He looked no more than forty. He was short, mustachioed and pony-tailed. His cook’s shirt and apron (stained) were accessorized by a baseball cap and checkered pants (also stained). His belly popped out between his shirt buttons.
He held out his hand.
“Branko Bundalo.” He had tobacco breath and a deep Slavic accent. I shook his hand.
“Sijan?” he said.
“You are Serbian.”
“My dad’s Serbian. My mom’s Croatian.”
“You are mutt.”
I couldn’t think up a clever retort. He took a step closer.
“The only person I hate more than Croatian is Serbian.”
“What’s your background?”
I’d been hired at a German restaurant in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. The restaurant had a dining area in front, an outdoor patio in back, and a kitchen in between. Opposite the kitchen’s salad-making station sat the hot-food section where Branko was supposed to train me. My training started with a question.
“Okay. What is nature?”|
“You mean, like, forests and lakes?”
“Eat or be eaten. The kitchen is life. People come to this restaurant because we feed them until they vomit. If one hundred people come tonight, ninety-five will eat meat. We make it simple, not too much spices or sauce. Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish. Maybe with potato, vegetable, maybe spätzles, that’s all. Simple but delicious.”
He took a knife from the collection magnetized to the wall and slid the blade along his finger. Every day the first thing I had to do when I got to work was to make sure my knife was sharp. It should be sharp enough to cut bone into snowflakes, he said. He showed me how to grip it properly and to curl in the tips of my fingers when holding the food I was cutting. For the next few days, until I got used to handling the knife, Branko said I could expect to cut off the tips of my fingers and pieces of fingernails. I could forget about getting off work unless I cut off at least a third of a finger.
Then he led me into the walk-in fridge, where the restaurant stored its uncut meats and vegetables, its sauces, stews and dressings. On the floor beside the door, in a bowl on a bed of Caesar salad, lay a dead mouse, fecal pellets scattered around it.
“Shit! Okay, what do we do?”
“Scoop out the mouse and the pellets?”
“No! We throw out dressing and make new one. We would kill customer if he eat this.”
Branko paused a moment. He left, came back with a ladle. “Leave dressing, but remove mouse and shit. You can bring to your Croat mother.”
Soon enough Branko and I were getting along fine. He seemed especially pleased when I told him I’d taken some judo. He whipped a photo album out of his bag and showed me pictures of him in his early twenties: long hair tied back, mustache, black aviator sunglasses, black tank top; lean and muscular, posing in various kung fu stances with red and gold leopard-print spandex tights.
Branko, however, had “issues.” In the restaurant hierarchy, he said, cooks get the shaft. Waitresses make a fortune in tips, not because they’re hot, but because the food they deliver is delicious; and they don’t share tips with the cooks even though the cooks truly earn it. Then he started berating the chef whom he said only shows up at the restaurant a few times a week. True, he admitted, the chef designed the menu, but the cooks implemented it, and when Branko or another cook augmented a dish, say with a new spice here or a different vegetable there, and a customer praised the innovation, the chef took all the credit.
I made the mistake of trying to find some common ground by describing to him my grievances with my parents. When I mentioned that my father is a doctor, he made a face like he’d just smelled a corpse.
“Oooh, you are doctor’s son.”
Things got worse when he asked me why I want to be a cook.
“Well, I’m a writer, but until I can make a living from it, I want to pay my dues you know? I want to toughen myself up, learn to take the heat in the kitchen, so to speak.”
“You are writer? What do you write?”
“Right now, mostly poems. But I’ve got this idea for a novel about these kids who…”
I nodded. He picked up his knife and pointed it at me.
“If you put your hand on my ass,” he said, making two little jabs with the knife, “I put this in your heart.”
Basic training had ended. By 6 PM, the restaurant was hopping: order chits were arriving every thirty seconds or so. Branko was teaching me how to grill steak. He leaned over a steak as it sizzled, closed his eyes, inhaled the vapours.
“Mmm, the smell of blood burning.”
When I failed to share his enthusiasm, he scowled.
“You are like assholes outside. Your money makes you stupid.”
He took a metal spatula hanging from the grill, picked up the steak, and dropped it on the floor. He scooped it up and put it back on the grill.
“When asshole eats this, he won’t taste dirt. Fire will clean the meat. Fire cleans everything.”
I nodded in agreement. But I was already considering other job possibilities.
Around 9 PM, the restaurant hit its peak. The roll of chits reached down to the floor where it rolled up into a ball. A pack of waitresses stood in front of our station waiting for their orders, nagging Branko.
“They will be ready when they’re ready!”
Since it was my first night, Branko had me chopping and slicing to keep the vegetable and meat stations stocked. I was cutting so fast that I forgot to curl in the tips of my fingers holding the food. I had Band-Aids on most of those fingers. It was so hot in the kitchen my cook’s uniform was soaked through, blisters popped and pussed on the hand I was cutting with, burns from pulling pans out of the stove throbbed on my arms; the sweat that poured down my face into my mouth tasted like smoke and grease. (Maybe I could teach ESL, I thought.)
I also had to work the deep fryer, which was easy enough, since only fries went in there. But at one point, I was at least a dozen orders behind on the fries. As Branko stood beside me working the pans on the stove, I filled up both fryer baskets and dropped them into the 375-degree oil, which splashed up onto his arm.
“You fucking doctor’s son! Put them in slow!”
“Get more steaks out of fridge!”
When I came back with the steaks, Branko barked at me to baste them in oil then drop them on the counter then set up plates on the counter then pull the fries out of the deep fryer then distribute the fries evenly between the plates then cut up more pork medallions then dice more mushrooms.
Shortly after, while preparing the pork medallions, I sliced off half the fingernail of my index finger. I gripped it as blood trickled down onto the medallions
“Okay, okay, put on Band-Aid and keep cutting.”
As I rinsed my finger in the sink, Branko took a handful of medallions, pushed me out of the way and rinsed my blood off of them, dropped them in a mushroom sauce bubbling in a pan, added shallots and threw the pan in the oven. I finished rinsing my finger and started applying a Band-Aid.
“Hurry up! I need more plates!”
“I’m going as fast as I can!”
Branko pursed his lips in mock sympathy, tilted his head.
“Oooh, why don’t you cry, doctor’s son? Go home and Daddy will fix you.”
I said nothing, just put on a Band-Aid and set up more plates. Minutes later, as he flipped a filet of sole crackling in a pan of garlic butter, I dropped in a full basket of fries. A wave of oil seared his arm. He cried out, then grabbed his knife off the counter and pointed it at me.
“You do that again, I kill you!”
“Stop pointing the knife at me.”
Some waitresses had encircled the hot-food station, staring. He dropped the knife on the counter.
“You gonna use your judo?” My legs were rooted to the floor. Then, he lunged at me. What happened next is unclear. I remember my back slamming into the wall; the impact knocked most of the pans off the shelf above us and a few thumped his head. I lunged back at him. Stunned by the pans, he fell over and I fell on top of him. He was trying to squirm his way out from under me, but I’d hooked my ankles around his and was pressing my pelvis down on his belly, trying to keep him pinned. If he gets loose, I thought, he’ll grab his knife and stab me.
Somehow, we twisted ourselves around so that his head was lying just before the eight or so inches of space between the floor and deep fryer propped up on its legs. I pressed my feet against the legs of the grill station behind us and pushed as hard as I could so that his head around his temples wedged under the deep fryer. I kept pushing for some time till the manager ripped me away from him.
I got fired. I went home and called my mother. She was very supportive. “You’re a dreamer. You don’t have the endurance to live the artist’s life. Please, just don’t ever get married or have children.”