That kitchen life: Institutional advancement, academics, and filling up the corners.

Tolkien tells us that ‘filling up the corners’ is the phase of eating that follows a large meal. From the moment I got a taste working the line, I was ‘filling up the corners’ of my life with food work. I got to organize my station my way and I loved the fast pace. I started reading about food and watching more shows about food. Embracing the raw, unpolished lifestyle of food service was easy, and the cigarettes, late nights, and boozing came naturally to me. I got addicted to instability and adrenaline, and became skilled in burying emotional problems with work and other distractions. I still deal with a lot of these issues today, but I have found healthier outlets and lead a much healthier life.  Board game design is one of those outlets.

As I tried to balance my academic and personal life, I was still playing games in the background. Magic the Gathering was huge, as was Dungeons and Dragons second edition. I was a few hours away from my game design friends (Leo and Dave, now fellow designers at Tunnel Monster Collective) but we had already laid the groundwork for our own role-playing game and could peck away at it when we met for holiday break. In retrospect, the game was more of a story module and rules supplement for 2nd Edition DND, but at the time it felt like we were creating a map to an undiscovered country. For the past 18 years, we have created, destroyed, and re-created this RPG system again and again. Only now are we starting to realize the full potential of our game’s mechanics, and the stories we want to tell with this game system (known as CAST).

At that stage in my life (22 years old), I was staring down the barrel of adulthood, trying to prepare myself for life after college. I appeared to have two options: the dirt-bag life of a musician or a slightly less honest career in academia.  In the meantime, more kitchen work…

I left the salad bar and moved into the main kitchen of the food service facilities, where I started running food and helping on dish. I also learned the fine art of changing bag-in-the-boxes for the massive, pressurized soda system that fed the cafeteria. I learned how to sneak outside for cigarettes without my supervisors noticing. I developed stronger knife skills, as I started to inherit more prep responsibilities. I learned how frequently the complacent, tenured, non-student staff exploited the vigor of student employees… my first dose of kitchen hierarchy. I learned to find my voice and speak truth within that hierarchy.

I also started catering. You could make decent money (above your normal pay) by working special events, as long as you wore a neatly pressed, white shirt with a fancy lapel and a fake bow-tie, and kept your mouth shut when you interacted with event guests. Chef Syl (short for Sylvester), one of the executive chefs, saw me as a kitchen asset for catering events, so my time in a bow tie was short lived. With my filthy mouth, I was almost certainly a front-of-the-house liability, so this was a win for everyone.  Chef Syl was a mountain of a man. I vividly remember him calling me into his office after service where he thanked me and said “I like the way you move around the kitchen. I got my start just like you, keep it up”. Rarely had I received such encouragement from the academic world, despite my trajectory to graduate from the honors program.  Syl helped me improve my knife technique and gave me special tasks whenever he could. Often, it was dicing a huge sack of onions, or peeling and dicing carrots. But those are the tasks I needed at the time. I needed repetitive knife-work to improve my technique.

My last semester in college went by quickly.  Between my honors thesis, working nights, partying, and playing music, I barely had time to think about life-plans.  I managed to squeeze in a few applications to graduate programs and, despite my shitty GRE scores, had some interest from some schools. I was still clinging to friendships and punk rock aspirations and didn’t want to sacrifice either for a long-distance commute, so I accepted a teaching assistantship at a small school in western Maryland.

One of those personal relationships was with a scrappy rhythm guitar player, Sean Ehland. Sean was younger than me but with way more tattoos. We shared a cynical world view, and a taste for music and whiskey. He was a line cook at the time, fresh out of culinary school but already doing well in Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene. He could also SHRED on rhythm guitar. We played in a metal band for about 6 months, but the project was short lived: because of his kitchen schedule, Sean was rarely available to practice and the band wasn’t the same without him. We stayed in touch for many years (we are still good friends), and when my academic journey ended, he was integral in helping me to find work in kitchens. More on this in my next blog post.

Once I graduated, I had to pass the time before grad school started in August. For the next 3 months, I was focused on food and music, and it was one of the most productive and memorable summers of my entire life. I was able to land a job working for the college, assisting with residence life logistics for summer camps, and I got to live on campus (for free). The work was so sporadic that I had plenty of time to work in the kitchen. We were feeding about 600 students per meal, 5 to 6 days a week. The food service crew was extra lean, as most students had either graduated or left for summer. At this point, I was no longer working one station; I was working everywhere. Oh, that sweet, sweet overtime.

Because of the size of the camps, the college used a much older, larger dining hall and kitchen to support the large number of students. To this day, when I watch the scene in The Shining when Dick Halloran (head Chef of the Overlook Hotel) gives the Torrance’s a tour of the kitchen and storage facilities, I get butterflies in my stomach: the tile-work in the kitchen and equipment feel like they are being projected from my memory.  The kitchen was the size of a warehouse, and most of this equipment was only used between May and August.  The entire front of the kitchen was lined with heated holding cabinets, so the back-of-the-house staff could transfer food to the serving lines without leaving the kitchen. There were hundreds of feet of stainless-steel prep tables, a massive revolving oven, a row of industrial soup kettles, two huge walk-in coolers, a walk-in freezer, a separate kitchen area just for the bakery staff, and a gloomy, damp dish-cave that I grew to hate.

The dish-cave was the home of a monster: a massive stainless-steel beast with a 20-foot conveyor belt that ran continuously until clean dishes piled up and triggered the automatic shut-off on the far side of the machine. It was old, it regularly malfunctioned, and was in a room with zero ventilation (natural or otherwise). The building had very high ceilings, but like any cave, the entrance to the dish area was small. The room quickly filled with steam and you would bath in it for the entire service. Within minutes, you were absolutely soaked with sweat and over-spray from the malfunctioning dish machine. My friend Rus and I would walk into each service with 3 L of ice water. We would consume it all, and I don’t ever remember using the bathroom.

This job could have easily kept three people busy, but we had to manage it with two. We would make a game out of it: the goal was to never let the dish machine stop running. This made the steam and filth tolerable for a two-hour service. One of us would keep the window clear (where people dropped off plates/cups), scrape plates into trash cans, and sprayed and stacked plates near the machine. The other would feed dishes into the machine, run down to the other end, and stack clean dishes on tables and carts. If one of us got slammed, the other ran (or slid) over to bail them out. Anytime we got a free moment, we scrubbed nasty hotel pans, sheet pans, cambros, and other storage containers before we fed them into the machine. We repeated this task three times a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) for at least 5 days a week for 3 months. Frank, another very close friend and manager, would often join us on the loading dock in-between services. A quick cigarette or 3, then back inside to finish scrubbing pans and putting dishes away. By then, it was time to fetch more water and get ready for the next round. On the hottest days, we would stop by the walk-in freezer and stand in front of the cooling fans, and stuff our mouths full of frozen cookie dough pucks.

Most camps ended on Fridays, so I could get away for the weekend to play music. My hands were so raw from full-strength pan degreaser, sanitizer, and scalding hot water that playing bass was often painful. But this was my routine. The summer passed quickly, and I soon found myself all alone in the hills of western Maryland.  The transition from dirtball kitchen employee and musician to professional student was rough.   Over the next few years, I would be faced with personal and mental challenges that were alleviated by game design and (wait for it) more kitchen work. I would start to learn why creative outlets were important to me, and met so many interesting people along the way. Without a doubt, my kitchen family helped to shape my worldview and work ethic, and I can’t wait to share the next part of this story with you.

Cheers everyone!

Posted Under: Chef's Table, Game Design, Uncategorized

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