By Krista Diamond
It was an act borne of desperation, as these “how I came to work in a restaurant” stories often are. I was rudderless and penniless when I took a hostess job at a hotel restaurant in Death Valley.
“You’ll have to get better at keeping your fingernails clean,” my mother remarked after I showed her a picture of the palatial, palm-studded hotel.
I bought nail clippers, pencil skirts, and button-down shirts, then drove 900 miles into the desert.
I pictured a kitchen filled with stern men in white hats. Had I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential before driving to that sweltering kitchen in Death Valley, I would have instead been prepared for what he referred to as “a dysfunctional, mercenary lot” of men who “dressed like pirates.”
But I knew nothing. I didn’t know terms like covers, back of the house, in the weeds, side work and eighty-six.
When the restaurant manager led me past servers in shiny blue vests— “blackjack dealer vests,” one busser called them—into the belly of the restaurant, I heard the hiss of steak hitting the grill, the cries of “Behind!” and “Corner!” the thud of a knife coming down on bone. I saw curious eyes watching me from behind the line, flames rising from the sauté station. I smelled butter, flesh.
The cooks walked in a pack down the dirt road to the hotel, traveling through the desert like coyotes dressed in black. They smelled like sweat, meat, sugar. They were somehow both violent and elegant. They wielded gleaming knives and sprinkled flowers on plates of osso bucco.
The restaurant hosted a weekly brunch every Sunday, a refined affair that attracted wealthy Californians.
“Can we get an 11 o’clock reservation?” prospective diners would say over the phone. “We’re thinking of flying the jet in.”
An assistant manager had the idea to set up a carving station in the dining room and bring out one of the line cooks to serve the well-heeled guests plates of roast beef. The chosen cook would roll up his sleeves, revealing a tapestry of colorful tattoos. I’d sneak glances from the host stand and see him scowling from behind the station like a feral animal, showing the people who had flown in on private jets who exactly was cooking their food.
There was no time for please and do you mind if. Servers kicked open the kitchen doors like they were forcing their way into a barricaded house. A busser dropped a plate and the red-faced chef bellowed. There were no requests, just orders. Drop this at table 12. Get these plates out of the window. Servers and cooks spewed insults at each other and then sat down for family meal, the dinner we ate together behind the hotel, the undulating badlands of the desert stretched before us.
A copy of Kitchen Confidential was passed from the back of the house to the front of the house like a baton. The dishwashers read it, sitting on milk crates between lunch and dinner. The bartenders leafed through it, sipping lattes from the shining espresso machine. When the book finally made its way to me it was stained with drops of wine, smears of blood, cigarette ash, demi glace, greasy fingerprints.
I smoked cigarettes in the desert sunlight and read it from cover to cover after a breakfast/lunch shift. The resident roadrunner preened nearby, cocking its reptilian head in hopes that a server would appear with some leftover steak. The kitchen door behind me was open and I could hear the hot spray of the dishwasher, the absent-minded singing of a line cook waiting for tickets to print.
The Anthony Bourdain on the cover of the book looked just like the cooks inside the kitchen in Death Valley. He was turned slightly, regarding the reader with skepticism and menace. But the Anthony Bourdain inside the book was filled with wonder and reverence. I followed him from a childhood vacation where he was bowled over by the unexpected cold of vichyssoise. I went with him to his first job as a dishwasher in Provincetown, to the Rainbow Room in Manhattan where he smoked cigarettes on a 64th floor ledge overlooking the city. He took me through dusty stock rooms and oak-lined dining rooms, introducing me to criminals and saints along the way.
By the time I finished the book, I was no longer a stranger in the restaurant world. I had read the guidebook. I had gotten the passport. I knew how to get inside.
My indoctrination into the restaurant world was like the first time Anthony Bourdain tried an oyster. He’d been a child in southwest France sitting in a fisherman’s boat when he’d held the curious, quivering delicacy to his lips for the first time. It had tasted “of seawater...of brine and flesh...and somehow...of the future.”
“I’d learned something,” he’d said. “Viscerally, instinctively, spiritually—even in some small, precursive way, sexually—and there was no turning back.”
In the restaurant, we screamed at each other and then toasted with whiskey. We fought, shared cigarettes, cursed each other out and then carried each other to bed.
A line cook offered me pasta with white wine, garlic, scallops and grana padano. It was hot and oily and he’d made it with his hands, thinking of me. And I devoured it voraciously after ten hours on my feet, thinking of him.
It’s no wonder that Anthony Bourdain likened the experience of eating an oyster to losing his virginity.
The act of consuming something those tattooed, sun-tanned cooks made was like sex.
And of course there was plenty of that. The front of the house/back of the house romance is a restaurant tradition. I sashayed through the kitchen in my pencil skirt. I licked my fingers after eating the food they made me in a shameless, pornographic way. It was all foreplay, as every great meal often is, and I was hungry—hungry for acidic sangiovese, orange-glazed Muscovy duck, rich date-nut butter slathered on hot bread, rough hands all over me.
It wasn’t forever, but it lasted longer than I expected.
“Don’t get stuck there,” my sister told me, when I called her enraptured with whichever line cook I was sleeping with, whatever new dish I’d tried for the first time.
But I’d read Kitchen Confidential. I’d seen restaurants as places that destroyed you and then built you from scratch like some complex recipe. I knew she was wrong.
I went on to work in restaurants all over the country—hosting, bussing, serving, bartending. I walked miles a day across the hardwood floor of a restaurant in Wyoming that did 500 covers a night. I rode a gondola to work at a restaurant in Colorado that sat at 10,500 feet, which made it hard for bread to rise. I sang out “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome!) at a technicolor sushi joint in Texas. I tried bone marrow, foie gras, uni, Rocky Mountain oysters, sotol, chicken feet. Everything.
It’s been seven years since I stepped into that kitchen in Death Valley, three years since I clocked out of a restaurant for the final time, but I still think of Anthony Bourdain’s fear before eating that oyster, and how scared I’d felt my first day working in that restaurant.
He had been right, of course, not just about the oyster, but about everything. Restaurants allowed me to see America, to try new food and taste the continents on my tongue. To consume and be consumed. And whenever I feel uncertain now I think about the hesitant boy in the boat holding the shell and the man he became, the one who showed us the world.
“Everything was different now,” he said, remembering how he sat dazzled in the sunshine after downing the oyster. “I’d not only survived—I’d enjoyed.”
I think I know the feeling.
Krista Diamond is a freelance writer based out of Las Vegas. Her fiction has appeared in the most recent issue of Longleaf Review as well as Spry Literary Journal, Dark Ink Magazine and Adelaide Literary Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Desert Companion and Eater.