I didn’t go to work today. After waking up in the dark, cold, morning with a dark, cold feeling in my stomach, and a remarkable lack of inner-ear balance, I decided that the most foodsafe, self-helpful thing to do would be to stay in bed until things warmed up.
When you’re in bed for a day instead of bracing for lines of hungry customers, thinking is a welcome exercise.
So I’ve been pondering: we chefs and foodworkers wrangle deathly sharp equipment, grasp searing pans of food, expose ourselves to extremes of temperatures, reach into roaring ovens and rush across slippery floors and around sharp corners in our defense of and service to food. We stay up late, get up early, risk our sanity and health for the sake of the meal.
And yet, an assortment of viruses, passed by tiny droplets of moisture, can render us as unservicable as a butler in a fast food restaurant. If one has a cold, one must stay home. It is the only way out of the kitchen: hangovers, family gatherings, funerals, emotional crises, broken limbs, sore muscles are all considered less than an excuse, but the common cold and its affiliated entourage are not welcome at all. (Emotional crises, actually, seem to be the engines that drive most kitchens, provide the neccessary tensions and bonding between coworkers that the most picky customers or the best Red Robin team slogans cannot inspire.)
I have hurt myself in kitchen in some spectacular ways, so while I am at home with a virus, I am going to reminisce about all the times I put on my apron anyways.
It began, I suppose, at my first real job in the cooking industry, as an underling on a ranch. My first cut, a relatively minor finger-shave, left me in tears, but there was no time. More carrots had to be done, and I was the carrot-girl. After a series of incidents like this, I learned to bite my lip and carry on, perhaps a stalwart and foolish trait re-awakened since the days of my cadet boot-camp experiences.
By the time I was assistantly-in-charge, my hands were a living record of meals and missteps, and my body, especially my back, reminded me of every slip in the dishpit, or every understaffed marathon meal I’d prepared.
The day I knew I’d crossed over to the realm of the die-hard was when I burnt my knuckles right into the grill. Pulling away my hand, I realised that a) I was the most-qualified first aid attendant at the place during that time, and b) I was going to have to finish cleaning the grill before the end of the day, as part of my hand was still there. So I marched down the hall, instructed a staff member to dress my bare and bleeding hand, and returned to the kitchen to clean up the remains of that painful day.
After that, nothing stopped me. When I peeled a strip off my finger from knuckle to tip, I stayed to finish off the box of potatoes. Through a face puffed with pain after having my wisdom teeth removed, I issued orders and planned menus. When I broke my foot, I sat on a stool and chopped onions, or stationed myself in the dish pit and had people bring me pots to scrub. (The day I broke my foot, I ensured that I had eaten the meal, a marvellous barbecue, before they took me to the hospital – the food was that good.) When I lost my voice for two months, and had constant throat pain, I communicated with the staff through notepads and hand gestures. Countless burns were treated by an ice pack in one hand and the rest of the day’s tasks in the other.
I know many cooks who are the same, cooks I love and admire, ones that are part of my family. They stay up late, drag themselves to work with hernias, sore backs, exhaustion, headaches, burns, and other illnesses and struggles that would keep most folk at home. I know this is not limited to the cooking industry, but they are among the most endurant.
The common cold, then, is not a burden, but a beautiful little exit door, a get-out of jail free card for all us hardworking cooks. I am tickled by its microscopic proportions, going up against such a tough population of people, who aren’t afraid of steam and sweat, blood and sharp objects, personal pain and the mad, mad rush of the professional kitchen.