I Hate Food
They expected far more of me than I was willing to give for thirteen dollars an hour. The first day had seemed promising. The owners were overfriendly and proud. They showed me around the restaurant, introduced me to the rest of the staff and instructed me to shadow one of the other cooks while he prepared salads. It seemed pretty manageable and although there were slightly alarming signs of fastidiousness, I felt welcomed. Though I took care disguising it, I was desperate for the money.
On the second day, I was shown the procedure for opening the restaurant and how to do the morning preparations for the lunch rush. On the third day, I had to open the restaurant alone, heat all the soups and stews, stock the line and order the bread.
This was more demanding than I had imagined. I had told them the truth about my experience—that I had worked in the kitchen of a dive-bar, flipping burgers and working a deep-fryer—but somehow they understood this to mean I had a passion for food and wanted to learn how to cook gourmet cuisine.
That was far from what I wanted.
I hate food. I’ve never had a passion for presenting it nicely or cooking it well. For me it’s merely another form of sustenance—like water or air—something to shove down quickly before moving on to something more interesting. I generally offer shallow, positive appraisals of the food I eat, often using throwaway expressions such as, “Wow, this is delicious,” or “You’ve really outdone yourself this time darling”. That’s the extent of what I have to say about food. To me, haughty food jargon is just a wank, and to effect gustative refinement is straight-up pretentious. Food provides me with such minimal pleasure, like shovelling sand into a hole in the yard. The problem with the human body is that the hole can never be filled. Our bodies require us to constantly go about consuming and needing and never being satisfied.
Obviously, my attitude towards food was something I would have to conceal if I was going to keep this cooking job.
It was called Enigma and directly under the name it said Neighbourhood Restaurant. This made absolutely no sense to me. Nor did the old South African couple that owned the joint. The woman’s name was Pam and, for some reason she attempted to be a kind of grandmother figure to me. It was as if I were her dumb little grandson who needed to be trained and taught a few life lessons but could always be forgiven. She treated me like an idiot and this gave me cause and justification to be an idiot.
I did my duties to a low standard, but remained friendly and mostly punctual. I was maintaining the façade just enough to avoid getting fired. She constantly sought reassurance that I wouldn’t quit, that I wouldn’t leave Vancouver when winter came. I absent-mindedly reassured her and thought little about the future.
Where work was concerned, Pam became infuriatingly passive aggressive. I was polite but increasingly curt. Each time I put an order on the service counter she scrutinised it heavily.
“Does this have croutons?”
“And it’s dressed with caeser dressing?”
“And of course the lemon wedge?”
She could clearly see that the salad was complete – she just wanted to rub my nose in previous mistakes. Sometimes she would claim that her eyesight wasn’t very good, but when it was busy she would snap, “Lemon wedge on this caeser!” Each day she would come into the kitchen just as the lunch rush was beginning, get in the way of all the cooks in order to taste the soup and then tell us to add cream or pepper or some such thing. I hated her for it. I couldn’t understand how the other cooks, who were good at their jobs and took pride in their work, allowed themselves to be treated like this. There was no trust or appreciation, just nitpicking and insults to their professionalism.
Apart from being married to Pam, her husband Rick seemed like a pretty good bloke. Instead of micromanaging every staff member and enforcing new and more finicky details of the job each day, he sat in an office downstairs and pushed paper. Occasionally, he would stand at the back of the kitchen with a cigarette and recount a story about when he was young. He had an avuncular appreciation for his staff and would genuinely thank us each day after we cooked him lunch. Like Pam, he often liked to confirm that I would stay around for winter and wasn’t planning on hightailing it to Whistler when the snow started to fall. I quashed his doubt and told him that I liked it there.
Mikey was an overtly Jewish guy in his early thirties who referred to himself in the third person. He had short black hair and a baby face and he gave me the majority of my training. When the lunch rush was over he would declare, “Mikey’s hungry” as if he was dropping the hook from a Beastie Boys song. To him, and the rest of the staff, I said very little.
Once or twice a day, I would passively nod and offer noncommittal grunts of deference while he relieved himself of his pent-up frustration. He liked to complain about the way the business ran, the shortcomings of the owners, the amount of customers that day or how people no longer understood what proper food was. Although Mikey was the least interesting person that worked there, I didn’t mind working with him because he wasn’t picky about the way I prepared food and he never showed any emotion when I made mistakes. He had a sense of patience that I suspect stemmed from apathy. He was aloof and I liked it that way.
His iPod emitted the most horrifying pop music until after the lunch rush when he would play neo-country music. The lyrics were mostly themed around materialism, unrequited love and beer. There were references to cocaine, strippers and Facebook. The songs engulfed me like mould on a strawberry. They represented everything I hated and even the upbeat ones were sad. Mikey would sing them happily while sweeping the floor and then cook himself a big burger with yam-fries.
Miguel was a handsome Mexican man with a kind smile and very little to say. I gleaned that he was working hard to support his family back home and allowing himself very few pleasures while he was in Canada. Watching movies seemed to be his only hobby. He always came to work in a good mood, but by the time the lunch rush was in full swing and I had made a few mistakes, he would become stressed and uncommunicative. He was an ineffective leader and a pedant. Often I would make a salad, put it on the service counter and he would pull it back down, exclaiming frustratedly that it wasn’t high enough. Then he would take a new plate from the pile, grab the salad in two hands, ball it up between his fists, then promptly but meticulously stack it in the centre of the plate so that it looked full and fluffy.
You could tell that he felt proud and self important as he garnished and presented food. He was undeniably superior to me in all aspects of the job, but I lacked the patience or desire to serve food like that. I simply didn’t care for it. My attitude was that the salad would taste the same either way. It bothered me that I was expected to care so much about such a trivial aspect of the job. I was just a backpacker anyway. When the lunch rush finished Miguel would send me to the dish pit, relieved that he could prep for dinner service alone. I liked it in the dish pit because I didn’t have to talk to anyone or take any responsibility for the food that was served.
I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, but I hated everyone who worked there. I only persevered because I needed the money. My girlfriend at the time didn’t have a work visa and was selling beer at a nude beach opposite the university. After work and on days off I would join her and we would get naked and sell beer together. It was a great gig, but sunny days in Vancouver were becoming fickle and because vending beer was illegal, the cops could be a problem. The nude Nazis were also a problem. They were hell-bent on enforcing the rule that everybody had to be nude. One day, when I was at work, they rebuked my girlfriend for wearing shorts. She explained that she was menstruating and was met with heavy disapproval and insult. She never went back after that, and I couldn’t blame her. Even a dream job becomes unbearable.
When we decided to leave Vancouver, the owners of the restaurant were furious. I’d only worked there for six weeks but it was enough. I called Pam on a Sunday evening to give my two weeks notice. I told her that I had decided to follow my girlfriend to the Okanagan to work on an orchard picking fruit. I explained that I never intended to leave them high and dry but hinted that my relationship was more important than a verbal agreement with people you don’t respect.
I went in on Monday as normal and Rick, the paper pushing honcho, commanded in his thick South African accent that I should see him in his office immediately. He launched into a rather enraged guilt trip about how I’d made a commitment to him and that as I got older I would come to learn about honouring my commitments. I told him how my girlfriend didn’t have a work visa and that I had been supporting her financially but couldn’t afford it on the wage they were paying me, that I was between a rock and a hard place.
“You told me you were committed until Christmas!” he spat with disdain.
Then I smiled, amused and perplexed that this old man expected me to be loyal to him rather than the young woman I lived with. For thirteen dollars an hour. My smile enraged him. He calculated how much he owed me for my time and wrote me cheque on the spot. I hadn’t been paid for over a month and the cheque was a pretty tasty one. He told me to take my stuff and get out.
As I walked out the front door I felt liberated and excited, as if all the life that had been sucked out of me by the sociopaths and the saps; by those country songs; by the burnt burger buns and mop buckets and shitty salads, had been restored in me. Summer was on its last legs but there were still plenty of apples and grapes ripening in the Okanagan valley. We moved to Kelowna and lived in a tent on an orchard with a clan of French-Canadian gypsy-punks and their dogs.
Picking fruit was hard work, but it beat the hell out of burning steak and tossing salad.