Happier Finessing a Sentence than Kneeling at the Deep Fryer

December 18, 2012

Corey Mintz writes about food for his column, Fed, in the Toronto Star. Before this spoiled lifestyle, he was a restaurant critic.  Before that...

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A writer should have a talent for complaining. It’s the nature of the job: the restaurant review, the analysis of military spending, and the tell-all memoir are all various forms of kvetching. But no one wants to hear us complain about writing or the difficult life of a writer.

Yes, there are things about this work that frustrate me. When a reader complains solely based on a headline I didn’t write, when an editor cuts my favourite sentence, when the wrong photo runs with the story, when I need to email or phone five different people at the office to get a simple answer because I’m a freelancer and I can’t see who’s in today, my jaw begins to grind as I look around my living room/dining room/office in search of something to smash.

When that happens, I remember that I am writing for a living and that I promised never to forget how lucky that makes me.

At age 20 I was too afraid to try writing, so I spent years as a talentless cook. At one point I worked in an Italian restaurant called Luce. It was inside a fancy hotel so every day, one cook needed to be there early or late to handle any room service orders. I’d get there around 11am and leave about 12 hours later.

While it was nice to be alone in the kitchen, the beginning of the workday demanded a mad sprint of productivity. The making of jus being a three-day process, there were always 50-pound boxes of beef bones to roast, a stock to start with yesterday’s bones, and another stock ready to be reduced. There was a station to begin prepping for, with its dozens of ingredients and garnishes; projects to maintain both random and daily (lemon zest dust for the lemon orecchiette, bubbling starter for the sourdough bread), and all the while, deliveries starting to come in through the back door. Stacks of boxes would be wheeled in from suppliers of produce, dried goods, meat, fish, and cheese. All of it would have to be checked for accuracy and freshness. You didn’t want to be the cook who signed for a $400 shipment of produce that was missing the snow pea leaves for the spaghettini. Any one of these deliveries could set you back 20 minutes.

My colleagues—individual cooks for pasta, fish, meat, and pastry, plus the chef and two sous-chefs—would come in around 1. But every day, around 11:20, the owners would arrive. Guy and Michael Rubino owned another restaurant, Rain, across the street. Luce was the less-popular sister, but it had the nicer kitchen. So it was here that the brothers came to make their daily meal of soup, salad, and french fries.

The deep fryer didn’t need to be hot until noon. But if it weren’t lit for his fries, Guy would stand over me, waiting.

If you have never lit a full-sized deep fryer, the first thing you need to know is that it’s about as big as a pony. A standard unit has a pilot light at the bottom. But to get it going you can’t just turn on the gas and light a match. There’s a button underneath the machine that needs to be pressed, and held, for at least thirty seconds, or a switch will flip and the gas will shut off. Because the button must be pressed upwards,you’ve got to get as low as possible for leverage. I assumed this position, down on the ground with one knee pressing into the floor, while Guy loomed above me, holding a bowl of thick-cut potatoes, orange Italian sneakers tap-tap-tapping.

Perhaps it should explained further, for those who are not professional cooks, that a commercial deep fryer cannot heat vegetable oil from room temperature to 350 degrees instantaneously. It is still bound by the laws of physics. So Guy’s looming above me didn’t help get the fries fried. It only helped me feel like garbage and question the choices in my life that led me there.

When I am frustrated with how to structure a paragraph or at odds with an accountant who’s lost my invoices, I think of Guy standing over me and reach instinctively for my right knee. And when I notice that my knee is not cold and does not ache, I am grateful.

This is hardly the most extreme example of hard labour. And it’s not even the lowest point in my shameful career as a cook. But it’s the moment that comes back to check my ego.

We get to write for a living. And that doesn’t mean that our troubles aren’t real, or that we should let publishers take advantage of us. But we need to remember that we are getting paid to do what we dreamed of doing, what so many others failed at. I take writing seriously. But having spent years as a labourer, daydreaming about the career I now have, I make sure to always use air quotes when saying “work.”

Still, just as the lawyer must argue, the writer must complain.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that prospects are good for anyone considering a career in writing. But if you are fortunate enough to earn a living as a writer, whether you’re wording blistering political editorials, phony food trend stories, or copy for tractor ads, it’s always a good time to be grateful that someone’s paying you for what’s in your head.

Corey Mintz writes about food for his column, Fed, in the Toronto Star. Before this spoiled lifestyle, he was a restaurant critic.  Before that spoiled life, he worked for a living, cooking. He is also the author of How to Host a Dinner Party (House of Anansi, 2013

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