We Never Stopped Peeling Shrimp that Summer

I had never set foot in a professional kitchen before. In fact, I’d only been in a fine dining restaurant once and I’m not sure how high-end it was considering Shania Twain was twanging from the speakers. I hadn’t even been able to enjoy it because I was so nervous about the bill the whole time. Not because I’m cheap but because I was in my early twenties and I was flat broke.

The chef, my soon to be lord and master, asked me to come in a week before I was due to start. I sat at the bar to wait for her. When she came downstairs from the second floor kitchen to meet me she merely introduced herself and handed me a menu, telling me to study it and that she’d see me in a week. We shook hands.

I took the menu home and studied it. I had never heard of piri piri or skordalia before. The menu was eclectic and had been ever since the restaurant opened in the late 70’s by a hippie rock star and his wife. When they started out, opening the restaurant in what had once been a livery stable in the 1800’s, they were embraced by the town who appreciated their eclectic menu that featured influences from all over and offered dishes as diverse as latkes, duck and green peppercorn pâté, nasi goreng, doro wat, cassoulet, chicken mole, ribs…

The extent of my culinary education came from Cook’s Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living and the Food Network and there was no Google in those days so I couldn’t really delve too deeply into what the heck piri piri was. I showed up on my first day a blank slate and chef gave me my first job – peeling shrimp. Luckily no quiz on the menu was forthcoming.

The kitchen in this converted (and rumored to be haunted) stable was 350 square feet and that included the hot line, garde manger, the dishpit and pastry. Somehow they’d even squeezed in a walk-in fridge. From that space we’d serve 125 seats and, in summer, an additional 75 seat patio. I could not have landed in a better first kitchen. To handle service for 200 people on a Sunday brunch in July or a Friday night in August was to be forged by fire into a rock solid cook. No one left that kitchen without the ability to whip up any number of completely disparate ethnic dishes out of practically thin air with nothing more than a sharp knife and a screaming hot cast iron skillet.

The most popular menu item by far was the Gambas al Ajillo, shrimp cooked very quickly in a hefty glug of oil with chilies and garlic and served with crusty baguette. We sold so many that it seemed to me that every single table that came in had to be ordering the gambas.

So I peeled shrimp, first taking the headless thing and using kitchen shears to snip along its rudimentary spine. This served two purposes; to open up the shell and make it easier to remove and then slice open it’s flesh to gain access to the poop chute, so-called because this gritty tube apparently held the shrimp’s last meal. Pull out the poop chute and crack the shell off leaving the last centimeter in place so the tail would still be attached. My first lesson in haute cuisine: classy joints serve shrimp tail on.

I peeled shrimp endlessly. We all did. Anytime there was a lull, which was practically never, we could always keep busy peeling shrimp. In the middle of every crazy service I moved like a high-speed Garde Manger automaton, plating Niçoise salads, frying chà giò, sprinkling peanuts on cold Thai beef salads and racing back to the walk-in to grab more shrimp whenever chef screamed “Gambas!”

We never stopped peeling shrimp that summer. That was my first kitchen job and I loved it.

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