Le Fast-Food Chroniqueur
I land in Pittsburgh, and can feel the strength of my destiny. I leave Europe behind me with naught but contempt: adieu to you, land of my birth, strangler of talents! You are no friend to the artist. You are a place of calcified class, of snobbery and falsely gained expertise. I forsake thee, Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Française! I forsake thee, Ecole Supérieure de Cuisine Française Groupe Ferrande! I go to seek my fortunes here in America, where a man can be whatever he chooses, where one is not bound by the fortunes of his father or who it is who knows who else. I shall earn my way to the top, and you shall rue the day you let me go.
I have secured my first employment! I am now a pensioneé of the McDonalds in Lyndora. Oh, I know the curiously muddled reputation the restaurant enjoys in my native land. But I maintain my open mind, while those who turned me away from the traditions of my country may not. I have left it all behind, including the sharp judgments of others. I have personally never had the opportunity to dine at a McDonalds, but, after all, much of le cuisine is pleasing the common man, is it not? Were they of such poor quality, surely they should not have proved so durable, so popular. I am intrigued especially by this, the “McNuggets”.
I had originally thought to begin my duties as a préparateur, perhaps slicing the vegetables in advance of the evening’s dinner crowd. How bold, how arrogant of me! I may as well have asked to be made a saucier from my first day. Instead I have been vouchsafed the rôle of “mop and bucket man”, which apparently entails the cleaning of the dining area. I would have thought this to be the purview of the waiters, but I am too fresh still to ask questions.
The duties of préparateur elude me still. I have learned these last few weeks that the staff zealously guard their assigned tasks; if I had a nickel for every time Jorge has told me to keep my hands away from the deep-fryer, I should be able to afford to restore my telephone service. (Which, by the way, has already led to some trouble; I have already been “written up” by the head chef, Merrill, for arriving late to my shift. I attempted to phone and tell him I had simply lost track of time while wrestling with a particularly thorny section of the Larousse Encyclopédie Gastronomique, but as I say, the service has been terminated for non-payment.)
I am learning much, though, about the intricacies of the life of an American restauranteur, simply by observation. The staff here are largely of the belief that I do not speak English, or, for that matter, Spanish, and I have gleaned much from watching them quietly in unguarded moments. The proper defrosting times for Salisbury-hamburgers, the appropriate percentages of lettuce to onion, the fact that the saucier is in fact referred to as a “modular assembler”: all this and more have I learned. To no great end, I have also learned that local ruffians leave ghastly messes in the lavatory. Patience, Henri! Patience and time!
Ricardo, the saucier, has befriended me since learning that I am not mentally hindered and can in fact speak both of the two languages he knows. He is a great man, a truly devoted chef who has yet to earn the name only because of petty politicking being played by the assistant manager and the fellow who runs the griddle. Ricardo is, like all great restauranteurs, devoted to the service of the patron, and often confesses to me that he will add extra pickles or reduce the admixture of catsup and mustard without letting on, in hopes of giving a superior dining experience to his guests. He wears his cap and vest with pride, unlike the slatterns at the front with their insouciant postures and bare mastery of the colorful pictograms which make up the brunt of their duties. Mark my words: when I open my own bistro, there shall be no place in my employ for them! Well, perhaps Carlene, the one with the frosted hair.
Sometimes Ricardo will ask me if I think it is funny that we call them French fries. I reply that in my country they are called pomme frites, and are in fact Belgian in origin. This alternately amuses and perplexes him.
It cannot be all for naught, it cannot be! Liberty has turned to helplessness, freedom to poverty, and hope to a canola-oil-flavored ash in my mouth. All my work, all my eight months as the most decorated mop-and-bucket man in the history of Lyndora #12459 have come to a bitter end.
It began when Maria Theresa, the evening line cook, announced her imminent departure on a maternity leave. Sensing my chance, I lobbied Merrill vociferously for a chance to take her place. To hell with Ricardo, I thought! To hell with propriety, with seniority, with the rigorous caste system I hoped to leave behind! I shall prove myself here and now. Told that I would be given such a chance, I danced home on weightless feet, knowing my moment was at hand.
I prepared a veritable feast to show Merrill what I could do: classics, nouvelle, bistro styles the entire gamut of contemporary French cuisine. In the small modular plastic kitchenette did I create salade Lyonnaise la Meunière, terrine aux herbes de Provence Madame Cartet, poulet sauté aux echalotes – a dozen dishes, each with Henri’s indescribable flair.
As it happened, all that was needed was for me to take the Fry-Q test, and it turned out that was the day the health inspector came to visit.
You have not defeated me, o America. I shall not run again. I shall not flee my adopted homeland, as I did my loved and hated France. I shall not be moved. As long as there is an Applebee’s in McKeesport - and I am reliably informed there is I shall have my victory.