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Kitchen tales to give you shivers: a young restaurant worker writes about his experiences behind the swinging door

June 16, 2010 |  8:00 am

Suna Scurrilous food-related dramas loop endlessly in restaurant kitchens. Most diners are aware of that. But if you’ve actually ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, chances are you’ve spent countless hours trying to poke out the part of your mind’s eye that saw that one unspeakable thing happen with the burger meat and the black beans in the walk-in cooler.

Developing selective amnesia, however, was not part of writer/ restaurant vet Kenneth Suna’s plan when he penned the book “It’s a Miracle They Ain’t Dead Yet.” Instead the 25-year-old former expediter/food runner/line cook plunged into the icy waters of his traumatic kitchen memories with zeal.

The book is an earnest, detailed treatise on what it's like to work behind the scenes in a corporate chain restaurant. And although Suna doesn't write with the epic certitude of a young George Orwell describing the sweltering, chaotic filth of a Paris kitchen in "Down and Out in Paris and London," he does manage to convey quite clearly that what happens behind the swinging doors of restaurant kitchens can be caustic.

Sour nuggets of text regarding cruel, self-absorbed managers, cockroaches in food, drug and alcohol abuse on the job, dead rats in the kitchen and (gasp!) a dishwasher relieving himself into a kitchen drain are ladled out by Suna with a twisted sense of joy. He’s no Anthony Bourdain — his writing and thoughts on the subject aren’t nearly as sophisticated — but that is part of the book’s charm. It’s a simple account of the inner workings of a restaurant from an everyman of the kitchen.

Surprisingly, Suna is not a hardened shell at the end of the book. Instead he quits the restaurant by writing a passionate letter of resignation to the owners. "It seems that I have far more invested in the success of this restaurant than many of the managers for whom I've worked. I can't help but wonder why the owners aren't more personally invested in the internal success of their restaurant," he concluded in the letter. He received no response.

This ending makes the book an unlikely testament to the fellowship that blooms between coworkers in a kitchen — the us-against-them mentality that sustains people dealing with uncaring management and impossible demands from the restaurant floor.

That's not to say that all restaurants suffer from gross neglect and mismanagement, but sometimes in the ones that do, powerful friendships take flight. And that's what Suna describes best.

“I loved the chaos, the Spanish music blaring from the kitchen radio, the sweat, burns, cuts, spills, tray drops, anger, passion, excitement, and fear of working the line by myself. I loved the perverts, the sleaze and filth, the customers, the camaraderie, and the laughter.”

-- Jessica Gelt

Photo of book cover by Jessica Gelt / Los Angeles Times