The Value of a Cherry Tomato

“FASTER, FASTER, FASTER”, the head chef yelled behind my neck as I clumsily dropped beets into a salad, staining the plate bright pink.  He rolled his eyes at me, the intern who seemed unable to compose a salad after weeks working at his restaurant. I did, however, know how to compose the Ensalada Remolacha; I had assembled twenty or thirty the previous week under little supervision.  Today, however, I worked in terror under the judgmental eyes of line cook Teresa and the head chef.  

Through the encouraging, supportive watch of my family, I had been assembling salads for years.  I began cooking at 13, when I saw an American Food Network personality chop an onion and decided I needed to try it too.  From chopping came sautéing, roasting, baking and grilling.  Gradually, I became the chief cook at home, preparing dinner for four on my own on weeknights and with my dad on Sundays.

After my first year at St Andrews, I came down with Arts Degree Syndrome, having less of an idea of what I wanted to do for a living than I did before I started studying. Ever since that first onion though, there had been in the back of my mind a romantic but powerful notion that I could go to culinary school and work my way up to be a famous female Gordon Ramsay. This summer, driven by this fantasy and not wanting to return for a fourth year to screaming five-year-old campers, I got myself a job as an intern in a fairly well-known Spanish tapas restaurant outside Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, I am nothing like Gordon Ramsay.  Instead of blind rage, I suffer from gawkiness and fear of confrontation, coupled with reasonable but not phenomenal culinary technique.  Because of these characteristics, I found myself knee-deep in cherry tomatoes from the start.

On my first day of work, Teresa taught me one of three ways to peel a cherry tomato: by poking a hole in the skin and boiling as briefly as possible in water, a technique called blanching.  I didn’t know how many methods there were to choose from, until the following day, the sous chef told me to cut a slit in the skin and blanch for forty-five seconds.  On my third day, the head chef appeared, telling me to cut an X-shaped slit in the skin, blanch for exactly a minute or I would lose my job.  I still don’t know if he was joking. 

If I used the head chef’s technique while Teresa was on duty, she would take the tomatoes away and have me stand in the kitchen, feeling uneasy and unable to speak to the nine out of eleven cooks who only spoke Spanish, before she bothered to give me another task.  Needless to say, she resented having me on the salad station, fumbling with her perfectly roasted beets.

Through June and July I wrapped wrinkly dates in fatty bacon, fried croquetas in bubbling oil and piped puffy chocolate mousse.  I learned to add vinegar instead of salt to cold soups, to peel potatoes at the speed of light and make true Spanish paella.  These skills, among the many others I learned, are now essential to the way I order at restaurants, choose ingredients and cook at home. They are invaluable and will forever hold a place in my foodie heart, but I took no joy in implementing these skills in a stressful professional kitchen.  I took even less joy in cooking detachedly for strangers.

I realised that I have a bookish brain, not a creative one that thrives in the hot, nerve-wracking kitchen environment — I am, after all, sitting at my desk writing about my experience rather than yearning for more.  I learned a new respect for line cooks and chefs, whose workweeks begin on Friday nights, and have the passion and patience to master infinite techniques for their craft.  I also learnt that thankfully, at some point, the tomato season does come to an end.