Roman Sturgis Take care of each other and make good decisions.

September 27, 2009

New Short Story: Donkeys

Filed under: Fiction — Roman @ 11:02 am

This morning I finished major revisions of a short story I’ve been working on for awhile. It’s called Donkeys and it’s about a young cook working at a restaurant in Boston. I would love for you to read it and tell me what you think, as I’m planning on sending it out before the end of the fall reading period. Because it’s 11,000 words, I’d be happy to send it to you as a Word doc, if that makes things easier. Enjoy!

by Roman Sturgis

4:00pm, Boston, MA.

When the line cooks start coming in, I’m just finishing up my shift. All the deliveries have been made and we’ve only got a few things left to prep. Crab cakes are the last thing to do on my list. I need to make 40 big ones for regular dinner service and 400 minis for a party. In front of me, I’ve got a large silver bowl big enough to wash a small child in. It’s full of diced red and yellow peppers, which I did first because it’s the most tedious step. Next to the bowl I have two long plastic sleeves filled with containers of jumbo lump crab meat, which I received this morning from the fish guy. Each container weighs half a pound, and the total cost of the crab in front of me is worth more than I make in three days. I know this, because one of my responsibilities is to check all the invoices when the product gets delivered and put it away in the right spot. Only then can I touch a knife and actually do some cooking. I do a lot of low totem pole stuff like taking out the trash and mopping up the floors. Duties I share with the dishwashers. I think Chef knows I could be a good line cook, but he keeps me doing the receiving because I’m the only one in the kitchen besides him who can read and write English fluently. I really want to get on the line. That’s my dream. To cook on the line out there in front of all the customers, flames leaping around me, banging out dishes all night long.

Cracking open the crab containers can be tricky because the plastic is cold and sharp around the edges, so if you cut yourself, you might not know it at first, because your hands get numb from handling them. We can’t waste any of this product because it’s so expensive, but the spatulas are too big to fit into the round corners of the containers. Its much more effective to use your finger to scrap out the last shreds. Course, you have to be careful, because like I said, that plastic can be sharp as a tin can.

After I’ve added the crab meat, I throw a few spatulas of mayo in, a few handfuls of bread crumbs, some Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, chopped chives, and squeeze some lemon. I toss the mix with my hands and once it’s the right consistency, I shape it into a hockey puck, feeling for the right thickness and density. When I first started, I had to use an ice-cream scoop to measure out the mix. But now I just know by how much space it takes up in my hand. I check each one on a saran-wrapped scale just in case, and then put it on a sheet tray. Three point five ounces on the money every time.

The kitchen is getting louder as the line cooks clock-in, change, and get to work. Andrés comes in singing the same verse of a rap song, over and over again in his Colombian accent. He sings, “I’m sorry mama, I never meant to hurt you! I never meant to make you cry, but tonight now I’m cleaning out my close it!” Andrés is about my age, but he’s been working in restaurants since he was 16, under three different names and two socials, he told me yesterday. He’s one of the best line cooks now, and he’s a cocky son of a bitch. He says something Spanish to Antonio, who’s old enough to be our father. Antonio has been at Bella Vita forever and is the head of the daytime prep operation. He’s taught me pretty much everything I’ve learned so far. Andrés winds up a wet dish towel, spinning it from the corner and snaps Antonio right in the ass. Antonio jumps and growls something in Spanish before taking Andrés into a headlock and squeezing him until he screams. When he lets him go, Andrés’s face is red, all the way up to his short curly black hair and the diamond stud in his ear. Antonio trained Andrés when he first came up from Colombia, so they go way back. Antonio told me that he didn’t know him back home, but their towns were close enough to each other that they have mutual friends.

Andrés says something else in Spanish which I can’t understand, but I recognize my name, “Raymond.” I turn around and he says, “How you doing today, Raymond?” and twists my nipple through my white jacket, spotted with the day’s chores. It fucking hurts when he does it, but I don’t let on. Can’t show weakness here, especially to Andrés. I just stare at him and say, “knock it off, man.” When I turn around to go back to work, he reaches under my arms with both hands and tweaks me again, harder. I’m about half a foot taller than him, but probably not as strong because I didn’t grow up on a farm doing hard manual labor. But that doesn’t stop me from pushing him against one of the stand-up coolers and holding my forearm against his chest, crab mix all over my hands. “I said stop.” I have to let him know I’m not in the mood to fool around. I’ve got a lot of crab cakes to do before staff meal, and I don’t want to piss Chef off. It really burns me how good Andrés is, and then he’s got to pull crap like this.

“Okay, okay,” Andrés says. “Okay, Rainman.” He puts up his hands and slaps me on the back, hard, as he heads for the walk-in to start setting up his station, singing that dumb verse over and over.

While I’m making the mini crab cakes, the servers start to come in. There’s a rack at the back entrance to the kitchen where they hang their coats and put on their white server jackets. One of them, a pretty woman about my age who I know a little about, takes off a long green parka and a sweater and heads for the dining room in her halter top to start polishing the silver and glasses in her section. Her short blonde hair is pulled back in clips, and she greets everyone in the kitchen as she passes. She’s friendly and well-liked, and generally agreed upon by the kitchen staff to have the prettiest face of all the servers. Andrés kicks open the door of the walk-in holding a large sheet tray piled high with stuff. The server, whose name is Izzie, holds the door for him as he comes out, the tray bending under the weight of the plastic containers filled with prepped food—a lot of which I did myself. “Gracias, mi amore,” Andrés says and I roll my eyes.

“Di nada,” she says, smiling at him.

One of the things I love about the restaurant is how well they feed us in the kitchen. A lot of places, they charge you for the staff meal, but not at Bella Vita. I heard Chef say once that their food costs are $1,000 a week, just for staff meals, which include lunch and dinner. And it’s not crap food, either. I really respect that about the owner, who gave me this job after I told him I’d work for free for the first week while I trained, which he held me to. “I just want to learn about food,” I said. And when he asked me why I wasn’t using my English degree, which I’d just finished, I told him, “I really love cooking.” Was that a smart idea? I don’t know. I’ve got student loans to pay off, but I deferred for a year. I just can’t see myself teaching, or doing an office job. Cooking is what gets me excited. Sometimes I think I should have gone to culinary school instead, especially because I don’t make that much as a prep cook, and they’re pretty strict about keeping me right under 40 hours a week. But they feed us real well. Actually, I don’t even have to buy that much food at home, which is a relief because my rent is more than half of my pay.

For lunch today, Antonio let me make hamburgers for everybody, which included the front of house people. That was cool of him, because I really enjoy making food for others. I even snuck in some diced garlic to put some zing into the burgers. I would have done some chopped grilled jalapeño, too, but I ran out of time. I got a lot of compliments though. With the melted cheddar and the spice, ohh it was good. It would have been even better with the penos. There’s something almost spiritual about cooking for me, like part of me is going into the food. I think every one of our line cooks looks at his job as a way to send more money home than he would as a custodian. A love for the occupation doesn’t play into it. It’s just about supporting their families back home. Which is fine—honorable and touching and all that—but for them, their passion is for supporting their families, not necessarily making the best food they can. They’re just robots.

Personally, I know that I put more of my heart and soul into cooking than anyone else in the kitchen, except maybe Chef. Just look at these crab cakes. You see how perfect they are? So what if it takes me a little longer than the other guys to do them. They look good, and the mix is just right—exactly the recipe Chef told me, except I put a little less salt in, because they really taste better that way. I wish I could be making the staff dinner tonight, too, but it doesn’t look like it’s in the cards. I think I just heard Chef tell Jorge to make fish and chips and a big salad.

The owner likes us all to eat in the same place, at a big long table in one of the function rooms, but sometimes the Brazilians keep to themselves and eat in the kitchen locker room on milk crates, where they can catch a quick nap afterwards, leaning against the laundry bags. The Brazilian Mafia, Chef calls them. For most of the line cooks, this is their second job. Tonight Chef is telling all the guys in his best kitchen Spanish that they can’t eat in the kitchen. “Family style tonight, okay guys? Comiera famalia. No nappy in the locker room.” Si, chef, si, everybody around him is saying, nodding as they chop.

Antonio washes his hands and takes off his apron. He goes into the locker room to change. “See you tomorrow, Raymond,” he says on his way out, zipping up his parka and waving. I am just about done with the crab cakes and take off my latex gloves with a snap. Antonio never stays for staff meal. He goes back to East Boston to eat with his wife and his two kids, who were born here. But he’ll be back at the restaurant at 4:00am to clean the stoves and bathrooms and start the prep all over again.

Jorge makes a mean fish and chips and I’m starving for them because I’ve been running all day. I was pretty skinny when I first started here, but carrying 50 pound bags of flour up the stairs and lugging the deliveries from the loading dock has put the beginnings of some wiry muscle on my bones. I eat all day long, grazing, but come 5:00, I’m famished. As I clean up my area and drop off the finished crab cakes in the walk-in, Jorge is setting up staff dinner on the line out front. When I get out there he asks me to get some plates. The servers are waiting for the go-ahead, and the rest of the cooks are starting to come out of the back kitchen. Jorge places the salad down on the running board and says “Bon Appetite,” with a goofy grin. He’s a nice guy and speaks good English. After Antonio goes home, Jorge and Andrés become the di facto translators, if needed. We all make our plates and head to the big table. All the servers sit at one end speaking English, and the cooks on the other, speaking Spanish. My allegiance is to the cooks, so I sit with them, but one of the servers, a stocky Italian-American type who has been with the company from the very beginning, sits next to me and says, “How’s this today?” picking at the square of fried haddock on his plate. I’ve got three on mine, drenched in tartar sauce, the first piece already devoured.

“Delicious,” I say. “Jorge fries a mean fish and chips.”

“You eat this?” the server says, looking over his designer granny glasses at my plate, piled high. “I think you’re gonna give me a heart attack, watching you eat this stuff.”

This guy is one of the old guard and he’s really good on the floor. Like, so good, customers make reservations and ask for him specifically. I heard he and the other Top Gun servers make something retarded like 70,000 a year in tips. They don’t talk openly about this, but sometimes I hear them around the cappuccino maker, conferring over how much to declare. So sometimes I hear things. Besides, I can put it together. I know what the wine costs. I see the invoices. I see what they charge on the menu. These guys, they can sell a table two bottles of Barolo at four-hundred bucks a pop. Twenty percent on eight hundred bucks ain’t chump change. They sell porter-houses, fifty dollars a piece and one of those big crab cakes I just made goes for fourteen bucks, just as an appetizer. These servers are making some serious dough, so I don’t feel too bad for him and his refined tastes that are too good for Jorge’s fish and chips, which I love. Besides, he could spare to miss a few meals, if you know what I mean.

Izzie comes in and sits down across from me. Andrés is right behind and sits next to her. He keeps grinning at me when she looks away, and he talks to her while she eats a salad and half a grapefruit that she brought with her. She hasn’t put on her server coat yet and it’s a little chilly in the room, so I can see her nipples through her white halter top and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look more than twice. My stomach’s starting to get full as the managers start making their announcements and chef runs through his specials. It’s a good feeling, being satisfied like that after a busy day. You feel like you earned your meal. A plate of each special goes around for all the servers to take a look at and taste, if they like. When the halibut on micro greens gets down to Izzie, she takes a dainty forkful and nods.

Andrés says, “You like it? I going to be making that sauce at my station tonight. You going to sell a lot of it?” Then he looks at me again and winks.

My face burns when she says, “Oh yeah, I think that’s going to do well,” and gives him a playful nudge with her elbow.

Chef is talking about another special. He says, “And this one, we’ve finished with some apricots reconstituted with brandy.”

I raise my hand and Chef calls on me with a touch of impatience. “Yes, Raymond.”

“What’s reconstituted mean? Is that when you re-hydrate the dried fruit with brandy?”

Chef pauses long enough for me to know that he’s tired of my questions and then says simply, “Yes, Raymond.” Like every other server didn’t already know that—the people whose questions count at this point in the day.

That was really dumb, I think to myself. You should have asked him later, when there weren’t so many people around. Pedro, the daytime dishwasher, has been eating quietly on my other side, oblivious to the announcements. He helps me take out the trash sometimes. When the chef is done with the specials, the sommelier gives a list of what’s been eighty-sixed and reminds the servers that a rep from Stazzo and Sons will be doing a quick wine tasting following family meal. Pedro and I get up with the rest of the crew and get in line to drop our plates off at the washer station. Mini, the nighttime dishwasher, takes the plates as they come in and sprays them down before putting them through the machine. Pedro and I scrap our plates into the garbage before putting them on the stainless steel collection area. The cooks all use Styrofoam cups, but the servers drink their water and sodas in the glass goblets they use on the floor. They put them upside down in the square racks resting above the dishwasher window, and as one of them gets full, Mini stands on his toes and pulls it over the bar to get it ready to go through. The machina blasts plates clean with scalding water in less than a minute. Freshly cleaned plates are steaming in their racks on the back end and a hot cloud hangs around the area. Mini wears the same yellow rubber apron Pedro does, and black galoshes. His face is starting to sweat already as Pedro tells him goodnight.

As we head back to the locker room, Pedro pokes me in the ribs and hisses, “Muchas titas!” Pedro is short with a barrel chest that starts somewhere around his chin and ends at his knees. He wears a green mesh-backed cap and white tufts of his otherwise wiry black hair stick out at odd angles. His wide stubbled cheeks hang from his face like jowls, pulling the edges of his eyes down, but when he laughs, they lift up a bit, changing his whole appearance and he looks like a younger man. “Muchas titas, si!” Pedro spreads his palms and pulls them away from his chest to show me. His open mouth reveals speckled teeth and metal fillings. When he laughs, it is a high pitched hiss and his eyes are watering. Andrés comes back to get something from the walk-in and as he passes us, Pedro slaps him on the arm and says something in Spanish. Andrés raises his eyebrows real high and laps his tongue like a dog drinking water and Pedro loses it again.

“Take it easy, Raymond,” Andrés says, eyes sparkling, and disappears into the walk-in.

Pedro hangs off my shoulder laughing as we head to the clock to punch out. In the locker room, he stands in his tighty whities and his sweater and does it one more time, spreading his palms, “Muchas titas, si o non, Raymond?” It makes me laugh and I nod, grinning, before slamming my locker shut.

“See you manana, Pedro,” I say, putting a cigarette behind my ear. I head for the dock in my street clothes and clogs, taking the short cut through the atrium lobby, past the To Go shop, which is closed down for the night. During the day, the building is active with white-collar workers and we do a good business selling them coffee and lunch through the To Go shop. One of the first things I do every morning is help Antonio make about 300 sandwiches and wrap them up. We don’t always sell them all, and when there are leftovers I hoard them to use as bribes for the delivery guys. All the drivers know by now that it is in their best interest to get to me before lunch.

It’s damn cold on the dock. I pull the hand carts up against the wall and secure them to a pole with the combination lock and wire rope we keep out here. My fingers are numb from the frozen metal. Keith the security guard is waiting for his relief and he tosses me a wave from inside his command center which overlooks the dock and the underground parking garage. I lean against the guard rail and smoke my cigarette, avoiding going outside in the sprinkling of snow that has picked up again. I hear the doors open behind me and Andrés comes out.

“Got a smoke, man?” he says.

I offer him my pack and lighter. He lights one and takes a big drag before saying, “I’m trying to quit, you know, but I think it’s going to be a busy night.”

“Oh yeah, how busy?” I ask, more than a little jealous.

Andrés shrugs and makes a face. “They say two ten on the books, so maybe three hundred and twenty covers? I just hope it stays busy. I hate it when it gets slow. That’s the fucking worst, man. But not too busy, cause I don’t want to get in the weeds. I don’t want to get lost, you know?” and he does a little mime of flipping two skillets and trying to find the ticket. “Sometimes, the tickets go all the way down the line.”


“Yeah man. On a Saturday night we get slammed, man. Four hundred and fifty covers sometimes on the busy nights.”

“That’s a lot of fucking meals.”

“It’s good though. This my second job, you know?”

I nod.

“Yeah, I cook at The Fish House, too. This winter, I want to make eight hundred dollars a week. That’s my goal.”

“Damn,” I say. “After taxes?”

“Fuck tex-es,” he says. Then he says quieter: “I don’t pay tex-es here. I send it home to my family. They pay in Colombia.”

“Eight hundred is pretty good man,” I say. “That’s almost what the servers are making.”

Andrés spits onto the concrete and shakes his head. “No man, they make like a thousand dollars, easy. They don’t pay texes either, except a little bit. They get pay in cash, it’s easier to cheat, you know?”

He finishes his cigarette, flicks it into a puddle, and spits again. “Okay, got to go. See you tomorrow, Raymond.”

“Yeah, take it easy, man,” I say. As I walk home, I’m doing the math in my head: how much does Andrés make an hour if he’s going to clear eight hundred between two jobs.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the morning, it’s snowing hard as I walk to work down Columbus Avenue. I’m getting chunks of it in my clogs, which is a real shitty way to start the day. I come in through the loading dock to see if any deliveries have been made yet and the UPS guy, Mike, has taken over every square inch with his packages. It’s a royal fucking mess. He does the deliveries for the whole building—that’s his route, fifteen stories of lawyers, consultants, and non-profits. He grunts as he lifts a large box from the back of his truck and drops it on the cement dock with a loud slap. Mike leans on it, wipes his brow and says, “Fuck you.” To the box, or me, I’m not sure.

“Morning, Mike,” I say. “You going to share today?” I look at my watch. Sid Wainer Purveyors usually comes right at nine.

Mike screws up his face and says: “You busting my balls already? Would you look at this shit?” He lunges to step up from the truck onto the dock. He stands a few inches taller than me, with a bit of a belly, smelling of pomade and Old Spice. His thin black moustache is freshly trimmed. “Does it look like the Express is getting delivered on time?” He lightly kicks a box to the side. “I don’t think so. Just look at this shit.”

“How many days you have left?” I ask. This is kind of a joke between us, because he told me last week that he had 1000 days left before he’s eligible for his pension.

“Too fucking many,” he says.

“See you in a bit,” I say, heading for the door. “Do me a favor and make some space for me.”

As the heavy metal door closes behind me, I can hear him screaming, “How bout a fucking coffee!”

This is what happens in the morning: I punch in with my thumbprint and change into checks and a jacket. I put my Buck knife in its leather case on my belt and I say hello to the guys. Antonio and Jaime already have four burners going and Antonio says, “We gotta lotta shit to do today, Raymond.” I take a look at the prep list, which Chef tapes to the freezer every night right before he goes home. Then I go into the walk-in to see how much damage the line guys made the night before, throwing plastic boxes of food anywhere they could find a space. It takes me a few minutes to put it back in order and consolidate, but I’ve learned that it’s worth the trouble, especially if I get slammed with two or three deliveries at once. I inventory the milk and creams and the juices and pull out all the empty crates. Then I check to see if anyone found my stash of sandwiches and put a few in my pockets. When I come out, I pour coffee into a large Styrofoam cup. That’s my routine. Today, just as I’m coming back with my coffee, the phone screwed into the side of the walk-in rings. I pick up.

Keith is on the line, yelling in his Trinidadian accent, “You got sooo much stuff out dere!”

“I’m on my way,” I say, grabbing the clipboard from its hook.

“How bout one of dem sammiches, boy, yeah?”

“We’ll see,” I say and hang up.

I quick-step back through the atrium lobby, waving at the To Go Shop girls in their black caps, serving coffee and muffins to the business folk. Behind the elevators, there’s a door to the hallway that leads to the dock. Outside, the Sid Wainer guy, Jose, is hustling boxes from the back of his truck in his two wheeler, pulling the last of the product up the ramp and kicking it off next to the rest which he’s piled up right at the top of the ramp—a major no-no—because Mike still hasn’t cleared a space for me. I finish the last of my coffee and throw the Styrofoam cup into the long metal dumpster that sits between the two loading bays on the dock, attached to a hydraulic masher that compacts the garbage. If I ever needed to dispose of a body, Mike’s for instance, this is where I’d put it. Jose’s wearing his green Sid Wainer uniform and he hands me the invoice, which I put on my clipboard. When I call off the items, he helps me by pointing to them, sometimes opening a box to show me bunches of parsley or a big clear plastic tub of peeled garlic, and I cross it off the list. “Okay boss,” I say, “Looks good. You hungry?” Jose is good about packing his truck. Some of the other delivery guys I need to watch closer because I’ve gotten in trouble before, signing for stuff that I didn’t actually receive. Chef had a total meltdown when that happened.

Jose grins and I toss him a sandwich. “Muchas gracias,” he says, and rolls his hand cart back down the ramp.

While I’m unlocking the flat beds, Keith has come out of his command center, bundled in an oversized navy blue parka with a big fur hood. He’s old and really thin and after years of living in Boston, still hasn’t gotten used to the cold. He screams, “So damn cold! Hey, you got to move this stuff now, boy!” He laughs at me as I lift the Sid Wainer delivery onto a cart, my breath puffing out in clouds of steam. If I work fast, I’ll stay warm, I tell myself.

Mike comes over and says, “Hey, I’m real sorry about these boxes,” turning to wave at the sea of cardboard taking up all the prime real estate on the dock. “I just got all these goddamn Express packages. Hey, is that parsley?” He reaches down and fingers some of the green leaves sticking out of a box that I’ve just placed on the cart.
Mike says, “Hey, you know what the difference between parsley and pussy is?” Keith stares at him through his smudged glasses.

“What dat, mon?”

“You know, Raymond?” Mike asks.

“No fucking clue,” I say. “But you can’t have any.”

“Nobody ever says they want to eat parsley,” Mike says, smiling like a fucking dog on a meat truck.

Keith just about loses his mind, and spins around, walking away from Mike.

“Pretty good, hah?” Mike says, smiling. Then he picks up a nice fat, juicy strawberry from a cardboard flat. “Hey, you know the strawberry is the only fruit with its seeds on the outside? You know that, Raymond? It’s the only one.”

I’m still loading onto the cart as he says this. “Really,” I say, a little out of breath.

“Hey, you mind if I have this one?” Mike says, taking a big bite out of the strawberry.

“Ah, come on man!” I yell. “What the fuck?”

“Oh, I couldn’t help it—it was just calling to me!” Mike says, laughing, juice dripping down his chin.

“Get your fucking shit cleaned up,” I say, “and quit stealing food, you dirty wop.”

“Ouch! Hey, take it easy brother,” Mike says, giving me his best hurt victim look. “No need to slur me, I’m just trying to get a few laughs out of this miserable fucking day.”

I’m more than a little peeved, and work quickly to get everything carefully stacked on the cart, so I can get the hell away from this shit bird. When I start to pull the cart towards the door, Keith goes to open it for me and holds it while I wheel through.

“Hey, hey,” Keith says, letting the door go and coming closer. “How about a sandwich? What you got today?”

“What you want, Keith?”

“I like dem roast beef ones, with da horse radish, yeah?”

“Get Mike to make me a space and I’ve got one for you right here,” I say, patting my coat pocket.

“Okay, ya, ya. But I’m starving, mon. Didn’t get mah breakfast, you know?” He makes a face like he’s so hurt.

I toss him a sandwich and he smiles real big. “Tanks, mon.” Then he gives me the freight elevator key from his parka pocket, which is tied to a foot long white PVC pipe, scuffed gray from use. I drag the cart down the hall to another set of doors which leads to a service elevator. I hold the clip-board to the sensor, and it picks up on the special card which I’ve taped to the back of it, so I don’t lose it. The elevator dings and opens up and I pull the cart in to go down one floor, to the basement, then down another long hall, past the mail room, to the service elevator. I pull the canvas belt loop up from the floor to open the metal gate. Inside, it smells like garbage and is bigger than my room in the three bedroom apartment I share with a college friend and a med student who rents us our rooms. The PVC rattles against the wall as I turn the key and hold the green button. The motor whines somewhere above me and I watch through the gate for the painted white lines on the wall to line up on the restaurant level. The gate opens with a rattle and I drag the cart out into the locker room, and carefully navigate into the kitchen, so I don’t have to carry the deliveries any further than I have to. Some of the stuff, like melons and eggplant, goes right into the cooler until we need them. Other stuff, like the big red mesh bag of onions, or the sack of potatoes, goes into white bins under the long prep counter. Just as I’m finishing up, one of the drivers from International Wine comes in the back door.

“Morning Raymond,” he says.

“Hey Joe, gimmie a sec,” I say, emptying the last of the potatoes into the bin with a rumble. “You need coffee?”

“Yeah man, that’d be real good,” he says, jamming his hands into his pockets. I like Joe a lot. He and Tom, the other driver, are pretty much the nicest guys I receive from and they’ve done me solid. Some of the other wine and liquor distributors will leave their product on the dock, unsigned for, which is like, totally fucking unbelievable to me. The sommelier has told me that if so much as a single bottle goes walking off, I’m accountable. “That’s the last fucking thing we need,” he likes to say, “a bunch of god damn winos guzzling a twenty year old Bordeaux on the steps of the god damn Public Library.”

On our way to the atrium, I pop into the To Go shop real quick. Kathy has finished ringing up an order and says in her best cheerful morning vocie, “Have a nice day!” Her tip box is looking pretty healthy.

“You mind?” I ask, jerking a thumb towards Joe, who is waiting in the door of the shop.

“Sure, you know you don’t have to ask,” Kathy says. I help her out by doing her receiving and stocking her containers and cups in the dry storage room, which technically I’m not responsible for, but I’m down there all the time, and I usually have the keys anyway. “Hi Joe,” she says, and Joe nods a few times, waving. I know he’s got a bit of a crush on her. “Staying warm out there?” she asks us. A customer walks up to the counter and the younger To Go girl takes his order.

“It’s not that bad,” Joe says while I sneak behind Kathy and pour two coffees for him and Tom.

“Thanks Kath,” I say, and we hustle back to the dock.

Mike is moving extra slow and watches Tom and Joe as they help me load the second cart up. I give them each a sandwich and they take these and their coffees and head back to the truck. As I head back inside, dragging the cart, I hear Mike say, “fuckin’ prick.”

Across the way from the freight elevator there’s another door that leads to a stairwell. I push the cart halfway through the door frame to keep it open and hop over the boxes. At the foot of the stairs is the dry goods room, and I open it with my keys and start stacking the boxes outside the wine storage room, which is behind another locked door. I don’t have a key for that one. I carry the cases two at a time and just as I’m coming back for the last two I see Izzie coming down the stairs, wearing her white jacket. She must be working the lunch shift.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” I say. This is actually the first time we’ve ever spoken.

“Can you help me find the linens?” she says. “I don’t know where they keep them.”

“Sure,” I say, and lead her past the stacks of flour bags and the shelves of dried pasta. There’s a dedicated shelf in the back corner stacked with plastic wrapped bundles of tablecloths, napkins, aprons, and dish towels. “What you need?”

“Oh, it’s okay, I got it,” she says, smiling. Her eyes are very, very blue. I notice she doesn’t wear much make-up.

“All right,” I say, stepping to the side. “These are the fifty-fours,” I say, bending to tap a bundle on the first shelf. “And these are your seventy-twos and your eighty-fives up top.”

“Great,” she says and I step back. She squats down to start pulling out what she needs and I go back for the last two cases of wine, catching a glimpse of the tiny black thong peeking over the back of her waistband.

“How long have you been here?” Izzie asks, after I stack the cases next to the door, only about three feet away from her.

“About a month,” I say.

“My name’s Izzie, by the way,” she says, standing and holding out her hand straight, like a man, not just her fingers like a lot of girls do.

“Raymond,” I say, taking her hand, which is quite warm.

“Yeah, I know,” she says. “You like it here?”

“It’s all right. You?”

“Oh yeah,” she says. “This is a good place, compared to a lot of other restaurants I’ve worked for.”

“Yeah, I like it too,” I say. “Hey, I got to go. See you around.” I’m not just worried about any deliveries that might have come while I’ve been away, I’m also starting to worry that I’m acting weird and I want to get out before I let on. My heart is racing as I pull the cart out of the door and trot it back to the loading dock, which I find, to my relief, is halfway cleared of Mike’s packages and absent of food deliveries. When I come back into the kitchen, I ask Antonio if there’s anything I can do. He stops stirring the pot of soup he’s making for the To Go Shop and stands with me next to the prep list.

“How about you cut the eggplant, okay?” he says in his low, calm voice. Antonio is a bit shorter than me, like most of the Latinos in the kitchen, and his smell reminds me of my grandfather. They’ve got the same hair, too—wiry and kind of curly and black, with the grey starting to show. He has a thick chestnut colored mustache which tends to give him an unhappy expression, but he’s generally a happy guy, I think. It’s hard to read him sometimes. “Chef called,” Antonio says. “He said he’s going to be a little late today, so we gotta take care of all this shit.” He hits the list with the red handle of his long spoon. “After you cut the eggplant, I gonna show you how we roast it, okay Raymond?”

This makes me incredibly happy, on top of the butterflies from Izzie. I pull the eggplant out of the cooler and take a knife from the box and Antonio stands next to me and cuts the first one, showing me how thick it should be. “Like that. So easy. Okay?” I nod and start cutting away, the springy flesh of the eggplant making a kind of squeaking sound as I draw the sharp blade through it.

When it’s all done, Antonio says, “all right, very good, Raymond. Now you put it in the braiser with some oil.” He shows me how, pouring canola oil into the giant square braiser, which we use to blanche all the vegetables and cook the veal bones, too. Soon the puddle of oil is smoking and I help him throw in the diced eggplant. He uses a big metal paddle to move it around. “Okay Raymond, now you put in some salt and pepper.”

I drop in big pinches of kosher salt, crushing it between my fingers as I drop it. “More, more, more,” Antonio says. “It takes a lotta fucking salt. Okay, stop. Now the pepper, about half.” I watch as the eggplant starts to turn brown in color and break up into a kind of phlem. Antonio scraps the bottom with the paddle. “Okay, now you do it,” he says, handing me the paddle. “Just keep it going, but don’t let it burn on the bottom.” Grinning, I take the paddle and he stands next to me for a second saying, “Okay, that’s good. Just like that, Raymond.”

If you’ve eaten at Bella Vita within the month, I promise you I’ve handled your food at some point. I touch every product as it comes through the restaurant. Everything I touch at Bella Vita, eventually it gets to you, the customer, and you eat it and hopefully you like it, and it becomes a part of you. Cases of champagne, cases of booze, keg after keg of microbrew beer. Crates of cream and milk and one pound bricks of butter. 144 count boxes of eggs, plastic bags full of rosemary and thyme and parsley, mesh sacks of potatoes and onions and waxy boxes of eggplant, celery, and carrots. Cases and cases of San Marzano tomatoes. Golden paint cans full of scallops the size of golf balls, frozen bricks of jumbo shrimp, sides of swordfish and tuna as long as my arm with bright red bloodlines pressed against the plastic wrap. Wooden crates of lobsters stuffed with newspaper-wrapped seaweed that smell like wet copper. Boxes and boxes of vacuum-sealed steaks, filets, sirloins, ribeyes, and porterhouses so big we serve them on their own extra-large plate. Boxes and boxes of frozen rack of lamb. We must go through twenty mammals a day. Then there’s the bakery stuff: 50lb. bags of flour, heavy boxes of precious chocolate with labels in German, French, and Italian. Saran wrap, foil take out containers with round cardboard tops, and two-ply toilet paper. When our biggest purveyors arrive, I stack product on my cart as high as I can, clearing the doors by less than an inch.

After the eggplant is done, Antonio tells me to get an 8 quart Cambro—the biggest size plastic container we have, and I place it on the floor, next to the braiser. He holds down a button and the braising pan tilts on a hydraulic until it’s vertical, the eggplant sloshing out through a square spout in the center of the lip. I stand back so I don’t get splattered as Antonio scraps that last of the eggplant out through the spout with the paddle. “Okay, Raymond. Now, you remember how to make the marinara?”

“Okay, Papi,” I say. “No problemo.”

It takes three cases of tomatoes to make the marinara. The can opener is bolted onto the end of the prep table near the major intersection of the prep kitchen, between the dishwashing room, the bakery, the ice machine and the drink station, with a view of the restaurant beyond. I can just catch a glimpse of Izzie, polishing silverware at the chef’s table, in front of the line. As I crank off the top of a giant can of San Marzanos she looks up and smiles at me. I look down immediately and dump the opened can into a large stock pot, about the size of a beer keg.

Kevin, the day time pastry maker turns his radio up to full. Oldies. I don’t know the song, but it feels good to have a beat, like we’re in a gym, and I tell myself I’m going to open these cans in record time. Kevin calls over his radio, “Whatcha making there, kid?”

“Apple pie, Kev. You wanna help?”

Kevin’s been dieting—Atkins—and he’s lost a lot of weight cycling, so he’s in the awkward stage between new jeans and old jeans and he has to pull them up every now and then while he walks to me. (He doesn’t wear checks, only the jacket.) He leans on one elbow and scratches his ear hair.

“Hey, you know if Mr. Chicken came in yet?”

The stock pot is so deep I have to put my arm in past the elbow to dump the tomatoes. I put the empty cans back in their cases and stack them next to the ice machine.

“No, not yet. You need something I should look out for?”

Kevin leans in close and says, “I just used the last of the eggs for the creme brulees.” He leans back and looks around, before leaning in again. “And I forgot to order eggs and I’ve got two hundred molten chocolates to make. Chef’s going to kill me. He just called. He’s going to be here any second.”

I squeeze handfuls of tomatoes through my fingers, breaking open their skins and bursting the inner pulp. “So we call Mr. Chicken.”

“Can we do that?”

“I don’t know—why not? You need eggs, right?”

“Hey,” Kevin says. “He can’t know that I fucked up, all right?”

Just then Chef arrives and Kevin slinks back to his pastry counter. Chef likes to take his time, walk around the place for a bit in his street clothes smelling like his morning shower and expensive cologne. He sticks his nose into a few pots, and says things like, “Antonio, your soup smells lovely today! Muey bueno!”

Then he goes back into the locker room and changes into baggy red pepper pants and his dry-cleaned jacket with his name only slightly smaller than the restaurant’s logo emblazoned on the left breast. He slides a thermometer and a black Sharpie marker into pockets on his arm, and adjusts his green bandana over his pieced ears. When he emerges from the locker room he is a changed man. His animal instincts are activated by his outfit—when he enters the kitchen he swaggers in his hob-nailed clogs. Pedro eyes him from behind a dish rack and we all hold our breath a little, waiting for him to point at something wrong or lash out. He seems to be in a good mood, because he calmly opens the walk-in, but as soon as the door closes Kevin says, “Oh shit.”

When Chef emerges a minute later I’ve got the tomatoes squeezed out and I’m heaving the pot from the long prep table to the stove. Chef stands at the entrance of the walk-in, propping the door open with his foot. He smiles and says, “where are all the eggs, guys?”

“No mas juevos. Protestas los pollos,” I whisper to Pedro and he hits the deck with his sharp hissing laugh. The chickens are on strike.

“Excuse me, Raymond? Have the eggs come in yet?”

“No, sir. Mr. Chicken hasn’t arrived.”

Chef says, “Well somebody better fix this,” and heads out to the line.

When he’s gone, I call Mr. Chicken from a list of numbers by the phone. When he picks up I can hear the open window of his cab and cars honking.

“You bringing eggs for us today, buddy?”

“Yeah, you know, I thought that was kinda funny when no one placed an order last night. You using someone else?”

“No, no one else. It didn’t get called in. We need five boxes. Stat.”

“You’re killing me, Raymond. Hey, put Chef on the phone.”

“Gotta go.”

I know that he’ll be here in about twenty minutes, because we’re his biggest customer. He’ll pick up anything for us, you name it. Chef needed Wonderbread once—I don’t know what for, some special bread crumb he was experimenting with, and he called Mr. Chicken up to go to Shaws. Kevin gives me a look. I tell him, “Soon.”

Chef comes back and tugs my sleeve on his way to the walk-in. “Can I talk to you?” he says. My stomach turns. I don’t like the sound of his voice. He holds the door open for me and he follows me in. The door snaps shut as it resumes its suction seal. “We’ve got to do something about this walk in, Raymond. It’s a mess.”

I look around and think, it’s not that bad. I’ve pulled all the old stock to the front, and consolidated where I could. “What’s the matter,” I say.

“Just look at this,” Chef says, smacking the sheet tray with all the butter blocks. “Your butters a mess.” Then he steps onto the bottom shelf where the stocks are and the green wire bends even more under his weight. He starts pulling down white translucent boxes that we keep all the prepped food in. “You’ve got fifteen different boxes of the same stuff labeled in four different languages. What’s this?” he says, opening a box of seasoned potato slices. “Rotten! Throw it out!” His voice is rising and he’s starting to pull down more boxes, just throwing them on the floor. One of them pops its top and red sauce sloshes out onto the floor. “And what the hell is this?” Chef screams, finding my stash of sandwiches. “What the bloody fuck is this?” He holds the open box between his thumb and forefinger, tilting it so that the sandwiches start to fall out.

“Left-overs,” I say.

“From the To Go Shop?”

“Yeah, they get thrown out every night, so I save some of them.”

“For what?” he says, eyes blazing. “Are you sharing them with everyone else?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“This is news to me,” Chef says. “Are you stealing?”

“No, Chef,” I say, quickly.

“No more,” he says, and drops the box before kicking open the thick metal door. “And get a bucket of bleach and sanitize this place before a goddamn food inspector shows up.”

“I’ve got to finish the marinara, first.”

“Forget it, Raymond,” Chef says. “Antonio will do it.” The door snaps shut and the suction seal slurps as it takes hold. By the light of one bulb encased in a steal cage I crouch down and begin to clean up the mess.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After wiping down the entire floor with bleach solution, the water that was once steaming is now cold, and my fingers are about to fall off. That, and I’m a little lightheaded from the bleach. Antonio opens the walk-in and says simply, “Mr. Chicken on the dock, Raymond.” I stand up and empty the foul water in a sink and take the plastic bucket to Pedro at the dishwashing station. He gives me a silent nod.

I grab the clipboard and trot out to the dock. Mr. Chicken is waiting there for me in his blue insulated jump suit and Carhart jacket. He rolls up the back of his small delivery truck and it smells awful. Wet pallets hold long greased cardboard boxes full of chicken and veal bones, white gallon buckets of chicken livers, and square boxes of eggs. “How ya doin?” Mr. Chicken says.

“All right. Just busy.”

“Ah, you kids,” he says, helping me unload the stuff onto the cart. Mr. Chicken has some sort of skin condition that peels, and his dandruff is pretty bad. A lot of the time he gets made fun of by the cooks. He calls a lot to talk to Chef, and every time the phone rings, we guess if it’s him. Sometimes Chef does a little Chicken Dance to announce his arrival. I see all that, but I also see that he’s a guy with a truck whose willing to go to the slaughter house and buy his stuff cheap so he can give it to us at a competitive price to earn our business. We could get all this stuff from another purveyor, but I think the owner has a soft spot in his heart for him.

“How’s your day?” I ask him.

“Enh,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Same shit, new day.” Another thing about Mr. Chicken: he’ll never ask for something until you offer. After we load the cart and check the list, he stands around. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll walk in with yas. I want to talk to Chef anyway.”

“He’s in a mood,” I say.

Mr. Chicken laughs. “Ain’t he always?” and then he winks at me, which does give me a chuckle.

In the kitchen, I unload the stuff and Mr. Chicken chats up Chef. “So I had to charge yah a little bit extra this time, just twenty-five cents a pound, cause everything’s going up, even the bones. I think it’s the fuel prices, and corn feed. Its getting more expensive.”

Chef is cutting up a long side of swordfish which I received earlier today from New England Seafood. He’s got a long curved knife and he gently dissects the bloodlines and all the worms.

“Would you look at this,” Chef says, shaking his head. “These fucking worms. You can’t get swordfish without worms, you know that?”

Mr. Chicken leans in close. Behind him, Kevin sneaks over to my cart and says, “Gimmie one of those boxes, kid. Come on.”

“So I had to charge you twenty-five cents,” Mr. Chicken goes on.

“Okay, okay,” Chef says. “That’s fine. Listen, I’m really busy today.”

“Yeah, sure, okay!” Mr. Chicken says, backing out. “Take it easy guys!” he tosses me a little wave and heads out the door towards the atrium.

While I finish unloading, Chef wraps up his swordfish, which he’s skinned and de-wormed and cut into portions. I walk up next to him and summon my courage to say, “Hey Chef, can I work the party tonight, in back? I saw you need to do a bunch of passed aps.”

“Raymond, get me the scallops you got today.”

“Yes, Chef.” I head back into the walk-in and grab the golden paint can.

Chef opens the top with the corner of his knife and looks inside at the pink scallops sitting in milky water. “What is this?” He picks up a scallop and sniffs it. “What the fuck is this?” He takes a bite out of it and then spits it out into the garbage. “Raymond!”

“Yes, Chef!”

“Look at this!”

I stand right next to him. Everybody in the kitchen is watching us. “What am I looking for?”

“What’s wrong with these?” Chef says.

I pick up a scallop and sniff it like I saw him do. The smell is definitely not right. “Ugh,” I say, making a face.

“Taste it!” Chef orders.

I do, and it’s vile. Like metal, and very oily. I spit it out into the garbage can as well. “What happened to them?”

“I’ll tell you what happened—those fuckers sold us bum scallops! Out of my way,” he says, pushing towards the phone. “Get me the goddamn invoice.”

I retrieve the invoice off the clipboard and pass it to him while the phone rings. “I’m sorry, Chef. I didn’t know.”

“No, Raymond, it’s not your fault,” Chef says, and this is a new one for me. “It’s these guys—Yes! Hello! This is Chef Chaffen from Bella Vita, I’d like to speak to your manager. Well I’ll tell you what the problem is…”

Ten minutes later a special delivery truck is on the way to us and Chef is looking at the clock wondering if he’s going to get his special prepped in time.

In the meantime, Antonio tells me to grill the chickens for the salad station now that the lunch rush is over. This is a real treat because it means I get to go out onto the line. I carry out sixteen oiled chicken breasts on a big sheet tray and set them down on the line. Up here you can hear the music and restaurant chatter, but it’s mostly quiet now as lunch has wrapped up.

I imagine what it’s like cooking here at night when the lights are turned down and the burners are on full blast. Behind the line, it’s five guys and Chef, all fire and steel. I imagine Andrés tossing saute pans and the chatter of the Micros system spitting out tickets. Fuckin’ A, I want to be a line cook.

Izzie and another server are going over their check books at the bar, chatting with the bartender, watching television and thinking about going outside for another cigarette. I lay the chicken breasts across the grill in rows of four. The flesh hisses and steams when it touches the hot metal grate and sometimes the oil drips down and catches fire, sending up a small cloud of black smoke and charring the meat slightly. I dump the sheet tray off with Pedro and he jerks his head at me. “Psst! Hermano!” I lean in under the glass racks. Pedro is standing in the middle of his dishwashing area.

“Hermano—mucho titas, si!” Pedro’s laughing so hard, his eyes are watering again. “Si, si,” he gasps, and then looks up suddenly. “Pollo!” he says, slapping a wet dish rag against his thigh and pointing to the line. “Pollo, pollo!”

I run back to the grill and grab a pair of tongs, slipping in my clogs on the floor which is always a little greasy, no matter how many times we mop. Izzie looks over from the bar and shakes her head.

I turn the chickens and with every click of the tongs they hiss loudly as the soft pink flesh cauterizes on the other side. I poke the grill marks with the tongs. The black lines are bold and firm and crack open just a little bit, exposing white meat and running juices. I twirl the tongs on my middle finger and shove them down on the bar handle of the oven underneath the grill, just like I’ve seen the line cooks do. I look at my watch. New England should be here any minute.

I bring the chickens back into the kitchen and Chef says, “I need those scallops, go wait on the dock for them. I want them as soon as they get here.”

I nod and hand the chickens over to Antonio and head through the locker room to grab my smokes before going out. On the loading dock, it’s gotten a little warmer, but not much. I missed staff lunch with the way the deliveries came in today, so my stomach is rumbling. I really wish Chef hadn’t found my sandwich stash. Outside the loading dock entrance, I see Izzie and a male server smoking. She looks at me and waves, I wave back, and then she and the other guy move out of view. A New England Seafood van pulls up, tires screeching, a big red lobster printed on the side. Two guys get out, a young guy, my age, on the driver’s side, and an older man with a big round belly, holding a golden paint can.

“You Bella Vita?” he says.

“Yup,” I saw, flicking my cigarette into the dumpster and hopping down off the dock.

“These are your scallops,” the old guy says, coming up to the edge of the dock and placing the can down. He breaths through his nose heavily as he uses a pair of keys to prise off the top while the younger guy lights a cigarette. The lid squeaks as it pops off and the older guy says, “See that?” I peer inside and the scallops look much the same, but I can tell they smell the way they’re supposed to. I’m wondering if I’ll have to check this every time from now on.

“Here, try that,” he says, picking one up and biting into it. “Mmm, like virgin pussy,” he says. I try one too, and it’s creamy like butter. My empty stomach growls.

“All right, thanks, man,” I say.

“No charge, this one. It’s all set,” the older guy says. “Come on Jim,” he calls to the young guy, who trots back to the van and starts it up.

I walk back through the atrium, which technically isn’t allowed, but I’ve only for the one thing. Chef meets me at the kitchen door and takes the can from me. “Did you try them?” he says. “You make sure they didn’t screw us again?”

I nod and he immediately takes the can to the counter and opens it up again. “Ahh, much better,” he says after tasting one. “The way it’s supposed to be. Oh, these are going to be good on my special.”

Like virgin pussy, I think to myself.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jaime’s claws are no match for cooked lobsters. Liver-spotted and as wide as a side plate, the old man’s hands are made of leather. Antonio calls him viejo. Old guy. He grips the lobsters and tears them apart, singing some Colombian tune to himself, and when cracked lobster juice spits up into his face he calls out, “Oye!!”

“Eye, Jaime. Eye.”


Today I get to make the gnocchi, which is one of my favorite things to do, because once Chef taught me how, I became the only guy to make them. It’s time intensive, but I am a gnocchi making machine twice a week, sometimes three, if we’ve sold a lot. The restaurant was written up recently for Chef’s gnocchi dishes. He laminated the article from the Boston Globe and stuck it next to the fridge. I was disappointed when my name wasn’t even mentioned once, but that’s how it goes.

While I prep the gnocchi, Jaime finishes cracking the lobsters and moves on to making sausages. I haven’t learned how to do that yet, but I watch him, taking notes. First, he washes out a piece of pig intestine by running one end up onto the faucet. The water fills the white translucent membrane, and slowly the casing inflates, filling the deep stainless steel sink. Jaime doesn’t speak English, and Antonio is the only one who can understand his dialect. I want to know what Jaime’s thinking when he watches the jiggling tubes rise over the sink edge like too much bubble bath. It’s easier to guess after he’s rolled all twenty feet of casing up like a condom and starts to make the sausage. The old Hobart machine kicks into gear when it starts, and when it gets up to speed Jaime mashes sausage mix down the chute. A history professor in college told my class that his hero, Winston Churchill, once said that no one should ever see two things being made: sausage and laws. Jaime guides the exiting ground sausage mix with the cup of his hand as it fills the casing like an infinitely growing boner, twisting off links every nine inches. When the usual comments are made by kitchen staff and servers passing by, Jaime grabs a handful of links from the stainless steel bowl he’s collected them in. He waves two between his legs with wide eyes, the cold ground meat spiced with cumin and anise slapping against the inside of his thigh. Pedro fires the dishwashing water hose in a long arc across the kitchen, laying a light patter across the prep tables. This happens pretty much every week, when Jaime makes the sausage. As the line cooks show up for their shifts, there’s a festive air in the kitchen.

Chef returns from the line where he’s been checking out the servers as they polish their silver before staff dinner. He looks around his kitchen, now full of line cooks and food runners and points with his knife at people, assigning the last items of prep.

“Raymond! I need two buckets of chicken livers and three boxes of squid cleaned, as soon as you finish the gnocchi.”

“Yes, Chef!”

I change my jacket for tomorrow’s jacket and don a new apron to make the gnocchi.

It is not a difficult pasta to make. It couldn’t be if a prep cook like me is allowed to make it. But it is tedious, especially in the large batches that we require at Bella Vita. One batch is two full-size trays of tiny marshmallow sized gnocchi. What does that mean? There are two and a quarter trays to a box, fluffed and frozen, and there are four deep six pans to a box. “500 gnocchis to a tray, 1125 gnocchis to a box,” I say sometimes, over and over again, goofing. This is how I got the nick name “Rain man,” from Chef.

Gnocchi starts with a potato. The day before, I boil them with skins on until they’re cooked but not soggy. Then, while they’re still hot, I peel the skins and rice the meat onto a sheet tray with a large mill that squishes the potato through tiny holes with a thick blade that turns with a crank. I hold the ricer against my side like I’m stirring a big bowl of pancake batter, and drop the riced potato as even as I can without losing any to the floor. After they’ve cooled down overnight in the walk-in, I dump it all onto the prep table and break up the bigger chunks before adding flour and salt and egg and whatever special ingredient Chef wants to run that week: minced porcini and sage is his favorite. Then I add the parmesan. The cheese is very important. I’ve learned that I must grate the cheese by hand in long thin strips, because this is what holds it all together when it’s getting rolled out and cut up. I mix all of this, tossing it a little above the table to move the flour around, but it’s important not to touch it too much—it has got to stay cold. I knead it together to form a loose loaf, and I roll it around the table from side to side and in circles until it is blended and firm, without air pockets—even the tiny ones between grains of potato and salt. When the loaf is done, I put a damp towel over it to keep it cool and moist.

Then I take a pastry scrapper, a bit bigger than a large index card, and I cut off a thick slice of the loaf and roll it out with my hands into a long snake as big around as a quarter. I line up the snake so it’s perfectly straight, and then I chop it from head to tail with the scrapper, cutting off two bucks in quarters with each slice of the guillotine. Each of these is a gnocchi, a potato marshmallow that must be coddled and dusted and rolled around the hand gently, like they were your own balls. That’s what it feels like when Chef drops by to test them and grabs a handful, and chucks them at Pedro whose soaked through his shirt with dishwater and sweat. Chef tests the softness of the gnocchi until Pedro throws the water gun against the metal side of the dishwasher which causes a loud BOOM that gets the whole kitchen’s attention. Pedro’s face turns beet red and he screams, “Punta!!” only to my gringo ears it sounds like “Puta” and I say this softly to myself again and again until it sounds like Pedro. I feel Pedro’s rage. Rage against our sadistic chef, his second full-time dishwashing job, his family back in Columbia who he sends one and a half paychecks home to, his shitty rat-box room in East Boston that he shares with three other guys, and the world in general. “You see, Raymond?” says Antonio when Chef has finished lobbing gnocchis from across the kitchen. “He treats us like burros. Like fucking donkeys.” And I can not help but feel honored that Antonio says us when he’s talking about donkeys.


  1. Roman: wonderful story! I don’t know if you ever watched the short-lived sitcom Kitchen Confidential a few years back, but your story delightfully reminded me of that show. It’s funny to see how guys act when there are no women around. 🙂

    Now, I know I’m no prose writer, but I thought I would mention a couple of things.

    1. The use of the word “retarded” at the beginning of the story didn’t seem to really blend with the voice of Raymond. He says it once, and it could be that I really hate that word, but it caught my attention.

    2. “breathes” is spelled “breaths” where you say “he breaths through his nose heavily…”

    Overall, great story. Thanks for letting me read it!

    Comment by jenne knight — September 28, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jenne. I think you are right about retarded. I’ve changed it to stupid. And good call on the other typo.

    Comment by Roman — September 29, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

  3. I’m going to have to disagree with the retarded out take – I only just reached that point in the story (yeah, just cracked it open) but I felt that was the first moment when I had a glimpse into the character’s mind/first time I really heard his voice. I feel like I should be hearing this story (at this point) but it’s still a little too much like reading prose – do you know what I mean? While reading what I have so far, I feel like I am walking in a desert of this person’s mind and all I hear is the voice of that guy from masterpiece theater reading this kid’s story to me – all the while he’s in a chaotic kitchen, he lives in boston, he’s a recent graduate not cashing in on his BA wants to live – maybe it comes, but I want more at the beginning, I want a draw, I want some foreshadowing and tidbits and appetizers that really get me thirsty/hungry for the next plate, the next course (am I going to far with this parallel ;).

    I do like the contrast, in a way, of being inside what feels like calm mind in the middle of mayhem (any of us who has worked in a kitchen knows what its like) and there is a certain zen you get into while cooking (like the tediousness of chopping peppers) but I don’t hear a definitive voice yet and I’m 4 pages deep (printed it out, these lcd screens are gonna make me blind). That is my first comment on a yet unfinished read, but I felt I had to address the retarded issue – yeah, we don’t like the word, it’s not PC, it’s gauche, its inappropriate, etc etc – but, it’s an accurate word choice for a recent grad in boston to use – ‘dude, that’s wicked fuckin’ retaaaaaaahdid’ – sure, our prep cook is educated in the English language – but who thinks/talks how we are supposed to write? I just feel this story wants to be heard aloud, but it has yet to turn my eyes into ears, and maybe our narrator has to get a little retarded to make that happen.

    Love it so far, by the way, hope my voice comments arent seen as retarded -excuse me, I meant prematurely developed – Boston seafood restaurant, etc etc – and Kitchen Confidential is a must watch, especially if you’ve worked in the industry, Raymond…ahem, I mean Roman 😉

    Comment by Mayor — October 12, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  4. Another thing – I don’t hear enough Boston in the conversation. You’ve lived there, you know what I mean – the accent, the language – I feel like the delivery guys/UPS guy need more Boston in them.

    Comment by Mayor — October 12, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

  5. like ‘Dude that’s the fuckin’ tits!’ or ‘holy moly, that was slauncha!’ it doenst have to be in exclamations, those are just the first that came to mind lol

    Comment by Mayor — October 12, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

  6. when reading the first interaction with izzie, i feel liek there are a lot of blanks – this is the first time we’ve ever spoken – why? notices doesnt wear much make up – how does this affect him? thong popping up – more! warm hand – what’s his like? I feel like this moment is magical for raymond, exhilirating, a moment outside the kitchen in the interaction and i feel like it begs to be drawn out.

    Comment by Mayor — October 12, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

  7. That last paragraph has a great final note, but it’s a little muddled in the middle which takes away from its power (chef throwing gnocchi part seems a little cut up). I likey. If you want my notes I can scan em and send.

    Comment by Mayor — October 12, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

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