Beginner again

As a believer in the concept of lifelong learning, I recently took a job at a small sushi restaurant. Not as a waitress, but as a prep cook. I have a degree from Berkeley but I now come home with sore feet and smelling like grease four nights a week.

Last year I went through a period of reading Anthony Bourdain books. He makes the kitchen sound like the wild west of jobs, full of insane drunk geniuses working at breakneck speed. “Sounds like crazy fun,” I thought. Against my better judgement, I love the reality TV cooking shows, Bourdain’s travel shows and even the embarrassing fake competition shows. “I could do that,” I thought. And since all the TV watching and book reading was not really paying off my debt of the last Big Trip, I decided to check out the sushi kitchen that was advertising on Craigslist for kitchen help.

I got hired on the spot, and that felt great. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I like hiring older people,” said my new boss. “Kids, they’re just not dependable.” I didn’t take it the wrong way. I impressed everyone with my Spanish speaking skills. I applied myself with gusto, and worked to exhaustion every shift. It’s a small kitchen, only four employees in all. According to the CL ad, my job is to roll maki sushi and fry tempura. In real life, I also wash dishes and make salads and do lots of prep work and clean up. As well as defrosting little frozen bits of meat and fish in the microwave and deep-frying things in the Fry-o-later. Turns out, there a million tiny crucial tasks to remember and perform at top speed in a restaurant kitchen. Turns out, I’m sort of shitty at remembering all those little bits.

“I tell you so many times already! You try remember faster, all the time faster!” Shouts C, the main cook, a small sweet lady from Oaxaca. On slow shifts, we are becoming good friends. On busy nights, I am probably her least favorite person. “How come you can’t remember, I already tole you so many times!” She says with obvious exasperation as I ask yet again which ziploc baggie contains the seafood tempura combo. J, the second cook, is much more blunt. Last night he told me straight out, “You should know all this by now. It’s been over a month since you started and you don’t remember important shit. We shouldn’t have to all be watching out for you all the time.”

It’s a humbling moment to get told you suck. Being the weak link is a bitter pill to swallow. I felt like a lowly little turd on the sidewalk, getting in everyone’s way.

And yet… within minutes I remembered an idea I’d had to map those mysterious unlabeled ziplocs in the freezer to help me learn to tell the calamari tempura bag from the calamari appetizer bag. I’d thought of it my second day on the job but never implemented it as a learning strategy. My sushi rolling speed will likely only improve with practice, but I should know by now that I learn facts best when I make maps and notes and lists for myself.

Most of my jobs have been in cushioned world of education, where no one is supposed to ever tell someone that they suck. Even when they do. As teachers, we say things like ‘areas of concern’ and ‘suggestions for improvement’ rather than calling it criticism. Stepping outside that ginger-footed nurturing environment into a hot kitchen full of knives is unsettling. Which was exactly the point. To force myself out of my safety zone.

Truthfully, no one has actually told me that I suck. The fact has been made painfully obvious when I do things like fling pans of water on the floor or fry up large gummy balls of wasted shrimp. I’m not sure a well-drawn map of the freezer shelves is really going to help me keep orders straight in my head when the place is packed and the orders are flying in. I find myself in panic mode, shoulders hunched, thoughts zipping like angry bees around my brain. In my fantasy world, this job will make me faster on my feet, able to think clearly in stressful situations.

And my sushi rolls will improve.

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