'College is fine, but excuse me, there's something on the stove'

The scene is a chic Northern Italian restaurant in the SoHo section of Manhattan. The walls are cool, white stucco. Candles and fresh flowers glow on white linens.

Waiters glide among the tables, deftly whisking away plates and murmuring, ''I'd like to tell you about our specials.''

But follow one of these suave fellows through the swinging door to the kitchen, and you have stepped into another world.

The temperature is 110 degrees F. The air is thick with grease and steam. The clanging of pots and pans is deafening. The floor is a slippery sea of peelings, pasta, and lettuce leaves.

Firth Whitehouse, a fresh-faced 21-year-old from a fine old Philadelphia family, is standing over the range hoisting a basket of pasta out of a vat of boiling water.

Her face is flushed and her kitchen whites are covered with grease. She is in the fifth hour of a nine-hour shift.

What is a young woman like Firth, who might be cracking the books at Wellesley, doing in what George Orwell described as a ''stifling, low-ceilinged inferno''?

The answer is: She's doing something she loves. She's also part of a sudden infusion of middle-class young people into top-flight restaurants all over the city.

Some, like Firth, went into this work right after high school. Others, like 19-year-old Adam Victor, who works at the Lion's Head on Christopher Street in Manhattan, dropped out of high school and started cooking at 17.

Or - like Bob Vuolo, who works uptown at Mortimer's - they're deferring college, and they're cooking in the interim. But whether they plan to make it a career or just cooking as a stopgap, they all say the same thing: They love the work.

The work itself can be anything from sauteing julienne vegetables to precisely the right degree of crunch to whisking Hollandaise sauce, boning chickens, or making cold broccoli soup and court bouillon. They work in what they call ''serious'' restaurants, where the cuisine is apt to be ''nouvelle'' and the ingredients fresh.

Mostly they start out ''prepping'' - chopping and peeling vegetables, breading veal, opening oysters, and in general getting things ready for the saute cook.

When they've learned enough, they may progress to ''the line,'' so-called because the saute cook, the broiler cook, and sometimes the salad person often literally stand in a line. The line is the real heart of the kitchen, the focus of the most intense pressure.

At the height of a ''rush'', usually the dinner hours from 7:30 to 10 p.m., when orders are coming in thick and fast, the cooks must perform miracles of coordination and timing. Imagine, if you will, the timing involved in preparing a three-course meal for a dinner party of four in your own home. Multiply that by, say, 20, and imagine the cycle repeating itself over and over again for three hours, and you will have an idea of what line cooking is like.

David Noble, a 20-year-old who works at the Bridge Cafe in lower Manhattan, says about his first few days on the line, ''I had a terrible time at first keeping track of so many things at the same time.

''You've got something frying in deep fat, something else lightly sauteing, a cream sauce that might curdle at any moment. My first night I sent the entrees out before the appetizers.

''But after you get the hang of it, it's a wonderful feeling to be able to coordinate it all. It's like a juggling act or a dance.'' The fact is, the pressure seems to be one of the things the young people like about their work.

Ed Bode, who works at Les Douceurs de Paris in Greenwich Village, says, ''When you get into a groove and your timing is just right, you really feel as if you're flying.''

Another describes it as a ''nonstop performance. It makes me feel graceful, rugged, and coordinated - like John Wayne.''

''Oh yeah?'' said the other, holding out a scarred wrist, ''Zucchini Frittata , October '80.''

Some of the young cooks take great pride in having mastered specialized skills. Firth, who is the pasta cook at Wise Maria in SoHo, talks about the fine points of pasta cooking.

''It was hard to learn at first. We have several different kinds of pasta, and we cook it to order. You have to test each batch of uncooked pasta first to find out exactly how long it takes to cook al dentem .

'Five seconds can make a crucial difference, and you have to remember that, even when you take it out of the water, it continues to cook for another 20 to 30 seconds.''

Others like the creative aspect of cooking, although not every restaurant kitchen privides opportunities for self-expression.

James Graham, who cooks at Wilson's on the upper East Side, invented a fettuccine dish with peas and prosciutto that was so popular it was added to the menu.

Bob Vuolo recreated from memory a fusillim dish with spinach, anchovies, and butter that he had eaten the previous summer in Milan.

''If you're lucky,'' he said, ''you'll find yourself in a kitchen with people who are really adventurous about food. At one restaurant I worked in, we all got together and created a three-melon granitam , or ice with watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe. It was red, green, and orange in layers - and was absolutely delicious.''

Most of these young people have not been exposed to cooking - never picked up a saucepan until recently. What then draws them to cooking?

The answer seems to be that it is unalienating work with very immediate satisfactions. They find it gratifying to be making a product with their own hands that goes directly to the customer and, presumably, makes him or her happy.

Janet Farrell, a young cook who specializes in vegetarian cuisine, says she occasionally follows her food right out to the dining room and watches the customer's face as the waitress sets down the plate.

Some mention the sensual pleasures involved. Says Ed Bode, ''It's like when you were a little kid, squishing your hands around in mud and clay and decorating things with bright colors.

''When I send out a poached salmon, garnished with lemon wedges and cherry tomatoes and watercress, it reminds me of kindergarten and how I used to feel when I made something really beautiful.''

Another appealing element is the camaraderie that exists among the young kitchen workers. Through their own informal network, they alert each other about new restaurants opening up, or warn each other about restaurants where the cooks are treated poorly or underpaid. If one of them loses a job, the word spreads quickly and a new job is found through the grapevine.

Perhaps the most surprising and touching thing about these young cooks is their genuine respect for food and their lack of cynicism about restaurant cooking. One of them told me he had walked out on a well-paying job after six days because it was a ''food factory'' - everything was precooked and heated in a microwave oven.

Others have left restaurants because the food was going out on dirty plates or being recycled in unsanitary ways. They are also shocked by the huge and, to their minds, unnecessary waste involved.

Bob explains: ''People don't want ugly food, so anything that comes out ugly is automatically thrown out, even though it may be perfectly edible.''

Although the hours are long and grueling, the young people appreciate their flexibility. Many like the night shifts, for example, because they want their days free to pursue artistic interests. As for the money, it's just enough to provide a measure of independence for someone who still lives at home and eats his or her meals at work.

The average pay is about $55 for an eight- or nine-hour shift, but most are more likely to take home between $45 and $50 a shift. A few make as much as $70 to $75 a shift. None are unionized, and many are paid ''off the books.''

They are aware that they're being exploited, but they see it as a trade-off. ''I think of my present job as a kind of apprenticeship,'' David Noble says.

''I knowm my work merits higher pay, but I'm learning an enormous amount from the head cook, and by the time I leave I'll be able to ask for a much bigger salary.''

David is one of the few young cooks who plan a career in restaurant work. His dream is to become ''one of the great chefs.''

Firth hopes to go to Rutgers for a food science degree and ultimately work as a menu planner for a large institution.

''Some of the kids I went to high school with will be graduating from college this year, and they'll be out there with their English degrees having a hard time finding work without a practical, blue-collar skill,'' she said. ''I like knowing I'll always be able to support myself cooking.''

Most are content to have found a marketable skill with very real satisfactions. Adam speaks for them all when he says: ''When I get off work at 1 a.m. after doing 90 dinners, I may be exhausted and covered with grease, but I walk out of there feeling that I've donem something. I've actually fedm all those people.''

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