The cost of living in Chicago is chipping away at my bank account, so I’ve been scrambling to find a part-time job to bolster the loans. To my great pleasure, the search has been a chance for me to tap into unused reservoirs of creativity — like my hedonistic obsession with food.
I applied for a barista position at a gourmet, euro style deli. I suppose the manager liked me on paper because she called me in for a day on the job to “try it out.” More like, “sink or swim.”
Prior to my “tryout,” I had only seen the storefront charcuterie display and dining room. So I was blown away when I descended into the restaurant’s underbelly — a fully-loaded gourmet kitchen.
The kitchen was like a pirate’s ship. A crew of tattooed and pierced chefs clanged and sliced around cow carcasses and sizzling pans of pork fat. One chef filled sausage casings, another chopped fresh herbs and one chef paced down the alleyway with a pan of roasted vegetables, shouting “coming up from behind!”
Hands, scarred by burns and cuts, moved gingerly over fresh produce and artisan cheeses. Dark humor simmered with delicate artistry.The Red Hot Chili Peppers shouted from a hidden stereo. Sneakers squeaked over the immaculate tile floor. It was a gothic ballet, except everything was white and polished.
The meat locker was the most fascinating sight. Various cuts hung from a frosted ceiling. Yet the room hardly smelled of death, more like a warm, smoked paprika. I let out a “wooow” that emerged as a puff of frozen vapor. A whole cow carcass hung from a metal hook that slid along what reminded me of a zipline. I stood between both sides of its rib cage and marveled at the intricate web of fat, bone, and fascia. I snapped out of my gastronomic daze and realized I was inches away from a fresh animal corpse.
The fridge shelves were lined with freshly made soups, stocks and produce. Everything was meticulously dated and labeled, not a morsel of food out of place.
I stepped outside of the meat locker and gawked at the handwork of the brigade of butchers, saucieres, sous chefs, patissieres and fry chefs.
I watched as a cat-eyed food runner shouted orders at the nearest chefs – “One pork belly…Chicken liver pâté…Roast beef…!”
Another food runner my age studied at the Cordon Bleu, which she said was “just all right.” She had a tattoo on her wrist that read, “I LOVE FOOD.”
I glanced around at the other tattooed bodies around me. I saw impressionist versions of poultry dishes. Butcher’s cleavers. Strands of fresh herbs mangled with arm hair.
The love of food reeked from their pores and manifested on their skin – in ink and blood.
Above ground, work is a bit different. The passion was still there, but the moods and tone were a bit softer — and more palatable for guests.
The storefront is sunny. It feels like standing in your French fairygodmother’s kitchen. The shelves are stocked with magical jarred condiments like creamy mustard, infused salt and wild berry preserves. Everything glistens.
The frosted charcuterie case holds garlands of budin noir and chorizo. Towers of cheese in all shades of creamy yellow and white seductively lounge behind glass. Cow tongue and pork belly beckon “if you dare.”
The hostesses and waiters swiftly move from guest to table. The barista balances an order of mimosas with a slew of espresso drinks.
I watched as swarms of hungry suited businessmen gaze dreamily at the chalk menu board and the glass case – just as I had. In a dreamlike trance, the hostess lead them to a long, communal table.
White-collar Jameses rubbed elbows with blue-collar Joes at shared tabletops. They ordered the same roast beef sandwich, sliced from the same Illinois cow.
Delicate and colorful plates of food slid onto tables from some mysterious corner of the room. Food runners would disappear from the main floor and return above ground with an architectural masterpiece of a sandwich.
I felt like I was in on a secret. I had met the belly of the beast.