For some people, working in a restaurant means the chance to put their hard-earned culinary degree to use. For me, it meant lots and lots of crying. After I graduated from a fancy liberal arts college and failed to get a salaried office job with a business casual dress code and summer Fridays, I decided to take a different path in order to get my dream job working as a food writer. I met with the chef at a French restaurant in suburban Connecticut and said I loved the Barefoot Contessa and cooking and wanted a job. He looked me up and down and didn't think I had what it took to work in a restaurant but felt I deserved a chance (I only know this because months later, I asked him point-blank "why in the world did you ever hire someone like me?").
On my first day as a stage (aka an unpaid cooking intern), I arrived 15 minutes early, sat in the maroon and cream French bistro chairs on the sidewalk patio in front of the restaurant for 25 minutes, waiting for someone to walk by and open the front door, because I didn't realize there was a back entrance. It took lots of wandering and several embarrassing stares from dog walkers and young mothers walking their babies in overpriced strollers for me to discover the "employee entrance." After I found my way in, I was promptly yelled at by the sous chef for not tying my apron properly, not bringing my own set of knives (why would I spend money on knives? Shouldn't they be provided?), and not putting a wet towel under my cutting board to prevent it from slipping and sliding on the metal table (this is a genius trick and one that everyone should try).
Throughout my first few weeks, I did the same tasks day after day — stripping thyme leaves off woody sprigs, peeling potatoes, rinsing frisée in the world's largest salad spinner, sneaking freshly baked macarons when the pastry chef turned his back, and slicing onions. Lots and lots of onions. All of these tasks were ones I had done for years as a home cook. What makes cooking in a restaurant so different from home cooking — aside from the late hours, the incredible use of curse words, and paying customers — is the sheer volume of ingredients that need to be prepared.
Stripping thyme sprigs isn't so daunting when it's three to four sprigs. But when it's a gallon-sized plastic bag filled with bundles of thyme, well reader . . . there's just not enough thyme on my hands to prep it all. The average person brings their potatoes home from the grocery store in a reusable shopping bag; in restaurants, cardboard moving boxes packed with fresh spuds are brought in on industrial hand trucks. French restaurants go through a lot of onions to make French onion soup. Try 50 to 100 lbs, which amounts to 100 to 200 onions.
Even if you've never worked as a line cook, you have probably cried from cutting an onion. Imagine doing that, but hundreds of times, every two to three days, using the world's dullest knife, standing in clogs, and listening to NPR (the pastry chef's preferred radio station)I would wipe away my tears with the stained sleeve of my chef's coat and constantly had to reassure the rest of my kitchen staff that I was fine, no one died, no my boyfriend didn't break up with me...it's just the onions. While everything around me — from the creme brulee to steak au poivre — was being torched with fire, my eyes were scorching. The pain was profound and surely doubled my prep time as I'd have to dry my tears after every few chops. I had to figure out a way to minimize the waterworks, so I didn't look even more unqualified than I already was.
I don't remember exactly how I discovered the trick that worked better than all the rest to keep me from crying while cutting onions. I tried every hack you've heard of. I chewed gum (refreshing, but not a solution), stuffing a slice of bread in my mouth (delicious because it was brioche, but also not a cure), wearing goggles (breaking news: Ray-Bans may look cool and protect your eyes from the sun, but not alliums).
At one point during the grueling prep process, I must have decided to wash my hands in cold water in a too-tiny stainless steel sink and found that the cold water instantly relieved my burning, watering eyes. Since the coolness from the water offset the warm irritation in my eyeballs, I decided to take it one step further by taking a moment to myself in the walk-in refrigerator. Not cold enough. So I walked a few steps to the right into the icy walk-in freezer and...ah, sweet relief.
I became quite efficient at incorporating this hack into my prep schedule. Cut three onions, walk swiftly to the freezer, stick my head inside, take a deep breath, rinse, and repeat. Did I look strange and suspicious? Yes, yes I did. But I was already the only line cook who wore patent leather black Danksos instead of the muted, matte charcoal clog that the rest of the cooks wore, and tied an apron printed with aqua- and purple-colored moose around my filthy white jacket every morning. Everyone else wore black Crocs, baggy black pants, and thin white aprons provided by the restaurant. Looking like I didn't know what I was doing was kind of my schtick in the kitchen at this point.
But turns out, I wasn't a total novice. The cold air thing is real. One popular hack for cutting onions without crying includes peeling an onion under cold water (seems messy and impractical to me, but some swear by it). Others say that freezing an onion and then cutting it can help prevent you from looking like you just re-watched the Titanic for the fiftieth time. It works because when onions are cut, they release an enzyme called allinase, which, aside from the tear-inducing burn, is not harmful to be around. "Allicin is extremely volatile and, as soon as it's produced, allicin moves through the air, reaches the membrane on our eyes, and irritates it. In response, our eyes secrete tears to wash away the allicin and we begin to cry," explained Nik Sharma in this article.
Anything cold, like freezing an onion, cutting it in the sink under running water, or running your entire forearm under water, may help reduce the chances of crying while cutting onions. Unlike cooking and baking, it's not a perfect science, but I managed to get my tears under control (or at least got better at running to the bathroom quickly to hide them).
Nowadays, I'm back to cutting only two or three onions at a time from the comfort of my home kitchen. There are no more late nights, no more paying customers, far fewer burns and cuts, and way less stinging. But I'll still rinse my forearm under cold water or stick my head in a (much smaller) freezer. 86 my tears.