A gallon of mayonnaise hits the bottom of a huge plastic tub with a loud plop. The mayo spreads out like an old man easing into a bathtub. It’s the first of eight gallons for this batch of Russian dressing.
It’s 11:00 in the morning. I’m five hours into my shift, and we’re coming up on the lunch rush. I’ve got the mayo jugs piled up on the work table, the vinegar-faded tub on the floor near my feet. Mikey’s next to me, chopping up the 70 odd pounds of onions we’ll need to get through the day’s recipes. Chris, the third prep cook, is over by the stoves. He’s got a pot of what will be Soup du Jour started on the new stove.
We were tired of the head chef piling his fucking borscht onto the old stove and then walking away for three hours. He’d come back and yell about why other dishes weren’t finished, and Mikey, Chris and I would silently point at his simmering borscht volcano, taking up three of the six burners. So he got the new stove, even though it meant moving everything in the basement kitchen down two feet, a not uncomplicated effort. We are grateful.
Another jar of mayonnaise blorps into the tub. Six to go. Mikey’s onions are overpowering my eyes, and without thinking, I wipe them with the back of my hand, smearing a patch of mayo over my face. Some people pay spa money for this kind of service.
The new stove is crazy hot. A real borscht boiler, that’s for sure. We named it Trogdor.
Chris almost always makes Soup du Jour. And he makes fantastic soup, it’s true. It’s next-level shit, this soup, like notch-below-soup-Nazi-swoon-inducing soup. The issue is the rest of it: the context of the whole situation, of which deliciousness is just one of many variables. For example, there is the opportunity cost of his soup. Last Thursday, the soup took seven hours, so Mikey and I had to do everything else. On the list upstairs where we write the soup of the day ingredients, Mikey had added “Seven Hours” as an ingredient and so Chris and Mikey got into it, screaming at each other down at the bottom of the stairs. Mikey almost never raises his voice except to announce when he’s reached the point in the day when he craves a beer, a game he’s been playing with himself for several weeks. Chris doesn’t either, but he can be kinda high strung, and he takes his cooking seriously, like he’s an Italian grandmother stuck in a skinny punk rocker’s body.
Sometimes soup just gets the best of us.
The next jar is particularly thick, and the mayo oozes out with a sucking sound. The pale pile in the tub jiggles slightly as a delivery truck drives by on the street overhead. Lovely.
Chris was late this morning, which happens like once a week, and Mikey wasn’t scheduled to show up til 9:00, so I had to do all the first-thing tasks, like pull mats, line perpetually sticky trash cans, and get what amounts to a mise en place in this hellhole set up, and there were three items on the 86 list that had to be ready by 7. By the time Chris showed up at 7:15, apologetic but clearly both showered and hungover, I was sweaty, hungry, pissed off, and in dire need of a smoke break. I managed to gulp down breakfast and another coffee, and then inhale ⅔ of a cigarette before one of the line cooks came out and asked for another batch of breakfast potatoes.
And now I’m on mayonnaise patrol.
Five more to go, then a gallon of ketchup, pulverized horseradish, a few quarts of pickle relish, the pungent blast of capers, ground up in the food processor, followed by squirts of hot sauce. We usually write “penis” or something similarly childish with the hot sauce, the pile of mayo a blank, lumpy page for our sad poetry. Then, after scrubbing my arm up to my shoulder, I will dive in, gloveless, to mix.
We tried long spoons. That took too long. Plus it worked the forearms worse than one of those jerk-off sessions that just won’t end. And gloves just got sucked right off our hands by the force of the glop, even the long yellow dishwashing ones. Plus with those, you’d also gradually fill the gloves with the dressing, which made them real fun to clean. Better and faster to just go in barehanded.
The quantity of food we make is grotesque. But the results are good: when portioned out onto plates, it’s attractive, delicious. Customers snap photos of their meals, positioning their sandwiches and entrees just so, clucking over which Instagram filter best captures the rustic appeal of their Reuben. We in our basement kitchen are creators of raw materials, the first in an assembly line of upscale casual dining. The three of us, Chris, Mikey and me, we’re the sweaty, beer-soaked, smoke-stained, slow-beating heart of this restaurant: proud, sad, paid like shit, lean and muscled from the sheer weight of food we move, but with alarming cholesterol levels. We measure butter by the pound and salt by the heaping handful, and we laugh when we overhear customers wondering why their food doesn’t taste as good at home, where they measure in pinches and tablespoons, the dainty shits. We’re the secret, ugly reason for the glowing write-ups, the accolades, the lines down the block on the weekends. We’re the few. The proud. The prep crew. We are not afraid of mayonnaise.
My face is so close to the dressing that the smell is overpowering. Sometimes the caper/horseradish combo is so strong that I need to sneeze, a violent pirouette away from the tub, my mayo-soaked arm covering my nose, followed by a long, soapy double scrub of the arms again. I have to mix it pretty hard to get it all incorporated, and spots of dressing sail up onto my face, speckling my glasses. I can feel the smooth greasy mixture between my fingers as I grope for hidden pockets of pure mayo, the dressing crawling under my fingernails. If I lean in over the tub even slightly, Russian dressing is all I can see, a pink ocean stretching across the whole of my vision.
At these moments, I wonder what I’m doing with my life, kneeling on a disgusting floor, drenched with sweat before noon, my biceps buried in fucking mayonnaise.
I mean, I have a bachelor’s degree. I have friends who are in graduate school. Others have jobs at places like the CDC, or are almost pediatricians or lawyers. I imagine that they have savings accounts, health insurance, mortgages. In my imagination they collect wine, own non-secondhand furniture, contribute to Roth IRAs. I’ll bet the men own more than one tie. I’ll bet they can tie a tie without looking it up on the internet, a feat which still escapes me after 29 years. And I’ll bet they never find themselves elbow deep in mayonnaise-driven existential dilemmas.
But then another part of me loves this work. When you finish a shift, you know you worked. You feel it in your bones, the soles of your feet. There’s imagery out the wazoo: scents of roasting meat or baking bread, the constant tasting of dishes to pinpoint the correct seasoning, and the sonic collage, noise, music, laughter, borderline sexual harassment. There’s danger, too. Knife work, fire, slick surfaces, heavy objects, everyone dashing around, shouting their relative location like they’re GPS units: Behind, corner, on your left. If you don’t pay attention in the kitchen, it will cut you down.
It’s easy to be real in the kitchen. It’s a self I’ve almost chosen, a performance so natural I don’t even realize it’s happening. I can leave at home the me that should quit smoking, should save money, should write more, the me that fills up life with endless should should shoulds, who is deep down scared of so much. Instead I can simply show up, make a fucking pot roast, let T. Rex make me feel alright. I can pretend I’m a badass, and in in this space, that illusion is real enough to push aside the sadness that seeps in at the edges.
I squelch my hand around, trying to find the last pockets of ketchup and capers, blur the mass around and around with my hands until it is all a uniform color. I pull my arm out. It looks like I’m wearing part of a superhero costume, a sheer smooth coating of Russian dressing from my bicep to my fingers. The skin on my right arm has been amazing since I started working here two years ago.
Mikey’s calmly making another batch of fruit salad. One of the servers came running downstairs like his hair was on fire because they were out. Hardly anything phases Mikey, but everything’s an emergency upstairs. Chris is still over by the stove, tending to both his soup of the day and a gargantuan pot of chicken stock that’s about ready to be strained. The trail of his work follows him around the kitchen like one of those Family Circus cartoons where the blond boy wanders all over—a dirty cutting board, a pile of vegetable ends, a half-full food processor, two different sheet trays in various states of assembly, and all of it on different work surfaces. His nickname is “the food tornado.”
I go to wash my arm in the dish pit, using the sprayer that dangles in a big U over the sink. I love the sharp prickle of the water, how the pink dressing peels off, shiny globs of it clinging desperately to my arm hair.
When I come back, Mikey’s made a fruit salad smiley face in my dressing. Our prank war has renewed. Though now we’ve agreed that fucking with another man’s coffee is off limits. A few weeks ago, I put a potato in his coffee. The next day he put the juice from a brick-size can of tuna in mine, to which I retorted by putting an entire smoked whitefish head in his mug, face up, just under the surface, so when he sipped it, he felt the fish lips on his own.
There weren’t many places we could go after that one, without things getting dangerous in a salmonella sort of way, so we called it a truce.
I scrape the dressing into the two five-gallon buckets with a plastic bowl scraper while Chris, returned temporarily from his soup crusade, holds the tub braced against his knees. I then slap Russian-themed labels on the buckets with masking tape. “Sputnik fuel” is a popular choice. Someone labeled it “Lolita’s First Period” one time, but the general consensus was that crossed some sort of line, so it’s been toned down. Today I go with a forced pun, “St. Petersburg resident putting on clothes.”
By the time I slide them into the walk-in and head back to my spot, Mikey’s finished with the fruit salad and is patiently listening to Chris, who is explaining to him how to skim the fat from the chicken stock for easily the 14th time. Mikey is nodding, a smile hovering on his lips. The man is a saint.
After work we’ll all get beers together, hang out in Chris’s beautifully cultivated backyard, talk loving, exasperated shit about the head chef. Being able to tell my boss to go fuck himself and have no repercussions is a serious perk. Talk about a stress reliever. And I love that my job interview was literally the question “can you come in tomorrow?” Nowhere but the kitchen.
Sometimes friends from college visit me, the ones with the imagined IRAs and wine collections. Their coworkers are great, they say, but there’s not the same camaraderie. There’s no band of brothers and sisters with whom to get in trouble, no one to help through the stresses of life in that special way. They wear khakis and blouses. They sit all day. Their offices play top forty radio at a quiet volume, or nothing at all. Their work surroundings might be beige and have elevators. I nod in commiseration, order another round even though I’m the broke one.
Because I know what’s wrong, what’s missing.
Ty Phelps is a teacher, writer, and musician originally from Madison, WI. He won The Gravity of the Thing’s 2016 Six Word Story Contest, was a finalist for Gigantic Sequins flash fiction contest, and has a story in Writespace’s anthology, In Medias Res. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he likes to drink coffee and play drums. He is very lucky, because his wife is awesome.