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Playing Teacher in the Kitchen

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First appeared on Food Riot, by Robin Posey

When I was a little girl, I used to play "Teacher." Clearly, I was interested in being the boss at an early age - otherwise I suppose I'd have played, "School," or "Early Childhood Pedagogy." And I was fascinated by, absolutely smitten with graph paper. The rows of tiny squares provided a sense of order in the chaos of my late-seventies style, lefty cursive. What I really wanted was a grading book, with names going down one side and assignments across the top. I wanted to see who was doing well and who was definitely going to repeat the third grade, who had mastered their 7x tables and who needed a refresher course. So, playing teacher took some effort: I had to invent these students, give them names, and then decide their fates. On to college for Andrew Kingdom? Maybe, but he needs to do better in math; he has a nasty string of C's in mid-semester....which is when his imaginary mother fell ill? Or maybe that was when Suzy Phillips (solid B student, that Suzy; too focused on her blonde braids to really excel) started talking to him in line after recess....

I was a little too bossy and the game was a little too complex, existing, as it did, only in my mind, for anyone else to join, so "Teacher" was a lonely little game. The last time I played, I spent about six hours working on students' names. And then I realized I would have to make up homework for the little bastards, too, which sounded mostly fun as I'd moved on from graph paper and was, by then, in love with red pens, but I was also in love with Outside. I put "Teacher" to one side and headed for the woods to play "Legolas on the Loose."

There's quite a bit of playing Teacher in a kitchen. When you pride yourself on bringing in the odd green cook and molding him or her into a decent cook, there are entire shifts dedicated to the number of ounces in a cup, weight versus volume, and teaspoons to tablespoons.There is also a certain amount of fantasy-land in a kitchen (although maybe not as many elf opportunities as I would like). Sometimes, a server calls out, "Who wants to play restaurant?!" right before service, and until about a month ago, I always raised my hand rather gamely, I thought, and practically jumped up and down in my eagerness to do what I do beneath a thin veneer of thinking of it as a game rather than as work.

But then I decided to take a position in a new restaurant, a house staffed only with standing saws and construction guys. No food in the walk-in, no cooks on the line, just a vision, a deadline, eight spoons, and two cases of plates. Since the menu was still living only in the Chef's head, translating it into workable recipes and plate-ups was so much like playing Teacher that I almost went to Target for graph paper and red pens. That week, right before opening, was the best game ever, a smooth, potent blend of "Teacher" and "Restaurant."

And then the doors opened!

Oh the scurrying! The recipes were written with a lot of experience and cooking common sense, but were largely untested and sometimes a little quirky. We plated according to a picture only one person could see, a picture liable to change without notice. I switched out my usual bandanna for a dunce cap, I sat in the corner, I might have wanted to cry, just a little and only once, but come on now. While on the one hand I learned more about breaking down the Fishes of the World in the past week than I had in the previous fifteen, and achieved an even higher level of respect for this particular Chef, I also learned quite a bit about my own boundaries, dreams, goals, and what I was willing to sacrifice.

Nothing can really prepare you for the reality of taking a new House out for a spin - it's fast and shiny, the pans are clean, the burners hot (really fricking hot). The House doesn't belong to you and you don't want to crash it, but you need to open it up, get into gears you've not used for years, forgo sleeping, eating, and socializing. Your dog starts listening to Radiohead and painting his toenails black, but you have to give the restaurant your all, and then dig deep and give it some more.

Because the chef owner is not "playing Restaurant." He is living, breathing, eating, sleeping and doing-it-all-again-until-it's-perfect-restaurant. And if you can't keep up, kindly step out of his way.

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