by David Kitai
A piece of frozen haddock, fried within an inch of its life and slathered with tartar sauce, isn’t going to make you sit up and think about the deliciousness of aquatic life. But when given the chance, fish can be memorable, a dish seared into your memory like grill marks. If my sister and I are any indication, a lot of young kids in North America are awfully picky about fish. So when we have the bite, urged on by our parents during a trip to the seaside, that wakes up to the beauty, versatility and pure joy of seafood, it’s a taste we’ll never quite forget.
That said my most distinct memory of fish took place in a kitchen, not over a dining table. I was an apprentice cook—my first restaurant job—in a little French hotel-restaurant. I was a terrible: nervous and constantly seeking validation. I barely spoke the language and thusly was unable to understand half of my chef’s instructions. Needless to say, I was miserable for my first few weeks there. I questioned everything I loved about food and quaked with fear every time a chit hit the board. My coworkers who, in hindsight, were remarkably sweet and understanding, terrified me. I felt isolated and incompetent in a foreign country. I butchered the simplest tasks and as a result was left with jobs where I could do the least damage. One of them was cleaning fish.
During prep, shortly before lunch service on a Friday, when we offered a fish special, the chef handed me a whole trout and a slim steak knife. He pointed me to the garbage and said, “Clean it,” (the fish that is—not the garbage). Clean it I did, cutting from neck to rectum, wrapping a finger around the oesophagus and yanking out a slippery tangle of entrails, kidneys, liver and, of course, a heart. As I performed that disgusting task, my eyes danced back to the fish heart, now lying at the bottom of the trash. It made me smile. I quickly asked the chef for more fish and gutted about a dozen more before service.
I’m not trying to come off creepy. I don’t enjoy the act of gutting fish. Well, I don’t mind it, but it’s not a real source of pleasure. I was smiling though because I finally felt I could do this job, I could be a cook. My stomach hadn’t turn nor my hands shake. Instead I had calmly and quickly performed one of the nastiest, if simplest, jobs in the kitchen. It was a step in the right direction. After weeks of self-loathing and self-doubt a fish heart had renewed my confidence.