another.
The pillows-turned-shells will be blanched, portioned, cooked and served over pork. My sense of touching and overcoming the Infinite dissolves into knowing I have created something delicious, with time to spare. My pair of twos held.