It's a mad dash to Penn Station to catch the Long Island Rail to some place promising sun and sand called: Montauk. Which, as I was explained to in careful detail while making Hotel reservations, is not 'The Hamptons'. And not to be confused with 'The Hamptons'.
In the underground maze of Penn Station I find the ticket machine, grab my roundtrip stub, and check the board for departure time. Just as I find my destination glittering in orange lights, the gate number flickers on next to it and hundreds of beach ready New Yorkers dying to get out of the city, surge like a swarm of bees attempting to squeeze all at once down a narrow hallway to the train platform.
Everyone is frantic to find a seat. Parents are getting separated from children, husbands from wives, sororities from fraternities. It's a cluster fuck.
I race to the last car and happily find a seat empty in a four seater – two seats facing two seats. I sit across from a nice looking girl and we are both thankful that no one yet has tried to claim the vacant seats next to us. I take the isle seat and put my two carry on bags next to me to claim the window space.
It's the first weekend I've had off in months. And I really want to relax.
I begin to close my eyes, thinking about this long week and pondering new ideas for family meal at the restaurant I cook at, when four absolutely stunning, skimpily clad, young, and totally annoying models squeeze in next to me and across the way.
I don't mind moving my stuff and scooching over to the window seat. I'm transferring trains anyway in 15 minutes. But God, their conversation is so petty, that I almost wish I had just opted to stand.
"So this guy was trying to get my number in the train station the other day, and he takes out his Blackberry and it falls onto the tracks, and he jumps down to get it and there's a train coming. He leaps back up. But oh my God, he could have been killed. Just for my phone number, ya know? He's so stupid."
"So are you gonna see him?"
"So what did you bring in that big bag?"
"Um, I have a fold up beach chair, towel, change of clothes for tonight, margarita mix..."
"You brought margarita mix? But you didn't bring tequilla?"
"We talked about this remember? It's just one less thing we have to buy. Okay, I also have handsanitizer and salt and..."
"You carry salt in your purse?"
"Yeah, you can't go anywhere without salt."
"Who carries salt in their purse?"
I kept waiting for her to add that the salt was intended for the margaritas. But no. She just carries salt around in her purse. Had she not been born into a ridiculously perfect body that under no conditions could/should sustain kitchen brutality, she might have become a chef.
No doubt about it, salt can make or break a meal. And cooks that don't like salt are eyed with disdain, awe, and curiosity in the kitchen. While most home cooks season food with a two finger pinch of salt, we kitchen cooks opt for the three finger pinch. Sometimes the four finger grab. And as I've come to realize, New Yorkers like salt waaaaay more than San Franciscans or even Parisians for that matter.
The conductor announces that Jamaica station is next and I squeeze my way in between a plethora of long legs and edge my way down the packed isle of beach goers to the train door.
Thankfully only half the people on my train are transferring stations and the other half (models included) are headed to Long Island beach, wherever that is.
I find a new seat next to a nice man who is glued to his i-phone. Which is fine because I'm glued to my computer trying to remember the exact verbiage of the models only seconds before. He's talking to a friend and giving out restaurant suggestions in Pennsylvania. Again the salt issue comes up:
"Yeah, this restaurant's great but it's B.Y.O.B and the food is well seasoned so you gotta B.Y.O.B. if ya know whud I mean?"
And I'm thinking: did he really say "well seasoned"? Wow, everyone's a salt fanatic here.
I have to laugh at myself because the very first family meal I made for the staff lunch was a nice spicy fish stew with beautiful steaming white basmati rice. The expensive kind that cooks up fluffy and is snow white in color with long elegant grains.
But I didn't season the water, because I personally like my rice plain. Especially if I'm going to spoon something that's already salty over it.
I don't think I'll be making that mistake again. The Caribbean fish stew was good. It was teaming with carrots and potatoes and spices, but one of the Latino janitors came up to me and said:
"The stew was good. But not the rice. What do you think we are? Chinese? You need to put salt."
I could have killed him on the spot. It's not easy to set up my station which includes an insane amount of garnishes and sauces and cook family meal for the entire body of servers, cooks, and janitorial staff. In fact it's a race to the finish line everyday.
I told him:
"You know where the salt is, why don't you use it next time? I don't know how you have the time to criticize my food. The rest of us don't even have time to swallow."
However, the next day I made pasta with a nice slowly cooked marinara sauce and he came up to me and said:
"The sauce? You made the sauce?"
"Yes, I made the sauce."
"Very good. Very, very good. Lots of flavor. Tomatoes were fresh? How did you do it? Pasta was good too, you salted the water."
"Yes, just for you."
"Pasta sauce very, very good."
I decided to let him live another week after his compliments. And I might add that the janitorial staff have become the most vocal critics of my staff meals. And although most of the time I can't understand a word they say, they always come up to me in person and tell me when they like the food. Which honestly, drives me to do something even better the next day.
I've also begun to notice that they walk by my station as family meal draws near to see what I'm concocting.
My French girlfriend Camille (who I cook with) also speaks Spanish and often after staff lunch she will come up and say, "They like it. That's what they're saying. Your food is good. They are talking about the flavor. And they like the rice too. You make good rice."
So let it be known that salt can not only enhance your margarita on the beach and encourage you to drink more beer with friends at diner, it can also make a staff of hungry food critics happy. And more importantly, make an exhausting job one worth having.