Wednesday, March 31, 2010
True Story: The 675 Pound Mixer of Doom
“You really should try it,” Jesus said as he marked the dates of his vacation on the swimsuit calendar. The “it” in question was heterosexual sex and his recommendation had been prompted by my latest attempt at Spanish.
I had used the masculine “esposo” to explain that I was married, but not to a woman. Jesus’s reaction suggested that I was missing out on something spectacular.
This wasn’t the first time someone suggested that I give straight sex a try. Though it usually annoyed me a great deal, it didn’t bother me today. His tone was neither condemning nor judgmental. He sounded more the way I sound when someone tells me that they don’t care for chocolate.
“But chocolate is so wonderful,” I’d say. “Maybe you haven’t tasted the good stuff?”
I was finishing a coconut cake when Jesus tried to convince me to change my ways. He made a final mark on the calendar before he walked over to my side of the work table.
“The ladies,” he said, “they are truly nice.”
“So are the gentlemen,” I countered.
He shook his head and smiled.
Jesus and everyone else in the kitchen had been particularly kind to me over the last week. Ever since I’d had a terrible day that culminated in my boss berating me in front of the entire staff. Since then a kinship had developed between us that I hadn’t felt before.
Adapting to a new kitchen always takes a little time, because it always seems as if there are more exceptions to the rules than there are rules themselves.
This kitchen was in a cramped basement with a low ceiling and no natural light, which took some getting used to. As did the fact that every item I worked with had its own special needs. For example my new boss had showed me how to circumvent various safety mechanisms on my first day.
“You have to stick a knife into the back before you turn it on.”
“That fridge won’t open unless you smack it.”
“Watch your head in here, the ceiling is pretty low.”
“Turn the knob over to ‘three’ if you want speed ‘one,’ and vice versa.”
“Don’t touch that or you could get electrocuted.”
“When you use this one, try not to tear your arm off.”
Over the previous seven years I worked in a bakery where dessert was all we did and I had my own workspace that I rarely shared with anyone. Here, however was a full service kitchen devoted to the preparation and service of a robust, Latin cuisine. It was a constant battle for space and a struggle to preserve the integrity of my delicate desserts.
“I was just wondering if you could keep those two pounds of raw, crushed garlic out of my whipped cream. Please?”
“Should this flan taste like smoky, roasted chilies and onion?”
“How much pork did you find in the chocolate mousse?”
My materials were mostly cold which was fortunate because the only burner I had access to was up a crooked staircase, around two blind corners, and through the crowded dining room. It proved to be a difficult route if I was carrying something heavy, and terrifying when I carried something that was radiating a temperature of over 300 degrees.
The caramel for my flan, for example.
I had two ovens for baking, one of which was too hot and the other too cold and it took me a while to remember which was which. But my least favorite machine was the Big Mixer which was as tall as I was and made entirely of cold, gray metal. The Hobart weighed almost seven hundred pounds and had a bowl so large that I could get in it. But only if I wanted to be crushed before I
was torn to bits.
It looked like a countertop mixer designed by Darth Vader.
“We will crush your rebel friends with this fully operational Hobart T300 60Qt standing upright mixer.”
I started to imagine that I heard deep, mechanical breathing every time I got near it. The thing gave me the creeps and I didn’t even like looking at it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
They were good people, but I found myself struggling with cultural differences and a language barrier. I was trying to learn Spanish, but I got sick of the two most common words I heard, maricon “Big Faggot,” and something that I couldn’t quite make out.
My best guess was that it translated as something like: “your Mother’s sexual organs” or “your Mother is a professional sex worker.” I learned later that it was more accurately translated as: “Please have intercourse with your mother,” but at the time, ignorance was the neighbor of bliss.
The Machismo was so thick you could cut it with a knife, and there were plenty of knives around.
Both gay and obviously gay, the closet had been irrelevant to me for years. So when I heard the word, “Maricon,” I would turn to face the speaker and ask:
“Are you guys talking about me again?” or:
“That’s Señor Maricon to you.”
I told myself that this wasn’t a deal breaker. I could take it.
Getting up at 4:00AM was beginning to suck a lot more than I had anticipated though.
I’ve always been a morning person, but this was wearing on me. Starting my workday at five in the morning is one thing, but having to listen to death metal and hardcore gangster rap in a cold, dark cave before my coffee had kicked in, that was something else.
Sometimes I could sneak in some NPR or the classical station when the prep cooks took their numerous cigarette breaks, but by early afternoon the second shift would arrive and it was time for the daily mariachi marathon until quitting time.
There was also a question of progress.
I had never been obsessed with how much money I made, but I was depressed by a brief chat with one of the baristas who had been a pastry chef years ago.
“But you like pulling coffee better?” I asked.
“Not especially,” she explained. “But I earn way more money in tips than I ever did as a Pastry chef.”
My first job out of college had been as a barista and I had really loved it, but back then minimum wage in Washington State had been somewhere around four bucks and change. I was starting to wonder if I had truly moved up in the world.
I was earning less now than in my last pastry job and I had no benefits. So, I was a downwardly mobile queer working in a dark basement way too early in the morning. With hardcore gangster rap blaring at me before the sun came up.
Then there was my boss who had shown me how to circumvent various safety mechanisms on my first day. He was a very handsome man who was glad that he had a man (I assumed he meant me) in the pastry job.
“Women,” he said, “can’t handle getting yelled at and take things too personally.”
I didn’t mention that I didn’t care for getting yelled at either, whether I had a dick or not. But if I had it to do over again I would have quit on the spot, explaining that I have a policy of not working for sexist jerks. But I wanted the job and foolishly kept my mouth shut.
He had also purchased eight pounds of yeast some years earlier in order to save a few bucks. Not realizing I guess that yeast is alive; or at least it’s supposed to be. In any event this yeast was mostly dead so none of my breads were rising properly, encouraging my boss to comment:
“Why do you keep killing my yeast?”
One of my coworkers asked me about my unnaturally flat, sweet rolls and all I could say in my lousy Spanish was:
“The yeast, she is murdered.”
Another strike against me in my Boss’s eyes was that I had been to Culinary School.
One day I was scolded when I estimated a half gallon of heavy whipping cream.
“You really need to measure that out, this isn’t ‘cooking,’ this is ‘pastry’ and pastry has to be exact. What is it with you culinary school people? You have to take the time to be precise.”
Properly chastised, I got out my gallon measuring cup, made sure that I had the proper quantity of cream and continued my work.
Less than an hour later while I was working on a different recipe, I got out my gallon cup and started to measure another half gallon of cream. But I was interrupted again.
“What do you think you’re doing? Just eyeball it. You can’t spend all your time measuring things out like that. What is it with you culinary school people? You have to work fast and trust your instincts.”
Then I had my Worst. Day. Ever.
The Death Metal had been getting on my nerves since 5 AM and I was running behind. I wasn’t prepared and I forgot to bake my scones and some of my items were frozen that I should have thawed.
To add insult to injury some of my pastries were exploding in the oven. It was a disaster and it was my fault, but I took responsibility for it because I am a professional.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by the dressing down I received in front of the entire staff. In retrospect it was nothing more than a promise fulfilled.
“You’ve been here for four weeks and we’ve had a really shaky month,” he began.
“Are you sure that you know what you’re doing?” he wondered.
Then he finished with an elegant flourish.
“People make claims in their job interviews that don’t always turn out to be true.”
Ever since that day, everyone in the kitchen had been extra kind to me. They had all been yelled at by the boss and now that I had been yelled at too, we had something special in common. That was why Jesus’ suggestion didn’t bother me as much as it should have. He was like a tour guide offering me a tip.
“When you visit London you really must see the crown Jewels.”
“The foies gras at L’Auberge is not to be missed.”
“Vaginas are delightful.”
I thanked him for his suggestion as I finished decorating my carrot cake.
Things were looking up. I hadn’t had any disasters since that awful day and I felt as though I was getting the hang of my new routine. Most important of all, today I had the opportunity to redeem myself by making a batch of bittersweet, chocolate ganache.
For those of you who don’t know, chocolate ganache is a mixture of melted chocolate and very hot cream whisked together and frequently accented with sugar, butter, vanilla or other flavorings. When cooled, this mixture solidifies and can be used to ice and fill cakes and pastries, or you can dip it in couverture to make truffles, or you can simply eat it.
In my previous job I had made hundreds of batches of ganache and I was looking forward to making something with which I had had extensive experience. This new recipe was very similar to the one I'd used, except that the scale was much larger, involving more than 25 pounds of bittersweet chocolate and many gallons of heavy cream. So I measured my cream and off to the stove I went.
I marched around the corner and up the stairs and through the dining room and onto the line, where I negotiated with the grill cooks for access to one of their precious burners. Then back through the dining room and down the stairs and around the corner to weigh out my chocolate and place it into the giant bowl of the Darth Vader Mixer. Then back upstairs as soon as the cream had reached its desired temperature. Then back downstairs with the cream so that I could whisk everything together in the Hobart T300 60 Quart, Standing Upright Mixer.
Do you remember me telling you about rules and exceptions thereto in this kitchen? Now, every mixer in the place was set up so that, when properly positioned, the speed dial appeared to point directly opposite the speed you wanted. Don’t ask me why. Turn the lever to speed three and you got speed one; turn it to one to get speed three.
Every mixer in the place was like this.
Or so I thought.
Into the monster went 25 pounds of chocolate, then many gallons of scalding hot cream. I brought the bowl up into position and rotated the speed dial to select the gentlest, slowest speed possible, speed one; which looked suspiciously like the fastest, most violent speed possible, speed three.
No matter, I was a professional and I knew what I was doing. I was a skilled pastry chef just like I had claimed in my job interview. So I reached for the “on” button, gave it a confident, little smack and…
The whisk started racing around in loud circles as an enormous, pulsing fountain of super heated cream and melted chocolate began repeatedly spraying my body, again and again and again. Like a painfully hot, delicious explosion scalding my face, chest and legs.
Blast, blast, blast.
Before I hit the “on” button I had failed to note the location of the “off” switch. But, even if I had known where it was, I couldn’t see. I had boiling hot cream and chocolate all over my glasses and in my eyes.
Blast, blast, blast.
I stepped forward into wave after wave of scorching, chocolaty goodness and fumbled for the “on” switch, which had no effect whatsoever.
Blast, blast, blast.
So I started jabbing and poking at the hot, slippery surface until at last I found the right button and the monster slowly ground to a halt.
I blinked hot chocolate out of my eyes and tried to wipe it off my glasses. I hadn’t just bathed in chocolate, I just had a hot chocolate face peel and I was covered head to toe. When I could see again, I took in the magnitude of the catastrophe.
A ten foot wide spray of chocolate cast a steaming, 180 degree arc in front of the mixer and all over me. Behind it, the mixer had cast a shadow flanked by two huge, slick, chocolate sprays that reached up the wall, to the ceiling.
Mixers, bowls, pans, storage bins, the juicer, two food processors and my knife kit were all totally covered and saturated with melted chocolate, which dripped from every surface like rain after a storm. It was tranquil and eerie.
Even the tinny mariachi music escaping from the chocolate covered radio lent a certain tropical flair to the disaster.
In the half hour it took me to clean up, I did some thinking.
Lousy hours, lousy pay, lousy boss and death metal.
I had wanted a change, but here I was doing the same kind of work that I was already sick of except that now, I was doing it in an environment that I hated. I needed to change my life, but all I had done was trade kitchens, and it was now painfully clear that I had traded downwards.
I started out as a barista more than fifteen years earlier and I could have been making more money if I had kept pulling espresso.
As I cleaned I noticed the vacation time that my coworker had marked on the swimsuit calendar. He had written, “Jesus vacation,” and then, two weeks later, “Jesus returns.”
It stuck with me for one reason or another.
I sopped up the last of the chocolate and salvaged what I could.
The perfect crime.
The only comment I got was from my boss a few days later who said, “Wow are you sure you followed the recipe? Just because you’ve been to culinary school doesn’t mean you can wing it you know. That batch is supposed to make five times as much.”
I had already been told that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I feigned ignorance.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Oh and by the way, I quit.”
(Original artwork: "The 675 pound Mixer of Doom," by Jason Zenobia.)