Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why We (or just I) Fight

I am a chef. An unemployed chef currently, but it does not change my essential makeup. I still define myself by this vocation. (That may no longer want me.) Working in the restaurant business might be the last refuge for a man like me. I am a caveman by the definition of many. I like red meat, whiskey and I don't like to share my feelings unless I am under the influence of the latter and preferably both. I am not good with petty niceties, I was raised to be polite but I have no patience. If I dislike someone I prefer to treat them with cold indifference. I don't want to ask about the kids and the dog through gritted teeth. I think this society suffers from its crackdown on casual fighting and violence. I miss the days when it was semi-acceptable to solve a problem with physical violence. Most of America is horrified by this, but it is just better. If I had a problem with someone back in the day I could invite them outside. I am not a bully, any person who I extended this invitation to could feel free to say no, with little to no loss of face because well, I am a big bastard. We would step out, one or both of us would lash at each other drunkenly. You might get tagged in the face or gut, and you would try to do a little tagging of your own. It would be broken up within about 30-45 seconds (mostly because it is really hard to throw more then like 10 punches drunk, your hands start to feel like sandbags on the end of your arm) and the worst would be a split lip, a black eye or a few bruises. As the dude in "Green Street Hooligans" expressed so well: "Once you've taken a few punches and realize you're not made of glass, you don't feel alive unless you're pushing yourself as far as you can go."

This whole sequence is just enough to get your heart rate up, to remind you that you are alive, to spring some endorphins into your bloodstream to keep the booze company. Best of all whatever thing (real or imagined) that made you want to go outside is over, there is closure. Most times you just end up buying each other beers and talking about how badly women suck. It is just a male ritual denied to people today. There is no release today. Guys these days swallow everything, there is no outlet besides drugs (prescribed or not) A split lip is far less expensive then a lifetime of Prozac and therapy, or a dime bag of weed and rail of coke. This is all a long-winded explanation of why I am attracted to the lunatic fringe of society, where a caveman is accepted more readily. I don't fit in with the normal folks. Working in restaurants is the fringe, short of becoming a criminal of some kind. (the two worlds overlap a lot) You work when other people play. You sleep when normal people rise and trudge to work. Sunrise is only spotted just before bed if at all. The sun is shunned. Your days off will generally include Monday for fucks sake.

Its perfect for me and dangerous all at the same time. By nature I am anti-social, a night owl, and I have already covered how I am into food and drink, two things abundantly available in the restaurant business. I love my work. Even a job I hated (and I did hate my last job, but mostly because I was worried about being laid off for like 6 months before I was actually laid off.) is better then a 9-5 grind where I would be bored out of my gourd. Even the most monotonous of jobs in a kitchen is livened normally by the fact you are doing two other things at once, or the fact that generally you work with maniacs. Maniacs just like you. I am going to tell you about some of my favorite maniacs, ones that have the most influence over me and where I have been. I am going to change their names mostly because all of them would think me really gay for writing about them. Lets call them Cam, Gordon, Tiny and Clyde.

Cam (so named because he is a hockey freak and we share the same favorite player ever) was the kitchen manager at the corporate steakhouse where I decided that cooking was for me. He never tired of reminding me that I had been hired on his vacation. His assistant (kitchen manager, not personal) had reviewed my application and brought me on as a dishwasher, and this would have never happened, according to Cam, if he had been around. I may have been the last good gringo dishwasher. I was not great by any measure, especially in the beginning. I had a good work ethic however, and I knew the fastest way out of the fucking dish room was to do a halfway decent job. Dishwashers are like umpires or referees at a sporting event. You only notice them when they are fucking your shit up. If things are going good they kind of disappear, and I did not fully appreciate that until I was management myself. No one ever says "Man! these plates sure are clean!" but they will sure as hell say:" Hey! Fuckhead! This Onion Soup crock is still crusted with melted cheese!" Later in my career I forced myself to notice and appreciate the hard work of my dishwashers when things were going well.

Cam taught me what good management is. Good management is not treating everyone the same. Good management is realizing who is busting their ass and who is slacking. The workers get perks commensurate with their value and hard work, slackers get a kick in the ass. Perks range from a simple "Good Job", to buying that employee a drink or a steak, or even to bending over backwards to get that person a night off. Sounds easy. Its not. The key is making sure the system for being rewarded is clear and impartial. This takes the office politics out of it. No playing favorites, simply a meritocracy. Cam pulled this off to a tee. I am not nearly as good as he is. Part of me still wants my employees to like me. Cam could give a fuck, but we all loved him anyway. There is a lesson there. Cam also taught me to be respected as a manager you need to be at least as good or better then the people who work for you at what they do (or at least be able to fake it real good.) This lesson I leaned better. Last time I went home for Christmas I went to the steakhouse where Cam is still king, and he bought me a steak and a beer. Good fucking guy.

Gordon (his first name is Gordon, but he goes by his middle name) caused me to come up with a theory. He worked at the steakhouse for Cam too. I had clawed my way out of the dish room and Gordon was coming back to the restaurant after some time away, so Cam stuck him in prep with me until he had line spot for him. My theory (based only on anecdotal evidence) goes like this. People who used to abuse speed make really excellent chefs. Speed does two things to you that happen to be beneficial in a cook. It speeds up your metabolism, which keeps you moving, and it burns out one of the pleasure centers in your brain. Thus people who have abused speed in the past are rarely happy or content, they never lean. They end up looking like sharks, constantly moving for fear if they stop they will die. Constant motion in the kitchen is a necessary thing. Never being happy leads to a pursuit of perfection when it comes to cooking and plating without any of the annoying quirks of people with OCD. I myself fulfill the second part by being just naturally relentlessly unhappy, but the constant motion is an act of will.

Gordon and Tiny (Tiny was his favorite nickname for me) saved me from myself, for which I am eternally grateful. I was very young and dumb, maybe 20 or 21. My older sister was getting married. She was talking one day about the cost of a caterer for the various wedding related events. She mentioned a number, just for the 36 person rehearsal dinner. I blanched. Then stupidly I spoke up. I could do it for less, much less. Oh to be that young and moronic again. I was a prep cook at this point, on the verge of being a line cook, maybe. My resume highlights at this time in my life include making pizza at fucking Sbarro's and washing dishes. I named a number to my sister, much less than the caterers. This was to be my wedding present to them. I was dumb, but not without animal cunning. I recruited the best people I knew. Gordon to "help" (quotes because i was the one doing the assisting), Tiny and a girl named Marti to do the serving. I use Marti's real name because she would probably not remember me for a hundred dollar bill at this point. Really nice person.

Steak and Lobster is the menu. (I know...right? I was a tool.) I leaned on Cam to not only give me a Friday night off, but Gordon, Tiny and Marti as well. I bought cheesecake from the restaurant. My Dad knew the lobster guy across the street from where the dinner was going to be held, and the lobsters would be cooked fresh at the appointed time and brought over. I had been working summers at a Meat and Produce delivery place and the very nice gentleman who owned it let me buy provisions from him, he even gave me the steaks for free. My skin is crawling right now thinking about how lucky I got that day. Even with all of this I barely make it in under the number I had named to my sister. Day of I arrive at the restaurant early. I make salads and cut vegetables and make mashed potatoes ( As a prep cook this is me playing to my strengths) Somehow it all came together. Tiny and Gordon fly around the kitchen, finishing salads and pushing them out, then we push out the dinners: Steak, lobster, steamed veggies, and potatoes. (Gordon cooked the steak of course) Finally big pieces of cheesecake with good July strawberries. Everything went great (little credit goes to me.) My sister still talks about it to this day.

My greatest shame? I ran out of money. I could easily have asked my sister for more and still have been well below the caterers, but I was ashamed. I had not planned in playing the people who came down to help me out. Who took off a Friday night on my behalf and drove a half hour down to my hometown, and made this event I was woefully unprepared for happen for me. Those people left with just leftover lobster. Just thinking about this makes my reflux act up. Tiny and Gordon even cleaned the kitchen for me, allowing me to go out and be with my family and bask in their accomplishment. This probably contributes to why I don't hold onto friends. These are really good guys. Same trip when I saw Cam I went to the steakhouse Tiny now manages and he bought me a steak and a beer, and I talked to Gordon on the phone. To still like me through all that is an epic kindness.

Lastly there is Clyde. (Clyde is his middle name, I just find it hilarious.) I got the basics in Maine with Cam and Gordon and Tiny, but Clyde started my entry into finer cooking. Clyde is the single best chef I have ever known. A great guy to work for, a relentless worker, good guy all around. Clyde, like Gordon, is a former abuser of speed. He is more sped up even than Gordon, with quick bird-like motions to him. Clyde owns his own restaurant now, and it is my favorite restaurant to eat at, I even worked there before I made the move to the Bay. We met before that however, at a hotel I shall refer to as Mud Hole for reasons of obfuscation. Mud Hole was a passion project of a Rich Guy who knew nothing about the hotel/restaurant business. This is a bad combination. See "Kitchen Confidential". So this man built a brand new shiny upscale hotel where no upscale hotel should be. He hired a chef of some renown to work on it for 2-3 years before it opened. He hired Clyde as the Sous (French for "under") Chef for this man. Then he fired the Head Chef a month before opening day. Clyde was just temping, getting some cash flow so he could work on getting his own restaurant re-modeled. Rich Guy should have begged Clyde to be the new Chef. Instead he brought in a chef I will refer to as Charlatan. I call him Charlatan because his only skills appeared to be drinking Scotch and Schmoozing, bedding anything female he could lay his hands on, and telling us he had a year to live with cancer (nope.) and that he had been selected to Iron Chef America (ummmmm...double nope.). So Rich Guy hires Charlatan a month before opening but does not push the date. This is a bad idea. I am hired subsequently as the lead line cook, and Clyde is my immediate superior.

So Charlatan hands us a dinner menu and heads off to drink and fuck. So Clyde and I just make shit up, reverse engineering the menu. No recipes given. That was fun. Opening date is fast approaching. We put together a tasting for the servers, in which we make three of each dish. Charlatan does some tasting but it is hard to believe he can taste anything past the smoke of the good Scotch he drinks. Time is passing quickly. We go straight to Soft Open. When opening a new restaurant the Soft Open is key. You invite a few people. Friends. Family. People who won't get mad when you fuck up inevitably. This is too sensible to Rich Guy. He decides to kill two birds with one stone. The Christmas party for his company will be the Soft Open. Over a hundred guests. We have made of three of each dish. This will not end well.

So I have been present for the opening of a couple restaurants. There are three steps people take to control these things. First is the family thing described above. Second you make cards and distribute the items on the menu equally on these cards. That way no station takes the full weight while another gets nothing, and you know what you will use so you can prep. You hand people cards as they walk in, and if they don't like it they can trade it with someone else. Third you stagger the times that people sit down so you don't hammer the kitchen all at once. Rich Guy did none of this. His guests sat at the same time, ordered at the same time, ordered whatever the hell they wanted. As the lead line cook I was working the grill, where the steaks, chicken and some fish came from. Clyde is parked next to me, to backstop me and to "expedite". Expediters are the guys who make sure that your steak comes up at the same time as Uncle Joe's. So they all sat down and were told to order whatever they wanted, for free. You think steak was prominently involved? Soon the ticket rail is wall to wall tickets, with a stack next to it of tickets waiting to be fit onto the rail. This is bad.

Worse: Each ticket is handwritten by a server who does not know what they hell he or she is doing. There are an assload of servers. Enough in fact for there to be one for each of the 20 tables. All each one has to do it take the order for that one table, get drinks and put in their order, then field questions on why the food is taking so fucking long. I understand, this is very stressful. I get it. Does this mean they should pass on this stress to already over-worked me? No. Servers suck. The one saving grace for a cook normally is that at least when he is slammed generally the server is too. This allows some kind of balance. No balance in this situation. I am getting creamed like never before and there are 20 servers afraid to face their one table hanging out and bugging me for their food, like they are more important than the fuckhead next to them. I have my head down, just working tickets as they come in front of me, ignoring all else, too damn busy to give a shit. I don't know them by face either, so when I have a question about the crappy handwriting i have to ask 14 servers if they are Bob. This is as screwed as I have ever been, and I never want to feel that again. A perfect storm of suck.

I am not trying to puff myself up when I say this, but I have seen many men better than me crumple under better circumstances. But I was stubborn, and Clyde was right next to me the whole way. This shared experience caused a bond between us, at least for me. We just cooked. I had done a great deal of prep for this evening, figuring it would be steak heavy, just not THIS heavy. Soon enough Clyde has to go out back to cute more filet mignon, the worst cut to try to do on the fly because of the layer of silverskin that clings to it. He is back fast as anything and soon we are bacon wrapping filets on the line and pumping them through. I loved working for the guy, and he hired me at his new place once he got it under way, so I must not have been too bad.

There is a weird symmetry between the rehearsal dinner story and the Christmas party story. in one every guest left happy, and I still get kudos to this day about it, but I look back at it with a deep shame. The Christmas party the customers probably thought me an incompetent moron, but never have I been prouder of myself, for plowing through against a tidal wave of crap and not folding. That's just odd, normally how the customer leaves is the bottom line for anybody.

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