by Ina Yalof
MacKenzie Arrington is 26. Six-foot-four. A wrestler, when he’s not in the kitchen. His mother had a restaurant in Maine, so cooking was all he knew growing up. And, like a lot of cooks, he landed at “the mother ship” -- the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park. When he graduated, he ran into a friend at a bar. “My friend asked me what I was doing, and I said I was helping my mom at her restaurant. He said, ‘That’s it? You’re gonna spend the rest of your life making crab cakes?’ And I’m like, ‘No…’ ‘Then why the hell aren’t you in New York?’ When I told him I couldn’t afford it, he said, ‘Dude. You won’t be able to afford it ever, as a cook, but you‘ll also never find a better cooking experience!’”
WHEN I ARRIVED IN THE CITY a month later, a friend of a friend set me up with a stage, which is essentially a working interview at a restaurant. It’s also called a “shadow” or a “trail.” Any New York City kitchen will make you do it before they hire you. You come in and you work for them. For free. The point is not only to see how good you are at things, but to see if you like the kitchen, see if they like you, see how clean you work, and see your attitude. And they want to know they don’t have to teach you too many things. Maybe three cooks will throw certain things at you at the same time. One says, “I need this now!” The next one says, “I need this before that!” And they watch your decision-making process. At the end they’ll ask the cooks: did you like that guy? And they’ll say you were good or you sucked. That’s really how you get hired. Your resume means shit.
The first stage that really interested me was at Momofuku Má Pêche under executive chef Tien Ho. I’d heard I’d be cutting a lot of scallions, so I figured it would be easy. I went in at two in the afternoon. Two hours later, the chef de cuisine came over to me and said, “Alright, MacKenzie. You have one hour.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “One hour to cook a dish.” Me: “From your menu?” Him: “No, man. You have free reign. I want you to cook me dinner! One dish. Your time starts now!”
So there I was, in a strange kitchen, I didn't know where anything was, and I was scared, man. I admit it. I spent the first 30 minutes wandering around just looking for stuff. Grabbing a bunch of random things wherever I could find them. And then I went to work. I started with sweet potato fries. You blanch sweet potatoes and then cut them really thin and deep-fry. I did a really clean steak dish with a corn succotash made with sweet peppers, hominy, and scallions. I seared the steak, did a quick prime jus with some beef they had there, cooked the meat medium rare, sliced it like tenderloin, rolled it like a sushi roll, and laid it over the shoe string potatoes. The sous chefs were staring at me the whole time and they would say stuff to each other I couldn’t hear. Then chef Tien came by and said, “OK, nice meeting you, Mackenzie. Have a good trail.” And he left. That was it. I don’t think he ever tasted what I cooked.
I was still helping on the line when service was starting to wind down later that evening, so they told me I could go to any station I wanted to cook anything. Craig, the sous chef, gave me a beer, and said, “Chef will get hold of you and we’ll let you know how it went.” A week later, chef Tien called and told me everyone really liked what I did. “Our busy season starts end of September,” he said, “and I have a spot for you if you want it.”
1. Pain, poverty, and sleep deprivation
I rented a tiny room in my friend’s Brooklyn apartment, where I shared one of the three bedrooms with another guy. We had a bunk bed, bottom shelves for my clothes, top shelves for his, and a TV. It was $300 a month per person. Including cable and Internet. I still live there, but I have my own room for $500 now, which is absurd for the amount of money a cook makes: $300 a week.
Cooks in the city get paid nothing. Or next to nothing. My theory on that is this: the best restaurants in the world are in New York City, and everyone knows that, so they want to work here. Half the cooks in New York work for free. They get a shot at a restaurant like Eleven Madison Park, which is the best in the city, so they’re happy to work for free. But what about the guy who, without a salary, would be living on the street? What about him?
When they do pay you, it’s not exactly high finance. Starting out, most cooks get $9 an hour. The top cooks get $12.50 an hour, capped at an eight-hour shift. If you’re on the dinner shift, you’re not supposed to come in until 3:30, but you always get in earlier. And often as early as nine in the morning. They’ll say something like, ”We’re not telling you to come to work that early, but it would be really good for you to learn something new.” So we come in at nine to butcher our own fish, even though there’s a fish butcher. And of course you don’t get paid for those extra hours. It’s for the experience, remember?
If, by chance, you can do your job by coming in right on time, if they see you’re doing well at your station, they’ll add more items to it. Therefore, it’s physically impossible to get there at 3:30 and be set up and ready for the dinner service. And if you’re not set up and ready, someone will be yelling and screaming at you.
If the chef yells at you, it’s for one of two reasons. One, because you have potential and they want to make you better, or two, they want you out of their kitchen. They either try to make you quit, or make you better. And then you have to worry about losing your job and how that will look on your resume.
So you work until midnight or 1am, go for dinner, go home, go to sleep, wake up, and you’re back there by nine. I started on the line at Má Pêche as PM fish entremet, which is the guy that does all the sides, all the sauces, and plating after the fish cook finishes cooking the fish. You have to be totally organized to do that job, because the fish comes at you from the grill cook and you’d better have the sauces and veggies ready to go. And we’re not talking just one fish! There’s a constant stream of them coming at you down the line. The first three months I thought I was going to die. Half the time from exhaustion and the other half from them yelling at me. But I finally got the hang of it and got organized.
2. "I'm not allowed to hit you right now, but I’ll do it"
In the kitchen, space is so tight you have to be like a ballet dancer doing pirouettes in clogs. We have to communicate amongst ourselves, keeping it quiet, too. Depending on who the chef you’re working for is, there might be other rules, like no smiling in the kitchen, no laughing, no talking. No banging pans. You drop something, everyone is all over you because of the noise. And logistically, if I turn while you’re going behind me, without me ever saying anything, you know exactly where I am and I know exactly what you’re doing.
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.”
Once, I was in the middle of service on a particularly busy evening, and the chef was on my case for something, and he was arguing with me. I had my fingers between the counter and the drawer and I was trying to get my work done and he was arguing with me, and I was saying, “Yes, Chef,” because you can’t talk back. When I turned away from him to go back to my cooking he yelled, “No! You fucking listen!” And with that, his knee pushed the drawer closed with my fingers in it. And he held it there! “You need to fucking listen to me!” What I was thinking was this: I’m a big guy, I’m not allowed to hit you right now, but I’ll fucking do it if you don’t let my fingers go. But I couldn't say that to him. I just said, “Yes, Chef.”
They have you trained to that point where they are the ultimate rule. You want to cook? You suck it up. Here’s the life of a cook. You eat, you drink, and you cook. And somewhere in there you sleep, but not for long. Social life? Your only friends are the guys cooking next to you or on either side of you.
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 finger tip 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.
3. "I'm better than you"
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. One of the most inspiring displays I think I’ve ever seen, even though it wasn’t at a good time for me, came from one of the executive sous chefs when I was working at NoMad.
We were in the middle of service, it was busy, and the runners -- the guys who take the food from the kitchen to the table -- were all hanging out, standing against the wall, waiting for the food to come up. They were laughing at a joke and the sous chef turned around to them and said, “Would you guys shut the fuck up? You want to talk, get the fuck out of here. This place is all I fucking have! Don’t fuck it up for me!” That’s a man who loves what he’s doing and lets everyone know it. That’s passion.
There was this kid, once, who worked the morning and afternoon shift. He was really awful in the kitchen and everyone hated him because he was counterproductive. One day, his service had been over for four hours and he had long since left the building when the roast cook, for the first time that night, opened the oven to put in some meat. What he found inside was something that looked like a piece of charcoal. “What the ... ?” he yelled, “It’s a fucking pork chop!” The kid forgot it in there, with the oven on, and so it just burnt to a crisp. When the chef heard about it, he got so fucking heated, he was like, “This pork chop is from one of the best pork purveyors in the country! This kid is an idiot!”
The next day, the chef made the kid handwrite a personal letter to the farmer to apologize for disrespecting his product. Normally, if you mess something up, it just goes to the trash. But because the farmer comes into the restaurant a lot, the chef knew firsthand all the work that goes into that product. He was telling us all the story and he talked about the farmer. “He raises these pigs. All the work that he put in to raise them, the kid just threw out and forgot about. The years this guy spent raising his pig, the getting up in the morning to feed him, the making sure he’s healthy, and this idiot treats it like that.” In a different way, that’s passion, too.
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.
4. The end
I left Má Pêche after 18 months. It was an incredible learning experience in a first-class restaurant, but I had worked all the stations -- and it was time to move on to the next thing. I decided to trail at a bunch of the city’s top restaurants just to see what they were doing. I ended up going to a few of the top ones and was horribly unimpressed. None of them could hold a candle to Má Pêche. I’ll never forget one of them, because I was shit on the whole time by the line cooks. And I knew I was better than all of them. I was working garde manger or something and this kid came up and said, “I need you to cut this much butternut squash for me exactly like this.” He slapped a small container full of squash on the counter and he repeated himself. “It needs to be exactly like this. Once you’ve done a pint, bring it over and show me so I can make sure you’re doing it right.”
So I started doing that and I’m like, “Fuck this kid, I’m going to see what he’s up to.” So I took the squash that he cut up to demonstrate for me and I put it in the empty container. I brought it over to him and I’m like, “Hey, how are these?” And I laid them out and he’s like, “These are fucking garbage! This is not what I showed you!” And I’m like, “Actually, man, those are the exact ones you fucking did for me.” And I just walked away. He didn’t bother me the rest of the stage.
5. Pain: a love story
I remember at Momofuku, we had a keg in the walk-in refrigerator. We had just spent 14 hours cooking. Service would be done, and after cleanup, we would tap the keg, put a few pitchers on the pass, and just sit back and hang out for an hour drinking beer in the kitchen in our street clothes. Then Chef would say, “All right, I’m done putting in orders for tomorrow. Finish up your beer, lock up, let’s go to the bar.” And we would all go to a bar or restaurant together.
That’s the thing. You’re with each other all day, but you can’t seem to say goodnight. Do you get sick of some of these people sometimes? Sure. And there are times when you take shit from other people at work. But you can’t hold grudges, because you’re there with them so much. You keep them close to you, too, because they are all you really have.
When you hear someone whine, “I work 40 hours a week. I hate it. I’m so tired.” Well, boo-fucking-hoo. I work 80 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. You make no money and you marry yourself to the restaurant. So you’d damn well better love what you do.
Why do I love it? I love food. I love creating something. Its temporary art. It’s something you can’t hang on a wall. It’s not just visual, it’s an experience for someone to remember, hopefully. 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. I wowed them for that moment.
Ina Yalof is a writer in New York. Her books include the acclaimed oral history, Life and Death: The Story of a Hospital, What It Means to Be Jewish, and How I Write (co-authored with Janet Evanovich). Her work has also appeared in GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, andNew York magazine.
This story was adapted from FOOD AND THE CITY: New York’s Professional Chefs, Restaurateurs, Line Cooks, Street Vendors, and Purveyors Talk About What They Do and Why They Do It, by Ina Yalof, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016, by Ina Yalof. Buy a copy here.