Cooks and Corona and Coping

frustrated chef over white background

Three weeks ago, The Virus was spreading in another part of the world. I knew that it was just a matter of time before it touched down in the US. I was knee-deep in my life: peel, chop, slice, dice, weigh, mix, stir, blend, boil, broil, bake, reduce, “HEARD!”, “CORNER!”, grill, flip, “OUCH!”, “F%!K!”, condense, label, scrub, “BEHIND!”, “My bad, Chef…”. This is all before service.

It just so happened that this is the time of year that the business normally dies down. Around here, spring break gives us our last spike in sales before a general lull in sales occurs. Enter Corona (no relation). It was Monday morning. Fresh out of the shower and halfway through my fourth cup of coffee, I get into my car, mentally preparing to go to this place that normal humans wouldn’t last eight hours in. As I’m about to put the key into my vehicle’s ignition, my phone rings. “Chef Andy,” reads the caller ID. Andy is my sous chef and my friend.

“Hey, dude,” he starts, as he usually does.

“What’s up, Chef?”

“Stop calling me that. Good news, you’re off today!”

“But I’m scheduled off tomorrow. Then it’s my regular days off…”

“Sorry, dude. It’s not looking good…”

Later that afternoon, I get a call from my executive chef.

“I’m sorry, man. It’s looking like two weeks. I would prepare for a month, at least…”.

What. The. Hell?!

So here WE are. An entire sect of this American society that couldn’t conceivably fit into the rest of it. It’s why we work in the kitchen: we are not normal. Bourdain wrote beautifully about us, so I won’t deign to paint our portrait again. But here we are. Jobless. Without an active income. Some of us with chemical dependency. Some with emotional issues. Some with psychological issues. Many of us with all of the above. We have been mandated to stay inside, lest we put the rest of the population at risk of what could possibly result in death for some. For many of us, the pressure and potential danger of the kitchen is the only thing that keeps us sane. For many of us, it’s the only thing we know. Now we must stay in our holes. In our closets. In our nothings…

In the interest of full disclosure, I will manage. My mental health will not be affected by this situation, short of this whole thing turning into a zombie apocalypse; having to kill so many things would definitely take a toll on my emotional and mental make-up. But it’s you, my partners, brothers and sisters, compatriots, co-workers, and friends. I am horribly worried for you. I see you every day, on the edge until the tickets start rolling in, when the torture begins and everything disappears except for the food. When we clock out, I see the sadness in your eyes when you say, “I’m gonna go chill…”. It tears me apart. Because I know that going to chill means that you’re merely going to begin your coping. Not just coping with the shift but coping with your life. This is why I worry. Every day. I genuinely care for each of my teammates, but it would be asinine to try to insinuate myself into their lives to try to…? What? What could I possibly do?

Now, with these sheltering orders and the shutdown of our industry I know that so many of us are just here, trapped inside of four walls, alone with our thoughts and memories and whatever demons that plague us and drive us to the kitchen every day for that escape and I’m even more concerned. I hope those of us who are artists have the supplies at hand to do some work. I hope those of us that write have at least a pad and pen to do some work. I hope that those of us who are musicians are able to do some work. I pray that those of us for whom artistic outlets simply aren’t enough to cope are able to maintain control. Stay in control of your mechanism. This will be over.

This is not an extinction level event. Society is not at the precipice of destruction. The doors will open again. The grills and fryers and flattops and salamanders and ovens and ranges will all be fired up again. There will be hundreds and hundreds of more brunches. You will once again toss the servers a couple of fries, even though they will do nothing for you in return. There will be plenty more spills for which you hold no responsibility but will be forced to clean up anyway. Drainage backups? Yes, there wil be plenty. Cuts, burns, mysterious bruises, herniated and bulging spinal discs? Yes. I promise, they’ll be there for us. Remember that walk-in shouting chamber, with the awesome air conditioning? It’s going to be there, too. But it is imperative that we ALL be there to fire everything back up.

We are going to get through this, as a team, as a kitchen, and as an industry. America is literally waiting for us, even Karen, who’s deathly allergic to shellfish, so she’ll have the crab salad. Silly you, crab isn’t a fish! We are going to need ALL of you there for her. We need you to hang in there.

You know who else is waiting for you? Bryce. Remember him? He’s that guy that sits at the bar at the height of the Mother’s Day brunch rush and asks for the vegan meat-lovers’ hash, but the server forgot to ring it in 20 minutes ago, so the vegan meat-lovers’ hash has to fly, even though it’s not on the f*$^ing menu!!! Yeah, Bryce is going to need you. We need you to hang in there.

Please, please, please, reach out. If you have a sponsor, call them. If you have prescribed meds to help your daily life, please take them and have them refilled when required. If you have a therapist, try your best to make it to your appointments. I know that this isn’t easy for some of us and I can’t imagine what those of us who have it the worst might be going through, but I can tell you that we WILL be back in the kitchen. This is the fattest country on the planet and America is going to need us again, only this time, they just might have a bit more appreciation for what we do for them. But we need for you to be there. ALL of you.

We can do this.

3 comments on “Cooks and Corona and Coping

nicko April 2, 2020
@redbeerd cantu, thanks for sharing such an honest piece. There are still plenty of ovens lighting up everyday. One thing that this experience has made me aware of is how dependent on each other we really are. Whether you are a line cook, bagging groceries or mopping a floor and so on we all take care of one another. I think the lesson is the next time you feel like mouthing off to someone or being un kind check yourself and realize we need to respect and care for one another. Pretty much what Jesus calls us to do "Love one another". He really doesn't care how much you go to church or how much you donate he cares about how we show our love to him by showing love and mercy to one another. Thanks again for such a heartfelt piece.
redbeerd cantu April 2, 2020
Thx, Chef.
my hickman April 23, 2020
I got 49 hours overtime in the last two weeks, those of us that cook, chef, etc for hospitals, nursing homes, etc are extremely busy right now as we are always short help. I went into cooking 50 yrs ago as I felt it was security because people gotta eat, right? I had no idea I would find a job THAT secure lol. Thanks for reminding me of how it really is out there. xxx

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