Hey there, it's been a while. Not much, how about you?
I’ve been working on a cookbook and some essays that have taken my attention from posting any blogs. Apropos of nothing, I thought I’d share one of the essays - the story of how I accidentally became a cook and the early lessons that I learned.
Like many fifteen-year-olds, I got kicked by my parents to get a job and start paying for the things that I wanted; albums, a car, weed, you know, the necessities. If they had it to do all over again, I’m reasonably confident that they might give me a bit more advice in finding work. As it was, I started looking through the classified ads for any jobs that might be suitable for a punk kid with no work experience, let alone life experience. Circling a few ads, I rolled my ten-speed bike around town, asking for applications and trying not to drip sweat on the paper. At my third stop, I scored an interview for a dishwasher position in a Greek diner. I was to come back at six o’clock that night for my first training shift.
Mostly, my training consisted of a geriatric Greek man demonstrating the intricacies of cleaning dishes in a large-scale environment by repeating the heavily accented words, “Spray, spray, make nice.” About thirty minutes into my shift, he taught me how to clean bathrooms with caustic liquids that smoked when they came into contact with water, immediately followed by lessons in the finer points of bussing tables. “Clean, clean, make nice.”
As I was spraying, spraying, making nice, my introduction to the brother of the owner who had hired me during my three-minute interview happened, by way of him overturning the thirty five-gallon garbage can on the dish table, searching for any errant silverware that I may have accidentally thrown away. Of course, I wasn’t allowing any forks or knives to slip by me. The reality of that situation came crashing home in the form of a five and a half foot tall, silk-shirted (unbuttoned halfway to the navel, proudly displaying prolific chest hair), gold chained, mustachioed, flaming eyed, hell hound upon his discovery of three pieces of flatware in and among the pork chop bones, unfinished liver and onions, and soiled paper napkins. Suitably chastened, I finished my shift while my hirsute employer dressed me down for moving too slowly, as he was late getting to the airport. I later found out that they were tardy to the airport every night that I closed the restaurant with them.
On my second shift, vowing not to spend my night dodging verbal blows and barbs, I stopped to talk with the line cooks who had gathered outside the back door before the dinner rush. I’d just returned from emptying the garbage, and the time seemed appropriate to take a short break and make small talk these rough-looking, chain-smoking guys who hurled curses at each other in Greek as they slung plates amid the dinner rush. Despite my vow, my nemesis appeared, shouting, “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
I explained that I was taking a quick break, just like the cooks were. “They’re smoking; you get back to work,” was all the lesson that I needed. I quickly walked to the lobby of the restaurant and deposited sixty-five cents into the cigarette machine and retrieved a pack of Winston Lights. Just like that, I became a smoker. And I could now take breaks. The duality of smokers and non-smokers in the restaurant world exists to this day. Smokers take breaks, thems who don’t usually do not. Perhaps just hanging out on the loading dock next to the spent fryer oil and empty milk crates lacks allure to those who aren’t slaves to their nicotine addiction.
As teenagers are wont to do, my tenure at the diner came to an abrupt end after about a month when a friend told me that they needed a dishwasher at the twenty-four-hour breakfast chain where they worked. I was a shoo-in, for sure, because now I was an EXPERIENCED dishwasher. With no fanfare, notice, nor even a phone call to tell the diner brothers that I was never coming back, I jumped ship and started anew in the corporate restaurant world. The kitchen manager was a gruff, portly man - baggy-eyed and gin blossomed. He provided me with the proper training by pointing me towards the dish pit, admonishing me to “just wash the fucking dishes and put them away.”
The cooks here were different from the diner cooks; those that still had driver’s licenses drove grey primer muscle cars, they all had early 80’s long hair held up in more stylish hairnets under their rectangular paper hats, most wore platform shoes in the kitchen, and they all belted out cliched classic rock songs. Despite the questionable taste in music and their substance abuse issues, the latter of which left them prone to blaming others for their mistakes with great vigor and volume, these guys were fucking cool in my adolescent mind. I wanted to be like those cooks. Well, not exactly like them, as I didn’t have a penchant for soulful rock ballads and domestic abuse, but I wanted to wield that status, that rock star power. I’d bug the assistant kitchen manager - a cool, long-haired, older guy, who was minus a driver’s license and went by the nickname of Roscoe – to let me train as a cook. Roscoe was resistant but eventually had some of the cooks show me how to make pancakes and toast if I was caught up on my work. Toast begat eggs and eggs begat crepes and crepes begat omelets.
One Friday, as I came in the back door for my after-school shift in the dish pit, the kitchen manager, whom I rarely interacted with, was looking particularly blurry and pulled me aside. He told me in a half-buzzed tone that I was cooking that night and handed me the cooks uniform of white pants, a white snap-front shirt, and a rectangular paper hat. He also loaned me a hairnet. I looked like a Good Humor man. A punk rock Good Humor man, wearing a dog collar and sporting a borrowed hairnet, but that uniform was power. I’d made it. My hard work had paid off, or so I thought. Honestly, I got the promotion because the two lead cooks for the night had either fucked off or were in jail and he had no one to cover their shifts. But I’d made it, none the less. I was a cook, god damn it, and cooks were fucking cool.
The summer of that year did some things; both for me and to me. Since I wasn’t in school, I started to be scheduled for late shifts, ending at either three or seven AM. Many nights would find me sitting in the break room, after the rush of just-left-the-bar-at-closing-time drunks and the very early morning breakfast rush, devouring Kerouac, Jim Carroll, and Hunter S. Thompson, because there was fuck-all else to do. The combination of my drug-addled literary heroes and the easy influence of my co-workers made it very easy to slip into a habit of pharmaceutical speed to stay awake through these nights. The shift would end, I’d be wired and tired, with no hope of sleep in the immediate future. I availed myself of the two activities available at that hour to a high school kid with nothing to do: get stoned and drive around or drive around and get stoned.
My nocturnal habits and a pocket full of cash that I never had time to spend also gave me a sense of independence not usually experienced by people that age. Since I worked those ridiculous (for a high school student) hours, it wasn’t like I had a curfew or anything. This lack of rules enabled me to make even more bad decisions, like traveling out of the country for two days and not telling anyone where I would be. So, there I was, sixteen years old - chain-smoking, pill-popping, smoking weed like a chimney to come down off the speed, with no real sense of adult supervision.
But there was good that came of it. I’d learned how to organize my environment and my brain, to multitask, to own my shit when I made a mistake. By sixteen, I’d mastered skills that I try to teach to cooks ten years older than I was at the time, to this day. I didn’t know the term “mise en place,” but I sure as hell knew how to live it.
The lessons learned by being bitched out by the morning prep cook, who was an ex-military guy with forty years on me, for leaving containers in the walk-in cooler after I’d emptied them, or other, equally as lazy and stupid shit that I pulled, gave me a foundation that would put me on the path for success later. It didn’t matter that I worked with no supervision; these were the rules. These rules were there to maintain discipline. That discipline was how we caught mistakes before they became problems.
These were the rules of the kitchen, every kitchen. They were then, and they still are today.