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Courtesy of Starz/Sweetbitter

When I reveal that I was a pastry cook in an upscale New York City restaurant, the majority of responses I get are: “Wow! That’s so cool.” My inner monologue? Yeah, if you think blowtorching cockroaches to death at 6:03 a.m. while simultaneously dodging sexual innuendos from the savory sous chef is cool, then yeah…totally!

Of course, though, I’m jaded. Today, I work here, at PureWow. But it seems that no matter what I do, the coolest thing about myself is the 12 months I spent in the frenzied kitchen of a lower Manhattan hot spot. And with a little perspective (aka finally being able wear shoes that aren’t Dansko clogs), I can see it wasn’t all cockroaches and mansplaining. Do I miss endless, delicious desserts? You bet. I also didn’t loathe the hours—it meant avoiding the rush-hour subway crowds. And the pay wasn’t terrible. Time-and-a-half meant I could afford to pay Brooklyn rent, no problem. The downsides, though? Well, now I might as well tell you the whole story…

I finished undergrad knowing I wanted to work in “food media” but not knowing how to get there. Culinary school seemed like both a diversion and a potential way in. To receive our diploma, we had to complete a six-week internship; I was told that full-time offers in food media positions were few and far between, so I found a pseudo-French, upscale restaurant that needed a pastry intern. After my six weeks, I was offered a full-time position. It was easier than job searching, so I stayed.

Yes, the schedule was grueling, and the work was physically demanding, but I could deal with that to an extent. Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to arrive by 5:45 a.m. by subway and prep the display content by 6:45 a.m.? Easy. Blowtorching any cockroaches I spotted? (Stomping was out of the question.) If I ignored the burning-entrails scent and kicked them under the oven with my shoe, well, it wasn’t what I learned in culinary school, but hey, I could handle it. 

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What I couldn’t deal with was the toxic environment. The people were often worse than the insects (at least the bugs didn’t talk): The 40-something sous chef telling me he really dug my “sexy” eye makeup; the manager who, instead of teaching me the ropes, made humiliating jokes about my college education going to waste; the cutthroat coworker who let me take the blame for her burnt piecrust. And my boss? While he wasn’t Gordon Ramsay, his passive-aggressive snark was enough to make me feel inadequate. “Did you read the directions this time?” was a favorite line. 

And it wasn’t just a battle-of-the-sexes thing—I was shocked when a female coworker once laughed in my face when I asked a question about a bake time. Let’s just say those éclairs wound up in the trash.

It took me a full year to appreciate that the kitchen would never show me the love that I showed to it. A busy kitchen is an empathy-less machine whose nature is to chug along no matter what is going on in any of its cogs’ personal lives. I realized this when my grandfather died, and they rescheduled me to work the day immediately after the funeral to “make up for lost hours.”

The second strike came when my now-husband took me out to a lovely birthday dinner, and we wound up wasting the entire night in a nasty argument about my job. He could see it was making me miserable, but it took a bitter fight over sheep’s milk agnolotti to realize the extent of my unhappiness. 

Pulling my boss aside to give my notice, I felt more nervous than I anticipated. I pulled him aside after my shift and, unable to contain myself, blurted out that I was leaving. Immediately, I felt relief. I waited for a response—perhaps even a “thank you”—but his exact words were, “Um, OK.” So I bid adieu unceremoniously and hung up the ugly checkered pants that never quite fit me anyway.

Do I regret that I spent so much time there just to leave the industry cold turkey?

No. It sounds cliché, but I learned so much about myself and what I want out of my career. Not to mention, the reaction when I tell people I worked in a kitchen never gets old. Of course, I bite my tongue so I don’t ruin the whole reverie by telling anyone about “diarrhea salad,” an affectionately named staff meal composed of a mish-mash of almost-expired lettuce and vegetables. Ahhh, restaurant life.

Nah, I’ll just let you think I’m cool.

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