The hottest, most intolerable part of Erasto Jackson’s workday doesn’t involve the pair of enormous smokers he tends outside his Rainier Valley restaurant, Lil Red, every morning. It’s that hour just before noon, when the chef is bent over six burners and a flat top, prepping oxtail and curry goat and the occasional fettuccini alfredo special. By lunch hour, all the open doors and fans in the world can’t keep temperatures comfortable in his compact kitchen. Jackson and his team cook their way through these conditions with their noses and mouths firmly masked—a health department requirement in the era of Covid. Recently he "upgraded" to a face shield (better for breathing, though it fogs up in the cooler and gets splattered over the stove).
No way around it, “Masks suck,” he says. “But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Nobody ever got into the restaurant business because they thought it was easy. And this year, of course, the challenges have mounted faster than order tickets during Friday night service in Before Times. After peeling a mask off my own face after a day in our recent heatwave, I realized A. How much a face can sweat, and B. This is but a gentle breeze compared with conditions under which cooks prepare your burger and fries, or barbecue, or curry grilled eggplant. You know, on top of all the crushing emotional uncertainties that come with being in the restaurant industry, or a being resident of earth, in 2020.
Cooks are hardly alone in this—as any first responder can attest. But add in the physical nature of kitchen work, plus stifling-hot conditions: It’s not just the financial aspect of the job that’s harder these days. It’s a seemingly small thing, but Seattle’s brigade of cooks and chefs deserve our thanks. And our tips.
When Paolo Campbell works the grill at Opus Co. in Greenwood, “I can only stand in front of the thing for so long,” he says, before he has to go stick his head out the window for relief. Masks are a constant topic of conversation in Opus’s kitchen, he says. If someone finds one that’s breathable, holds up to repeated washings, or doesn’t pull on your ears after a few hours, they’ll buy enough for the entire five-person crew. The real issue, says Campbell, is his glasses. Breathing into a mask makes them fog up. “Other people who wear glasses are always like, hey man—what are you doing? How do you avoid this?”
Like so much of our Covid reality, masks aren’t going away any time soon, though it’s impossible to say how long they will be a requirement in kitchens. Cooks are disinclined to complain much about working with limited air intake, unless a nosy journalist comes calling and pesters them for details. As Campbell puts it, "Now it's just part of the uniform." (So are latex gloves, but that's a whole other thing.) But the best way to express our gratitude is to just continue ordering. And tipping. And, of course, to show up in your own mask.