Fresh out of culinary school, early one morning I found myself standing before one of the most prestigious hotels in town. I had scored a position as a prep cook, hand-picked from a bevy of eager graduates. Riding an incredible high, I felt I was embarking on a glorious career filled with future restaurant openings, TV appearances and cookbooks with my face on the cover.
Anxious to make a good impression, I had splurged and kitted myself out in spanking new chef’s duds (my student uniform relegated to the back of the closet): gleaming white jacket with snappy black buttons, fresh new apron, crisp checked pants, and a saucy black cap that read ‘Chef’! I had also sprung for a very expensive leather knife case. Bristling with hardware, it held everything I felt necessary for my new role: assorted chef’s knives, fruit knife, vegetable peeler and all kinds of nifty gadgets including a melon-baller and cherry-pitter. Beaming, I rode up the back elevators to the floor where the kitchens were. When the elevator doors whooshed open, I stood and surveyed the exciting panorama of culinary activity before me. I’d made it!
After Chef welcomed me to the brigade, I was handed over to the sous chef and given a tour. Then he led me through the busy prep kitchen to a lonely back counter. Stacked next to it, standing in a puddle of water, was a towering pile of cardboard crates. The sous chef cracked open the top box to reveal jumbo tiger shrimp, packed in ice. “We need all these shelled and deveined by 5 o’clock for a function,” my new boss said.
“Yes, chef!” I barked out to his retreating back, as we had been taught in school. I then forlornly turned to the tower of shrimp.
For the next several hours I shucked, peeled and deveined at a ripping pace, using my bare hands, which quickly became wet and frozen. Back then, latex gloves weren’t worn, and no fancy gadget in my new case would make my task any easier.
After a couple of hours, one of the other cooks came by to see how I was doing. “Just great!” I smiled through clenched teeth. At noon the sous chef reappeared. I had now been standing for over four hours, increasingly covered with shrimp detritus that turned my pristine white jacket and apron into reeking, purplish-stained rags. The sous chef wordlessly pulled up a stool for me to sit on and walked away again. By then my wet fingers were covered in slippery bandages from peeling back the sharp shells. I no longer thought of cookbooks and restaurant openings but just kept smiling and shelling, smiling and shelling in my little shrimp hell corner.
I finally finished the last shrimp at 5:30. Filthy and soaking wet, I watched as the trays of prepared shrimp were whisked away by the garde manger staff. The cook who’d checked up on me earlier sidled over. “You passed,” he said. “They always give the newbies the worst job on day one, to see if they whine and complain. You did well.” Suddenly I felt a glow of triumph which sustained me all the way home on the bus (as fellow passengers dove for the windows).
The next day, I humbly put on my old school uniform and presented myself wearing a plain white cap. The Sous chef led me into the kitchen again and pointed at an empty space on a bench beside another cook. “Today, you mince parsley,” he said. The cook beside me smiled. “Welcome to the Hilton.”