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Catering to Customers' Whims Can Leave a Sour Taste in Chef's Mouth : Careers: Capturing escaped snails, unclogging sinks and trying to make appetizing lunch specials out of leftovers are just part of a professional chef's life.

January 25, 1990|ILANA SHARLIN | Sharlin is a Los Angeles chef

You finally get that date with the guy of your dreams. You've waited weeks for him to call, and now he's finally asked you to join him for a romantic candlelight dinner. He stares deeply into your eyes and tells you how beautiful they are. Then, he reaches for your hand and raises it to his lips. The expression on his face begins to sour. He loosens his grip and your hand clumsily drops onto his salad plate, splattering vinaigrette onto the tablecloth. Total panic sets in as you realize that not even five rigorous scrubbings have removed the permeating smell of grease, fish and garlic from your hands. Such is the glamorous, sometimes lonely life of a chef.

Just like our friends in other industries, we chefs have our many perks. We have the facility to conveniently indulge every bizarre food craving that strikes us on the job. Caesar salad, onion rings and ice cream--the makings of a fine food fest are always on hand. Because Los Angeles chefs cook dinner for many Hollywood celebrities, we are privy to the stars' most intimate habits: such as the one who takes salad dressing on the side, who is allergic to jalapeno peppers, who is on Pritikin and who doesn't eat at all.

Unlike our white collar friends, we never have the morning dilemma of which tie to wear with which suit or which blouse with which skirt. Every day I open my closet and ask myself, "Shall I wear the white jacket today, or the white jacket? Well, the weatherman says it's supposed to be cooler today, so maybe I should wear the white jacket. Oh, I think I'll just wear the white jacket." This is the closest I get to white collar. The black and white checked pants nicely offset the aforementioned white jacket and the black, food-spattered, steel-toed workman's shoes really make the outfit (and are also useful for negotiating rightful ownership of disputed parking spaces). When I'm feeling that mad urge to accessorize, I throw on an apron. And let me tell you, the chef's uniform, with its artful draping of the human form, is feminine mystique at its purest. It invites others to imagine what's underneath: 115 pounds of voluptuous curves or 180 pounds of lard.

My typical day starts long before most of my friends with MBAs have donned their Cross Trainers in preparation for the morning workout. By 7:30 a.m., I have greeted the dawn, along with a handful of delivery people who look more like parolees than anything else. There's nothing like a whiff of fresh sardines from the first morning delivery to send you staggering in the direction of the espresso machine.

I open the door of the walk-in refrigerator to make my preliminary inspection and witness a sight straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. The walk-in is crawling with slithering snails, escargot escapees from a crate that arrived the day before from France. It seems that one of our rocket scientists had forgotten to replace the lid. All hands on deck as the entire morning crew recaptures tonight's appetizer special. With that situation under control, I make my preliminary inspection of the walk-in, and try to come up with an appetizing lunch special that somehow utilizes salmon scraps, hard-cooked eggs and Swiss chard.

The rest of my morning is filled with thrilling management challenges, like unclogging the pot sink and rescuing a terrified employee from the clutches of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I attempt to back up Juan's claim that the green card demanded by the INS agent has been eaten by his dog, but the agent looks doubtful.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my profession is the opportunity it provides to play a part in improving international relations. I converse with Mexican employees in their mother tongue about the important issues of the day. For example, I often ask them such deep, probing questions as: "Where are the oval plates?" and "Could you please bring me more saute pans?" They respond with a well thought-out "Si," in true ambassadorial spirit.

Lunch is a flurry of salads and sandwiches that comes and goes as quickly as it takes two producers to say "Let's do lunch."

Suddenly, the afternoon is upon us, and we work like busy bees to prepare for the evening rush. One of the prep cooks demonstrates his serious commitment to the animal rights movement by wresting a Sumo-sized Maine lobster into a pot of boiling water. Arms and claws fly in every direction as the lobster tries to escape his fate by clinging to any available appendage.

Another prep cook cons a rookie salad person just mastering the technique of oyster shucking into believing that a buckshot pellet is actually a black pearl. In a fit of excitement, the novice drops the pellet and it explodes--her hopes of making an overnight fortune in the jewelry market go up in smoke.

Just when I'm about to give up hope of ever working with serious, dedicated cooks, that bastion of professionalism and talent, the night crew, begins to drift in, bleary-eyed from a night of tequila, junk food and late night television.

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