It was my first job. I was 15 years old. My boss yelled at me everyday. She yelled at everyone. All Day Long. The restaurant was insanely busy in the summertime with tourists trying to make the ferry over to Martha's Vineyard and loud with the excitement and stressed out energy of families on vacation. I barely had time to use the bathroom during a 12 hour long shift. I drank Diet Coke and ate oyster crackers that I kept in my apron pocket to keep my stomach from growling. There were no breaks. Ever. Until you punched out. I went back day after day because my parents would have killed me if I didn't. Plus, my mother drove me to work.
When I was finally told that my shift was over and I could leave, I ran out the door, down the street to the payphone on the corner to call my mother to pick me up. I was so glad to be out of that building, away from the yelling, the noise, the smell of french fries, coffee and bleach. It took at least 30 minutes after I called for her to arrive in Woods Hole, driving down the hill and turning the corner in front of the drug store. I sat on the big rock next to the phone booth, watching, waiting for the yellow station wagon with the faux wood paneling and the ceiling my mother fixed herself by stapling it back into place. Each silver staple perfectly spaced so that it looked intentional, like it was part of the original design.
I worked really hard at that job. Bussing tables as fast as I possibly could. Clearing the sticky dishes covered in maple syrup, refilling the sugar packets, making another pot of coffee, wiping down the glass tops, pushing in the chairs. Competing with myself, getting faster and faster, more efficient: anticipating, checking the bathrooms before being reminded, trying to think of everything so I wouldn't get screamed at. Somehow, I began to like the sense of accomplishment. But the intensity of the day always came out in a flood of tears as soon as I climbed into the car and closed the door.
The cooks started calling me, "Speed Queen", then, "Speedo" and sometimes just shortened the nick-name to, "Speed" because I did my job so fast powered by adrenaline from fear and teenage energy. I didn't react to anything they said, just brought them Cokes with lemon and pint glasses of ice water when they asked. I was a little scared of them, too. They were older than me, in college.
One Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer, my boss' husband, quiet but still imposing, told me to come into the kitchen. We were winding down in the dining room, cleaning and setting up before the dinner rush. I was sure he was going to tell me that I was doing something wrong, maybe fire me. When his wife was really, really angry, she stopped screaming and yelling and sent him to convey her angry message. Not only was I about to be humiliated, my mother would definitely kill me when she picked me up, having to drive all the way to Woods Hole to get her daughter who got canned for doing a terrible job.
I made my way through the swinging doors and into the lion's den. The kitchen was small, bright, bustling with energy that urged, "Get the prep done now or we are screwed!" He told me I was going to make the garden salads. You know the ones that come in a bamboo bowl: iceberg, shredded purple cabbage, 2 cherry tomatoes, 2 slices cucumber, a ring of red onion, a ring of green pepper and maybe a canned black olive, if you are lucky? That was it. He needed my help.
He calmly showed me how he wanted the salads to look and asked me to make 60 of them: 5 sheet pans of 12 salads, each. Then, bring each one through the swinging doors, up the stairs, down the hallway and store it in the walk-in. Make them look good. Dinner starts in an hour.
I was terrified that I would mess it all up.
I worked the salad and dessert station on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights for the rest of the summer. Bussing tables during breakfast and lunch wearing a blue apron in the front of house, then changing into a red apron to work in the kitchen through the evening service. Baptized by fire on a hot summer day, pulled onto the "Red Team" out of necessity, allowed to stay because I kept my mouth shut and my hands moving. I worked in that restaurant for seven summers, through high school and part of college. I got tougher and grew a thick skin, no longer crying everyday on the ride home from work. My boss stopped yelling and screaming at me. I must have passed her test. She moved on to new members of the dining room staff, who often quit because they didn't have parents who told them, "This is how it is in a restaurant. It's stressful, people yell. Let it roll off your back." This may seem like harsh parenting. But through the years, my first "professional" kitchen experience has made me realize that ranting bosses are usually their own worst enemies and being able to focus on crafting something as simple as a garden salad in the middle of the frenzy on an insanely busy Saturday in July are lessons that I have been using all my adult life.
Simple Garden Salad
1 1/2 cups chopped iceberg lettuce
1/4 cup shredded red cabbage
4 cherry tomatoes or 2 wedges from a medium sized tomato
4 slices cucumber
1 ring cut from the center of a whole green or red pepper
1-2 rings sliced red onion
4 black olives
salad dressing of choice: Italian, Ranch, Peppercorn Parmesan, Balsamic Vinaigrette, Blue Cheese*
Place lettuce and red cabbage in a small bowl. Toss gently. Strategically place tomato around edges of lettuce mixture. Place cucumbers in the same manner. Place pepper and onion rings on the center of the lettuce mixture. Place black olives in between tomatoes and cucumbers. Place pepperoncini in the center of the red onion rings, as the crowning center of the salad. Enjoy with dressing.
*May cost extra