Cooking Dirty

A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen

Jason Sheehan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks


When we were done talking, Angelo shook my hand, told me to come back tomorrow, and when I did, to come in through the back door.

To a kid, that’s pretty exciting right from the start. I’d never walked in through the back door of anywhere except my parents’ house; had never seen the inside, the back room, the inner workings, of anything.

Okay, so it wasn’t like getting asked backstage at the rock show or being given a guided tour of the space shuttle. Just an invitation into the kitchen of Ferrara’s Pizza on Cooper Road, a neighborhood joint fifteen minutes’ walk from home. It wasn’t even a job so much as a test. "You come," Angelo had said. "You like me, I like you, then maybe, eh?" He’d shrugged. "Then maybe you come back. Maybe not."

The next day, I came back. I remember the smell of ripe Dump-sters, acidic like hot tomatoes and yeasty like stale beer. I remember the intimate crunch of my shoes as I walked alone down into the alley/parking lot behind the place, cigarette butts strewn on the broken concrete and the sound of raised voices on the other side of the rickety screen door that let into the kitchen. I heard shouting that sounded happy and serious both at the same time—impossible for me to reconcile with the simple emotional architecture of my particular and quiet suburban upbringing, where shouting only ever meant something bad—and impossible to translate because it was in Italian. I, of course, spoke not a word of Italian and (perhaps unwisely) had taken my first job in a place where Eyetie was the primary language. At the time, this seemed only a minor inconvenience.

I remember reaching for the door and feeling the dry heat baking through the screen on the palm of my outstretched hand.

Wow, I thought. That’s uncomfortable. Maybe the air conditioner isn’t working.

My second thought was that perhaps my choice (guided by my mother) in wearing a cadaverous blue button-down shirt and dark slacks with pointy-toed dress shoes to my first day of work had been a mistake.

But she’d been so proud, so happy. She’d insisted that—at least on their first day at a new job—everyone ought to dress as though they were attending a formal ball where one’s clothing, carriage and grace would be studied with some rigor. Because one never truly knew what they were in for on their first day of anything, it was all a matter of first impressions. And Mom was a big believer in first impressions. I’ve seen pictures of myself when I was a small child, in the years before I had any control over how I dressed me, and have witnessed the full flowering of my mom’s obsession with firsts. Coming home from the hospital, I looked like a small ham dressed for trick-or-treating in a Winnie-the-Pooh bunting complete with ears and paws. First day of school? Corduroy Toughskins and what appears to be a midget’s dinner jacket. In my first-grade school picture I am wearing a plaid bow tie and cummerbund and a gap-toothed grin so wide and crazy I am frankly amazed I wasn’t immediately prescribed something. At my First Communion, I looked like I should be serving drinks.

There is a treasured family photo of the four of us—Mom, Dad, me and my little brother, Brendan—posing on the edge of some mountain in the Adirondacks. It’s the first mountain the four of us climbed together, according to my mother. Myself, I’d say it was probably just taken in the woodlot down at the end of the street where I grew up, except that the ground behind us in the picture seems to be slanting upward at some ridiculously steep angle, and none of us are actually standing. We are, in fact, clinging, crablike, with fingers and bootheels to a rock outcropping and quite plainly trying to keep from sliding off to our deaths.

In the picture, my mom and dad both look like teenagers. She’s wearing shorts and hiking boots and pigtails and a look of manic, totally insane joy—an expression she wears, in one form or another, in every photo ever taken of her. He has a beard and a mustache, a flannel shirt, and the air of a man expecting to be eaten by a bear at any moment. Brendan is four years old so it doesn’t matter what he’s dressed in, but I have been attired in what appears to be a pair of miniature lederhosen like a tiny pitchman for European throat lozenges.

Anyway, Mom was big on firsts and big on dressing up for them. So it being 1988 and this being my first day of work, that was what I’d done—dolling myself up in my blue shirt with the too-large collar and poly-blend slacks and pointy shoes, looking like a short, skinny thrift-store version of the lead singer from Foreigner and having balked only at the addition of my best red leather tie. It was a pizza joint, I figured. A tie would just be overdoing it.

I pulled open the door and stepped inside. A radio was playing something unrecognizable and full of accordions. The air above and around the three double-deck pizza ovens was warped by the furnace heat radiating from them, like looking at the world through water, and everywhere else was thick with flour. It hung like a dusty cloud. The floor was gritty with it, every flat surface covered with it. The kitchen was a microcosm of motes and streamers, the thin stratus formations disturbed only by the passage of bodies through it and the suck of ventilating fans; a universe of flour that whitened everything it touched. To take a breath was to inhale whole galaxies of finely ground wheat, and the taste was like chalk on the tongue riding an olfactory wave of tomatoes, oregano and char. In two minutes, I’d sweated through my pretty blue shirt. After three, I was ready to pass out.

Angelo saw me standing there and broke out laughing, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth bobbing, the dusty skin around his eyes wrinkling. Natalie, his wife, made a face like I was the funniest, saddest thing she’d ever seen. And I just stood there, weaving in place and sweating while the accordions honked and everyone in the kitchen erupted in laughter and language I didn’t understand.

Finally, Angelo took off his glasses and wiped at his eyes. He pointed to a corner of the kitchen with a coatrack and some clean aprons stacked on a shelf. "Jason. Go. Change," he said.

So I did.

MY MOM HAS THIS STORYshe likes to tell. Well, not a story exactly. It’s more like an act, a shtick she falls back on whenever someone asks her what I was like as a kid.

Jay used to be such a sweet boy. You remember that show Family Ties? Well, Alex P. Keaton was his hero. He dressed like him, acted like him. He was always more comfortable around adults, you know? Very polite. Very smart. When he was little, he used to dress up all the time. One day he’d put on an army helmet and a backpack and be a soldier. The next day he’d wear this adorable little Boy Scout uniform and carry this bird book around with him. And I’d always get a call from Mrs. So-and-So down the end of the street and she’d say, "Cindy, Jason’s running away again. And he’s dressed like a spaceman or something."

But he always came home, didn’t he? He always came home and he was always so sweet. See? Look at this . . .

At which point she will unearth a box of pictures or, worse, a framed-portrait collection of me through the years, from like five or six years old on through maybe eighteen. It’s an annual, one portrait from every year, arranged in an oval around one central photo, larger than all the others: a studio portrait of yours truly at eighteen looking like King Dickweed in a turtleneck sweater and blue jeans, brown leather jacket thrown jauntily over one shoulder, shot against a back-drop of disco lights as though I’d been caught by the paparazzi on the dance floor of the Dork Club.* It has come to be known over the years as the Wheel O’ Jay.

With the Wheel serving her like documentary evidence, she will run through the years with quick and practiced ease.

This one, he’s what? Nine years old? Maybe eight?

I’m eight. She knows that perfectly well. And even if she didn’t, you’d think the Cub Scout uniform and the manic, wild-eyed leer of total elementary school picture-day psychosis would be a dead giveaway.

Look at him here, she’ll continue, her voice hard and nasal like Marge Gunderson from Fargo after a toot of helium. Isn’t he cute? That little tie and sweater vest. That was the year we all went to Atlantic City. To the boardwalk. He was so excited. And this one. Doesn’t he look happy? He was twelve here. Our first cat had just died . . .

Her affection for the photos starts to wane considerably by the late eighties, by the time I’d made it to high school. But still, she’ll shrug, tap at the glass. She will claim that I was nothing short of a perfect little mama’s boy until I reached my eighteenth birthday. An absolute angel, sweet as a gumdrop. Never mind that by eighteen, I’d already spent my first night in lockup, had already held and left three different jobs, had moved out (and subsequently back in) twice. She doesn’t mention to guests making the rounds of the Wheel what it was like to stand up in the judge’s chambers and agree to discipline a wayward son who was up on charges of possession of controlled substances, criminal trespassing and contributing to the delinquency of a foreign exchange student. She doesn’t tell the story of how, in an effort to get me to quit smoking on my seventeenth birthday, she gave me a pack of Marlboro Reds with a picture of my grandpa tucked inside the cellophane. He’d recently died of lung cancer (among other things), so the picture showed him in his casket. And she’d painstakingly written Hi, grandpa! in blue ballpoint pen on each individual cigarette, then somehow managed to get them all back in the pack.

*In that picture I’m wearing a slightly dazed and vacant look because, on the good advice of a friend, I’d gotten halfway shitfaced on most of a warm bottle of Wild Irish Rose before going to the studio. Mom has always claimed that I looked contemplative, as if caught thinking of something else the moment the shutter snapped or perhaps considering the gleam on the arc of the bright future stretching out before me. Truth is, I was just trying not to throw up.

Granted, that’s a creepy thing for a mom to do, but catching me by the elbow on my way out the door on my way to my senior prom and pressing a twelve-pack of condoms into my hand—is that worse?

No. What’s worse is that she’d wrapped them in pretty green paper. What’s worse is that she’d known full well my date was already waiting in the car and would be sitting right next to me when I— thinking that she’d perhaps purchased me some sort of functional gift like a hip flask or a pistol—unwrapped her little present. What’s worse is that the condoms she’d bought were ribbed.

She holds to her version of the past—the one in which I didn’t go wrong until the day I left the nest, went away to college, fell in with a bad crowd. And while there is some truth to that rendering (I didn’t discover amphetamines until college, for example, or their over-achieving cousin, crystal methamphetamine, and while I might have been marginally screwed up before that magic moment, after it I was both screwed up and awake for days at a time), it really happened much sooner than that. If my opinion counts for anything in this (and I’m not entirely sure that it does), I would say that everything changed—that I changed—when Angelo told me to. Mom can say whatever she likes (and will, given the least excuse or opportunity), but I was there. I was the one in my skin and in that ridiculous blue dress shirt and in those pointy shoes, standing in the heat and floury clamor of the kitchen at Ferrara’s, so when Ange wiped his eyes, pointed to the corner with the coatrack and aprons, and said, "Jason. Go. Change," I did. It was the first order I took from a chef, the first of a million to come.

I STRIPPED DOWNto a white T-shirt and tied on an apron. I tied it wrong and Natalie had to show me how to do it correctly—strings crossed in the back, tied in the front, the bib tucked inside. The shoes were still a problem, but since I wasn’t going to work barefoot, I suffered with them. At least I looked like half a cook—the top half of one, crudely laced onto the bottom half of a short used-car salesman or the kind of guy who, in my town, would try to sell you shrimp or stolen stereos out of the back of a van.

My first duty was scraping sheet pans—using a bench scraper to flake off the skins of dried dough that’d stuck there after the trays had been pulled from the proofing box and the balls of raw dough removed, turned and laid in for a second rise in the humid air of the kitchen. Ferrara’s Pizza went through an amazing number of sheet pans in a day, working a two-rise rotation that kept probably two hundred of them constantly moving from box to racks to dishwasher and back again. Fifty or more would be used to hold raw dough headed for the proofing box—the balls arranged in two rows of six, twelve to a tray, twenty-some trays to a box—and would stay in there overnight. In the morning, someone (not me) would strip the proofed dough, now all stiff and leathery, from the trays, turn it, move it to a new set of clean sheet pans, stack the dirty ones on the floor, and shove the pans of turned dough into open racks near the prep tables. The dirty pans would be scraped, cleaned and stacked, awaiting the next batch of raw dough, and as Angelo took ball after ball of proofed and risen dough from the pans in the open racks, these would begin to form a second stack of dirties.

That stack then became my responsibility—each pan needing to be scraped perfectly clean of dried-out dough because any trace of it left behind would collect in the dish machine’s filter, eventually causing it to back up and flood the kitchen.

So I scraped the pans as best I could, but these were old pans, a batterie de cuisine that’d been in constant use for probably twenty years. They were warped, dented, buckled. There were pans whose sides had rolled, whose corners had pouched after thousands of violent, hurried probings with the sharp corner of a bench scraper. And each pock and ding and rough spot held flakes and dollops of dough; dough that sometimes came off easy like an old, dry scab, that sometimes turned to dust, that’d sometimes turned wet and gooey and would cling like a booger to anything it touched.

Each pan I finished on that first day I stacked on the loading end of the dishwasher until I had a mighty tower. I’d worked hard. I’d worked as fast as I was able, considering this was all completely new to me and I had no idea what exactly I was doing or how it fit into the grander scheme of Ferrara’s nightly pizza production. I’d gotten the basic gist of the necessary interaction between scraper and tray pretty quickly; had developed something like a system about halfway through the stack, which involved a flashy double pass over the flat surfaces with the blade of the bench scraper and then a vigorous (if not particularly effective) assault on the edges, corners and rough spots with the handle of a spoon I’d pulled out of one of the drying racks. If nothing else, it made me look as though I was working hard and, after my inauspicious entry into the kitchen, looking like I knew what I was doing was very important to me.

It took me almost two hours to finish scraping fifty or maybe a hundred trays. When I was done, I figured they’d now become a dishwasher’s responsibility, though I saw no dishwasher standing around anywhere, just waiting to jump in.

All around me, pizzas were being ordered and constructed with frightening speed. Things were being chopped and diced. The radio was playing and people were yelling and the ovens were cranked to their top settings, the doors left open, heat pouring out of them like liquid. The dinner rush was on and it was exciting, overwhelming. I felt lost, so I edged my way around the kitchen and stepped close to Angelo—wanting to learn how to throw dough, to ladle sauce and work the pizza stick (the big, flat, scorched wooden paddle with which pizzas were loaded and unloaded from the ovens), but terrified at the same time that I’d be asked to do anything other than to stand quietly in a corner and try not to faint. Timidly, I asked him what I could do next.

"Wash," he said without looking at me. "Run the machine." Then he made some strange stacking and lever-pulling motions with his hands, which were what passed for operating instructions for the dishwasher—a large, loud and (I assumed) expensive piece of industrial equipment full of spinning arms and harsh chemicals and boiling hot steam, which I was now expected to operate with some degree of expertise.

Again, I did my best, and again my best amounted to very little. I was quite pleased that I was even able to get the machine started, since I didn’t even know how to work our dishwasher at home and most of my dealings with unfamiliar machinery (such as toasters, microwave ovens, my dad’s Betamax or the lawn mower) involved pushing buttons or flipping switches at random until something unexpected—like a fire—happened. If nothing happened, I would get frustrated and resort immediately to violence, as if the toaster were deliberately trying to ruin my sandwich or the record player purposefully refusing to act as a centrifuge for the G.I. Joe action figures I’d taped to the turntable. Later, when my mom would demand to know who’d kicked the door off the broiling compartment of the oven or heaved my dad’s good power drill up onto the patio roof, I’d pretend I had no idea what she was talking about. I’d tell her it was probably Bren, then calmly go back to smashing my old cassette player with a rock.

Anyway, I was considerably less pleased when, within minutes, I’d managed to flood the entire kitchen. Probably pounds of un-scraped dough had swollen in contact with the hot water inside the machine and found their way to the drain screen. At the first sign of trouble (which announced itself in the form of a stinking geyser of drainwater shooting up from the machine’s well), I panicked, jerked open the loading door in the side of the machine, and got a face full of superheated steam.

Natalie came to my rescue, indelicately muscling me aside and killing the machine with a quick stab at the big red button marked STOP that I’d entirely failed to notice. No one else in the kitchen even slowed down. Ignoring the floodwaters lapping at their boots and what I’d guess was probably a high and girlish screeching coming from me, they simply soldiered on, deconstructing fresh peppers, slicing pepperoni and throwing crusts with a focused concentration I initially took to be an intentional snub.

It wasn’t. It was just that cooks—good cooks, in the middle of a solid hit—are monstrously single-minded creatures. When the rush is on, a cook cooks. He puts his head down and just burns. A flood ain’t nothing till it gets so bad that it starts wetting his prep.

"Is okay," Natalie said to me, touching her fingertips to my chest, my arms, gently tapping and trying to calm me or something. "Is okay. Try again."

So I did. I ran the dish machine for the rest of the night, overflowing it at least twice more and kicking at its legs when no one was looking, but slowly figuring out its intricacies and what it could and couldn’t do. It could wash an evenly spaced and carefully arranged load of sheet trays provided it was coddled along and not put under any sort of undue stress. It couldn’t be made to work faster or better no matter what names I called it or how many times I hit it.

I found and cleaned the drain screen, familiarized myself with the machine’s proper loading and unloading, played with all the buttons and switches, whose labels and settings had worn off ages ago. I was ready to walk out after the first disaster, but I was no quitter so figured I’d at least hang in until the end of the night, when I would no doubt be summarily fired.

Excerpted from Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan.
Copyright 2009 by Jason Sheehan.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus And Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.