For the past several years, I’ve combed the markets, trekking to most of the holiday ones in the city to look for unique food-themed gifts to suggest to folks for their loved ones for the season. This year, I’ve worked my first busy season as a chef, balancing daytime shifts as a prep cook in a catering kitchen and evenings working as an events chef for large and small parties and dinners. I’ve been spending lots of hours on my feet, in front of stoves and convection ovens (some of them portable ones), and many hours playing everyone’s favorite games: “can I fit just one more sheet tray on the already-packed speedrack in the walk-in” and “how can I crawl into the back of the walk-in to get the 1/2 dozen eggs that I need without breaking any of them or having something fall on my head.” Yeah, it’s been crazy lately, but I’m actually loving (almost) every minute of it (getting a nice, big, new sheet tray burn on my arm last week wasn’t so much fun).
I have been getting home just in time to clean out my uniforms and chef’s jackets from one day’s gigs and swapping them out with clean ones for the next day, pass out, get up, make and drink coffee #1 of the morning, shower, and head out for another 16- (or so) hour day. It’s a different kind of energy in the kitchen from when I worked in banking. Then, I could barely muster enough strength to make it to Midtown for 7:00 a.m. conference calls once a month. Now, I am in the kitchen at 7:00 a.m. almost every day, checking in with the lead chef on the day’s prep list and what my tasks are on it, and moving through everything as quickly as I can. I know the bus schedule by heart and can time the MTA drivers’ arrival (M96, you’re almost bang on time every day, almost, except for when you really screw up.).
This year, I haven’t made it to any holiday markets except for the Columbus Circle one, which I stopped by on the way home after working a 12.5-hour, triple shift day (prep plus two events), and I just happened to be in the neighborhood. I passed by the stand for Leckerlee and Sandy Lee’s fantastic, seasonal (really), Lebkuchen. She’s super terrific and her product just captures all the warmth and flavors and feel of European holiday markets, which I really miss (mostly because walking around with a crêpe in one hand and mulled wine in another has got to be one of the best things in the world to do at this time of year). She also now has these lovely holiday tins and makes her creations in a mini-version, which would make the perfect hostess gift. Add in some (spiked) eggnog, and you would kick off the celebrations on a very good note.
So, with this crazy, hectic time of the year in mind, here’s my real holiday gift list for my fellow food industry professionals and busy-season culinary elves:
Everyone is running a little short of this these days. (Even though this conflicts somewhat with accomplishing #6.)
2. A chance to sit down at some point during the day
I snarfed family meal standing up one day and didn’t even get anything on another couple of days. There are also days when I get on the bus or subway to go home and realize that I haven’t really sat down in 12 or so hours.
3. A walk-in that actually holds all of my prep work so that I can see it all in one place and find things
See above. I’m not joking about this. The freezer is even more packed. Drives me crazy when I know I made a couple of hundred mini crabcakes and then someone comes to me during the hectic few minutes we are packing everything out to go to an event and says that they can’t find them.
4. Ample prep space for everyone to work
I was putting together mini-burgers on sheet trays balanced on the top of hot boxes last week, as we’d maxed out on our prep space.
5. New music for the prep kitchen.
After hearing the same playlists day-in, day-out for the past several months, it is getting really old. How come no one lets me put my iPod in the speakers? (although I’m not sure that the guys will get into Dee-lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” or the B-52s or The Clash or The Jam as much as I would.)
6. Adequate power source to prepare food for service
Another no joking item. I worked a gig in the past couple of weeks where I blew out the fuses as the organizer hadn’t figured the power set-up out for us to set up the equipment to get the food heated in time to serve it. At another gig, I had to plug in ovens on opposite sides of the room to avoid blowing the power. Please figure this out before you ask me to cook someplace; it’s not fair to the chef or, more importantly, to the client and their guests who just want to have some food.
7. My own personal knife sharpener
No, really, I want someone who can expertly sharpen my knives on call when I need them done, which seems to be just about every other day lately. Oh, and said person has to be able to work between midnight and 5:00 a.m., which is when I’m sleeping, and to return them to me in time for me to work the next day. Or maybe what I need is a Knife Kit Genie who can sharpen my knives, clean out my knife kit, and organize everything in its proper place for the next time I need it.
8. New kitchen clogs
O.K., this might be just for me, but I really need new clogs at this point, as I realized only after standing for so many hours back-to-back recently to return home with aching knees. My old ones are completely shot at this point. Maybe I could use them as gardening clogs if I had a garden or was more adept at trying to keep even houseplants alive.
9. A way that I can be in two places at the same time
I’ve been pulling extra prep kitchen shifts while fielding calls to pick up gigs as an events chef, which I’ve had to turn down, as I was already booked. I still haven’t figured out how to clone myself to take on all that extra work. It really hurts to pass that up, especially as it will slow down after this month.
10. A couple of days off to spend time with my friends
I feel like all of my relationships are on life support these days, and heaven knows when I’m supposed to get holiday cards and shopping done this year. I don’t even have time to do my fallback of making cookies or toffee. The number of times that I’ve cancelled on folks because I am too tired to be coherent is reaching a new record. Make a few days off back-to-back, and I might even be able to file all of my paperwork and get my recipe notes organized.
And, most of all, a very prosperous, safe, accidental fire-free, burn-free, and delicious 2014 for everyone!
Disclaimer: I wrote this in about 15 minutes after pulling another 60-70 hour week and the day after working a second double in about as many days and going in on my day off to work in the prep kitchen, so it might sound a bit loopy and disjointed. I’d finally managed to get a full night’s sleep last night for the first time in two weeks. I plan to sleep a lot when I’m at my parents’ house over Christmas, that is if my two little nephews let me do that.