The second article in Jason Zenobia’s series on his cooking school experiences, here he shows how important it is to keep going even when everything is falling apart.
When I was about eight or nine years old, I remember looking at myself in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth before bed. It occurred to me that someday I would look in the mirror and see a grown-up looking back. More than thirty-five years later, I’m still waiting.
One of my favorite lessons from cooking school was the idea that I should just keep going, even if things weren’t turning out exactly as I intended. Dropped your trout on the floor? Rinse it off and keep going. Your cream sauce has curdled? Dump it out and keep going. Just keep going.
Around that time, I found myself backing out of a really tight parking space in a dark garage with an SUV on one side and a concrete wall on the other. As I pulled out, my driver-side rear-view mirror began to scrape against the concrete wall. Just a little at first, and then the mounting began to buckle and judder. It didn’t seem like a big deal; I figured I’d just keep going. My 1991 Geo Metro was mostly made of plastic and I’d already improvised several fixes involving duct tape. The mirror-mount continued to scrape and just as I wondered whether I had any duct tape in the car there was a sudden, “Bang!”
The mirror exploded as part of the mount shaved off against the concrete wall and my car lurched backwards out of the space. I hit the brakes. I couldn’t find any pieces of the mirror; it had, apparently, turned to dust.
On the way home, I stopped at the drugstore and picked out a hand mirror to tape to what remained of the mirror-mount. For good measure, I bought two of them. Who knew how long that duct tape would last? Maybe I’d shave off the passenger-side mirror next? I was thinking ahead. Isn’t that what grown-ups do?
Looking in my improvised mirror on my way to breakfast class, I wondered if I looked like I knew what I was doing. Did I look like a grown-up yet? I had only cooked breakfast at home before, never in a commercial kitchen and never for live customers. But everyone in class had to take a turn on the grill and that morning was my morning.
The first sign of trouble was the cakey, sooty smell of burning waffles. The iron was a problem since it got really hot on one half and never seemed to heat up on the other. My idea was to pull the waffle out halfway through cooking and rotate it 180 degrees, but I was distracted when my first customers sent their bacon and eggs back. They had asked for over easy with chewy bacon, but I only managed over hard with crispy bacon. So, I lost track of my waffles when I started a second order.
“Just keep going,” I told myself.
The open grate on the side grill was wonderful for making beautiful crisscross marks on steaks and burgers, but it had a tendency to flare up when grease and fragments of food fell into it, which was always. My first smoking waffle disintegrated slightly when I tossed it into the garbage can and some of it fell into the grill. More flames.
I started the replacement order of bacon and eggs, but when I turned to retrieve some English muffins from the toaster I noticed that they were smoldering. So into the garbage they went. It was hard for me to keep track of what happened next. Clouds of greasy, smoky air seemed to be all around me as I tossed charred bacon, scorched ham, smoking toast, and one more flaming waffle into the garbage.
Then the garbage caught fire.
My teacher arrived with a pitcher of water and the good sense to turn the heat down everywhere.
“Why don’t you head out into the restaurant and take a little break?” he said, quickly restoring order and getting the kitchen going again, sans flames.
Peering through the smoke in the tiny restaurant, looking for a seat, I recognized my parents. They waved.
“Come sit by us!” My mom said. “We thought we’d surprise you.”
I didn’t know what to say so I asked if they’d ordered yet.
My dad chimed in, “Yeah, but we had to send our breakfast back. Who the hell is in that kitchen anyway?”
“Beats me,” I said.
So I just kept going and had breakfast with my parents.