Back Pain (And Bacon Grease)

So much can happen in a week.

And it did.

I’ve changed jobs. I’ve gone from working in a pastry shop serving some serious coffee, to a market in the smack-dab-middle of Oregon’s wine country. I’m still making coffee, taking orders, and running food, but decided to make the transition because I’ll be able to dabble in some heavy duty kitchen work.

It wasn’t easy. The choice to leave Woodlawn C&P was always hard. It was such a sweet setup. Coffee, pastries, and a little bit of food. Our coffee program was killer and I worked under one of the best pastry chefs in Portland, Gretchen Glatte (Alum of Wildwood, and various other delicious eateries.)

I started a week after they opened. Both the owners (Gretchen and Matt, chef/owner of Firehouse across the street) would collapse on the couch and fall asleep while business hours ensued. I watched and learned. I discovered the heaviness of starting your own business. The scary, deep feeling of having a slow week. Then, things picked up and never slowed down. Even in this Oregon rain, we were still busy.

We made some transitions with the staff and grabbed hold of a few solid baristas and bakers. Good people. Funny as hell. Great with customers and even better to rant with after a few drinks.

Being there from the beginning gave me a rare look into what I don’t usually get to see in a business. It also set in my bones that I’ll have to get used to 14-hr days.

Making the transition out of Woodlawn was somewhat fast. I’m actually leaving for vacation tomorrow and needed to train at my new job. I was pulling double shifts for a few days which in my head didn’t seem too terrible. Working 6:30-12pm at Woodlawn and driving out to Red Hills to work 2-9:30pm.

It was a lot. I picked up fast. I made one of the cook’s a cappuccino and he pulled me aside and said, “That’s the best f***in’ cappuccino I’ve ever had…” One of the others cooks saying to me after the first day, “Dude, you were actually useful today!” That felt good — my feet — my back — did not feel so good.

I told myself I was lazy because they hurt so bad. Standing on your feet all day can do this. But it got better. Funny how your body adapts to work. Even after a couple of days my body was starting to better handle it all. The running. The lifting. The cleaning. Red Hills is a totally different monster than Woodlawn, but both were and are challenging in their own ways.

I forgot how hot a commercial kitchen is. Try standing in between a wood-fired oven and a giant commercial range with a searing-hot flat top.

Yeah, make sure you wear your deodorant.

It’s different when you leave a place because you hate the work or the people. But I loved my work and my boss. I made this move realizing it would lead to bigger things. It will give me the experience and knowledge I need to either work in a bigger kitchen or at some point, start my own place.

So much about restaurant food is replication. Can you replicate a dish over and over again efficiently and perfectly? Can you, at the end of the night, clean and prep your station for the next day? It’s a lot of work. A lot is an understatement.
At the end of my first night, I was exhausted after a double-shift.

I saw both the main cooks on their knees scraping bacon grease off the floor where the dishwasher works. Deep cleaning the floors. Pulling out low-boys and stations, sweeping and wiping clean the days labors. I decided at that point I wouldn’t complain.

I was tired, but thankful to be among a crew of really good, hardworking people. I will learn lots from them — if not just food — then the labor it takes to work in this industry.

Gretchen, at Woodlawn, is and will always be a dear person in my life. It was a great place of healing for me. Not just through work, but it allowed me to work on myself. It gave me the space to grow into a healthier person, both physically and emotionally.

Gretchen was the first person I watched, day in and day out, work to make a business succeed. And I love that I was there to help be a part of their growth as a popular cafe and bakery in NE Portland. So many folks call her the hardest working pastry chef in the biz. Can’t say that I’ll ever disagree with that.

As I leave to go on vacation, I will know deep down that I deserve some days of rest. In my head, I will think of the troops in the trenches, making food and cleaning, telling customers “No” and getting a mouthful of mangled non-sense. But that’s the job, ain’t it?

And while I’m sitting on a beach, drinkin’ something sweet, I’ll probably be wondering whether or not 20% was a good enough tip.

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