Monday, August 3, 2009

A Typical Restaurant Kitchen Visit

Let's preface this entire post by making it clear that I don't speak the language of foreign kitchen workers...

Usually my day will start by walking into a restaurant and confidently saying merhaba (hello) to everyone around. As soon as anyone says anything past that, my mind only registers a train-wreck of foreign syllables, so I begin to shake my head, laugh, and say anlamadim (I don't understand). This immediately leads to a bunch of laughter among those native speakers...AND I'M IN!! Yes, in fact, I have attained the most important goal of the day...I'm a stupid foreigner who wants to learn food and I'm inconceivably young for this type of work. And I'm cute...why is it always cute? Little do they know that I have subversive plans to steal all their recipes and create the most successful restaurant in the world...step aside Mcdonald's!!

After the initial greeting/subversive trickery, I strap on my red, EAT SMA QQZ, apron, gifted to me by the noble Buffers, sporting a small swine below that enigmatic phrase. Despite the fact that Istanbul is 99% Muslim and can't bear the site of an unclean animal, I have attained an even higher order of cuteness, and chefs are ready to uncover their most secret recipes to me. Like I said, they think I'm more stupid than I am.

"Now I'm ready to learn the secrets of Turkish cookery," I say to myself.

And then the order tolls from my new chef trainer, "I'll need you to peel twelve onions."

"What," I'm saying to myself, "onions's 9 0'clock in the freakin' morning." Alas, I dutifully prepare the nicest pile of diced onions this side of the Bosphorus, my tears forming a new Bosphurus at my feet.

After I complete that task, I linger for a moment, perhaps grab a glass of water and think, "why is there a cat biting my freakin' ankle again...they always go for the ankle!" This thought, of course, is followed up by, "did I just take this water out of the tap or the cooler." I'm not making that mistake again…

Again, the chef tolls, "now, can you peel a dozen potatoes."

Why is it always a dozen potatoes? Is there some unwritten rule that it's always a dozen? You know, potatoes always come in different shapes and sizes? I guess it's moot. I again go about my chores with a smile on my face and a whistle on my lips. Sometimes I take extra long to peel one of the potatoes, and sometimes I attempt to carve one of them into a statue of George Washington crossing the Delaware. The latter requires an oblivious chef trainer.

"Phew I'm done," I sigh to myself. I tried to remember where I last put my cup down. It's always a scavenger hunt to find my cup in a kitchen full of trinkets and frantic Turkish women. Not to mention that half the time it's through the dishwasher already. Why are dishwashers so damn eager to wash my cup? Don't they get that I'm just going to pick it up again when I finish my momentary brush with slavery (self-induced of course).

Found it! Now I can go back to my down time thoughts. "I wonder why they never came up with a more efficient way to chop onions?," I ask myself. OH WAIT! They did. It's called a food processor. For the love of Pete, spare me my tear ducts!!

Oh no, the phones ringing! One of the women, with her hands covered in gooey rice for dolma, says something to me in doesn’t register. She repeats it with more gusto and some shoddy attempt at charades. I do what I know best: smile, act composed...and then frantically run for the phone, knocking things off the counter as I go. As I'm engaged in this bull-in-a-china shop act, I think to myself, "hmmm, I wonder where the ‘on’ button for the phone is located this time?" It's never where I think it's gonna be. And it's never green...I guess that symbolism never made the trans-Atlantic trip. Nonetheless, I, the stupid foreigner, have done a good deed and I will be hastily thanked when the phone conversation is over. If I had a dime for every time this has happened to me, I might have three dimes.

Back to work. This time, more gruntwork. "empty the stamens out of each of these zucchini blossoms," she says. I stick my finger in the yellow and green capsule.

"Nooo!!@$#$#@#," she quickly stops me. "There could be an insect in there that could bite you," she belatedly warns.

"Holy lampshade, lady!," I wish I could say to her. "You almost stopped my heart with your decibels," I follow up in my head. I dubiously eye the flower as if she's just taught me something profound, and like a NASA astronaut trying to insert a small nuclear device into a protective cover during an asteroid shower, I open the flower and observe the inside before diving my fingers back in there. Thank God a tyrannosaurus rex didn't pop out of the flower and eviscerate me!

I show madame chef my beautiful bowl of zucchini blossoms, freshly de-stamened, floating in water. The feeling of achievement consumes me. It makes me want to go out into a vast Turkish wilderness, pick out a rock, and name it, and all the lands around it, Zucchini-blossomville in honor of my recent achievement. Alas, I settle for a scooby-snack (or something like that) ushering from the hands of my onlookers. That will do.

At this point, I figure that the magical moment is descending upon my situation...the moment where the raw ingredients became a swirling fantasia (I cite Charlie Warzel for this word) of Turkish succulence.

Wrong again! The chef mistress tells me to have a seat for a while, while the ingredients are baking. Time to digress again and pretend like I'm writing something meaningful in my recipe journal. I already wrote down the recipes, so I feign it. The cat is biting my ankle again.

Since I have nothing else to do at that moment, I bend down to pet the utterly mischevious, red haired, orange-nosed, furry-pawed being at my feet. This is certainly a last resort, considering the fact that I'm flirting with an hour-long sneezing carnival, but well worth the torture, considering I'd rather not return to the kitchen to play the "I don't know where you're going- would you like to me to move?-Oh wait, I can't understand what you're saying" game.

Luckily, my flirting with hives is interrupted by the chiming in of Chef Sultaness, "Ay-tan...can you come to me for a minute?" I laugh, and then try to squeeze past a table and chairs to get to my teacher in a timely manner. I'm so glad I hurried, because she wanted to show me how to pour hot water over rice. Come on lady! You don't think I don't know how to do this already? Yes, I'm 21 years old and a male, but I am certainly trained in the art of rice-boilery. I gambol away as if she just showed me the Hope Diamond.

As I return to my former position in digression, I notice that my furry friend has scampered away to the litter box. "I guess nature was calling and she wasn't gonna hang up," I mumble to myself. You understand that I have to engage in these exchanging of jokes with myself, because no one ever understands my jokes. Every time I approach a joke with a foreigner, there is a little voice in my head saying, "Ethan, you know they're not going to get it, why try?" I try anyway and am greeted with the same furrowed eyebrows and looks of vacancy that I'm always greeted with. "Nevermind," I say.

This time, instead of going back to my former do-nothing-in-my-head state, I decide to think about my future business prospects in the food industry. There's always that entrepreneurial bubbling going on inside my head.

Nope, interrupted again. "Ay-tan, I have something very special to show you," she intrigues.

Here's a side thought: why is it always 'special.' That word should be banned from a foreigner's vocabulary. Everything they have to show you is sooo special. I always laugh as I think, "Oh boy, here it comes...he/she's opening the gates to Area 51." Most of the time, what they have to show me is really not that special at all, just a culinary staple minus or plus an ingredient. Hell, I could've thought of that! "In fact," I recall, "I think I did make that last night." This is usually the way it happens. I'll really be relieved the one day that I enter into one of these secretive kitchen whispers to discover that the Fountain of Youth is going to pop out of an eggplant.

She shows me how to make the filling for Turkish stuffed peppers, and then proceeds to warn me against sharing her recipes with the competitors. Who am I!? The creepy guy from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory who is always trying to lure the lucky golden ticket winners into disclosing Willy Wonka's secrets (if anyone knows that guys name, email me or leave a comment please). "It's very special," she says confidently. "I learned it a very long time ago from a neighbor of mine." Of course it's special...what else would it be, lady? I get it.

After this and many similar occurrences, I sit down with the rest of them for lunch. I prepare to go into the mode where I pretend like I'm extremely interested in my food and combing over every flavor in my mouth whilst deeply analyzing. If I do this, then the people having the Turkish conversation around me won't feel as bad and won't try to shoddily translate and keep me updated on the conversation. They just think, "he's thinking really hard right now and really enjoying our food, so we'll let him be." I'm actually thinking about how I'm going to write about this situation in my blog later.

After the food gets passed and re-passed to me for about an hour, I feel like I've been hooked up to an air-compressor that has eeked every square-inch of pressure into my stomach that it can. To boot, I know that there are at least three dairy farms worth of butter in what I just arteries throw up the white flag.

After regurgitating what I just ate (joke...that's not funny, I know), I return my scarlet apron about my, now much bigger, torso and resume my quest for culinary knowledge. With my stomach full, I know I can have an unbiased opinion on everything I'm cooking and tasting.

Finally, I can see all the end products of my hours of tedious labor. The combining of ingredients begins and the trumpets ring out on high. My left hand stirs the glistening pot of spices, rice, and dried fruits, while my right hand feverishly scribbles my observations. I feel like a one-man, stirring and scribing machine, and I suddenly get the sense that I am being productive and learning something new.

After learning all my recipes, and after trying to perfect the art of becoming one with the wall, so the real kitchen workers can go about their duties with uncramped ease, I retire into a bottle of delightfully sparkly strawberry Ayran (Turkish Yogurt drink made with yeast so it's fizzy). I think to myself, "when do I make my escape to the European side?"

While loudly whistling, I scrub the countertops with a sponge and wash a bowl, in order to make a symbolic display of my being done for the day (because dishes are always done last). I slowly place my belongings in my backpack one by one, so every one sees. My recipe book goes last, full of new and very interesting recipes (I say this despite my never-ending jesting throughout this story), and I sling the little blue pack up about my shoulders. At this point, everyone has figured out what I'm doing and I, one-by-one, kiss each of the kitchen workers on the cheek and thank them for their help (this is what Turkish people do). As I open and close the door to the restaurant, my shoulder's ease back to their natural position and I seat my ipod earphones in my ears to listen to some upbeat music as I walk to the docks.

It's going to be a long journey...