If there is a culinary capitol of the States, it has to be New York. It's there you'll find phenomenal variety, creativity, and passion for food--be it on a truck or a four-star restaurant. Ever since Anthony Bourdain gave us our first peek behind the curtain in Kitchen Confidential, people such as myself have been fascinated with restaurant culture and Food and the City delivers a nice big bite.
Author Ina Yalof asked a very diverse group of men and women who are part of New York's food culture to share their stories and the result is immensely entertaining and enlightening. Below is an excerpt from the book along with an introduction from Yalof about why she chose this particular piece to share on The Amazon Book Review. As with any good amuse-bouche don't be surprised if what you read below leaves you wanting more...
Writing my oral history Food and the City was, quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book. Think about it: my landscape is the greatest food mecca in the world - New York City. I got to plumb the five boroughs in search of gastronomes, finding them at venues from the four-star Le Bernardin to the Halal cart on the corner of 53rd and 6th. I was ushered behind the scenes of such privileged places as the Rikers Island kitchen and the private dining room at News Corp. I shared tables with the Rescue 5 Staten Island Firehouse cook and the executive pastry chef at Daniel. I got to ask subjects anything I wanted to know and sometimes, when I was really lucky, they fed me.
One of the coolest people I had the pleasure of meeting was twenty-seven-year-old line cook MacKenzie Arrington. Below is a small segment from his interview as it appears in the book. I selected it because I believe MacKenzie so perfectly exemplifies the one unifying characteristic found in every one of the people whose stories you will find in Food and the City: passion. Each of the subjects in this book has a tremendous passion for food and for what they do. Without passion – as so many interviewees told me - you won’t last a day in this business.
-- Ina Yalof
MacKenzie Arrington – Line Cook
Momofuku Má Pêche
I hate screwing up. First, because you get yelled at. But also because you have nothing else in this world. If you’re a cook, you don’t have money, you don’t have a social life, you don’t have any outside life. All you are is a station cook, so you take pride in your work to a fault. And if you can’t take criticism well, you’re going to start to crumble. And you’d better pretty much understand that no matter what the circumstances, you cannot talk back to Chef. Ever! You always have to answer, “Yes, Chef” or “No, Chef” and that is it. At NoMad, where I was a line cook for six months, when Chef calls out an order, everyone in the kitchen has to yell in unison, “Oui!”, meaning they understood. The chef goes, “Fire this, this, this, this!” Once he’s done talking, everyone goes “OUI!” at the top of their lungs. And if you’re out of sync with your “ouis,” he’ll make you do it again. He’ll go, “You guys are a piece of shit! You’re not working together! Let’s have some enthusiasm! Call it again.” “OUI!” “That’s better.”
And don’t even ask about all the injuries and how they are treated in all these kitchens. “Oh,” says the chef, “you cut your fingertip off? Clean it, put some glue on it, and keep working.” More than once I’ve had to stop the bleeding of a fingertip by sealing it against the flat top of the metal pass. And you always have a burn or two trying to heal on your arm. It’s part of the game. No sick days, no being late. No nothing. No relationships either, because there’s never time. Here’s the reality: Faced with this insane environment, only a fraction of people who walk into this world stay there.
To be a good cook requires a weird mix of personality traits. You have to be arrogant, but at the same time you have to be flexible and open to someone else’s dissatisfaction. Most of all, though, you have to be really passionate. You make no money and you marry yourself to the restaurant. So you’d damn well better love what you do. When you hear someone whine, “I work forty hours a week. I hate it. I’m so tired.” Well boo-fucking-hoo. I work eighty hours a week for a quarter of your paycheck and you don’t hear me complaining. Holidays off? What’s that? Expect to work on Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Easter Sunday, Mother’s Day, and your birthday—that is, if you aren’t too exhausted to remember which day is your birthday. All the days run into each other when you’re in a windowless space that’s a constant 90 degrees and you never get out until the sun’s gone to sleep.
So why do I love it? I love food. I love creating something. It’s like temporary art. But it’s not just the visual, it’s the experience I’ll be creating for someone to hopefully remember. That’s a big thing for me. They’re not going to have this food again; they’re not going to have the same plate from this exact moment. Who knows, maybe someone out there is getting engaged to his girlfriend tonight. They will remember this meal. They don’t know I cooked it, but that’s not what it’s about. They had a good time and they enjoyed. For that moment, I wowed them.
A cook never sees the people he’s cooking for, and that’s fine with us. If a customer is a regular or someone important, they get what they call a “PS ticket.” And usually the cook is, like, “I don’t care if it’s Michael Bloomberg, I don’t care if it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, I don’t care who it is! I cook the food just the same as I would for anyone else.” Of course, all that not-caring goes out the window if a chef or a cook from another restaurant comes in. Then, they care. That’s when everything has to be perfect because you’re showing off your talent. It’s a dick-swinging contest and you’re essentially saying, “I’m better than you.”
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