Last fall, I staged for three months at Glass Hostaria, a one-star Michelin restaurant in Trastevere, Rome. A stage or internship in the high-end restaurant business is a right of passage, by no means pursued by all, but certainly by many. In exchange for knowledge and experience, an intern agrees to work without pay for a specific period of time, which can be as short as a week or as long as a year. As with most professional kitchen work, interning requires a total commitment. 12 to 16 hour, or even 17 hour shifts, 6 days a week, are not uncommon. Kitchens are also extraordinarily hierarchical by design and an intern is the lowest of the low.
For three months, I disappeared into a kitchen small enough to be the galley on a ship, with tiny, barred windows no larger than the portals of an ocean liner and well-worn Roman walls too thick for adequate cell phone reception. While the restaurant is located in Trastevere, one of the liveliest neighborhoods in Rome, often cluttered with nighttime revelers and wandering tourists, my entire realm was reduced to this little closed off galley, with the loud and constant whirr of its sturdy kitchen exhaust, the thick heat rising from the wide stovetop, the Italian chatter of my shipmates. With my world so submerged for so many hours each and every day, it often felt as if it was only us, as if we were in fact, out at sea.
The uniform of a cook has an uncanny, but also convenient resemblance to pajamas, baggy pants, a loose, cotton jacket, comfy clogs. This is a blessing for an achy and tired body pushing through another long shift. However, unlike the storybook pressed whites that kitchens are famous for, we dressed entirely in black at Glass. Working a high-end food fair with the restaurant one weekend, I watched gangs of cooks glide across the lawn between shifts in crisp, clean, white pajamas. Cloaked all in black, we stood out like pirates in this sea of tall white-capped gingerbread men, bandanas tied around our heads, knives in our hands.
While no better than the lowest of the low on the culinary ladder, an intern is still part of a crew. My shipmates and I were joined together toward one aim, getting dinner out as perfectly as possible, and if our mission was not criminal, it was certainly dangerous. As in battle, there are always a few heart thumping moments in a kitchen. The grease catches on fire and pops in a fiery cloud. The slick blade of a well-sharpened knife surprises and catches a slow-moving finger unawares. Someone slips and falls, sometimes with empty hands, but sometimes with hot pots and unruly liquids. The seemingly innocent handle of a pan rests secretly over an open flame. Burns are mostly preferable to cuts. A burn can be shushed and hurried over, whereas the telltale, red drip of a sliced finger forces you to come to an embarrassing halt—everyone is aware of your foolish time-costing error.
Nor is the work easy. One intern quit before the end of her internship as if she had silently fallen overboard in the middle of the night. I was warned before starting that another had not lasted a week. A third paid a visit to the hospital. The best advice I received came from a fellow classmate at culinary school from the galley aboard her own pirate ship, “When you feel exhausted, work harder.”
My black-clad pirate days were spent amongst luxury items and fine foods generally priced out of my purview—shaving truffles at breakneck speeds, tossing creamy sea urchin across the counter, cautiously placing dainty globs of shiny, black caviar atop a still soft egg. Primarily a prepper and a plater at Glass, my days were consumed in all sorts of bending, standing, stretching and slicing positions. Between stocking shelves, prepping workstations, washing dishes and scrubbing the haphazard splatter of sauces off walls, I rolled, stamped, sealed, sliced, pounded, steamed, marinated, fried, mixed, weighed, dripped, grated, filtered, whipped and baked my days away. I learned things like how to prep the purple, barnacled claws of Spanish percebes, how to visually recognize the proper consistency of heated candy, and at one food fair, how to hurriedly prep tartare by chopping frozen beef with a large, sharp knife for over five hours without chopping any fingers off, which is to say, very carefully. My nights as a plater were spent meticulously reassembling a cast of ingredients into a pre-scripted format as fast as I could. One ornate lobster dish in particular could take me as long as three minutes to properly assemble her earthly beauty: half moon of mango sauce, bed of rose-peppered avocado, fresh, cut greens, flower petals, fine dusting of fiery, golden ‘nduja powder for flare.
Each night after the end of another shift, I would drift out into the maze of winding, narrow streets that have distinguished the cozy neighborhood of Trastevere since the Middle Ages. Gliding through her tiny, curling passageways, I would glimpse countless other trattorias and restaurants tucked into timeworn walls, lit by the same orange glow from the street lamps. Closing up for the night, I would see wait staff sweep and stack chairs, while a loud radio freely blares familiar rock songs through an open backdoor, and a final few pots and pans fall into the sink with a hollow clatter. On these nights, the dark, rolling alleyways of Trastevere began to seem more like a small sea than a tangle of ancient, cobblestoned paths, each restaurant a lone ship adrift with its own band of shipmates. Each night, all over the world, these hardworking kitchen pirates, mostly hidden and unsung, withdraw from yet another battle, restore knives to scabbards, pull up the gangplanks, and turn out the lights.
Read more about Jill’s nautical journeys and culinary adventures at http://www.jkhannon.com