The Sober Job That Led to the Dream Job
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The Sober Job That Led to the Dream Job


This post was originally published on January 15, 2015.

Like most of us, I obliterated many professional bridges during my drinking days, disappearing (to pick up booze and chug it on the way home), walking off jobs in a fit of defiance because my boss scolded me for mixing up names and addresses on important mailings, going MIA for days at a time because I was tied up in a psych ward somewhere eating really shitty food after “accidentally” chasing pharmaceuticals with vodka.

Couple this embarrassing resume with the dismal economic climate of 2011, and, with two years of sobriety, I faced months-long unemployment and serious financial problems. No one in my field would hire me, and my “field” was a disheveled hodgepodge of administrative work, writing, desktop publishing and project coordination.

My 75 year-old sponsor with over 30 years of sobriety, one of those old-timers who grew up in the smoke-filled AA halls of the San Fernando Valley where you were told to take the cotton out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth, strongly suggested that I should find a way not to live off unemployment, GR or food stamps.

“We are self-supporting, honey,” Violet said. She always added “honey” after slashing through whatever bullshit I was trying to pull on a particular day. “You need a job. Any job. I don’t care if you’re bussing tables, bagging groceries or washing dishes.””

Washing dishes and bussing tables? I thought. Was she kidding? With a Master’s degree?

I’d coordinated lectures at the Getty. I’d written articles for Los Angeles magazine. I’d studied under T.C. Boyle and Janet Fitch. Wasn’t I supposed to get self-esteem by doing “esteem-able” acts? How could I possibly gain self-esteem if I bussed tables, bagged groceries or washed dishes?

But that 75 year-old woman had helped me to stay sober for two years, and I couldn’t get sober until I finally started taking her direction—even when I didn’t agree with it, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when I didn’t believe it would work. So I decided to take her direction and try to find a stupid job well below what I thought I deserved.

But I could not get a job at Gelson’s bagging groceries. I did not get the job at Kiehl’s selling avocado moisturizer to botoxed women on Robertson. Chico’s wouldn’t hire me to push their gaudy accessories and Macy’s wouldn’t touch me for their cosmetic counter, despite my lovely visage.

Still, after several visits, phone calls and online applications, Whole Foods hired me part-time to take turkey orders on their “Holiday Team.” Talk about embarrassing—I had to sit at a table, decked out with flashing Christmas lights and a hideous poinsettia tablecloth, selling Mary’s or Sheldon’s birds for $10 an hour to former colleagues, fellow alums from graduate school and high school friends wearing two-karat rocks on their wedding fingers.

The holidays came and went, and with them my job. Desperate, I tried to find work in a different department at Whole Foods, and the Prepared Foods department was the only one with openings. Without any cooking experience, without any training, without knowing how to scramble eggs, I cooked breakfast burritos, hamburgers and pizzas on their “line” during busy lunch rushes for high-maintenance customers who wanted the white pizza without the garlic, the turkey-avocado sandwich without the turkey and the street tacos without any meat.

At the beginning, I was a disaster, dropping whole pizzas on the floor, tearing apart burritos while trying to stuff a bunch of eggs and potatoes into spinach tortillas and charring a bunch of burgers that were supposed to be medium rare. But a month in, I caught my groove. One day at a time, I got faster on the line, then even faster, and I fell in love with the work and was hungry for more; in fact I decided that I wanted to work in a real kitchen in a restaurant.

Water Grill, the Michelin-starred preeminent seafood restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, hired me on the spot as a prep cook. I was stunned. The place had been recently renovated and reimagined and they needed to hire an entirely new kitchen. And so my journey in the brigade de cuisine began.

Kitchens run like an army. They push you to the max. You don’t get to be sick, you don’t get to have feelings and you don’t get to talk back. It’s just “Oui chef! Oui chef! Oui chef!” And if you can’t take direction, stay humble enough to clean soggy lettuce and crab meat out of the drains and remain willing enough to freeze your ass off while taking inventory of 20 types of oysters in a 30-degree walk-in, they’ll show you to the door.

I peeled hundreds of pounds of potatoes and gutted dozens of pounds of Dover Sole. I chopped hordes of onions—so many that my eyes would swell up red and tears would soak my face. When I scalded my arm with boiling hot chicken stock while trying to strain it in the sink, the pain, the excruciating pain, didn’t stop me from pushing on. After slicing off the tip of my thumb while chopping garlic so bad that blood pulsed all over the floor, I, like a good soldier, finished out my shift.

I wanted to move up the hierarchy from a lowly prep cook to garde manger—the station that puts out the salads—to hot apps, to the grill, to the revered hot line where they seared albacore for the nicoise salad.

But my executive chef, God-like in his 6’5” frame, God-like in that imperial white coat with that thick British accent, threw me on the pastry line, which I was curious about but never thought I could do. This happened with no warning one Saturday night—perhaps because I’m a girl, perhaps because he knew I was a sugar addict, probably because the other pastry girl up and quit unexpectedly. And thus started my journey as a pastry chef.

I moved onto the renowned Lucques, owned by James Beard award-winning chef Suzanne Goin. Not long after that, I found myself molding quenelles and piping crème légere into mille-feuille alongside Wolfgang Puck at Spago. With these prestigious establishments on my resume, LA Weekly took me on as a freelance food writer, and I wrote a bunch of listicles on tres leches and the best pancakes in LA. And this led to writing about food for the LA Times.

So when an entitled snob like me got willing enough to take turkey orders at Whole Foods, willing enough to make breakfast burritos and turkey-avocado sandwiches and willing enough to peel potatoes, sweep the floor, clean the drains, organize the walk-in and gut Dover Sole, one opportunity led to another and, unexpectedly, I was able to restart my writing career.

These days, I’ve hung up my kitchen crocs, stashed my chef pants in the closet, and put my chef coats in the back of my dresser. I dreamed of writing for a living for over 15 years, and today I’m full-time freelance writer. No, life isn’t always beyond my wildest dreams the way some in sobriety claim theirs is. But, in this one way, life has definitely met them.

Thanks Violet, for calling me on my bullshit.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.