Origins: Nick Oltarsh and Restaurant Z 

An essay by the ROOM at Twelve and Lobby Bar chef about his painful induction into the restaurant industry

I got very lucky after graduating from cooking school, landing a job at what would become one of the most lauded restaurants in the United States. I'll call it Restaurant Z.

Restaurant Z was located in a hotel that was among the finest in New York City. The restaurant was opulent in feel and appearance; the cuisine was cutting-edge and extraordinary. The chef of Z was on the verge of great fame and copious accolades. Being asked to work at Z would be akin to a guy named Monet asking me to help him put some brushstrokes on a painting of water lilies.

Working in a high-end establishment such as Z was like being addicted to the painful pleasure of self-flagellation. Yelling and humiliation made up a great part of the day. I suspect the plan was to reduce my naïve spirit to a burnt chicken wing so I would rise like a phoenix from the cremated ash pile of my soul. I learned a lot at Z. I learned things that I didn't know I needed to learn and the place formed me better than almost any other place I could have landed. Each day I struggled mightily, simultaneously ashamed by my poor performance and incensed by my maltreatment. I had always done well in school, but now, in the real world of cooking, life sucked big time.

The job was demoralizing from day one. I am a tall fellow, and the chef pants that Z provided had particularly low rises, thereby creating the notorious plumber effect on my behind when I bent over. The restaurant's sinister and cruel French sous chef (we'll call him "FSC") seized upon this as a grievous failure of mine and emblematic of everything wrong with American cooks. He didn't say it outright, but he made it abundantly clear that he felt all Americans were fat, dumb, and ugly scalawags better suited to work at Dairy Queen whilst picking moist boogers from their noses. My butt crack issue reinforced these convictions, fueling a tremendous rage and desire to torture me as much as possible. I would venture to say that FSC treated me with about as much respect and compassion as a spotty brown banana peel. He would have been a fine addition to the staff at Abu Ghraib prison. It didn't help that I had very little kitchen experience, that I was not the quickest study, and that I struggled. FSC seemed to smell these shortcomings of mine and seized upon them as if I was a limping doe-eyed gazelle and he a famished hyena.

I dreaded Fridays. Typically I had a partner on the vegetable station every day because there was a great deal of work required to prepare the station for service. On Fridays I worked alone. Same work, same hard station, one newly formed culinarian (me) cooking for my very life in sweaty horror. I wouldn't sleep well the night before and I would feel sick to my stomach on the way to work. Upon arriving one painfully memorable day, I put a batch of lentils on the stove and, in my haste to do all my other chores, I accidentally let the lentils overcook. I put on another batch and then proceeded downstairs to the kitchen's food storage area. In a genius bit of design, the storerooms for the kitchen were three floors below the kitchen, separated by only an elevator: no staircase, no emergency exit, no fireman pole, nada. This same elevator was used by the housekeeping staff who needed to transport heaps of dirty linen from each and every floor to the sub basement and the fancy room service waiters who were busy delivering $30 rip-off burgers to the suites. I waited and waited forever for the elevator and finally it came. By the time I got downstairs, FSC was on hold for me on the house phone. I answered to a spew of verbal French hostilities and scathing venom. Evidently I had overcooked the stupid lentils yet again. I had this vision of FSC watching the lentils as they were cooking, waiting with bated breath — a huge grin on his face — for them to overcook so he could dispatch me like a fatted calf. I returned to the kitchen in shame, put on my third batch of lentils and, in my defeated and distraught state, I overcooked the third batch as well. That is when I found the most remote corner of the kitchen, turned my back to the madness, and released a multitude of bitter-as-endive tears to the glorious delight of FSC. I haven't cried in the kitchen since. Now I limit my tears to TV shows about baby elephants and their crazy little trunks, white-as-marshmallow Weddell seals, and dancing cartoon penguins that sing.

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