I’m sure we all feel nostalgic for our first jobs. For me incredibly so because my first job in a resort marked my foray into the world of kitchens. The only place I felt truly at home and a place I stayed for twenty years. Here’s an excerpt of Mise en Place — Memoir of A Girl Chef:
The cobblestone paths wending through Whaler’s Village led eager and pinking tourists on a sunny trek past an assortment of shops and outdoor whaling displays to the beach. But at seven AM before the shops opened, the sun hadn’t yet climbed its way over the top of the West Maui Mountains and the Village remained in shadow, the brightest images the lighted windows, behind which shopkeepers readied cases of scrimshaw and turquoise, arranged walls of framed batik and pedestals of folk art, or simply sat with coffee and copy of the Lahaina Sun in hand, each anticipating the day in their own way. As I walked the paths toward my destination on those early summer mornings, anticipation swelled in my chest. I felt so special! This feeling a precious one, one that had eluded me throughout my short life and I had it now and wouldn’t let it go. Sure, anyone could walk through the outdoor museum on the beach at this early hour, stop to peer into vertical glass cases of whaling artifacts or giant, reconstructed whale bones. But I was walking to my JOB. I had purpose.
As I neared the beach, the clink of china on wrought iron table-tops penetrated the silence of the sleeping shopping village and the scent of bacon and beach moistened the back of my tongue. I walked up the outdoor stairs, took a brief pause to view three foot waves crashing on the empty sand, and once on the balcony wound through tables populated by soon-to-be-beachgoers filling their stomachs with pancakes and eggs. Then I arrived at the Sea Scoop kitchen, where a haze of melting American cheese and bacon grease assaulted my already-clogged adolescent pores.
Two waitresses were leaning into the pick-up window, waiting for their food, which I knew bugged Bob the breakfast cook and meant he was already deep in the weeds. I dashed behind the cook’s line, tying my apron and before I could peer into the top of his prep refrigerator he said, “Need ham and cheese diced.”
“’Kay.” And I blazed into action. I grabbed the ham half lying on the cutting board,tossed it onto the meat slicer, got off a few slices, piled the slices atop each other and with the French knife sliced the pile in each direction to make small cubes like Bob had shown me. With the side of my hand I brushed the cubes into the stainless steel insert in Bob’s prep refrigerator. I did the same with the American cheese –just enough to get him through the next few orders — then I went back to backing up the ham, filling up the insert, feeling like his little savior girl, then asking, once the window was full of plated food and only one ticket remained flapping on the ticket rail, “Anything else before I start lunch prep?”
Bob turned from the stove and looked at me, his green eyes locking onto mine, which sent an unfamiliar tingle up my spine. He smiled. “Fine now. Thanks.” He turned to the still full pick-up window and banged his metal spatula on the shelf. “Betty!” he yelled, “Pick up, pick UP!”
Betty, a fifty-something bleached blond, rushed in from around the corner, her black French maid-style uniform dress poofing at the skirt. “Coming!” she hollered in her nicotine voice. “Girls!” she yelled to the others, and they all scurried in, black dresses-a-poofing, plates disappearing from the window as they filed in then out.
I also wore the silly uniform black dress but covered it with a long white kitchen apron, which covering made me feel less self-conscious about my extra inch of lingering baby fat (or was it just fat?) and breasts blooming awkwardly on my five-foot frame. My brown hair, after a childhood of herky-jerky-growth due to Mom’s dull scissors, finally hung to the middle of my back and I twirled it into a nob behind my head and secured it with a dime-store clip.
Bob wore jeans and a T-shirt over his lanky and sun-leathered self. Each afternoon when he removed the formerly white apron, it wore the war stains of every broken egg yolk and grease splatter from the three seventy-five degree griddle. Bob’s thin brown hair was tied back into a pony tail and those green eyes when he looked at me seemed to really see me, not just some stuttering and awkwardly curvaceous girl, so I talked with relative ease and comfort with him. Bob was a thirty-two year old Vietnam Veteran. I was in love with him.
Really, I was. I felt good about myself being around him. He listened to me, non-judgmentally, like no one else ever had. The reflection of myself I saw in Bob was of a pretty girl, smart, clever and therefore I stuttered less around him. Relieved and relaxed, I cherished my feelings about Bob like a sailor cherishes the fleeting orange glow of a sunrise amidst a storm.
On my birthday in August, I shared one of my secrets with Bob. No, I didn’t profess my love for him –– that would come much later. I confessed that I wasn’t turning sixteen but fifteen because I had lied about my age to get the job. While most fourteen year olds were still babysitting and doing paper routes, I’d been working illegally all summer around sharp whirring blades and searing hot equipment. Earlier in the summer, while positioning a chunk of roast beef on the meat slicer, I’d sliced off a piece of my thumb knuckle, a lesson for life I would later learn, and no one pulled me up on my lie. Bob just shook his head and smiled when I confessed my age, then he tossed two burger patties on the griddle.