My Serendipitous Life as a Chef

chef2In the latest chapter of my seemingly serendipitous life, I am a chef. I wear a chef’s hat, and a chef’s coat, so I must be a chef. Oh, I’ve worked in the food service business off and on since I was 13-years-old. I started as a busboy and dishwasher in a restaurant my mother managed, 40 years ago. After that it was serving up ice cream cones and banana splits in the summertime at “Frosty Boy.” Since then, I have mostly worked as a server, fill-in short order cook, or manager; most recently as an events supervisor at a local high end waterfront restaurant. I did other things in between, of course. I’ve worked in customer service, international logistics and shipping, and dealt with government contracts in the office furniture industry. I even worked at Blockbuster for a time.

All which leads up to last year in September, when I decided I need a job that provided a more steady income, and some of the benefits that don’t usually come with restaurant jobs. I started at our local hospital (our town’s third largest company, with over 1,000 employees) as a part-time worker in the cafeteria. Basically I was a combination ‘lunch lady’ and hash slinger. But the hours were ungodly, with a 5:30 AM start time. I’m an early riser, but that was ridiculous, even for me! After about 8 months, I saw an opening for a full-time ‘food service specialist’ in the kitchen and applied for it, using my considerable charm and ability to sell myself – plus they were desperate. I got it!

My duties were a little more than I bargained for, but with my usual aplomb, I dove in. The kitchen prepares all the food for both the cafeteria (open to employees and visitors), and the patients. We make EVERYTHING from scratch – the mashed potatoes and gravy, mango salsa, parmesan crusted chicken, pot roast, corn bread, myriad soups and chili, are just a few of the items on our vast and ever-changing menu.

The kitchen consists of five full-time chefs, plus dietitians, prep cooks, and the various other support staff that are needed to feed up to a thousand people a day. I start my day (at 10 AM!) preparing the day’s vegetables for lunch and dinner. These can be anything from oven-roasted broccoli with lemon zest to succotash, or sauteed collard greens with ancho chilies, or steamed fresh zucchini and yellow squash finished off with various herbs and spices. I’ve since become somewhat renowned around these parts for my side dishes’ visual appeal and taste. After the veggies are ready to go, I begin preparing the evening’s two meal choices for patients. These are the same for each day of the week – Monday is pot roast and chicken pot pie, Tuesday is herbed tilapia and meatloaf, Wednesday is vegetable quiche and pork loins, Thursday is Swedish meatballs and penne pasta with tomato sauce – you get the idea.

Needless to say, all of this involves following very specific recipes, accounting for patient dietary restrictions (hence the dietitians) and using my somewhat rusty math skills to double or halve recipes, and to convert cups to ounces, or liquid measures to solids. I’m getting to be quite a skilled knife handler, too. I have yet to slice myself severely enough to require stitches! And for new parents, the hospital offers a Celebration Dinner for Two, with choices ranging from a sirloin stack to grilled salmon to chicken cordon bleu. That’s part of my daily routine, too.

Have I found my life’s calling? No. Do I want to call being a chef my new career? Probably not. But for now, I enjoy what I do, there’s no drudgery, and most of the people I work with don’t drive me crazy. I’m going to stick with it for now – until serendipity leads me to the next chapter of my life. Bon Appétit!


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