Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Buttered fingers.

This is the kind of job that gets harder before it gets easier. Last week, if I fumbled or dropped something or didn't understand directions, it was because I was the stranger who strolled in the kitchen and happen to find herself wearing a uniform. My only fault was "organization". Imagine that. The girl who color-coordinates her notes.

Week two, things are a little different. I'm expected to remember how the panna cotta is plated vs. how the chocolate souffle is (the former is with strawberry sauce, fresh berries and mint, the latter is put in the oven for 8 minutes, 20% vaporization, 183 degrees celsius and set on a plate with orange cream swirled into a circle in the middle of the plate with a dusting of cocoa then powdered sugar and topped with mint and berries). There's about 10 different desserts and a different plating procedure for each. And that's just plating...I also have to remember how to make it in the first place--what size the logs should be for the cantucci (really really tasty almond and raisin biscotti), what ratio the honey-water mixture should be for the fagottini, the fact that the vanilla gelato cannot be made in an aluminum pot, how much each biscotto should be dipped into espresso for the tiramisú.... I'm expected to do everything faster, better, and make less mistakes (one morning, I had to make 4 batches of vanilla gelato, 4 batches of lemon sorbet, 2 apple cakes, 1 chestnut cake all while preparing all the desserts for lunch. Gah! Since each cake cooks a different amount of time I had to constantly keep track while also making sure the gelato wasn't over-freezing. And since the gelato can only go in a batch at a time I was constantly running from the kitchen to the ice cream machine. But as soon as I'd reach the machine, I'd hear "Via dolci!"--and I have to drop what I was doing, run back to my little corner of the kitchen, clean the counter (i'm SO tired of the word sporca, "dirty"), and plate whatever dessert order had just been placed. Phew! And that was a pretty average morning....) My pants literally split my first night alone on dessert duty. Haha. Porca miseria!

And yet, somehow, I'm still in love with this job.

The people in the kitchen never gave me a hard time--and I'm being overly critical of myself. The chef would just say, Non vabbene--"That's no good", would help me correct my mistakes, and would show me the right way to go about it the next time. How he has such endless stores of patience, I'll never know. Everyone actually managed to find the comedy in my fumbles. My less-than-pristine kitchen record (forgetting to put water in the lemon gelato, dumping gelatin into cold [but not ICY cold] water and having it turn into a goopy mess, my endless cycle of mistake --> concentrate so hard on not making another one and whaaamo!--> forgetting to do something else because I was thinking so hard about my previous mistake) was lovingly poked at when we went out last Wednesday after work. We could do nothing but laugh.

But regardless of my foibles, I'm definitely doing my share for the hotel. Apparently some guests complimented this morning's breakfast cakes, the impossible-to-please Senora Franca (she's from Rome but lives here for a month every summer) only wants the mixed fruit plate if I make it (variations from the past week, pictured. Gah. They all want me to take her with me when I head to NY. I refused on account of never wanting to make a fruit plate again in my life), and the manager of the hotel pulled me aside and said, "Thank God you're here. You're really a help."

A bit about the characters at hand:
Alessandro, 27, is the most breathtaking leader I've ever seen in my life. I'm convinced he led troops in Greece millennia ago before being reincarnated as head chef in Vannucci. He always knows exactly what's going on in the kitchen. He can simultaneously prepare a goose to be stewed (where does someone learn how to do that?) and warn Nicola that his soup is about to burn, remind me that I almost forgot to put something red on the dessert plate, scold Freddy that his spaghetti is no longer al dente and send down Pasqual to check on Giuseppe who's been missing for too long and is probably up to no good in the cellar. He never went to cooking school, he majored in engineering in college, and at 27, hes already the head chef of two fine restaurants.

I asked him if he wants to be a cook forever. He laughed.

"I'm here one, two more years tops. This isn't a job you can do forever. With the hours, you just don't have a life. I don't know what I'm going to do after, but not this for sure."

The whole kitchen staff is equally young. ("Whole" is actually exaggerating. I'm shocked at how many people a kitchen of 4 people can feed. Between the two restaurants, on an average night we do about 200 covers.)
Alfreddo, 26, is in charge of the antipasti--salads, bruschetta, etc etc. He's been working here about 6 months. We bonded over the fact we both speak French, and he taught me how to make his tiramisú. Of everyone in the kitchen, he's definitely the most quiet.

Pasqual (right) , 28, takes care of the primo piatti--the papardelle al ragu di cinghiale (he promised to teach me on Thursday. It's currently my favorite food), the risotto, the spaghetti, the lasagna. He started about the same time as Alfreddo. He's the easiest out of everyone to understand because he talks more with his hands than with words. (He's from Napoli, it makes sense.) He's always whistling or singing or joking around with the chef. He also only sees himself working here for two more years tops. He wants to go to Paris and New York, work for a while in some kitchens there and then head to Milan to teach cooking. "At least the hours will be more normal," he said. "I just can't keep going like this. It's mentally and physically tiring, you know."

Orlando (left), 40, is the manager of the hotel and his life aspiration is to become emperor. My third day here, he invited me to take a spin with him on his ATV. He drove along the windy highway roads and then we turned sharply into the woods. "Ok, we're off road. Now you drive." I've never hated rocks more in my life. I couldn't decide whether uphill or downhill was more terrifying. I mean it was gorgeous--the terrain when we got out of the brush was breathtaking--but all I really wanted to do was sit in my air conditioned room, take a shower and a nap and get ready for the next 6 hour shift. Peeling the branches from my forehead as we peeled ourselves from the ATV, I was ecstatic to get back to the kitchen. "Thanks so much for taking me!" I said. "No problem! I get the ATV back Saturday. We can go down the steep slope through the sunflower patch next time." I've made sure always to have an "article" to write during my midafternoon breaks.

Giuseppe is 21 or 22, calls me "Betty" and eats the last breakfast cornettos, the ends of my cakes, and the clump of tiramisú from my slice that was just slightly too big. He's also an apprentice and shuffles around cutting and frying potatoes, and then peeling and cutting and frying some more.

Alessandra, 27, trained me for the dessert station when I first came. She only works at night because she's working on her comparative literature (yes) thesis on medieval lit. We had discussions about the role of the stranger in German, French and Irish works while stirring batter for the breakfast cake. I'm going to miss her--she's switched to reception ever since Nicola came back (I feel like there's trouble with him on the horizon. We'll see.). She, like Alessandro her fiancé, always knew what was going on and could anticipate the next 10 steps while also joking and making silly voices and dancing around. Now that she's gone, it means the desserts are entirely my responsibility and that I'm the only girl in the kitchen.

Laura, the morning dishwashing lady, has become my surrogate mother in exchange for me being her substitute daughter. We were always friendly, but when she found out I was exactly three days younger than her (only) daughter who's currently in Rome, our roles were sealed. She helps me find the kitchen tools I can't find, shows me where the ice machine is when I have to redo my gelatin sheets and demonstrates the best way to zest an orange before Alessandro has time to realize I need correcting. She greets me with "Ciao amore!" every day. It's like a little bit of home here, a place I can run to if I send all the pots and pans tumbling. It's a nice break from the all-male, go go go of the kitchen and the quiet, reflective solitude of my hotel room and my walks through town.

This, needless to say, is not the kitchen that Anthony Bourdain writes about, or the dark, dank, terrifying one I envisioned to prepare myself for anything this summer. With everyone whistling, the breeze blowing, everything spotless (we scrub the place down every Monday morning), the food always clean and fresh, the chef commanding respect without imposing a dictatorship--I have no horror stories to tell. I'm afraid to work in any other kitchen because I know this can't be what they're all like.

On another note, a few days ago, Italian just suddenly clicked. I went from not understanding what was going on around me (nod, smile, gesture), to just getting it. What a great feeling. Speaking is still a little foggy. But it's better than it used to be (which was essentially English translated to French translated to Italian with some grammar added in and a gesture for good measure to make sure my point came across. I think the sign language I developed worked better and faster in the kitchen for a while.) I can't believe I'm going to be in an English-speaking country in less than two weeks. (A side-effect of being so estranged from the US: I still haven't seen The Dark Knight... but as consolation have you seen this yet?? 80s International Music Fest...) But honestly, after all this traveling, all this seeing, all this everything, the only place to go now is home.

* * *
Tomorrow I have the morning off and I'll probably head to breakfast with the guests like always, do some reading poolside and have lunch in town. Serving people all day has really made me appreciate eating in a restaurant in a whole new way. Then I'm back on for the dinner rush at 6 or so. But since Wednesdays are the easy day (Zafferannoooooooooooo is closed and the staff gets individual pizzas for the family meal--it's a big deal when I'm used to being served a big pot of braised meat and I have to ask what it is. "Oca." "Goose?" "Si." ), so I should have an early night if I don't decide to go out with the kitchen staff. But it's Renaissance fortnight in this crazy town, and I don't know if I can say no. We'll see we'll see.

Buona notte!