[17 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Every ex-core gamer has a particular couple of games that they were really good at. Those games, back when free time was abundant, that they utterly conquered. For me, it was always Starcraft. It wasn’t that I was unbeatable and this was all before the Korean domination, but I had a weird knack for efficiency in that game. I once won a bet with a superior player because I said I could get a higher score than him. When he blew apart my last Protoss drone, I happily collected twenty bucks as my ratings for resource collection, efficiency, and kill to unit all soared past his. To this day, I have no idea how the score system worked or what I did that made me score so highly. But I still like to think that I was one of the most efficient Starcraft players back in my prime.
But that was another time and place. A year out of college and way out of my video game prime, I was sitting in a restaurant kitchen in Lake Tahoe wondering how I’d gotten myself into such a mess. A little too much Steinbeck and way too much fear of growing up had made me pack everything I owned in a car and drive across the continent. I moved to the first internet job I could find, patiently waited for the ski season to fire up, and on the first day of skiing I turned my left knee’s inner meniscus into jelly. The ski accident left me a limping mess with an extremely unsympathetic landlord. I couldn’t wait tables anymore and most of the other ski jobs didn’t pay enough. So I did the only thing I could: I grossly exaggerated my resume and got a job in a restaurant. I’d been a prep cook for a couple of months before the ski season hit in a cafeteria, so I figured they couldn’t be all that different. Come in early, slice & dice, drink a beer, and fight over the music on the stereo for about 6 hours.
Unfortunately, a short-order restaurant and a cafeteria are about as different as night time and a kick to the groin.
The first job my boss gave me was to slice several pounds of turkey into sandwich meat. Which would’ve been fine except the creaky, finger-hungry maw of slicing steel broke down within 5 minutes of me touching it. My somewhat concerned boss took me over to another prep station and handed me a bucket of mangos and a knife. Still used to the pace of cafeteria prep, I began to slowly and methodically chop them into tiny bits to make chutney. After another 5 minutes, a prep cook gently set me aside and slashed through the bucket at blinding speed. I was getting nervous at this point. Finally, my very concerned boss just threw me on the line out of the small hope I might be secretly hiding some super talent. I managed to last a few hours before the churning tickets, screaming waiters, and burning calamari left me a wreck. The final straw was when I dropped a pan full of mussels and boiling oil, which splashed all over my boss and severely burned his right arm. As I stood outside profusely apologizing while he kept his arm shoved in a mountain of snow, he ordered me to light him a cigarette. “Alright, I’m not going to fire you. You come in on time, you start prepping faster, and I’ll let you wash dishes during restaurant hours.”
It would eventually become the topic of much debate in the kitchen over whether prepping or dish washing was worse. On the one hand, depending on who was head line cook that day, you might be told to make something the moment they ran out. Even if you had a decent warning, you were lucky if you could get together the complicated recipes without being screamed at once or twice. On the other hand, washing dishes is…washing dishes. The disgusting plates of food, the spraying soap, and the smell that doesn’t leave you for hours. I had the honor of being stuck with the worst of both worlds and I knew I wouldn’t last long. Something had to give. As my boss was fond of saying at the start of every day, “Welcome to the suck.”
One day while I was restocking the Chipotle mayonnaise on the prep line, I was looking at all the containers and condiments and gauging which ones would run out first. I was stocked on salsa, but the chutney was getting low. Crab cakes were out, so I’d better start there and build that up since they take the longest. And then the oddest idea suddenly entered my head, “It’s just like Starcraft.” You kept an eye on how much crystal you had, you gauged how many Zealots you’d need, gotta get that Vespene gas, where’s my Vespene gas people?! Bam, second shield upgrade down, one more to go. Get another turret up and start making Reaver maneuvers to soften their main attack force. It was as if some missing cog in my head clicked into place, some names changed and concepts shifted, but it was like my brain finally understood the kitchen as a whole rather than each individual aspect. My wasabi count is low, get me back up to speed. Those assholes are going to be ordering turkey sandwiches all day, start slicing now. And for shit’s sake, START BAKING THE BRUSCHETTA. My boss walked in a few minutes later and I marched right up and said I wanted to be on the line. He looked at the burn scar on his arm, shrugged, and handed me a chef hat.
It worked. Every time the tickets would start piling up and the chaos would reach full fervor, I would take a deep breath and reach for that part of my brain that I always used when I was playing Starcraft. Be aware of your surroundings, be aware of your resources, and be aware of what’s going to be the biggest problem not now, but in 5 minutes. I was promoted to day-shift cook within 2 weeks. The quality of the food didn’t necessarily get better, but people got their meals quickly and on time. Our kitchen became one of the most efficient ones at the resort and at the end of the season we were awarded for making record profits on the mountain. And the adrenaline, the competition of it all became addictive too. It feels good to succeed at what you do and a kitchen is like a video game in more ways than one. Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest days in Tahoe as countless people take their partners out for snow and food. I walked into the kitchen and my boss greeted me warmly: “We’re completely fucked. The dinner shift didn’t thaw any chicken, half the mayos are out, and the bruschetta was left under a warmer for 9 hours. Welcome to the suck.” I sighed, rubbed my temples, and put on my hat. “Listen to me carefully. I need a water bath on that chicken right now, tell the prep geek to start at wasabi mayo and work his way down. I’ll start dicing tomatoes. We’re going to blow the register up today. I want this place WALL to WALL with tickets. I want screaming women and children. I want the kitchen sink. Because it’s about time you assholes gave me a challenge.”
But that was another time and place. I put off growing up for as long as I could. After Tahoe, I lived out of my car for a while, worked in Vermont, and stayed in New York City long enough to lose my shirt. I finally caved, got a desk job, and since then ended up in law school. I’ve managed to land a summer gig with a licensing and trademark firm but I don’t know where I’ll be once I graduate. Things like the economy or my lack of a science background, things I can’t do anything about, are always going to be problems. If there’s a video game analogy for law, I don’t know what it is. I’m not really even sure there’s much room for wild ideas and saving the day in this business. The truth, as I get older, is that there aren’t many times in your life that you get to go from zero to hero. That you get to overcome an obstacle and really make a difference for everyone. Sitting at my desk now, halogen lights flickering and an endless pile of documents to read, I still reach for those memories when things are bleak and it always makes me feel better.