That kitchen life: casual dining, fine dining, fine science, casual gaming

Grad school was rough on my psyche. I was somehow making less money than when I worked a part-time food service job. The university hadn’t increased the grad student stipends in 30 years, and almost every grad student in my program was on food stamps.  Without shame or hesitation, I put that government assistance to work. I was finally able to buy fresh produce regularly, and had the ability to buy enough food to prepare meals ahead of time to accommodate my crazy schedule. Fun fact: I wasn’t used to preparing food in small quantities. I lived alone in a 5 bedroom apartment, so I didn’t have to compete for pantry or fridge space. I was often sitting on gallons of chicken stock, marinara sauce, and mirepoix (you know, just in case).

I hit many low points during my time in grad school, and I almost quit on several occasions. I stuck it out despite the financial and mental abuse. As I moved through the autumn years of my academic training, I began to notice how kitchen work had etched deep groves into in my personality. Despite my best efforts to connect with other students, I rarely gained traction. Instead of talking about ideas or telling interesting stories, graduate social gatherings were spent boasting about lack of sleep, lack of money, or time logged in the lab. Replace “lab” with “kitchen”, and the brutal working conditions were no different than a kitchen. Why couldn’t I connect?

Teamwork. Teamwork was the reason I couldn’t find common ground. Most of these students were suffering in isolation instead of taking care of each other. On the line, you support your teammates for eight hours a day for (at least) five days a week. The team wins or the team loses. I saw very little collaboration among students, as if the system wasn’t designed to foster it. Even if students were working in the same lab (same faculty advisor, same system of study), most projects were so highly specialized that collaboration was extremely difficult.  I don’t care if this is an artifact of degree specialization, or part of some grand, academic design, encouraging isolation and competition. Neither explanation was (or is) acceptable, and I should have taken the hint.

My time in grad school wasn’t a total loss. Experimental design and writing were my creative outlets, which made the grind of field-work and analysis tolerable.  I bonded with a few people… former cooks, musicians, heavy drinkers, or all of the above. At the very least, we had good stories to share. The people with whom I am still close were the most collaborative: we helped each other with field-work, processing samples, and helped each other prepare for comprehensive exams. Maybe this is part of my personality…I must have a deep desire to collaborate, to learn together, and succeed together. Maybe THIS is why I love collaborative games!

Around the same time, I also started dating that nice young lady who ordered a buffalo chicken wrap from my meager sandwich station (a year earlier). We ran into each other at a party, and the rest is history. For our first date, of course I decided to cook for her. This is a kitchen tale worth revisiting.

I called in some favors, and Sean Ehland rescued me. On his day off, we went grocery shopping, indulged in wine and pasta making, Pantera and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Sean taught me how to make dough and use traditional pasta machine, and how to make pasta carbonara without turning the dish into a mess of scrambled eggs. The day was perfect, and the food fantastic.  When it came time to cook for my special lady , I borrowed a pasta machine and made a huge mess in her kitchen. I cooked my ass off and must have won her favor (for a second time). Every time I use a pasta machine, I think about that meal. I can’t wait to tell our kids about it.

She and I were engaged within a year, and married within two years. During that time and for some damn reason, I decided to pursue a PhD. It didn’t work out.  I decided to quit on the tail end of the Great Recession…not the best time to find gainful employment as a conservation biologist.  Even in the best of times, getting a job in science is a real pain in the ass.  Grad school isn’t real work experience doesn’t count for much, unless the job you are seeking is “more school”.  With a lack of employment opportunities, I naturally drifted back into the kitchen.  But no institutional kitchens this time… I wanted to see what the line was really like.

It didn’t take me long to find kitchen work, which started with a job at an Italian restaurant in the south hills of Pittsburgh. I was working dinner shift, and pretty much every station on a rotating basis (grill, saute, prep). I also picked up a second job cooking breakfast and lunch in the east end of town.  Neither employer was happy that I was working two job. They were ESPECIALLY unhappy when I added a 3rd job. I started a weekend dish-shift at Kaya, a Caribbean fusion restaurant in the Strip District. My schedule was about to explode, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. I would be working under Executive Chef Sean Ehland (ooo la la). For better or worse, things were about to stabilize for me. I put in my notice at the Italian restaurant, and was fired from the breakfast spot shortly thereafter. My termination was justified: closing dish at 1 a.m. and trying to open for breakfast at 5 a.m. wasn’t a good idea. I was late for my breakfast shift, and that was unacceptable. Almost immediately, I started training at the garde manger (garmo) station at Kaya.  I was making cold apps, sides, plating some entrees, and making desserts. The pace and complexity were unlike anything I had experienced in any other kitchen.

Kaya was a small restaurant with a small kitchen, but served an inordinate number of guests. During spring and summer, things got very interesting. The restaurant would add a large number of tables on the sidewalk along the building. This would almost double the restaurant’s capacity, adding significant tension to a hot line that was already stretched thin.  The kitchen ventilation was also interesting . The hood system worked as well as it could, but dinner shift temperatures in peak summer reminded me of the dish room sauna of yesteryear. There was one small window (about 18 in. x 18 in.), positioned at about chest height that was located near the hot line. Saute was positioned closest to the window, and from my sweaty position at the far end of the line, it felt like it was miles away. The window would have been at eye-level for customers sitting at the seasonal tables, and I can only imagine the filthy language they got to experience during their meal.

The personal relationships were as interesting as the physical setting. I could probably describe each person I worked with at Kaya, but some are not worth describing.  Like any other profession, there are many spiritually broken people in the culinary world. If you find the right restaurant, the team will self-regulate, and the bad attitudes will fade away. What’s left will be a cohesive team, a happy family that probably see each other more than their blood relatives.

We have already talked about Sean, but this was not the boy I met many years ago. Kaya was one of many specialty restaurants owned by a single, parent company. Sean was the youngest executive chef in the entire company, and he caught a lot of attention in a city with immense culinary potential. Sean had become a leader, and our relationship that had been founded on speed metal and booze was about to take an abrupt turn. Very quickly, we established a professional working relationship. I had nearly failed my master’s program, and I failed to earn a PhD. I was tired of failing.  Now I was working for one of my best friends, and I absolutely would not allow myself to fail again.

Over the next few weeks, Sean’s trust in me began to grow, and I was offered a spot on the hot line during Sunday brunch service. I suspect the other grill cooks didn’t want this shift: anyone who closed the night before wouldn’t have left the restaurant until 1 a.m., and brunch staff clocked in by 8 a.m. . That didn’t leave much time to sleep off the booze. It was an extremely busy shift, and in addition to normal lunch menu items, you had to run support for the brunch menu. I was still closing garmo on Saturday nights, but I was all-in.  I was about to work the hot line with one of my best friends, who could say no?

The hot line was usually run by two cooks (grill and sauté) during lunch and dinner services. The line consisted of a two 6-burner stoves, two ovens, and a salamander grill that lived above the stoves. Sauté handled the most technical menu items, which at the time included appetizers like seared scallops, mussels and chorizo, salmon-crab cakes with tropical tartar sauce, and entrees like paella, tropical green curry, and seared ahi tuna.  Grill managed (surprise) a small grill and cast-iron flat top, a pair of deep fryers, and a sandwich press. Grill wasn’t challenging from a perspective of technique but was very technical in terms of volume and timing. Many appetizers and entrees, or elements of other station’s entrees, originated at grill, and the station would engage with nearly every ticket that came through the restaurant. The most technical aspect of grill related to course timing. All grilled meats and burgers had to hit the window at the same time as sauté, and the temperatures had to be perfect. And folks ordered a lot of burgers…

Each station had its own reach-in cooler but shared a common hot well. The well contained a common pool of utensils, chicken stock, pulled pork, black beans, conch and corn chowder, and a rotating cast of seasonal soups. During brunch, a third station (simply called ‘Middle’) was added to the line: they usually set up shop next to the wells and took over most of the available real estate at adjacent grill and sauté. It’s important to note that space was already very limited on the line, even without a 3rd cook. Middle needed to use burners from sauté, and needed access to the flat top and deep friers at the grill station.  On top of that, plating space was at a premium. Middle station didn’t have their own plating surface, so they plated wherever they could.  My brother, who came to work at Kaya after me, said that “if you could still be pals with the middle cook after brunch service, you can get along with anyone.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Brunch was chaos, and we swam in the fever dreams in the thick, humid air, drifting between the ethereal plane and the line.  Our only anchor to reality was the ticket machine, that chirped and sang for the eternity of service. God help you if you were hung-over.

Perhaps the most brutal part of working brunch was “the flip”. In some fine dining establishments, the restaurant will close for a few hours after lunch as the kitchen and front-of-the-house prepare for dinner service. Not at Kaya.  On most days, the flip would be casual. Dinner cooks would bring their mise to the station one sheet-pan at a time, refilling containers at their station top-side and adding backups in their cooler below.  The dinner menu added several entrees and appetizers, but in general, the mise was the same for lunch and dinner service. But not at brunch.

The brunch menu changed often, but added many items and ingredients that were not native any station: mountains of eggs, omelet mise en place, chorizo patties, towers of cornbread for eggs benedict, spicey hollandaise sauce, and a huge pile of breakfast potatoes (prepared and unprepared).  There was also the normal lunch mise en place that needed to leave the station.  The poaching station, managed by the line cook working middle, required a wide, shallow pan that functionally consumed most of a six-burner stove. This poaching liquid needed to be changed regularly, and eventually left the line during the flip: a lucky cook had to transport the vat of boiling water, egg whites, and vinegar through a maze of line cooks and front-of-the-house staff, stepping carefully on a floor littered with eggs shells and (now) smashed potatoes.   The pass (where the chef working expo calls out orders, and calls servers to the kitchen to pick up food) was also a disaster, a Pollock-like smattering of items transitioning from the hot well to the other side of the line, dieing brunch orders and dinner orders that were being fired simultaneously.

A line that felt cramped with three cooks was now clogged with six. Without fail, I would stammer through the flip, plating a row of burgers, each topped with their own sunny side up egg, as the garmo cook clogged my fryer space with plantain chips for their (dinner) Tuna Poke appetizer. Sometimes they would have the audacity to make small talk as I died on my feet under the last wave of tickets.  The brunch cooks also had to prepare staff meal, which was usually a huge bowl of scrambled eggs, and a mix of sautéed vegetables and breakfast potatoes that would otherwise be thrown away. As a champion of the fryers, I also had to fry bins of malanga and yucca chips, replenishing what was consumed during brunch service.  On most days, I was last off the line. A sweaty shell of a human, I tucked myself in the hot corner next to a trash can. I would prop myself against the stainless steel wall on a carpet of egg shells, as steam bellowed from the fryers and dinner tickets started to pile up.

I worked full-time at kaya for about six months total.  Despite my short time there, the experience occupies an inordinate amount of space in my memory. Over the next five years, I was able to drift in an out of Kaya on a part-time basis (1-2 shifts a week), focusing on brunch and dinner shifts. I decided to hang it up in 2016 after my son was born. This is about the same time I became extremely motivated to focus on game design.

Now that I have woven a tapestry of kitchen nightma….. er, memories, I can dig into the nitty gritty of game design for Chef’s Table.  This exercise of storytelling has been fun and functional for a number of reasons: I can now see how specific kitchen experiences have influenced the design of Chef’s Table, and this feels like a meta-analysis of our work. We will start this journey soon. Thank you so much for reading!

Posted Under: Chef's Table, Game Design

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