Aside from occasionally feeling left out of certain in-jokes and references whose origins pre-dated her tenure, Julia quickly slotted into place in the restaurant’s small culture. The staff members who usually made those in-jokes were Ellery and Nathan, the restaurant’s fore- and second-most-senior chefs respectively, whom Julia liked and who seemed to like her back.
This is how the kitchen’s chain of operations went: Ellery and Nathan oversaw the hot section, while Julia and one, or maybe two, members of a high-turnover workforce of junior cooks alternated between the cold and prep lines. Occasionally, she’d cover the plancha (a flat-topped griddle) or assist on sauté, other times she’d work the pass and triage the incoming checks. (Ellery would always be the one to micromanage the presentations of the outgoing plates to which those checks corresponded — a responsibility he took pride in never delegating.)
When Ellery spoke to her directly or gave her pointers, she made sure to active-listen, nodding and saying things like, “OK, Chef,” or “Got it, Chef,” which was overserious, probably; she should learn to relax around him. (On the occasions that it happened, her face flushed at hearing her name spoken in praise — Ellery looking at her with one eye closed, sighting her down the straight of his fork, “Perfect texture, Julia,” having tasted her first-attempt at Greek lamb stew.) Mainly, she just tried to work hard and keep her head down. To be seen simply as a safe pair of hands.
Ellery had a lot of rules, which he took pleasure in recounting larghetto and with irony, as if quoting from a list he’d long ago asked Julia to commit to memory and that she’d failed him in since having forgotten: no smartphones in the kitchen; no haircuts before a shift; no unironed T-shirts; black plastic utility clogs only; stick to your station (or its variant: don’t disturb the mise, don’t disturb the peace); no smartphones in the kitchen; if you’re walking behind someone, say so; sanitise, sanitise, sanitise; did he mention no smartphones in the kitchen?
However annoyingly they were dictated, the rules at least prompted rare moments of collective discussion among the working chefs (Julia, who had never once taken her smartphone into the kitchen, suspected Ellery of deploying the rules primarily as icebreakers to shatter the extended silences that sometimes set in during peak labour hours). Nathan usually responding by citing instances of Ellery’s violation of his own rules’ basic precepts in objection; Ellery, in turn, responding to Nathan’s responses by gesturing as though jacking off — a routine that reliably, if a little forcedly, did make Julia laugh, and which she increasingly felt the two of them performed solely for that reason.
The part she liked most about working was also the part she was best at: tightening the outlet of her concentration around a specific object or task so that nothing else entered her attentional field; deep monotasking to the point of pure immersion in the deed — or set of deeds — at hand. Hours passed easily, like minutes, this way, her body all but detached from the experience of time; cooking faster than she could think, acting on gut feeling and motor skill without room for hesitation; her focus centred on, say, skimming a surface foam of whey from a Pyrex jug of clarifying butter, trimming a foreleg of Iberian ham into perfect featherweight slices.
Not really, but sometimes she imagined the restaurant as a machine she stepped inside that processed the formless material of her days into units of consistent shape and texture.
Not really, but sometimes she literally thanked actual God she’d gotten out of her previous job when she had.
Given that she’d only recently been hired, Julia felt uncomfortable about requesting annual leave from the restaurant. This was a problem, because back when she’d first accepted the job, her mother had FaceTimed specifically to ask her to please, please book some time off so they could spend a couple of weeks at home together over the Christmas period — which Julia, knowing how lonely her mother sometimes got, had sworn she’d definitely do, fully in the knowledge, even as she’d made it, that she would not fulfil her promise.
Historically, the main way Julia dealt with conflicts in her life was to endlessly defer making any real decision or committing to any specific course of action, preferring instead to allow fate to autopilot her toward its natural-seeming, predestined outcomes without risking incurring any accidental negative consequences as a result of her own personal interference.
But out of sheer accumulated guilt for having raised her mother’s hopes unduly, a week and a half before Christmas, Julia eventually did ask Ellery about taking some unexpected short-term holiday, to which he replied that he honestly wouldn’t normally do this, that he was mostly pretty lax about these things, but with the last days of December and first days of January tending to be so busy, he couldn’t allow her to take any more days off than the few she’d already been auto-assigned on the restaurant’s Google Sheets rota.
“Is that going to be OK?” he said, reframing as a question what had moments before been a series of clear declarations. And Julia, internalising shame, responded: “Yeah totally, no worries, no definitely. Completely cool and fine.”
This is an excerpt from Jem Calder’s novella ‘A Restaurant
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