Birds of a Feather

PHOTOGRAPH BY KLAUS NIGGE, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

He steps out of the restaurant into the vacuum of the cold night; the chatter, the clanging, the calling, closes behind him. The silence of the alley cools the pounding of the kitchen in his ears.

He lights a cigarette and takes out his phone. The night air licks sweat from his skin. He scrolls through Yelp, then to Instagram. No haters today. Switches to text, “Hey babe, how’s your night? The boys in bed?” Back to Instagram.

“Oh my god, are you the chef?!” A group of girls comes toward him. Chef groupies, thanks Food Network. He doesn’t look up.

“That was the best fucking meal of my life,” one calls.

“Better than sex,” another one pipes up. They fall into a cacophony of giggles, marbles against the bricks. 

He puts his phone in his pocket, takes another drag and looks up. Like flamingos approaching, they limberly step along in high heels. Long legs, short skirts.

“Hello,” he says, with a coy smile. “You enjoyed your meal?” he raises his eyebrows. 

He’s handsome, and couldn’t care less about them, but he engages honestly. It’s irresistible. They press him to come with them. He flicks his cigarette and turns to open the back door. 

“Where are you going?” one of them whines.

“Back to work,” he shrugs. 

He swings the back door open and the energy picks him up like a riptide. His movements at his station behind the hot line are quick, ingrained, rehearsed. Night after night, day after day, year after year. A chef keeps time, always. Two minutes on the NY strip, 30 seconds on the halibut, refill the parsley, butter and shallots over mushrooms and serve. All instinct.

An 800 degree flattop is 18 inches from his back. He looks up, hands a plate to a server, and calls the table number. By the time she repeats it, his head is down again. The success of the restaurant rests on the cooks preparing each dish the same way, every time. Their feet bear the weight of the hours it takes to execute it. They stand there hunched over, in the blazing heat, after prepping all day, without the time to think twice.

“Work hard, create opportunity,” he hears his dad’s voice. His father wasn’t a guy who talked much, but he meant what he said. “You know what opportunity is? It’s doors that open. Not a lot of doors open for people like us if you don’t work hard.” 

He looks up at his kitchen staff. 

People like us. 

7 thoughts on “Birds of a Feather

  1. Oh I love this. I love the way you capture the quiet of that moment outside and the rush of energy and activity in the kitchen.

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