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Essay: Kitchen Gazelle

Lessons learned behind the line

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My fondest childhood memories involve gazing across my grandmother's dining table, strewn with tiny bowls of pickly sunomono, steaming mounds of rice and platters of broiled, miso-slathered salmon. Somehow, she had the innate ability to time everything just right—the last plate would hit the table just as we were walking in the door.

Though my grandma was my first kitchen mentor, she definitely wasn't my last.

Over the past decade, I've held gigs scrubbing fondue pots, serving tables, working the line, pickling, farming, stuffing salami, pressing wine, making cheese, slinging ramen and developing menus. My resume is a hot mess. My mom says if I were an animal I'd be a gazelle, darting side to side instead of running straight ahead. But each role has offered me a different perspective on the industry I've come to love.

The best nights in the kitchen are the busy ones.

My first day interning at Seattle's Canlis was at the hectic peak of the holiday rush. I was buried under piles of butternut squash, shrimp shells and potatoes that were destined to become truffle-fries. I pushed as hard as I knew how and quickly learned speed, efficiency and focus. By the end of six months, I was able to poke my head above the veggie pile and soak it all in. I had been sucked into the kitchen vortex and was loving it.

Fast forward to summer Saturday nights spent on the line at Portland, Ore.'s Park Kitchen, when the reservation book was brimming over. Our adrenaline was cranked up and the crew hummed as a collective, focused unit. Three cooks bounced back and forth, shouting calls and covering for each other. Sure, there were the nights when anything that could go wrong would, but we pulled each other back up. The chaos drew everyone closer.

Now, years later, I work in the kitchen at State & Lemp. The team has different players but the camaraderie is just as strong. Because the staff and the space are both a bit smaller, each person's role is more varied—we're all food runners, menu planners, dishwashers and line cooks.

The menu changes constantly, but the flow and rhythm remain the same.

Life in a kitchen is about balancing dichotomies. Consistency is critical, but adaptation and evolution are mandatory. We cherish what's fresh, yet crave the aged and fermented. We sear hot and quick. We braise low and slow.

Kitchen life has been the cause of cuts, burns, embarrassment, criticism and strained relationships. It has also been the source of healing, growth, praise and lifelong friendships. It's challenging. It's a source of great passion. It's just food. It has helped me create memories that will last a lifetime.

Kris Komori is chef de cuisine at State & Lemp, 2870 W. State St., Boise, 208-429-6735, stateandlemp.com.

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