Nearly twenty years ago, I moved back to the US from Costa Rica, and I dropped out of school with a handful of credits left to finish my BA. I went straight to work in a restaurant. I started waiting tables in this Italian place, and I was going to stash away all my tips until I had enough to go back to Costa Rica. Turns out I hate waiting tables, but I wasn’t ready to leave the restaurant. There was something happening in the kitchen that called to me. I ended up working in the kitchen for years, until I decided I needed to go back to school and finish the semester’s worth of credits to earn my BA.
Something similar happened on my road to conference interpreting. There was something going on in the kitchen (or the booth, rather) that I couldn’t ignore. Just as in the kitchen, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I stepped into the booth. It’s true: Everything I learned about interpreting, I learned in the kitchen.
I survived the weeding out. “I’m not sure waiting tables is for me. Is there something for me in the kitchen?” There certainly was. It was called washing dishes. If you’ve never washed dishes in a restaurant kitchen, allow me to describe it for you. It’s grueling physical work. It’s hot and steamy. You’re on your feet long periods of time. It’s really fast-paced and high-pressure. During peak dinner times, the line may be waiting on you for clean plates so food can go out. There’s yelling, insults flying around. I found satisfaction in such demanding physical work. Everything clean, and everything in its place. I think they meant to weed me out, show me that kitchen work wasn’t for me. It had the opposite effect. I worked my way from dish washing, to salad station, to cold appetizers, to the grill for hot appetizers, then sauté, and finally to meats.
“I’m not sure I want to be a healthcare interpreter anymore. Is there anything for me in the booth?” There certainly was. And it involved tossing aside everything I knew and working with everything I didn’t know. My first Spanish conference interpreting class, I wanted the earth to swallow me up because I pronounced “Ebola” with the accent on wrong syllable. After years of being at the top of my game with Spanish and healthcare interpreting, I was back to the beginning. I wouldn’t say there were any yelling or insults flying around, unless you count the ones I flung at myself in my inner monologue. But in a way, I liked it. I felt beat up at times, but the rigor of it satisfied me. Instead of giving up, I pushed on.
Multitasking. Kitchen work involves mental and physical multitasking. Many plates, many courses. Different parts of the line. They all have to be coordinated. Interpreting involves mental multitasking. Fortunately, we’re not in the booth working with knives, skewers, and 500-degree ovens. And while the booth can feel like a little oven at times, you’re not going to end up in the emergency room (we hope).
You’re going to get tangled up, and you’re going to learn to untangle yourself. This is what my chef told me my first night on the sauté station by myself. Same with interpreting. In school, our instructors’ job is take us into the place where we get tangled up, back ourselves into a corner, and it’s up to us to find our way out.
Start with structure, then work with intuition. In the kitchen, we work with recipes. After working with recipes for so long, I now enjoy cooking on my own. I know how everything fits together. Preparing food is now intuitive to me. It wasn’t always this way. Same with interpreting. There are certain rules and techniques to be mastered before you can break out and make a speech something of your own.
It’s something better done with formal training. In the kitchen, I had only the training I got on the job. In the hospital, I worked as an interpreter without formal training for the first couple years. Everything got easier once I started getting formal training, and the quality of my work skyrocketed. In conference interpreting, I’ve had only formal training so far. I cannot imagine doing this work without it. Back in the kitchen, I started thinking about finishing school. And to stay in the kitchen I realized, I would need to go to culinary school. Though I’m sure I would have loved culinary school, that was my deal-breaker; I chose to finish my BA in Spanish instead.
Spanish of all kinds. I went from studying Liberal Arts in a Spanish-speaking country, to working in a kitchen with Spanish-speaking guys, back to studying Liberal Arts in Spanish in the US. It was a very rich exposure to the language, in many different settings. The Spanish I learned with the guys helped me a lot in the hospital and court settings. The university-level Spanish is something that I’m still dusting off and using for the conference setting.
Working under extreme stress is wonderful and horrible. I loved and hated the stress of the kitchen. I was drawn to the adrenaline rush, I guess. The working with very intense focus for hours at a time fed me, and then when it was over, I’d crash. Same with medical and court interpreting. It was a lot of pressure, and it either fell apart, or I did really well and was on a high, and then would crash. In the booth I’ve found that I thrive on that same intensity that conference interpreting provides.
Eventually, I went back to waiting tables while I finished my BA. I realized that being a line cook was not something I could do long-term. I also realized eventually that moving back to my dear Costa Rica was not to be. I spent some time regretting my time in the kitchen, wishing I’d just stuck it out in school and found a “real job”. I’ve since given up hope for a different past, and I can appreciate my time in the kitchen as part of my path to the booth. And so far, the booth hasn’t sent me to the emergency room.