I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time, and I’ve been working for even longer. Granted, my first few jobs were as unofficial as they come: babysitting, pet sitting, and the like. But at sixteen, I joined the big leagues. I started working for a local restaurant.
This unnamed establishment had not yet opened when I got hired. My first shift included cleaning out the bathrooms and helping arrange supplies in a previously empty kitchen. After that, you might have thought that a semi-attractive, weak-muscled sixteen-year-old girl like myself would have been put in the front to work as a hostess. But alas, no. This was not my fate.
My boss then assigned me to the kitchen. Keep in mind that I am only halfway through high school at this point. I’ve hardly cooked an entire meal for myself, let alone learn how to prepare an entire menu’s worth of food. Plus, I had zero aspirations to become a chef. I still don’t. Oh, and I was also completely repulsed by meat.
Even so, I was desperate to have a routine paycheck I could use for gas money and to save for college. I had never had a “real” job before, and I wanted to prove myself to the people I was suddenly spending hours a week with.
Working in a restaurant kitchen taught me a lot more than how to clean a deep fryer. First off, if I wasn’t evidence enough, a lot of behind-the-scenes folks at local restaurants are not there because they want to prepare for their debut on Chopped. That being said, I was always the youngest person there. And I was usually the only girl.
All of this was pretty overwhelming, especially at first. But the absolute worst part of it all: prepping, handling, and preparing meat.
I had been a vegetarian for nearly three years when I started my job. I was determined to avoid coming into contact with meat as often as possible without drawing attention to myself or doing anything that would get me fired. Luckily, I started out working solely on the line, which basically means I called out orders, prepared plates and side dishes, and made salads.
Next, I started learning how to use the fryer. Dropping pre-made appetizers in a vat of oil and setting a timer wasn’t a big deal at all. But the chicken always had to be breaded beforehand. And so, I had to pound it flat, dip it in egg wash, cover it in flour, and then put it in the fryer. I got through this. I could handle it. Things were okay.
After the fryers, I had to learn how to use the grills. The first grill looked like a more hefty version of what you’d find on a suburban family’s back deck. The second grill was a flattop. I hated the flattop. Everything went on this thing: burgers, pork tenderloins, tilapia, shrimp, etc. And all those once-alive friends left some gnarly grease and char behind. All of which, I might add, had to be collected in this pull-out trough contraption that we had to empty every night.
Aside from my disgruntled relationship with the flattop, cooking steaks was my least favorite part of my job. It was also the last thing related to meat that I learned how to do. You have to get pretty intimate with steaks when you’re preparing them for other people. I was taught the Finger Test, which basically requires you to compare the feeling of your own flesh to the toughness of a slab of bleeding meat. So intimate.
I worked this job for over a year before becoming a waitress at the same restaurant, and I’d like to say that I got used to the horrific things that were really difficult for the vegetarian part of me to handle. I still cringe when I think about some of the tasks I had to perform on a daily basis. Even so, I’m glad I had this job. I learned so much about how a restaurant really functions, which I now think about every time I go out to eat.
I no longer get mad when a restaurant is out of something or when the service is slow because I know how easily that kind of thing can happen. I also know that getting up close and personal with raw meat countless times each week convinced me to stay a vegetarian for the rest of my life. At this point, I’ve seen too much to go back.