American Fiction Contemporary

The Window

There wasn’t a window. We, George and Justin La Croix, the owners of the restaurant, couldn’t allow our affluent customers to see or hear the chaotic scenes that went into the prepping of their pricey meals. While our front-of-house staff worked in a calm and measured atmosphere, the kitchens were entirely different. Our restaurant in New York was named La Maison Du George. We served upmarket, traditional French cuisine in an intimately formal setting. Diners ate to the accompaniment of background classical music. The customer's tables were spaced to allow our patrons to converse with real privacy. The strictly uniformed waiters and waitresses were extremely well-trained and spoke fluent French and English. They also wore rubber-soled flat shoes to reduce the noise of their movements to a minimum as they served the tables.

Let us take our first peek behind the scenes and away from the genteel and ordered front-of-house calmness. To say the scene was frenetic would be quite understated. In contrast to the restaurant's soft tones and muted conversations, the kitchens were white neon-lit stainless steel, very noisy, and filled with a cacophony of languages and cultures. They were also damn hot and noisy as hell.

Alex Sant-Mere was twenty-three and straight out of catering college when she had, by pure chance, seen an online advert looking for French/English speakers in the New York area. The advert went on to state the work was in the hospitality area, the salary would be minimum wage, but extensive training would be given to successful applicants. There would be a salary review after completing a successful six-month probationary period. Having studied catering, Alex decided to give it a shot and hope for the best. When you are twenty-three and just setting out on your work-life journey, you do these things without a moment’s hesitation.

Alex immediately forgot about her application as she frantically searched for affordable accommodation in New York. She had lived on-campus during the three years of her college studies. When she got a reply to her application, she was slightly surprised, especially when she opened the email and realised she would be interviewed for the advertised position. This was how, two months later, after a successful interview and an intensive, month-long training course, Alex found herself entering the kitchens of La Maison Du George as a very junior commis chef on her first day of employment.

Even though her training had been through, Alex was momentarily overcome by the kitchens' brightness, heat, noise and frenetic activity. Everyone was competing to be heard above the din of crockery being washed and stacked, readied to be used again. The noise of gas stoves with food cooking and spluttering. Then there were chefs barking orders and directions at other staff. This was added to by waiters and waitresses constantly coming and going while competing loudly to get the chef's attention for their orders. Alex had barely caught her breath and took it all in before she was confronted by the large, florid-faced head chef who brusquely told her where her workstation was and what her duties entailed. With that, he left her before she could find out his name. No one else noticed her; they were all too busy with their allotted tasks.

Alex had been told she had to keep her workstation spotlessly clean and sanitised and all the station's implements ready for use at any time. On top of that, she had to prep vegetables for whatever chef she had been assigned to for that day’s work. It was only months later that Alex would come to realise this particular chef, Carl Gruninger, she was assigned to on her first day took great delight in embarrassing new trainee commis chefs assigned to him. Carl’s behaviour was often attributed to his failure never to rise above his present mid-level position in the kitchens, despite his many years of experience. Alex would also come to know this long-term stall in his career was in no small part due to his fondness for liberally sampling the contents of the bottles of expensive Napoleon Brandy regularly stocked in good restaurant kitchens. Carl would often be toasty by the end of his shifts, but his inevitable mistakes would always be laid at the door of the commis chef assigned to him on that shift.

Alex’s first shift was a nightmare of dropped utensils, burns from mishandling hot utensils, badly prepared veg and several incidents of barging into other kitchen staff by forgetting the rule which stated kitchen staff must always turn right and move right in the kitchen. Her second shift was a little better. She had a few more burns and more wrongly prepared veg, but at least she moved around her workstation in the proper direction.

This was Alex’s introduction to work life in restaurants. For the next six weeks, she worked at the same workstation and learned to carry out her duties while learning the unwritten rules of being part of a large, integrated, multi-tasking, highly strung and professional workplace team. She learned she should always turn up for work well-groomed and in a clean work uniform. Alex learned to listen very carefully to instructions she was given by the chefs and various other kitchen staff. The staff, especially the chefs, detested having to repeat their orders. She grew a thick skin and learned to shrug off the almost daily negative criticisms directed at her. Through people-watching, Alex could understand staff body language and anticipate needs. But mostly, she learned to appreciate just how high intensity and stressful working in a professional kitchen was.

Alex was assigned to another workstation with different duties at the end of her first six weeks. She was told this was normal for all kitchen staff to allow them to become experienced in all the different facets of kitchen work. Alex was assigned to Chef Joel, a quiet, serious forty-year-old, for these six weeks. He was known for being fastidious about workplace cleanliness and for having everything done almost ritualistically. Alex’s duties for these six weeks would include all the duties of her previous workstation. She still had to keep her station spotlessly clean and all the rest of her previous tasks, but now she would also have to marinate meats and part-cook meals by following Joel’s strict instructions. Alex was also told she would have to come in early on certain days to take care of new kitchen stock deliveries. She would have to unpack and store them again, according to Joel’s instructions. This was a task Alex enjoyed, as it had to be carried out and dealt with before the kitchens opened for that days cooking. Two other new tasks were rotating stock and measuring ingredients for her station's upcoming meals. By her eight week at La Maison, she was seeing some order in the bedlam of the kitchen environment. She had also settled into her dingy shoebox-sized living accommodation. Her mantra was, “a girl has to start somewhere”.

She was proud that she was independent, had gotten herself a job, and had a place to live. So what if she had precious little to spend on food and was reduced to relying on leftovers from the restaurant? At least those leftovers were nutritious, good quality, professionally prepared, and cooked. It could all be an awful lot worse, she felt. Now, all she had to do was make a success of her probationary employment and get a proper contract at La Maison Du George. “That is all I have to do”. “No pressure at all, then”. Alex submerged herself in her work, determined to give it her all, hoping to get a full-time contract. Five other trainee commis chefs had been taken on at the same time as Alex. But only three in total would be offered a contract at the end of the initial probationary trial. Alex lost track of time as she concentrated fiercely on reducing her errors to a minimum. Work shifts, days, weeks and months sped by in a kaleidoscope of work-related pressures, heat, noise, frenzied but controlled movement, and even some burns, mostly mild, thankfully. There was the never-ending pressure to perform at your highest level, even when trying to learn new tasks, work at new and unfamiliar work stations or with new chefs. The chefs were the most difficult to deal with. They coaxed, cajoled, ordered about, bullied and verbally abused everyone in their kitchens. Chefs are the gods of professional kitchens, theirs is to command, and everyone else’s is to execute those commands efficiently, professionally, and without question. Getting on the wrong side of a chef can often lead to summary dismissal, especially for junior kitchen staff.

On a bright, sunny morning, six months before her start date, Alex and the other five probationary commis chefs found themselves in the upstairs office of the restaurant's owners. They were gathered there to learn their collective employment faiths. All six barely knew each other’s names, let alone how they each had gotten through their probationary stint. The owners' deliberate policy was to keep probationary staff as distant from each other as possible. They worked different shifts, but even though two might find themselves on the same work shift, they would never work at the same station or on the same duties. They barely had time to exchange names before George and Justin, the owners of La Maison Du George, strode in and told them to sit. Gorge and Justin spent little time on preliminaries; each candidate was given a typed one-page summary of their probation; this summary gave no clue as to their success or otherwise. But they were told if they disputed anything in the summation, they could address any concerns, with the owners, on a one-to-one basis later. Then they got down to the real business of the day, six sealed envelopes, each with a single name typed on the front, were put on the office desk, and the candidates were invited to choose the envelope with their name on it. Once this was done, all six eagerly tore the envelopes open. Alex Sant-Mere broke down in tears as she tried to come to terms with the fact that she had succeeded.

July 18, 2023 22:10

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Sarah Saleem
15:27 Aug 15, 2023

Well written story!


Liam Murphy
20:00 Aug 15, 2023

Thank you for your feedback Sarah; I'm so glad you liked it.


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22:26 Jul 26, 2023

Your writing style is descriptive and immersive. You use vivid imagery. Excellent closing. Alex Sant-Mere cries for joy.


Liam Murphy
19:56 Aug 15, 2023

Thank you so much for that very descriptive and positive critique J R. I truly appreciate it.


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