Southern Legitimacy Statement: You can’t go much further south than living in Miami Beach. Although most would disqualify my city as The South, I promise I can fish, cook collard greens, and sing all the lyrics to Southern rap songs better than any true Southerner. I also say “Yes, ma’am,” when I remember my manners. When I am not busy cooking, I am doing exciting Florida activities such as going on airboat rides in a swamp, buying knives at the Swap Shop, or weighing myself at Publix.
Becoming a chef is an unglamorous process. But if you have the fortune of studying as a culinary student in Miami, you’re granted the prestigious opportunity to work at the annual South Beach Wine and Food Festival hosted by The Food Network. All the TV food stars who made most of us want to pursue a career in the culinary world to begin with would be there. Each chef served a dish at one of the parties that cost more than the average cook’s paycheck to attend. I was paired with one of the more recognizable food stars on television. He was a graduate of the very school I was attending and surely would remember what it was like to be a wide-eyed budding chef.
I prepared for the event with the naiveté enthusiasm only a student who’s yet to be jaded by years of rough kitchen jobs can possess. I french braided my hair and starched my finest chef jacket. I imagined bonding with Chef TV Star and building a lifelong mentor relationship.
But my fantasy was torched upon arrival. Chef TV Star did not look up once as introductions to his team of protégés for the day were made. He blocked any risk of eye contact with us underlings by never taking off his dark aviator sunglasses. “The dish we will be showcasing is fresh calamari over a seaweed salad with a spray of fresh ocean salt. You will fill up spray bottles with water from the ocean and mist each dish before it goes out. Go fetch.”
I wasn’t sure which was more shocking. The fact that a celebrity had just commanded me to “go fetch” like a dog or his desire to willingly put South Beach ocean water on top of his food. This idea sounded exotic and in theory may have worked if we were, say, along the coast of the South Pacific. But the ocean water of South Beach is a cesspool of everything you would never put on top of your food. Certainly, I wasn’t going to be the person to point this out to a television star. I would discreetly fish out the used condoms and 2-inch layer of chemically laced tanning oil floating above the water before serving it to the public. I hoped they agreed paying $600 a head to taste water drunken tourists had marinated in all afternoon was indeed, exotic tasting.
The rest of my team and I looked around for clues as to how we were going to fetch the water. All of the mise en place for the evening was sitting in trucks on the other side of the beach. We didn’t have so much as a soup ladle to scoop up the ocean water. We found an abandoned cooler that would have to make do.
Our team kicked off our chef clogs and rolled up our checkered pants. We walked towards the shoreline lugging the cooler between us. Even with indiscernible waves, trying to get the water into the cooler was not easy. Particularly when trying to not get yourself soaked in the process. We set the cooler at the shoreline and waited for a wave to crash into our receptacle. This gave us about a half a cup of water and pounds of sand and cigarette butts. A few failed attempts later, we ended up wading into the ocean while dragging the opened cooler behind us. Inevitably, we were completely soaked.
We would be serving our food underneath a large tent that resembled the setup of a wedding. The proximity of the tent to the ocean was close, unless you were walking in 90-degree heat, wearing a polyester uniform, and dragging a 20-pound cooler full of ocean water.
When we returned to the table, our cart of food and equipment had still not arrived. The other groups of students and their chefs were patiently waiting for their carts to be delivered. Not Chef TV Star. “I want my cart now. Go find me my items.”
My team walked over to the truck and inquired when Chef TV Star’s cart would be ready. “We’ll be dropping the carts off one by one as they come out of the truck. All the chefs should have their cart within the hour.”
This did not sound like an answer that would cut it for TV Star. On the beach, it was near impossible to push the carts through the sand without them tipping over, losing all the meticulously prepped food in the process. We could only come up with one solution. We would break down our cart and individually carry each item one by one to our station. This would take longer than it would to sit and wait for our cart to be dropped off, but TV Star was not a sit around and wait kind of guy. I felt like a pack mule as I lugged rondeau pots and butane burners across the beach under the baking sun. TV Star stood with his arms crossed underneath the shade of the tent, still in his sunglasses blocking out our pleading looks of mercy.
We laid our cutting boards and waited for further instruction. TV Star walked us through a precise calibration of measurements for each ingredient to be cut. I decided the only reason Chef chose to disease the food with South Beach water that he wanted to throw the words “fresh sea salt” in his dish’s description. Sea salt was a trending ingredient at the time, as was the foodie term “farm to table.” Presumably, if you’re not on a farm, “ocean to table” had the same ring to it. TV Star seemed intent on taking that interpretation very literally.
I began slicing the calamari into the required measurement of ¾” of an inch thick. After working my way through a dozen tubes, TV Star walked over and plucked two squid rolls from the bunch. He pinched the two tubes between his fingers and held them up next to each other and looked at me. “Do these look the same size to you?”
I froze. “Um, well, no, not exactly?”
He picked up the bowl I had placed all my sliced calamari in and upturned the whole thing into the garbage. “Start over! Same size pieces only!”
My other teammate working next to me began to slice her vegetables in slow motion after witnessing my work get tossed out by Chef. He circled around her and snatched out a single strip of bell pepper that still had some of the white inner membrane connected to it. He held up the slice of pepper and wagged it in her face. “Would you eat this? When you are eating a salad, is this something you would look at and think it looks enjoyable to eat?”
“No?” my teammate croaked in a whisper.
“No? Then why are you serving it to me? Why do you think that I would serve something that you told me you don’t think looks edible? Clean these peppers up!” We continued to work through our food with the precision of a doctor holding a scalpel to avoid further disposal of our work.
The only job left was to assemble the plates for service. As TV Star prepared a demo plate for us, I nudged my way past the others to secure a spot at the beginning of the line. There was no way I would be last. I couldn’t bear completing the final step of spraying the whole dish with the nauseating cesspool water.
Everyone on my team had the same thought. Finally, one teammate conceded to being the sprayer, after we all agreed that we would take equal liability when people came forward claiming food poisoning.
We worked in an assembly line, each person plating a single ingredient. The guy who was responsible for placing the calamari on the plate grabbed a handful and reached to get them to the plate, but their slinky texture slipped through his fingers and he dropped them into the sand. “You!” TV Star yelled out, “Back of the line. Switch places.” Just like that, the salt spray guy got promoted to calamari duty.
The newly appointed salt sprayer glumly pulled the trigger of the spray bottle as he coated each dish. He gestured with the mock exaggeration of someone miming a pointed gun to the head.
The line of guests approaching our table never stopped. At some point, TV Star left to walk around and rub elbows with his colleagues. He came back to our station periodically to watch people eat his dish and accept praise of his work. I cringed each time a guest speared a fork into our food. I waited for the crowd to become violently ill from Clostridium perfringens, the fastest acting food bacteria. I could calculate the incubation time and identify all the symptoms with my fancy culinary education. I counted down T-minus hour in my head. I kept an eye out for masses of people clamoring for the porta potties lining the far end of the beach.
Tickets to the event provided guests with unlimited access to food and drinks. With that much eating and drinking going on, who could pinpoint exactly what made them sick? Anyone claiming food poisoning would be left to wonder whether it was bacteria from the ocean water or that seventh cocktail that made their stomach turn.
More than once, I witnessed people stumbling into the bushes to vomit. But no more people than your average night in South Beach. It looked like we were free of any accusations of poisoning the guests in the tent, with the ocean water.
The best part of the night was after the guests left. We were allowed to eat any leftover food and drink the bottles of wine that had already been opened. We ate ravenously with our hands and drank champagne straight from the bottle. I tried dates stuffed with chorizo and miniature Wagyu sliders. I didn’t eat any seafood. Everything deriving from the ocean or containing sea salt suddenly sounded unappetizing.
Everyone began to strip from their sweaty uniforms to dive into the ocean naked. We left our uniforms in a sandy pile, hardly able to distinguish our matching coats from one another. We floated on our backs, passing bottles of champagne back and forth. By the time we drifted back to the sand, no one was in any condition to drive home. We had to be back on the beach in just a few hours to begin prep for the next day and do it all over again. A group of us piled into a golf cart a team manager had been given to use throughout the event. The cook that lived closest volunteered his place for us to crash on the floor. We swerved in the golf cart down Collins Avenue, cars on either side of us looking concerned. Even if the driver of the golf cart had been sober, it still would have been illegal to operate a golf cart on the road. But it was South Beach, and it took much stranger things to happen to warrant police involvement.
We drank at our new friend’s house until we passed out wherever we could find room, using towels and sweatshirts as pillows and blankets. I woke up the next morning on the floor in my underwear and wife beater tank, still feeling drunk. I was laying suspiciously close to the sea salt spray guy. I slid the glass door open where all of us had left our uniforms to dry over the balcony. I made a haphazard attempt to brush the sand off my chef pants and jacket. The guy who I think lived in the apartment was brewing coffee in the small galley kitchen strip along the wall. I was going to need caffeine, at minimum, to get me through the day.
After everyone had woken up and stumbled to pull themselves together, we remembered we still had the golf cart we needed to get back to the festival’s main pavilion. It was that prime early hour of South Beach- too late for anyone to still be out partying, but too early for anyone to be up starting their day. We piled back into the golf cart and drove down the street with notably less swagger than we had the night before. We parted ways once we got to the tent.We gave each other quick nods of recognition goodbye, people whose name I had already forgot and knew I would never see again. Such is the way of the culinary lifestyle. You quickly forge bonds with people and between grueling work shifts you jam together for a giant slumber party, only to never hear from each other again.
I worked at many more events after my début at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. I made thousands more dishes and met plenty more famous chefs. I even began to eat calamari with sea salt again without feeling nauseous. But I never watched Chef TV Star on television ever again.