On Sundays, I have a ritual. I go to Los Angeles’ Chinatown and queue up behind the aunties at Shang Lee Poultry for a freshly killed, just-plucked bird. Even in the “winter,” there’s a line of visors and sunglasses as I stand quietly and listen to overlapping Mandarin, Cantonese, and occasionally Spanish, too. When I reach the counter, I order my usual: a single yellow chicken, please.
The woman at the cash register picks one, raw and sometimes just a glimmer wet from cleaning, from a gray bus tub to her right. Its small, lean body — complete with a head and claws — in a loose, clear bag looks so fragile compared to the bulbous ones at the supermarket, wrapped so tightly in plastic as if to prevent escape at any moment. The taste is incomparable: This chicken’s flesh is bouncy when cooked, its bones offering a broth no lighter than molten gold. Most glorious of all, I must butcher it; faction off its feet, still studded with toenails. Drive my cleaver between the neck and wishbone. Glide my knife against the ribs until it whistles gently to release each miniature breast.
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I can’t quite remember when carving and cooking a Sunday chicken became my way of reconnecting with my work in restaurants. The process has become akin to sending a love letter to all those I’ve been able to cook with, perhaps born of nostalgia, but now evolved into something else entirely. It’s an invisible ode to all the things never displayed to customers, who likely focus on the frenetic pace of the expeditor’s station, the glow of warming lamps as a chef conducts a symphony with the ticket machine. “On the fly,” I bet they overhear, or “right now, right now!” or maybe, if they are listening carefully, “popup birthday, PX.”
Those are memories, too, but the details get fuzzier as the time between then and now stretches on. What is the right machination of letters to describe the sound of the ticket machine? It used to feel like an Etch-A-Sketch into my basic bodily sensations. What is the name of those barely absorbent disposable napkins we spritzed with cool water to layer with fine herbs and flower petals? Where again is the perfect cutoff level to maximize the filling in a giant pastry bag, while still maintaining enough clearance for a hearty spin to remove air pockets?
But preparing this chicken, slowly, carefully brings texture back to my recall in a way even eerily accurate shows like “The Bear” or dystopian imaginations like “The Menu” simply cannot. The things I miss are just not that spectacular, like walking in at 6 a.m. with only the hum of the HVAC reverberating against stainless steel.
Or darting over to the dish pit and spraying down the blade of the Robot Coupe food processor (by far my least favorite kitchen appliance) with a nozzle outfitted with water pressure I only wished my shower at home could match.
Or standing on a milk crate and peering into a massive tilt skillet for a bone broth steam facial, the smell already easing my pre-service hunger.
The satisfaction of getting a perfect stroke of the squeegee during mid-shift clean. Emptying the last of the flour, miso, xanthan, whatever it was for mise with a sigh, only to nail the recipe grams and be spared going to dry storage to open another bag.
Restaurant work is exhausting, thankless, and full of petty frustrations … But within that reality, unfolding daily, you also meet multifaceted, wondrous, vibrant people at all stages of life.— Jenny Dorsey
The things I miss are feelings, a hard-to-translate language I’m no longer well-practiced in. So I curl my knife into the little hollow crevice of the chicken’s oyster cavity, examining how much precious meat I’ve left behind. Scraping it clean, I almost think I can hear the buzzer of the Rational oven again, and feel the punched-out grooves of the anti-fatigue mat under my feet.
I don’t know if it’s quite accurate to say I miss it. I do not miss coming home full of bitten-back words I’d wished I could retort back to rude customers and incompetent sous chefs, inhaling half a box of Triscuits and hummus for a 2 a.m. post-shift dinner. Or foot pain like walking on a ball of rubber bands that snap and break, leaning against the prep table to slip off my Crocs for the barest moment. “You look great!” My non-restaurant acquaintances would say to me, like clockwork, roughly a month each time after I started cooking again. They can see the fatigue in my eyes and are trying to say something nice. “Yeah,” I would agree wearily, “it’s the starvation diet.”
Restaurant work is exhausting, thankless, and full of petty frustrations, like when you’ve managed to get lobster bile all over your face, only to look over and see the person who used the last of the c-folds didn’t bother to replace them. But within that reality, unfolding daily, you also meet multifaceted, wondrous, vibrant people at all stages of life.
These are people who can grill a perfect scallop over a binchō-tan with just a metal offset, or sear a ribeye to a beautiful 130F on an induction burner that beeps aggravatingly every time the cast iron leaves its surface for just a fraction.
They are dreamers who write poetry and recite it quietly at the garde manger station. “You should compile it all and publish a book,” I had said. “Maybe after I save enough to move home,” was the reply.
They are the observant peers who looked the other way when I kept eating precious leaves of ice plants during prep — a mix between being hungry, a new “clean eating” goal, and really liking ice plants — and brought me some trail mix the next day.
They are tough bosses who are unendingly kind and wise. During my first externship, I attempted to take an enormous pot of hot stock downstairs by myself out of a misguided desire to prove something. The sous chef stopped me as I crouched down, ready to blow out my back for my ego. “Trust is what makes you strong,” he said, and we carried it downstairs together.
They are women who look out for you, and offer you a wry smile when you start becoming more upset than usual about being assigned that one task you always try to avoid. “Motrin?” she had asked. I didn’t need any, but it made me laugh. Tweezing off the barest of whites from the thin membrane of egg yolks was far better when you felt understood.
Making this Sunday chicken, I imagine how my past coworkers might like the dishes I’m concocting. The salt and vinegar chicken wings would be a hit at family meal, I know. The gingery chicken breasts probably, too. I shake my head thinking of how I would convince the few wary eaters to try an herbal soup with ginseng, goji berries, angelica root, and watermelon rind. One day I swear I’m going to make a former peer’s stuffed chicken thigh with vermicelli noodles, but that was before Instagram, and I never wrote down their contact information.
Now prying off a singular roast chicken tail, hot from the oven — a little indulgence I always save just for me, before the rest of the roasted carcass goes into the stock pot – I wish for all my restaurant brethren this same gentle joy I am experiencing, however it looks for them, wherever the kitchen life has led them. Of being carefree enough to bask in perpetually perfect L.A. weather on my little patio for a few moments, to pet my dogs, and to eat a crispy, fatty little triangle of chicken delight — bone and all — and simply be.
Jenny Dorsey is a professional chef, author, and speaker working at the intersection of food, identity, and social justice. She leads a nonprofit research organization named Studio ATAO, and runs her own culinary consulting business. Jenny writes a newsletter titled Way Too Complicated, and has bylines in outlets such as The Washington Post, Eater, The Counter, and Food & Wine. In pre-pandemic 2020, she gave her first TEDx Talk titled How Food Can Be A Source of Identity, Intimacy, and Vulnerability. In 2022, she was named to Food & Wine’s industry Changemakers list and the World’s 50 “50 Next” list. Her full biography, food portfolio, awards, and bylines can be found at www.jennydorsey.co. You can also find her on Instagram and TikTok.