It can take years before a caterer opens his or her own kitchen. In the meanwhile, we work in OPK, (other people's kitchens).
In the late 80s, I cooked out of the shared kitchen of a take-out chicken joint.
"Poulet Take-away". Funny that it had a French name being that it was Korean owned and everyone who worked there was Chinese.
All the hot cooking happened upstairs in view of the public. It was mortifying being asked for a quarter chicken with fries, when I went upstairs to cook, but it was preferable to the dungeon where we prepped alongside 4 Chinese guys who spent eight hours butchering raw chicken.
One day I was stirring up a pot of shrimp Creole while a line of Nannies waited for their lunch.
"Where you been hiding that?" A large Jamaican woman shouted out to me.
"I don't work here." I answered.
"What ya talking bout?! What you doin wi dat shrimp if ya don't work ereee?!" she screamed.
I looked down at my work boots crusted in dead chicken and knew I had to make my escape.
In the early 90s I started spending time at a club in the east village we called "The Dog". It was owned by a rather bodacious New Orleans bad girl.
The kitchen was a sight to behold; an entire stretch of ovens, enough worktables to feed a thousand people all growing cobwebs. It didn't take much to rent it out.
But there were some pitfalls to cooking in a club that catered to a wild crowd.
In the morning when we would walk in to start our prep, we sometimes heard groaning. Looking under the tables, we'd find passed out party-goers from the night before.
I'd begun to notice huge helpings of food we'd prepped would go missing. A few of my hors d'oeuvre trays showed up floating in the pool (yes, there was a pool) and a drag queen turned my favorite basket into a hat.
The last straw, (no pun intended) was the morning we came in to load out for a wedding and found the front entrance covered in Police tape.
"What happened?" I asked the janitor.
He answered in broken English, " Bouncer get shot in... "and then put his hand on his crotch.
"Time to go," I said to my chef.
The Electric Factory
In the mid 90s, I started cooking in an old electrical parts factory turned party space. Back then, it was a diamond in the rough and I do mean rough. The ceiling leaked, the floors creaked. A slew of prostitutes congregated outside.
It had a country kitchen with one old stove that only had two temperatures cold or nuclear.
The Factory had become a darling for off-kilter film shoots. I never knew whom I might find rummaging through my food. It didn't matter that we'd plaster the refrigerator with tape on which I scrawled "Do not touch!"
One day I looked up to see a woman with a spectacularly long neck staring at me. "That's Linda Lovelace," one of my cooks whispered.
She had a sore throat that day and was wrapped in a blanket sipping tea with honey. I was so absorbed over the realization that I was watching the 70s porn legend and star of "Deep Throat" nursing a sore throat that I didn't notice the camera crew had stolen half the shrimp I'd been poaching.
A company that catered for film shoots had lost their kitchen-mate.
It was a huge warehouse turned kitchen with a front gate so large that you could drive your van inside. It felt like driving into the Holland Tunnel. It had concrete walls and 20-foot ceilings. When you entered before sun up and left after nightfall it was pretty easy to feel disconnected with the outside world.
Everything went fine. Then the film shoot company decided to bring in an empanada maker to help pay the bills.
I'd been trained in food safety. When the empanada boys took over the back half of the tunnel I was astonished.
They never washed anything, not themselves, not their clothes and not their dishes.
I asked the owner, "How are you not killing anyone?"
He pointed to a giant convection oven so large that you could wheel an entire bakers rack filled with a thousand empanadas into it.
"We just cook everything at such a high heat that it kills everything. Probably kills any chance of me having kids too."
There was a dilapidated pizza joint on the lower east side. It had been vacant for what must have been two years.
One day I noticed a tiny "for rent" sign.
I had what I thought was an adequate budget and the place already had a walk-in, exhaust system, a low-boy fridge, a pizza oven and a deep-fryer. How bad could it be?
Five times my budget later, I found out just how bad it could be.
I took a deep breath, opened my wallet and decided to use everything I had hated in OPK to make my new culinary home a paradise.
I purchased top-of-the-line equipment, found a giant convection oven, bought two of them and had my contractor put one on top of the other. I made sure everyone had extra wide stainless prep tables to work on and banished dishwashing to the basement.
I had the crappy little dining area in the front corner ripped out and put in a gorgeous tasting room/gallery/office where glorious sunshine pours in from giant corner windows.
It took a year before it was anything close to pristine, but finally I had my very own Shangri-La.
My chefs tell me that stepping into my kitchen makes them feel Zen and I suppose that's all this "Goldilocks" could hope for.
Yes darlings... AT LONG LAST... this one is just right.