Throughout the week, restaurant industry pros have submitted their stories of working at a shitshow, continuing today with Porsena's Sara Jenkins. Want to submit your own story of working on the front lines of shitshowdom? The tipline is open and anonymity is available to those who so desire it.
The first time I ever worked in a kitchen was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I wanted to spend the summer in Italy and so convinced some friends of the family who owned a restaurant in Tuscany to let me work there for the summer. The restaurant was in a tiny village in Tuscany near Montepulciano and was built in an old olive mill the family had owned for centuries. I was really more interested in being in Italy than cooking at the time so I would have gone and worked anywhere. I lived in the family apartment above the restaurant with the married owners (I’ll call them Graziella and Fausto), their daughter, and a young woman who had been working with them in the kitchen for a couple of years. (I’ll call her Livia).
Initially I was given my own bedroom as Livia and the daughter shared a room. I was grateful for my single room as it was all a bit overwhelming living with the family and spending all day and evening in the kitchen with the family, the cooks and the front of the house staff. We ate lunch together and we worked service and then we had a few hours to ourselves (but nowhere to go) and then back to eat dinner together, another service, which could go until midnight if there were clients dining that late.
The restaurant was fancy and served a long tasting menu and people drove from all over Italy to come and eat there. I was a commis and I did as I was told, prepping endless amounts of tomato concasse in the afternoon with crates of plum tomatoes still warm from the sun that the gardener brought up from the gardens below the restaurant and plating appetizers and sometimes just frantically washing plates and silverware. It was a long hard day and far more work than I had anticipated.
On the first of August the daughter went off to the beach with her grandmother and Graziella insisted I move in to share a room with Livia. I resisted mightily as I really enjoyed having my own space to retreat to and stay up reading all night but she wouldn’t hear of any alternative. I was puzzled as to why but had no choice other than to comply.
A week or so later Graziela and Fausto drove up to Venice where Graziella was teaching a cooking class at the Gritti Hotel. Fausto drove her up in the early morning and then raced back down to the restaurant in time for service, or so I thought. That night as I lay in my bed reading, Livia stayed up in the living room watching television I assumed. Eventually wondering what she could possibly be watching at three in the morning I wandered into the living room. No Livia, just a tv turned on but no signal coming through. The next day Livia pranced around the kitchen, making new
dishes and for all the world acting as though she was the chef and not Graziella. In
the afternoon she pulled me aside for a talk and confessed that indeed she and Fausto were having an affair, they were in love and while he wasn’t quite ready to leave Graziella he would soon and they would eventually have three children together.
I was young and naïve but I also knew that wasn’t really the way most affairs worked out but okay, I shrugged my shoulders, it wasn’t my life. When Graziella returned a few days later she must have sensed something, everyone tiptoed around in the kitchen and Graziella stormed around in a foul mood, slamming pots and plates around and snapping at everyone. She and Livia drove into town together to get some supplies for the restaurant and when they returned they didn’t seem to be speaking to each other at all. After a miserable, tense service I snuck upstairs to read until the sky lightened but was soon drawn to the window overlooking the patio between the restaurant and the house by shouts and tirades in Italian as Fausto, Graziella and Livia hashed out the whole sordid mess. I feigned being asleep when Livia finally came into the room. In the morning she told me she would be leaving, Graziella had fired her and thrown her out. Fausto still wasn’t quite ready to leave his wife but she knew he would eventually and they would be happy together with their three kids. This I thought to myself is not how it’s going to play out.
In September I returned to college and forgot about them all and yet the funny thing is that a few years later after Graziella and Fausto had split up for good but still ran the restaurant together communicating with each other through the waitstaff I found out Livia and Fausto really did wind up together and while they didn’t have three kids they did have one. Graziella and Fausto continue to run the restaurant and Livia has her own small restaurant in another town. That was not the ending I would have predicted.
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