I arrived at five in the afternoon, the sun was casually dropping out of view, casting a blood orange glow over the façade of the restaurant. I inhaled deeply as I took one last look at the skyline, turning to face the long ramp leading to the back of the restaurant. As I walked up the pathway, I could see through the small porthole-like windows into the heart of the kitchen. Guests would not begin to arrive for an hour, but the chefs had been hard at work for nearly six, arming themselves for the night ahead. As I approached the end of the ramp, passing the door to the kitchen, the golden light began to dissipate
I made two quick right turns and entered the office where I was introduced to the person that would be training me. Tall and skinny, with blond hair that was elegantly pushed back behind his ears, “hey I’m Chris”, he chirped, surprising me with his lack of formality. With introductions out of the way, we headed out of the office. An L shaped pathway borders the restaurant on its southern and eastern sides, connecting the street with the “backyard”, a place where staff stow their belongings and share meals together. Chris gave me a very brief tour, mumbling about the shrinking amount of time we had to get prepared, handing me a pile of napkins before storming back around the restaurant to the kitchen door. Painted a dark shade of blue that to the untrained eye appears black, its lower quarter is occupied by a copper plate, tainted by black scuffs and a vignette of erosion. Chris bustled into the kitchen and I held out my foot to stop the door from springing back on me, adding a fresh scuff to the shining copper. The smell of garlic and roasting meat paired with the clinking of silverware and the crackling of a freshly made fire took me back to the days I would sit with my father at the chef’s table in the center of the kitchen.
We made our way down some stairs to what looked to be some sort of prep room. Unlike the rest of the kitchen, it was not finished with copper and beautiful wood. It was a cellar of sorts, with yellow tiles that wrapped around the walls and a massive mixer, for dough presumably, sat right in the middle. The single incandescent light placed just off center in the ceiling cast a sharp light over the rooms various surfaces. I put the napkins down on the prep table at the back and turned to face my superior. “Wine running is first and foremost about the wine”, Chris said, as he pointed out the ticket machine that would spit out wine orders as soon as they were placed. Little did I know its screeching sound would soon become a thing of nightmares. “Your next priority is-” he was cut off by something he heard, and with that, we were off to menu meeting. The rest of the evening followed the same maniacal cadence. Whether it was scrambling to polish glasses to stay on schedule, running up and down the stairs to grab silverware or special plates, or breaking off to grab some bread to avoid starvation, I was always in a trance like focus, with no time to spare for abstract thought.
This trance was commonly broken up by two things. The first of which was the appearance of a customer, at which I would be forced to forget about the task at hand, and throw up the biggest smile I could muster. They would typically glance at me for all of two seconds, before remembering that they payed a lot of money to be where they were, and had every right to deem me an unimportant grunt. The second was the notorious wine order. Chris taught me that at the sound of the ticket machine, I drop whatever I was doing. The wine ticket would read something similar to “GstWrtr pno. N. 13” and with it, I would hustle out the kitchen door, round the bends, reach into my apron pocket and pull out the key to the wine room. At first, I would fumble around, trying each of the ten or so keys that all looked identical. With time I learned that its weight and shape was ever so slightly different, and finding the key became instinctual. The wine room was kept at a somewhat chilly fifty-four degrees, sometimes I would take a moment to relax inside. It was a place that I alone had the key to, and solidarity was a rare commodity at the restaurant. Once safely inside, I would look again at the ticket, translating it into grape, name, and vintage, a process that I polished with time as well. Combing through the list of wines, I would settle on the right one, note its bin number, and then begin the search. Wine in hand, I would round the bends once again, bustle through the kitchen door, this time turning left towards the front of the house, delivering the wine to a very impatient server.
As I perfected my craft, I found shortcuts. Typically, when polishing glassware, you need both a damp, and dry cloth. With your right hand, you hold the wet cloth on the inside of the glass, and rotate it by the base with your left. This process leaves visible streaks across the surface of the glass, and to dispose of them, you have to repeat the same process with a dry cloth. Maybe a thousand glasses in, I stumbled upon something spectacular. Occasionally, when I had a spare instant, I would run up to the front of the house, grab some hot water and make tea. On one particularly slow night, I left my tea sitting next to a freshly polished rack of glasses. I ran out to get a wine order, and when I came back, the steam from my glass had transferred onto the outside of the adjacent wine glass. It was around eleven at night and things were beginning to wind down, I didn’t want to have to re-polish the glass, so in a half assed effort, I grabbed my dry cloth and ran it along the crystal surface. To my surprise, it resulted in a shine that was unparalleled by my old two cloth method. This new trick, as simple as it was, saved me about an hour each night, and as menial as it may seem, got me thinking about perspective, and inevitably is why I feel compelled to share my story.
It is often the case that art overshadows its creation. When you look at a Picasso, seldom do you think about where he bought his paints, or what he was sipping on at the time, but you don’t need to. The paints were responsible for putting his mark on the canvas, and the absinthe may have stimulated some of his more “unique” pieces, but people don’t credit paint or spirits with the creation of beauty. When you sit down to eat your meal at Chez Panisse, it would never cross your mind that it took me weeks to perfect the method used to polish your glass, it would never cross your mind that the prep chefs who butchered your quail and sliced your carrots take no pay, and you certainly wouldn’t understand just how much each and every person responsible for your plate unconditionally loves what they do. For far too long, I have read too far into the origins of art, its inspirations, and its creators. The truth of the matter is that if your art is really worthy of its creation, it should speak for itself.