by Trisha Kostis
Trisha’s essay appears in episode 16 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
Chef Liz bursts through the kitchen like the blast of hot air that slams into me whenever I open the doors to our thermonuclear convection oven. Her cyclonic flight past stove-tops, ovens, and grills leaves us all breathless as we await the scolding we will undoubtedly receive.
“This sauce is too thin – this sauce is too thick! This omelet is too brown – this omelet is raw! Your apron is filthy – where is your apron?” I may as well be working for my mother.
After stumbling out of college with a nasty drug and alcohol habit, I gleefully discovered the kitchen to be a hotbed of miscreants and adrenaline junkies just like myself. It is clear now that spending years and pots full of money on psychotherapy for my many issues was unnecessary.
After 26 years in the industry, every dysfunctional family problem I’ve ever needed to address has been unveiled to me amidst stainless steel and smoldering saucepans.
Looking to recreate the parent-child relationship?
Secure a position as a sous chef.
Probing the origins and consequences of a fucked up family?
Go be a line cook.
Hoping to understand the long-term effects of childhood mental abuse?
Pastry chef is the position for you.
I’ve done them all, and while I am no closer to inner peace, I have gained some valuable insights with the added perks of being able to cook a perfect roast chicken and bake a killer rhubarb pie. I have never worked in any other profession so I may be tilting at windmills when I say no other career affords such Freudian benefits. I have recreated the parent-child relationship in every kitchen I’ve worked.
Chef Imelda, a Grand Dame of haute cuisine in 80’s Seattle, galvanized her humble minions with an exquisite combination of praise of any kind and a fondness for setting culinary standards that Martha Stewart herself would need 3 clones to help her accomplish. Chef “Moldy,” as we affectionately called her, employed mental torture tactics that would make the boys at Gitmo jealous. Sleep deprivation, starvation, physical exploitation and verbal abuse were de rigueur during our hellish 14 hour days. In the singular event that she found something acceptable, a pasty-faced cook’s pallor would suddenly brighten, and hope would course through those veins like chemo in a stage IV cancer patient. “Maybe Chef will be proud of me now!” And yet, as if to spotlight the bipolar nature of the kitchen, an inexplicable phenomenon occurred every day, as it does in many kitchens everywhere. The persecuted prep cooks would seize the rare opportunity offered by the chef to exercise what little creative ideas still burned in their warped psyches and prepare what is known as “family meal.” Imagine a kind of “Survivor” meets “Top Chef” scenario wherein the overworked and weary cook has to put together a meal for all the staff AND the chef that will please the palates of the foodie crème de la crème and prove that the cook has the skills to remain employed. Staff gathers around a table before service begins and frantically devours pasta or three-day-old reheated roast chicken like some twisted version of the Von Trapp family. And at the head of the table, “Moldy” would reign a little less tyrannically than in the trenches. With her brood strewn about her, one could almost see her soft underbelly.
Many commercial kitchens operate under a “we’re-pretty-sure-this-isn’t-legal” special ops approach. I was called to the cook’s life, in part, because the kitchen mirrors my childhood experience of being “educated” in the Catholic school system circa 1962. Sister Loretta Anne ran her 8th-grade classroom like Mussolini in a habit and if you put her behind a six-burner range with Gordon Ramsey today, it would be his Rocky Mountain oysters sizzling in her pan.
Somehow, I naively thought working for women in the kitchen would be like having an extended Easy Bake Oven party with The Carpenters’ “Bless the Beasts and the Children” wafting from the boom box. I have not met the Julia Child of the professional kitchen. But I’ve worked with many women who were clearly the experimental hybrid clones of Ina Garten and the monster from Cloverfield.
The female chef can inspire and motivate her “kids” with a firm but empathetic style. She can celebrate successes and quietly correct mistakes – like Shirley Partridge did with Keith and Laurie. Male chefs are infinitely easier to please. As a young female in an all-male kitchen, I was pampered in ways I feared I’d be expected to repay in a dark, musty basement on the baker’s butcher block table during the lull between lunch and dinner. But most of the men I worked under were kindly father figures rather than lechers. I have probably always been drawn to female-run kitchens because my primary relationship with my father was not my main problem. But the other one, well, I’m still working that one out. After a few decades in this field, I have achieved some level of seniority. I now have a “crew” I can shape and mold to be future culinary superstars.
I now blow through my kitchen, invoking Chef Liz, while I gesture theatrically at the sauce splattered walls and greasy floors. I am not ashamed to admit that I frequently slip into “no-wire-hangers” mode and have to fight the urge to use my spatula on the backs of heads like Sister Loretta Ann used her yard-stick. It might be my greatest contribution to trigger the transference process free of charge right there in the workplace.
But transference in psychotherapy, when properly managed, should bring resolution and closure. In the kitchen, closure comes at 2:00 am when the last ungrateful customer leaves, and you finally get to have that complimentary drink at the bar with the people you now think of as family.
Custom art by Corinne Pease.
About Trisha Kostis
Trisha Kostis is a freelance writer and Chef whose work has appeared in The Sunlight Press, Into the Void, Points In Case, and many other literary journals and online publications. Visit her at https://www.clippings.me/tkostis.