adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 9

If there was a best kept secret in the cooking industry that few knew about it would have to be the black market underlining the whole thing. Fed by cash and odd tax rules, a server can earn enough to support themselves and have some fun on the side. When I say black market, I’m referring to the side businesses that employees engage in for extra money. As I discussed earlier, Jeremy was the go-to guy for marijuana and other recreational substances. Nate Dawg was burning and selling the latest CDs that people couldn’t afford to pay $20 for. Even the strippers started to come to him for their music. Back in the bowels of the restaurant one could find car stereos, the latest movies still in the theater on DVD, but with Korean subtitles, videos games at a fraction of the cost and even CD players with subwoofers that had skip protection-built in. This was before the iPod and as long as something could be copied in a basement or burned on a computer it was available for purchase.
I was kept out of the market until someone requested music that only I owned. I was the nerd, the guy with shitty taste in music and movies, the guy who hated pop culture and all of its bullshit, but when someone came around with a pocket full of cash wanting the latest Tool CD Nate came nocking on my door. There was also my jazz collection and a fondness for early rock and roll. What Nate ended up learning over time was that strippers had a tendency to change their taste in music as often as they changed their shoes. One moment he was the go-to guy for the latest rap album, then he was forgotten because he only had the music he liked. He branched out looking to expand his selection. His chance of being the guy that a woman like Jordan wanted to be with was slipping.
Mix CDs were brought to work and popped in the CD player as a way to drum up business. People would hear a song and ask “what’s that?” and Nate would get his book out flipping through the 96 CDs he had available and pull out a freshly burned copy with the price tag of $5. To say that someone in the food industry is lazy is to not know of whom you speak. Long hours in the kitchen, working over a hot stove, cleaning, prepping, screaming and yelling are all in a day’s work. Then there is the after hours of hustling to make a few dollars more. Long hours of downloading music, burning CDs, and hunting at the library for those rare gems people have asked for could take up your time. Making connections with shady people who found items that “fell” off a truck. Those military connections that would mail boxes of DVDs from Asian military bases to show up in a backpack at work. These were all things people were doing and they took time. If a server had tickets to the latest show that sold out at Wing’s Stadium it’s because they woke up first thing in the morning and stood in line outside the ticket office. If you wanted them you were paying the asking price. There was a market with in the market and I still can not figure out to this day how they managed the time to do it all.
Things could become violent in the kitchen. Threats were common. Knives were pulled. It wasn’t uncommon for people to come in with black eyes from deals that had gone bad. These acts were a consequence of the lifestyle. It wasn’t sought out it just happened. Then there was me.
For a time, there was a show on FOX featuring fights from the Tough Man Competition. It consisted of young men from different backgrounds fighting in boxing rings trying to be the last man standing at the end of the night. One of the hosts was a model for the Fredrick’s of Hollywood catalog so that showed you how classy this thing was. In Kalamazoo the event was run by a shady guy with a business called Adorable Promotions. Men would pay $50 to get in the ring and beat on each other. Some did it for fun. Some thought they were good. There were the few that had lost bets or were dared to enter. It wasn’t uncommon for guys to disappear before they entered the ring.
Bored, wanting something to do, and missing my old Tae Kwon Do classes I signed up for the competition. My instructor had been teaching me boxing on the side with Tae Kwon Do and I thought I might have a chance at getting somewhere with it. Word spread at work and I thought I might have a small corner somewhere in the arena where my name was chanted. I was wrong. I trained, running a 5K every day and doing bodyweight exercises. I hung a heavy bag on the tree behind my apartment. I let my sideburns grow and called myself the Wolverine. Yes, it was hokey, but I was having fun with it.
The night I went to weigh in the room was filled with guys trying to feed their egos. I could tell most of them had never competed in anything like this before. There was the stare down, the guy who wouldn’t shut up about how good he was, several guys slamming beers, and the guys who had their girlfriends there as props. I had gone to several Tae Kwon Do tournaments and to me this was just standard procedure, these guys wanted to do the face off with words said and punches thrown. We didn’t even know who we would be fighting yet. I weighed in at 188 IBS, three pounds over the limit for middle weight. I was in with the heavy weight boys, fuck.
When I told people at work that I was competing Nate laughed and said the DJ at Déjà vu was also entered and the place was plugging a ton of money into advertising and sponsoring him. Max was a former Muay Thai fighter from Thailand. He was tall, thin, and appeared to be in shape. He wore a long ponytail that hung past his butt cheeks and could appear intimidating. Nate warned me to look out because he would “fuck you up.” I laughed and brushed it off.
Rob Laughed when I told him I entered the competition. Looking back a lot of people rolled their eyes and laughed. It was becoming clear that I had no support in doing this thing. It was going to be all me, only me.
The night I went to Wings Stadium I had a gym bag that consisted of shorts, warm up pants, and that was it. My shoes were a pair of Chuck Taylor All Stars and I hadn’t thought about wearing hand wraps because the gloves were already 14 ounces. For practice I would shadow box using three-pound weights. After 20 minutes of that 14 ounces felt like wearing winter gloves.
Fights were announced and it turned out I would be fighting DJ Max. We came in at the same weight three nights before and I had a feeling we would be paired together. I sat on a bench watching the fights. A man would come around announcing the upcoming fights so that we could warm up. There was a body builder who was constantly jumping rope and when he entered the ring, he gassed out in the first round and was pummeled in the second. The guy he was fighting looked half his size. There was George of the Jungle who knocked out every guy he fought with a right hook, the only person to fight twice in one night. He filled in a slot after knocking out his opponent in the first five seconds of the first round. My name was read on the docket and I started to stretch. I did some jumping jacks to loosen up. In the ring a guy was fighting that they kept sidelining because he wouldn’t blow zero into the breathalyzer. When he was cleared, he entered the ring and was knocked out by George. In his mumbling words “I took it like a man.”
Finally, the moment arrived. I was called to the ring first. I jogged out, slid through the ropes and the corner guy slid my gloves. “No wraps?” he pointed out. “Nah,” I replied as if they weren’t needed. I stood in the corner and watched as the announcer put everything they had into Max. “a Muay Thai fighter from Thailand, weighing in at 188 pounds, and sponsored by the folks at Déjà vu. DJ Maxxxxxxx!”
Some guys standing behind the ring pointed at me and said “this guy is going to be fucked up.” For a moment I thought they were right. My goal at this point, hit him hard and make sure he remembers me when this is done. Max slid through the ropes and started hopping around. The long ponytail reminded me of the move Kickboxer and I questioned for a moment if I had health insurance or not?
The ref had us stand in the middle, I had to look up at Max, and the rules were set. We touched gloves and went into our corners. The bell rang and we were off. It was a race to the center of the ring. Max was hopping around on the balls of his feet, something I wasn’t familiar with and told to never do in all my years of sparring. His hands were up blocking the sides of his face, so I went straight in, snapped a jab between the gloves and hit Max square in the face. His head snapped back and blood appeared everywhere. I don’t know if I broke his nose or not, either way he was definitely a bleeder.
The punches continued and that first round was a non-stop assault on the man everyone thought would crush me. By the time the bell rang my gloves were covered in blood, his chest and face made him look like an extra from Carrie. My corner man encouraged me to do the same thing all over again. I wasn’t tired, hell I felt like I had just warmed up. The bleeding had stopped and before we knew it the bell was ringing again.
Playing the same cards again I hit Max in the face and the bleeding continued. One thing to keep in mind is that bleeding in the Muay Thai culture is inspiration for winning. The one who bleeds first will fight harder and likely come out as the victor.
Half way through the round Max’s pony tail ended up wrapped around my forearm. I was tied to the man. As I pulled my arm back his head would move with it. I didn’t want to be stuck there and Max didn’t want me chained to him. I used that moment to land several blows and a moment later the pony tail came off and Max put some distance between us.
Between the heavy gloves and the padded head gear it was difficult to feel anything. The leather of the gloves would slap against your skin, everything was wet, you body moved around as you were pushed and pulled in different directions, but there wasn’t any pain. The adrenaline running through your veins gives one the impression they aren’t being hurt or taking damage. I have no memory of Max ever hitting me, but my body did.
The bell rang and I sat in my corner sipping water and having blood cleaned off my torso. “keep doing what you’re doing. You already won this fight. Don’t let him knock you out.” The corner man didn’t need to tell me the obvious but I appreciated it. In Max’s corner I could hear his corner man saying “he’s tired, now is the time to go in and give him everything you have.” He was wrong though. I wasn’t tired. I used an old trick from my days on the track team in high school and chewed some coffee beans before the fight. I had a caffeine buzz that the hipsters as the local coffee shops would be envious of.
The bell rang and we continued where we left off. This time Max was trying to land some blows. I bobbed and weaved, slipped into his world and continued the assault on his head. I don’t remember being stuck in a corner or either of us leaning on the ropes, we were in the middle of the ring, the crowd cheering as the two of us threw punches waiting to see if one would fall or finally give up as so many had done before. The bell rang and the crowd cheered. It would have to go to the judges.
There was no question as to who won, but I had seen fights be handed over to people who didn’t deserve it in the past. The judges were unanimous and my hand was raised. “the Wolverine” was screamed over the speakers and I left the ring to calm down in the locker room. I found Max later, laying on a bench with his head wrapped in bags of ice. His eyes were swollen shut and he was having trouble breathing. I was still feeling fine and left not longer afterwards. We were one of the last fights of the night and George ended the night with another knock out.
I went to Nate Dawg’s place and found his car in the driveway. I thought maybe he left after the fight to beat traffic. I stepped in the house to find him at the computer downloading pictures of Brittany Spears.
“Get your ass beat motherfucker?” he asked.
“You weren’t there?” I asked disappointed.
“Fuck no, I have better things to do.” Nate went back to his computer. That was the start to the end of our friendship. This guy that I spent so much time with was like everyone else in my life at that time, a huge disappointment. Later I saw Rob and he wasn’t their either. I told them that I won the fight and that I did fight Max. They didn’t believe it until the strippers at the club told them the story because they were there handing out free passes to the club or working as ring girls. It wouldn’t be long after that the three of us would go our separate ways.
Nobody from work showed up. My parents showed up the second night to watch me get knocked out by George. My head was throbbing that morning and I shouldn’t have shown up. The beating that Max had given me appeared in the delayed migraine I encountered the next morning. It lasted for three days and the fight the second night with George of the Jungle didn’t help.
I have heard people refer to the kitchen as a military setting, divided up by ranks and jobs, everyone assigned to their post. One would think there would be a level of loyalty, the desire to support your brothers of the spatula. That is not how it is. In this capitalist world everyone is out for themselves. If they can’t make a buck from you then you have no value. You are as useful as you can prove and the useless are as desirable as gum on the bottom of your shoes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that my friends didn’t show up, but I was. That was when I started doubting my roll in the kitchen and started to look elsewhere for employment. That night, for all the headaches, let downs, and disappointments changed where I would be in the world, little did I know that it was only downhill from there.
To be continued…

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 8

So, let’s step back for a moment and rewind to how I ended up working in a kitchen to begin with. My first two and a half years in college was helped with a job working security, also known as paid to do homework. It paid better than the $5.15 an hour I was making at the local Meijer to retrieve carts and I could do homework on the job while I sat in a guard shack on 2nd and 3rd shift. My last semester at KVCC left me with a question of whether to pay for tuition for the coming semester or pay my rent. Because living out of a car didn’t appeal to me, I chose to pay rent and didn’t go back to school for a while. Classes were becoming more expensive, and while I had been making extra money working for the school paper it was enough to pay tuition but not for the books, supplies, and lab cost that were hidden fees beyond the tuition itself.
Once that choice had been made I started asking myself what kind of job I could do and make a decent living? The options were few and one of the places I guarded had gotten to know me over the past two years. When a job was posted, I applied for it and had an interview a week or two later. I put in my noticed with guardian guard service and started in the closed in smelly hell hole that was Charles River.
The company raised and bred lab rats for various companies and zoos around the country. When you have a snake or bird that is depending on clean food you buy a sterile rat to feed them and make sure they don’t die in front of a group of kids from a local school on a field trip. Local pharmaceutical companies also bought these animals for testing. I didn’t lean either way on the subject. What where people supposed to do? Test on humans and end up killing people? I had been guarding the building from animal rights activist and rabid raccoons for two years. If I had a problem with what they were doing I would have left already.
Charles River was a long building surrounded by barb wire fencing and contained ten rooms where the rats were bred and raised. In each of those ten rooms were 40,000 rats in various states of development. That is the rat shit of 40,000 rats in one room. The majority of the shift was cleaning up shit and feeding the little biters. There was this myth that they had bred the biting instinct out of the rats but that turned out to be pure bullshit. I must have been bitten 10-12 times during my 90 days and I can remember every single one. It was always the new mom rats, pissed off that you were checking to make sure they weren’t eating their babies. The ones who did I was happy to toss their ass into the loading room where they were gassed before disposal. It’s a bit harsh I know but what did you want for Casey Anthony or that bitch that drowned her kids in the bathtub?
From the first day to the last I was miserable. The room smelled like shit. You smelled like shit. When you woke up in the morning your breath still smelled like shit. You think the world is bad because Obama or Trump is president, spend the majority of your waking hours with a room filled with rats and then come to me for complaints. I never went anywhere worried that, you guessed it, I smelled like shit. The paychecks kept coming and I deposited those things at the drive through where the teller could see me sitting in the car far far away. I shopped for my groceries on the weekend in the middle of the night. I didn’t hang out with friends and let the money continue to roll in. I had a feeling that after my 90 days were up, I was going to be gone.
And I was right. I was called to the head manager’s office on day 90 and sat down from her across the desk. The HR lady came in with her and I waited. I had talked to these ladies for more than two years as they arrived in the morning and when they left at night. They appeared confused and hesitant then they dropped the news. “we are laying you off.” The manager said. “we’re not firing you, we just don’t need you right now.”
“So, when do I come back.” I crossed my fingers and waited for those fateful words.
“We’ll let you know.”
A grin grew on my face and I stood up, shook their hands which left them with a confused look on their faces and went to my car happy that I would never have to come back ever again. It was literally the shittiest job I ever had.
I went home and slept, man did it feel good. I cleaned my clothes, bed sheets, and showered a few times a day. This went on for a week. After that I had no plans. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My dream was to go into the comic book industry but the market had taken a dump and 70% of the comic shops across the country had closed. The comic book companies had stopped hiring new talent keep the old guys who had been doing it for 20-30 years. I had not talents that I could think of, no special skills, and the lack of self esteem didn’t help one bit. I was one sad SOB with no clue what to do.
I paid my rent for the next month early and gave myself time to figure things out. That turned into selling my comics and action figures on Don’t give me any shit they are a collector item. I didn’t go out much and only checked my mail once a week. I was in a state the Japanese refer to as Hikikomori. It is most common with young men that have lost their way and no longer want to be a part of society. My bank account dwindled over time and eventually I would have to find a job.
I ran into Rob at the local comic shop and he stopped by with his friend Nate to hang out. We drank beer shared stories about when we worked at Meijer together.
“What are you doing now?” rob asked.
“You’re looking at it,” I said sitting in my living room hanging out with them.
“You need a job?” Nate asked.
“Olga’s is hiring. You’ll be a dishwasher but it pays and it’s easy as hell.”
“Where do I apply?” I asked thinking I needed to go online.
“You just walk in, they ask you for a few things and then you start working.”
The next day I drove to the mall. It was the first time I had driven in a few days and after five minutes I was in the dish room cleaning plates off and figuring out how to fill the trays to load into the high-pressure washer. Literally, anybody could get this job. After being bit, smelling like shit, and closing myself off form society this was a dream come true. I felt like Bill Murray in What About Bob? Making baby steps out of the hole I had found myself in.
When I hear people complain about their jobs and whine about how tough or boring it is, I think of those rats and try not to slap the shit out of them. People love to bitch and when its about stupid shit stay back because stupid is contagious.
Charles River no longer exist, or at least the building I was in doesn’t exist. Most of the jobs from my youth no longer exist. Baggers are a thing of the past. The rat factory is closed down. I haven’t seen a truck or security guard from Guardian guard service in a decade, they likely are not around anymore. Comics are no longer drawn by hand, instead done on a computer. Layouts are done on a computer instead of gluing stories onto master sheets. My daughter will not know what I am talking about when I tell her about these things. These jobs are gone, a footnote in history to be forgotten like the cobbler and blacksmith. I have seen stories where robots are cooking meals and matching the quality of a chef. I call BS but who am I to argue. When you take the human element away from certain jobs than what is the point? You can say that you are saving cost but have you accounted for the cost of interaction? How do people meet, fall in love, argue, share ideas, or flirt if you take away the means for those things to take place? At what point are we so isolated that the majority of people end up like me 2 years ago going through their own Hikikomori with no job to draw them out. At what point do we start investing in ourselves instead of the bottom line? When the line hits bottom where do we go from there?
To be continued…

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 7

Theft was common in the kitchen, from personal items to screwed up orders for the sake of a free meal this was something that happened almost every day. I’m not proud of some of the things that happened and while I could make excuses it would just mean that I had learned nothing over the years. Free meals were not a perk of the job, if you ate during your shift you had to pay for that meal. The only exception to the rule was picking up a shift or working a double. Then the sandwich was written off as a loss and added to the books. That was how strict management was about their records. They accounted for every sandwich, tomato, French fry, and napkin. You were not allowed to throw anything away and the five second rule was in full effect, I learned that the hard way.
It was a busy afternoon when I made my first mistake at the deep fryer. It wasn’t some of the funny stuff like dropping car keys into the oil or reaching into the oil to pick something up, both actually happened to other people while I was there. There was an order for a fried chicken sandwich and while transporting the tenders to the bun I dropped one on the floor. Thinking nothing of it I picked the tender up and tossed it in the trash. In less than three seconds I had Nate Dawg and Meagan yelling similar phrases at me. “What the hell are you doing?” “Motherfucker what is wrong with you?” “Now we have to wait for one fucking piece of chicken to cook, god damn it!”
“Dude, it was on the floor. What the hell did you want me to do?”
“Five second rule motherfucker, five seconds!”
I had never heard of this rule before. While it is a common thing to say these days there wasn’t a movie called Waiting and Anthony Bourdain’s book had not reached the poor cashless hands of minimum wage cooks in a Midwest fly over town. Food network didn’t talk about the five second rule and seeing how the floors looked there was no way I would want that on my sandwich.
“You pick it up and put it back in the deep fryer a few seconds dumbass.” I could see that Nate Dawg was going to be an understanding patient father figure one day.
In the restaurant world throwing that chicken away was theft. That kind of loss we tried to stay away from, but there was another kind that we would take advantage of a few days before payday or when we weren’t able to eat before work. This was the mystery order.
So, you have a series of orders that come in and the tickets line up above the counter. You put down all the orders on the grill and start working but you “accidently” add onions or cheese or something that was requested not to be on the sandwich, so you start another one right away and cook the original in the event that a ticket will come through asking for that item. Secretly, you are hoping that doesn’t happen and you make all the plates, setting them under the heat lamp and watch as all of them disappear until there is only one left. The one that you purposely made for yourself. Oops.
It might take twenty minutes but eventually a manager would appear and see the sandwich with congealed cheese resting on top and the fries as cold as a day-old dog turd. The sandwich would only look appetizing to the person who has been eyeballing it that whole time.
“What the hell is this?” the manager would ask and shoulders would shrug in the kitchen. Sometimes to teach us a lesson they would take the sandwich for themselves and still write it off in the books as a loss.
Other tricks we learned when we were trying not to cut one another in our Hangry state was to sneak a curly fry or two and squirt some mayonnaise on them. We thought we were hot shit because that was how the Europeans ate them. I have to say they are onto something. I packed on some pounds during that time and the fries added up quickly.
I would take advantage of the free sandwich for a shift policy and the manager quickly caught on that an extra slice of bacon was added here and that the cheese was liberally put on top there. Soon it was policy for another cook to do the order and the person it was being made for was officially on lunch.
Some of the other tricks the place had to save money was to take bread that was a few days old and cut it up into their fried snacks. The flat bread is cut into triangles in its stale state and then tossed into the deep fryer. Afterwards the crunchy snacks are placed in a bin and covered in salty spices.
These tricks stuck with me. At first, I thought that these people couldn’t get any cheaper but over the years I learned how smart some of these things are. For example, once in a while I like to buy a rotisserie chicken. Most people will think that once you take the meat off the rest is garbage. That is far from the truth. The last couple of years I have spent learning how to make ramen noodles. The broth is the most important part and I can tell you that the bones and left overs from a rotisserie chicken make an excellent broth in a pressure cooker. The left over remains of vegetables that were not used can make soup stock. Those stems you tore off the Swiss chard, that can be sautéed in butter and eaten as a side dish. There isn’t much in a kitchen that can’t serve another purpose.
Life was hard working in a restaurant and while we could say that we were making more than the $5.15 an hour that was minimum wage at the time we barely made enough to pay rent and buy food. I felt bad for the people who were trying to support families and one guy was arrested when the managers figured out that he was stealing food from the walk in cooler and taking it home. $7.15 an hour isn’t going to feed a wife and two kids. Hell, according to the financial office at the local community college I made too much to qualify for financial aid. I could barely live but I made too much money. I was even told to “have a kid” if I wanted to qualify.
The desperation at times hit everyone. We had a guy who had just started and he was in the back working as our new dish bitch. He was quiet and didn’t talk to anyone. One of the waitresses had come into work while the guy was getting ready to leave and about two hours later her bank was calling her on the restaurant’s line.
“Are you at the Meijer on Westnedge right now?” the bank asked.
“No, I’m at work.” she replied.
“Somebody is trying to buy a big screen TV at the Meijer with your debit card.”
Being a single mother with two kids, the waitress freaked out and ran up the stairs to the locker room and found the card missing from her purse. She called the police and the store had the new dish bitch on camera trying to buy the TV. What had tipped off the bank was that the credit card feature was tried first and the waitress didn’t have it activated. She could only use the debit feature. So, the bank stopped the card and the guy ended up walking away from the register without buying anything.
The next day the guy came into work trying to act like nothing had happening. The rest of us were ready. I had sharpened all of the knives. Nate Dawg brought a baseball bat. Junior had a set of brass knuckles he wore in the kitchen just for the right moment. Even Jeremy found a pitchfork and we had no idea where that had come from. We waited for the signal and instead the Portage police arrived and cuffed the dish bitch tossing him into the back seat of the cruiser and the waitress pressed charges. Had he used the debit feature he would have walked away with the television and her rent check would have bounced. Being divorced and taking care of two kids she was not putting up with any man’s bullshit.
There was a time when I thought to myself, if they just paid more, people wouldn’t have to steal. But they took the job, they knew what they were in for, and sure maybe they thought it was going to be temporary and something else would come along. The clock is always ticking and being in jail is no way to pay your bills, or feed your family. There are times, sometimes long stretches, when life sucks. Looking back those are the moments I remember best. I have never read an interview with a famous band where they brag about the women they slept with or all the money they had. The things they talk about are the nights spent on the hotel room floor, flipping coins to see who gets the bed. Spending the night in the house of some psycho fan. The van breaking down and pushing it to the next town. The hard times are there for a reason and they teach you who you can be and encourage you not to return there ever again. Unfortunately, there are those people that thrive on that shit and will sabotage themselves to stay in that place until they have finally had enough, but sometimes that place is home and they have learned that the only way to enjoy life is to embrace the suck.
To Be Continued…

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 6

Years after leaving Olga’s I find myself to be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to restaurants. There are many things that I look for and some I can overlook, but what I have the most trouble getting over is the quality of the food. As a cook you had to learn how to juggle and learn it quickly. However, the quality of a meal isn’t just up to the cook, there are also those that are responsible for what the cook has to work with, the prep cooks.
Prepping food was a meditation, a mindless task that looked like anyone could do. In my own kitchen at home there are steps in preparing a meal that I watch people try to skip and usually some form of verbal back and forth takes place. Let’s start with the basics, wash the food! Nobody wants celery with dirt still on it. Bugs love to hide in lettuce. Spinach is known for E-coli poisoning. The list goes on and on, wash the damn food.
There are tools that every kitchen should have just for prepping. We had small “coring scoops” for tomatoes. These were tiny spoons with a spiked rim that would dig out the core of the tomato with the stem so that the rough material wasn’t served with the food. Don’t be a cheep skate by skipping this, nobody will love you for it.
Just about every weekend my wife and I go out to dinner and enjoy ourselves for a bit before the week with no sleep starts all over again. She has been on a health kick lately and orders the salad where ever we are. Almost 50% of the time she receives a plate or bowl with lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens. When she digs the fork in, she will find chunks of lettuce core hidden under the roughage. This doesn’t upset me, this pisses me off. I can’t tell you how many hours I stood at the counter and slammed heads of lettuce into the steal surface to twist the core out and throw it away. It takes less than two seconds and these little shits are too lazy to offer their guests a good meal. It’s lettuce, you don’t cook it, it’s not fried, it’s up there with serving wine. You pull it out, throw it on a plate, and serve. There is literally nothing to serving a salad so to skip a step is to show what kind of lazy asshole you really are.
I will never be jealous of the poor bastard who is stuck with the job of slicing onions. In such kitchens like Olga’s this wasn’t done by knife as one would think from seeing too much television, instead it is with some kind of hand powered economic slicer. You place it on top of a plastic pan and slice away until the pan it full, then you move onto the next. There is nothing enjoyable about standing above a container filled with twenty sliced onions. Your eyes water, nose starts to run, heaven forbid that some snot drips into the pan, and before you know it you can’t see a damn thing. If there is anyone who deserves higher pay or tips at the end of the night it’s that guy but you will never see him.
We had a crew that came in early in the morning to do our prepping. They were from a local home for the developmentally challenged and worked part time doing many of the task I have just described above. They were quiet, didn’t want to be disturbed, and when their shift was over, they were huddled out of the kitchen to a full-size van that brought them. They were the mysterious A-team that kept the place going. To their credit if we ran out of stuff during the shift they couldn’t be yelled at and the insults went around the kitchen until someone took out a cutting board and sliced some tomatoes or onions for whatever we were short on.
The grill is the one place where a person should not be multitasking but it happens anyway. I recently went to a local brewery to give it a second chance after not being impressed the first time with their beer. I kept hearing that the food was amazing but the beer was still so-so. My wife and I went and I was encouraged to get a burger that was on special only that week. A large group of people sat at a table next to us and before we knew it, we were ordering another round of beers because the food was not out yet. The place was packed. I should have known things would slow down. The table behind us, who ordered after us, received their food while we looked at one another with that “what the fuck” look on our faces. A minute later our food arrived. The burger looked good but after waiting forty minutes and added another $12 to our bill what wouldn’t look good? I ate some of the fries first waiting for the burger to cool for a minute then bit in. The first bite tasted like carbon, I didn’t think much of it until I took another bite and it tasted like it had been dipped in charcoal with a little bit of ash sprinkled on top. I peeled the bun open to find the bottom of the burger was black beyond burnt. Whatever toppings I had on the burger that made it special I could not taste. The waitress disappeared and instead of tracking somebody down to complain and risking waiting another forty minutes for food, I ate the damn thing. At least I knew it was sterile.
These are the things that can go wrong at any time in a kitchen. At Olga’s we would scrape the carbon off the bottom of the burger and move on. Normally there wasn’t a complaint and other times the Motherfucker didn’t do a good job. I didn’t, I was responsible, it was my fault, words you will never hear from our generation Z people coming into the work place. I find these things happening more often as we go out to different places. When there is no accountability there is no motivation to do better and you will continue to deliver the same shitty service. That brewery had several complaints about their burgers being burnt before we went there and a few afterwards. Management did their best to help us by taking some drinks off the order but never fixed the problem. Somebody needs to go back to being the dish bitch for a few weeks until they figure out what they had done wrong.
There are a few tools you should consider having in your kitchen. If you cook a lot of meat a bacon press is essential for cooking steaks and burgers in a fast and even way. Ever notice those hand made paddies rise up into round balls over time. This is where the bacon press steps in and makes your burgers fit on the bun and appear more professional.
If you sauté vegetables for fajitas, or maybe some onion and peppers with fried liver, you may want to get a cheese melting dome. This holds the steam in cooking the onions and pepper faster. Once you become accustomed to using the dome you can cut the time down on serving and enjoy a meal without over doing the vegetables.
A good knife is the most important part of your kitchen, skip the copper pots and pans, don’t become a member of pampered chef until you have an all in one knife. I’m not talking about those monstrosities that slice tin cans in half, those are for suckers with extra cash in their wallets and poor taste in television. Those people deserve what they get. No, I’m talking about the traditional chef’s knife, that if you spend the time and learn properly, will be the only one you need to do almost any job in the kitchen. Those blocks of knives that people get as wedding presents, that’s your family saying you don’t know how to cook, never will, you suck, here you go. The sharpening rods in those sets destroy the blade and before you know it half of the knives are missing because odds are someone in the house doesn’t know how to put shit back where it belongs. Have one knife, there are many like it, but that one is yours.
Always use a cutting board. If I have to explain why then you should stay out of the kitchen. Hell, maybe you should just go back into the woods and live off the land like the filthy animal that you are. Counter tops were not meant for cutting on. The surface will be destroyed and the edge of your blade with suffer as well. Seriously, if you think you don’t need a cutting board go back to whatever primitive Neanderthal land you emerged from.
Things to stay away from include copper pans, you will burn anything you try to cook in these things. The copper heats up fast and you can not judge when to adjust the heat before it’s too late. They look nice in the kitchen but that is it. Skip copper altogether, you should only be surrounded by useful tools that won’t distract you.
Electric gadgets will grow and take up space over time. Unless there is a meal that you make often and need one of these things for the process, I say stay away from them.
Anything from Pampered Chef. Cheaply made, only serves one purpose, and over priced you are not doing yourself any favors by buying from them. I never met a professional that uses any of their products.
If you can, make sure you have a gas stove. Some people prefer electric and hey if you want to travel down that road to hell that’s your choice, go ahead and have fun. Gas is easy to measure and adjust by looking at the flame. It is the way people have cooked for tens of thousands of years, with a flame. That glowing top in the grill I don’t know what that is but its not natural and figuring out the right temperature was never easy. Its up there with using a microwave to cook and there is a special level in hell for that.
Microwaves, see the paragraph above.
To Be Continued….

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 5

After reading everything that I have written previously you may be thinking that everyone I worked with in the kitchen was an asshole. Well, you would be wrong. There were a few good souls that had been there when they shouldn’t have been. While the rest of us were running amuck these people kept the place sane and oiled the gears while the chaos and anarchy tried to tear everything apart.
Nick was a short thirty something guy, heavy set but in a jolly kind of way. He wasn’t much for talking but that could have been because all of his interest were far from what was on the minds of the bat shit crazy loons running around the place. We worked a few shifts together and one night we ended up at the Ruby Tuesday across from our restaurant at the mall. They served drinks late and stayed open when the rest of the mall was closed.
That night was the deep clean, when the mats were picked up from the floor, degreaser was sprayed down, old chicken strips were found under the cabinets, appliances were pulled out, and the ungodly things hidden behind them were taken care of by an old priest and a young priest. I remember hauling the buckets of oil and grease to the dumpster and thinking I would find a creature like in the Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Some of human shape hissing and trying to pull me inside to drown in the goo. That didn’t happen but the group of kids smoking weed by the dumpsters wasn’t any better, giving me an evil eye as I hauled the stinky goop to the dumpster. They eventually moved on and left me to the gross task of waiting for the buckets to empty into the pit.
The floors in the kitchen turned into an ice rink once the rubber mats were lifted. The mats themselves were taken outside and hosed off while the floors were mopped, pushing the grease around but not really removing it. The swirling shapes bubbled up the water and some people tried to write in the waxy substance. Others grabbed the counter and pushed off to see how far they could slide before stopping. In the end, the waste of time caught up with us and we were fighting amongst ourselves in order to leave and finally have a drink. Time was a wasting.
Once all the floor were cleaned and the grease was taken care of, the doors were locked and we were gone. Nick and I went to Ruby Tuesday and sat at the bar. I had never been there before thinking of it as an uppity place that likely served mediocre food at high prices. To this day I know I went there a few times but I can’t remember eating anything or what kind of food they had. Except for this night, the place was unremarkable.
The special of the night was the Long Island Ice Tea and Nick drank several of them, sucking them down like a man that had found a well after three days in the desert. I have never tried the long Island and after that night I never planned on it. I sat there drinking some kind of beer my current self would slap my younger self for drinking, but I didn’t know any better.
Once two hours had passed and Nick drank three long Islands, we decided to leave. Nick had to be at work in the morning to open and I wanted to go home and crawl into bed. Out in the parking lot I found my car, a white Grand Am from the 80s and Nick found his red Buick. There were a few other cars in the lot, scattered around and hard to see in the dimly lit lot. Nick was trashed and I asked him if he needed a ride home.
“No, I’m fine. If I can’t drive, I’ll sleep in the back and go to work in the morning.”
Nick appeared to be having trouble getting his key in the door and the damn thing wouldn’t open. He started to freak out and knew that the lock had trouble if it was cold outside, but the forty degree weather shouldn’t be bad enough to cause the locks to freeze on him. He ran inside the building and called a tow truck to help with the lock. We stood there in the parking lot waiting like a couple of idiots and a few minutes later the tow truck came. The man emerged with a slim jim and started to work on the door. Even he was having trouble.
Curious I looked inside the car and started to laugh.
“I never too you as the kind of guy to have a pink fuzzy steering wheel cover,” I said pointing inside the car.
“What?” Nick started to run towards the car and yelled for the tow truck guy to stop. At that moment the lock on the door clicked open and the dude stood there, cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
“You’re paying me for that. I just committed a felony because you told me the wrong car.”
With his head bobbing in agreement, Nick handed the man his money and we went two aisles over to find his car. The key worked the first time and Nick crawled into the back seat to take a nap.
I went home and ordered a pizza. Fox’s pizza was still in business back then and had a barbeque chicken pizza that I have not found a replacement for since. I was living alone and didn’t have much in the apartment. There was the couch. The television sat on top of the entertainment center with the VCR attached underneath. The stereo sat next to it which I was more inclined to listen to. I didn’t have cable television and didn’t want it. I sat on the couch as some music played and there was a knock at the door.
I found a girl standing in the doorway holding the pizza. She had brown hair, a visor for part of her uniform, a polo shirt and jeans. She was pretty with big brown eyes and about my age. I was expecting the nerdy, angry at the world, zit faced, pizza guy that would bitch about the tip regardless of how much you gave him, then there was her. I paid in cash and a few dollars for the tip. The whole time it was awkward like we wanted to say something but neither of us did. As she placed her money in her pocket, she looked through the door and saw the apartment, clean, simple, and likely not the shit holes she was used to seeing.
“You have a nice place.”
I was caught off guard and stumbled through the “Oh, ya, um, thank you.” She smiled at me and I smiled back but didn’t have anything else to say. I closed the door and she drove away.
There was one other guy that stuck out like a sore thumb at Olga’s. A young kid, sixteen or so that if you paid attention for more than five seconds, you could see that there was something going on at home. He was a big guy, maybe five foot ten and two hundred and fifty pounds and his hair was always messy. There was an attitude sometimes but it was usually giving shit back to people who treated him bad. As the new dish bitch people gave the kid shit for any reason they could come up with. The more he fought back the more they came up with reasons. It must have been hell.
He stayed in the back listening to his Eminem CD, the one with him wearing an apron on the cover much like the dish washer wore. Meagan would give him crap about the language in the music. I didn’t understand the music myself but to me that was part of the freedom of being the dishwasher, nobody else works back there, leave him alone.
There came a night when the kid didn’t have a ride home. His home was a few miles away and it was looking like he would have to walk for an hour or so, in the cold, to get home. Nate Dawg refused, not liking the kid, probably because he reminded him of himself at that age. None of the waitresses gave rides because they were paying for babysitters or going out for drinks afterwards. As the kid started to realize he was in for a long walk I told him that I could take him.
“That kid is a fucking asshole,” Nate Dawg said.
“So, why do you care if I give him a ride.”
For some reason Nate was trying to get me to change my mind. At the end of the shift we left in my car and the kid was quiet. “Thanks for the ride. I really appreciate it.”
“Hey kid, I don’t know what’s happening at home but I know that life sucks right now and you’ll be out soon. Once you can make your own choices it gets better.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“ya, it kind of is.”
I pulled up to the kid’s house and it was a dump. It reminded me of Nate Dawg’s place or any of the other shit holes I had seen over the years. The kid thanked me again and went inside.
I only saw him a few times after that and I don’t know whatever happened to him. I hope that whatever he was going through that he found a way past it and that life turned out well for him. Hell, there are times that anything besides what you are currently going through is better. I hope he found a place to heal.
To be Continued…

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 4

If there is one person who’s position in the kitchen, I never fully understood it is Jeremy. The always fun, unreliable, will steal your CDs when you are not looking, sell you weed, steal your weed, borrow money, steal your money, crackhead you could not help but to love. There wasn’t a place in Olga’s where Jeremy fit. At times he would cook in the kitchen but usually he was found in the dish room. You would not see Jeremy for weeks and then he’s running around like he is at home and collecting a paycheck before he disappeared again. He could do any job but was like the man with no name in those old western movies, he comes into town, fucks shit up and leaves riding off into the sunset, until he comes back after people had forgotten the problems he caused last time. People liked Jeremy and that included me as well.
Jeremy wasn’t the youngest member of the crew. That was a stunning blonde who worked as a greeter taking people to their tables and broke the hearts of many men when they found out she was only 14. I don’t know what is in the water in Portage MI but she looked like she was a grad student in college. It’s moments like that when I read stories about teachers in trouble for having relationships with students when I want to see a picture of the girl and say “she looks older than him.”
For a seventeen-year-old, Jeremy was able to do things I couldn’t pull off at 21. During the Christmas rush each of us was assigned a “special” drink to help get us through the shift. I brought rum, good old Captain Morgan, thinking it would go well with the Pepsi we served. Nate Dawg, being the cheap ass that he was, didn’t bring anything even though it was his idea. Junior brought Gin that nobody else wanted. Jeremy showed everyone up by bringing a large bottle of Parrot’s Bay coconut flavored rum. Paper cups were everywhere in the kitchen, labeled with names and disappearing quickly. Stress levels subsided and work was more like hanging out at the club than the usual shit show it would turn into. When the manager walked through and saw the smiles on people’s faces and the heard the laughter, she couldn’t figure out why everyone was so happy on the busiest day of the year. The line was going out the door. Dishes were piling up. Tickets were stacked on top of each other at the grill. Servers were short staffed with extra tables assigned to each of them. The dish bitch couldn’t keep up. And yet we were loving it. Jeremy, in his own shady way had saved the day, and for that we loved him.
Jeremy disappeared again after that as he always did. He would reappear in my life as the long-time friend of my future brother-in-law. The family knew him well and treated him like family knowing that he didn’t come from the best home.
That short time I worked with him was educational for me. I was not familiar with the life style of a crackhead. I was naïve enough to trust people and learned the hard way the truth of certain situations. One night a group of us hung out at my place, a cheap $400 a month apartment in a complex called Maple Ridge. It wasn’t a bad place at the time but when it went down hill it took a nose dive into a pile of shit loaded with napalm and cockroaches. The last month I lived there a man was found dead in his apartment, shot several weeks before, and management didn’t discover his body until he didn’t pay his rent. Somehow nobody heard the gunshots.
There was Nate Dawg, Rob, Jeremy and his friend Jason, Rob’s married girlfriend, and me sitting in the living room taking shots of cinnamon flavored liquor. The whole thing turned into a shit show when we went down the dark path of talking about our childhoods. Rob had grown up on an Indian reservation where he impregnated his girlfriend at the age of thirteen and she later killed herself. He discovered the body and ended up in an institution after that. Nate Dawg remembered the day that his father shot his mother and the only thing that saved her life was the bullet being reflected by a can of soda. Rob’s girlfriend had her first child at thirteen and married her boyfriend who she was kind of sort of separated from, almost, but not really. Jeremy sat back not saying a thing and Jason was the silent side kick that just liked to get high.
That night everyone passed out in various places around the apartment. Rob’s girlfriend threw up in the toilet and fell asleep on the floor. Rob slept in the tub next to her. Nate went home, living across the street in the trailer park. Jeremy and Jason slept in the living room and disappeared by morning. I don’t know how they got home or if they even went home. Neither one owned a car and didn’t ask for a ride. They were simply gone.
A few days later I went to do a workout and opened my CD cases to find them empty. Maybe I left them in another room? Maybe they were in the car? Maybe they were… oh hell those crackheads, after everything we went through. All the days at work, the parties, giving them rides, loaning them money that would never be repaid, covering for them on toke breaks, and this was how you repay me. That was the last party I would have at my place. My Matrix soundtrack was never seen again along with the Hackers soundtrack, MDFMK, and a few other CDs that I actually paid money for. You have to remember this was a time when Napster was around and we were burning CDs like they were going to disappear forever. Years later, Jeremy would admit they stole them, said he was “sorry” and that was it. There was no remorse, no attempt to make it up to people he had wronged. The world of a crackhead is a selfish one and when I see a man scratching his arms as he walks up to ask me for money, I have no qualms about telling him to “fuck off” and before he can retort I say “if you can ask me for money you could ask someone else if they want fries with that.”
The last time I saw Jeremy he approached my car after I went to the ATM, with his hood up, not saying a word until the last minute. I had my knife in my hand when he said “hey” and I replied “Jeremy?” He was thin, unrecognizable except for the voice. He saw me and wanted to say “hi.” He was sort of living, but not really, in the apartment complex behind the credit union and of course he was using the spot to sell weed among other things. We parted ways with myself feeling freaked out and thinking he was going to be found in a gutter somewhere.
The last conversation my brother-in-law had with him was around that time. Jeremy popped in at the house, unexpected as usual, and acted like he always lived there. He was bragging about selling drugs full time and how some guys were so desperate that it made him feel good about himself. “I have never been so desperate. Like who needs weed that bad?”
“What are you talking about?” Jimmy asked trying to make sense of the story.
“This guy comes up to me and wants to buy weed but he doesn’t have any money. So, I tell him to fuck off but he won’t go away like I’m going to give him some for free or something. So, he says he’ll suck my dick if I give him some and I think, it’s been a while and I’m not sucking his dick so it’s not gay. I’m just getting some head and I already have some girls that do that, so why not?”
“You got a blowjob from a dude. You are so fucking gay.”
“I’m not gay. He sucked my dick.” Jeremy was bragging about getting a blowjob to the wrong guy.
“Get the fuck out of my house. We are done.”
Jeremy left and as far as I know they never spoke to each other again after that.
Years later, my ex-wife ran into Jeremy. He was still alive and was finally arrested. With no prior record the judge made a deal with him and he joined the Army. There was no surprise that he would be shipped to Iraq. He stated that the army was the best thing that happened to him and that it changed his life around. I don’t know how many tours he did or how long he was in, but I heard he was living somewhere down south and is married with kids.
I don’t know if this is one of those stories of redemption or not, I still haven’t seen my CDs, but I guess it goes to show that some people, if given enough time, or pushed into the military, can change for the better.
To be continued…

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 3

It didn’t take long for me to feel like the kitchen was mine. Work a few shifts by yourself, cover for other people without any help, or being trained on the job and it only makes sense to start thinking “this is my kitchen. There are many like it but his one is mine.” Let’s not forget that some people had worked there for years. Junior was heading towards twenty years but every Wednesday the staff had to look at the clock and see if he failed his piss test at the parole office, again.
“Piss test are bullshit. I take two shots of vinegar the night before and I pass. I smoke a blunt the night before and forget the vinegar, I pass. I don’t smoke the night before and take two shots of vinegar, I fail. I don’t smoke for a week, I fail. I smoke the night before, take my vinegar, I fail. Those test are bullshit. You can pass for no reason, you can fail for no reason. Why can’t they just leave a black man alone?”
Junior had a point. He had been pulled over, a bag of weed was found on him, and they took his car while he went to jail. That was three years before and because he kept “dropping hot” the parole was extended and he would spend a night in jail. Even as a twenty something snot nosed kid, I could see this procedure was a waste of money and time. Junior was a good guy. I never saw him get angry, even during the busy shift. His head was cool and everyone liked him. It wasn’t uncommon for Junior and others like Jeremy or Nate Dawg to go on a Toke break and come back calm while they were a shit storm before. As a non-smoker I would become pissed off that these guys would disappear for twenty minutes leaving me to do everything because I didn’t have a habit. When they returned, I was happy to find that Nate Dawg was calm, like he had just been laid, Jeremey finally shut up for more than a few seconds, and Junior was the same old Junior.
Nate Dawg would have a visitor stop by every couple of weeks and we would find ourselves at the local strip club that night. Jordan was a short tiny brunette with imported double D breasts that Nate and a few other patrons had likely paid for, not to mention her rent at a shitty apartment in Drake’s Pond and her Pontiac Grand Prix. The few conversations we had about this girl Nate became very defensive and told me to “fuck off.”
Every dancer looks different out of the black light. The first time I saw Jordan stop in and ask me if Nate was working, I thought it must be a cousin or somebody he knew from high school. Even the tall blonde that was with her I didn’t recognize, fully covered in clothes and not wearing high heals shoes.
“Is Nate here?” Jordan asked and I went through the swinging doors to tell him she was here. He popped his head out and I could hear her telling him her lines of bullshit. “I miss you. Where have you been. It’s been too long. Can you see me tonight?” Keep in mind, they were not sleeping together, this was strictly for lap dances. She had Nate Dawg wrapped around, well more than her finger, and he knew it. On those days we left work and climbed into Nate Dawg’s Ford Fiesta cruising down Portage road until we came to the parking lot and climbed out. I was always told to be in the backseat because that’s where bitches sit.
Nate Dawg would walk in, be greeted by Jordan at the door, escorted to a table and hand over his paycheck like he owed her money. The rest of the night we would sit there drinking Pepsi products and when a song came on that Jordan liked she would turn to Nate and say “wanna hump?” Meanwhile, I was stuck at the table with Rob, another former employee of Olga’s and we would talk about all kinds of things. “I’m going to marry one of these girls one day.” He said as a matter of fact. Later I would find out he did, and then divorced. And maybe married again. It’s difficult to keep track of Rob. Last time I saw him his head was shaved and he was working as a tattoo artist.
Nate Dawg lived with his mom and two brothers in a trailer park by the airport. While the family scraped by Nate was throwing money at Jordan in the $300-400 range for one night. Lap dances were $20 and he never had his money’s worth. I asked him what the hell was up with this little skank coming around and taking his money. “She’s never going to sleep with you.” I pointed out being the asshole that I was.
“You think I don’t know that motherfucker. It’s about the dream. It will never happen, I know it will never happen. But I like to pretend that there is something there and she gives me that.”
I was never one to play Dungeons and Dragons or try out for the school play. Reality was bad enough and to pretend something was there when it wasn’t was an act I watched people do in my own life that kept them stuck in shitty situations. Nate Dawg was his own worst enemy and Jordan was a leech that needed to be burned. I don’t know when the connection was finally broken but Nate Dawg eventually moved on, and last I heard moved to a new town and married. At least he is already accustomed to handing over his paycheck and never seeing it again.
Opie had been training a new guy in the kitchen for a few days. I thought the whole thing was weird because I was never formally trained. It turned out the new guy was one of Opie’s friends and had never worked in a kitchen before. This was the third or fourth time that Opie had been rehired and they acted like he had seniority over everyone including me who had never seen the guy before. He comes back after quitting and suddenly I have to look up to him?
The story of Opie’s demise took place on a busy weekend afternoon and the lunch line was busy. The new guy had already been trained for a week and while I was working the grill the new guy was still hanging out with Opie making sandwiches instead of, oh I don’t know running the fryer, cutting gyro meat, or cooking bread on the grill. Any of the things that I was juggling would have helped. Instead this was another hang out at work day and I was already pissed.
“Ut oh, we have a ticket for table thirteen, you know what that means.” I heard come out of Opie’s mouth. I turned around from the grill to see Opie dropping a loogie into a sandwich while his useless friend stood there laughing his ass off. There were things I tolerate in my kitchen. The five second rule, fine drop it in the deep fryer for a few seconds. You want to use a piece of old bread, okay get the order out. Its been a shit shift and you need a toke break, have your ass back on the line in fifteen minutes. But spitting in the food, no fucking way. Not while the motherfucker is in the kitchen.
There was no thought that went into it, I grabbed Opie by the back of the shirt and threw him out of the swinging doors, onto the floor behind the cash register where the manager was working. Customers looked at Opie, then at me, then back at Opie. “You stay the fuck out of my kitchen!”
Opie look like a deer in headlights and Meagan looked at the customer, then at me, then at Opie, then at me again. She slid some change from the cash drawer and I disappeared back into the kitchen.
When Meagan finally appeared, I was sliding a sandwich into the trash and as a person who hated waste, she started throwing a fit. “What is going on back here? What are you doing with that? What the heck was all that about?” Meanwhile, Opie’s trainee was still standing in the kitchen taking up space and breathing my air.
“Opie was spitting in the food.” I said. Meagan looked at the new guy and back at me.
“Is that true?” she asked the new guy who had a stupid look on his face like he just shit himself and couldn’t tell anyone.
“Opie was training him to do it,” I said going back to an unfinished order while everyone else sorted out their bullshit.
“You’re fired. Get out.”
“What I didn’t do it. It was Opie.”
“Ya and you watched. Get your stuff and get out.”
Meagan stood there for a moment as I put some plates under the heater.
“Can you finish the shift by yourself?” she asked.
“I’ve been by myself all morning,” I pointed out.
“This never happened,” She stated with a small question mark at the end of the comment.
I nodded my head and she disappeared into the restaurant where she told Opie he was fired and the little shit tried to claim he didn’t do anything. Later, when the rest of the staff heard what had happened there were mixed feelings about it.
“Why did if have to go down like that?”
“Fuck that guy.”
“I don’t know he wasn’t that bad.”
“Oh, ya I saw him do that shit all the time.”
The last comment had me pissed off considering it came from Nate Dawg.
“What the hell do you mean you saw him do that all the time?” I said pissed that it had been going on for so long.
“What the fuck do I care if a bunch of uppity Portage people eat some dudes spit? Bunch of assholes anyway.”
This was a conversation I couldn’t have with him. Nate Dawg had found a new low in my book one that was unredeemable. There were a few things that I had learned over the years that a person did not mess with. Never mess with a man’s dog. Never mess with a man’s car. And in the end never ever fuck with a man’s food. You don’t touch a grill if he is cooking, you don’t tweak a recipe if you’re helping out, and you never ever sabotage something that another man created. There are levels of hell for things like this and the bottom pit is reserved for those who treat wait staff like garage, take advantage of poor young men, and spit in other people’s food. I picture some hot pokers and nipple clamps involved with the demons down there. Maybe I should stop there, the description might encourage some to engage in this kind of poor behavior.
To be continued….

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 2

It was my day off, something that was rare with a job where people constantly called in and overtime was readily available. I was one of the few people in my group of friends, okay, let’s be honest I was the only one with a car, and being the person with a car meant that you were invited to hang out as long as you were the ride to where ever the group was going. Since I worked at the mall, that was the last place I wanted to be on my day off, but my friends had other ideas.
As we walked into the mall, I saw the entrance to Olga’s to my right and walking out of the doorway was one of the managers. Karen was a short blonde with three kids and lived in an apartment across the street from work. Now in her late 20s Karen had worked for Olga’s since she was 16 years old. This is what we called a lifer. To work in the same restaurant for more than a few years and be promoted was something rare and meant you weren’t going anywhere any time soon.
A feeling of dread came over me and the smile on her face told me she wanted something and it was going to be a good chunk of my life for the next day or two.
“Matt, I know it’s your day off…” Karen went through the usual plugs of free lunch and leaving when the rush was over. I knew better and expected to be there until close if I picked up the shift. I kept shaking my head hoping she would take the hint. “What if I threw in an extra $20?” she said hoping I would eagerly agree to the shift. I shook my head. She leaned in and whispered in my ear, “I’ll suck your dick.”
This is where I should step back and explain a few things. I was raised Catholic, only had one girlfriend until that point, and never had a blowjob because my ex used that to pay for weed (no joke). I still had a naïve idea that sex was something special and wasn’t to be flaunted around casually. Needless to say, working in a restaurant wasn’t the place for me.
At first, I thought the comment was a joke and looked at her surprised, “I’m good,” she added trying to convince me to come into work. I agreed to work thinking she was desperate and since I didn’t want to be at the mall anyway, pissed off with my inconsiderate friends I took them back home and went into work. As I went upstairs to the locker room, I put an apron on and started to head down the stairs.
“Matt!” I heard called out from the manager’s office. I had a feeling I was going to be asked to pick up more shifts and went to the office. “Close the door, let’s make this quick.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“You came in, let’s make it quick and don’t get it in my hair.”
“I thought you were joking,” I said wanting to get the hell out of the office.
“No, that’s okay. I’m going to get back to work.”
When I reached the kitchen, I picked a few tickets from the rail and started to work on the grill.
“Damn, that was quick,” Junior, a large black man who could have been a natural bodybuilder if he had an ounce of self-discipline, said. “Karen only knows one way to get a guy to come into work.”
“She offered me a blowjob,” I explained without telling him what really happened. Junior drifted off into memories from long ago. A smile grew on his face and he looked at me thinking I had experienced one of those fond memories. “I remember when she used to suck my dick. She’s good.” He went into a full body shiver.
“I didn’t do it,” I said flipping a burger paddy on the grill. He had a look of disappointment on his face. “She already has three kids.”
“A bitch don’t get pregnant by sucking dick.” Junior almost looked pissed for a moment and went back to making a gyro sandwich.
“I’m not interested,” I said trying to move on.
“You gay, mother fucker? No man turns down a blowjob, especially when you earned it.”
I said nothing and went about the rest of the shift without talking about it. A few days later I was scheduled with Nate Dawg and it came back up again.
“You gay bitch,” Nate Dawg said with that stupid grin on his face.
“Oh, you heard.” I continued working the line placing plates under the heater.
“Hey, I gotta tell you. Smartest thing that ever happened here. Karen has three kids and they are all from previous cooks. It all starts with the blowjob, before you know it, you’re fucking and she’s pregnant. I think it’s her retirement plan. Nail enough cooks, collect that sweet child support cheque and move onto the next guy she wants to bang. You dodged a bullet man.”
This was the closest that Nate Dawg had ever come to giving me a compliment. My burgers were burnt, fajitas looked like shit, and I couldn’t cut the gyro meat worth a damn, but at least I didn’t fall into the baby daddy trap as so many of his friends had done.
“Hey, has she ever offered it to you?” I asked.
“Fuck no, she hates my ass.”
A few years later I would learn that Karen had met a guy who worked construction. I don’t know if she used her tricks on him like the rest of the kitchen crew but a few months later they were getting married. Her three kids and his three kids were moving into the same house together and she was pregnant with their number seven. One big happy family from hell. Best of luck to them.
It doesn’t take much to make a gyro sandwich. The most common question we had was how the dough was made? I will let you in on a little secret, it’s plain sour dough bread, flattened and cooked on a grill with vegetable oil. That’s it. For god’s sake it’s delivered by Sisco and is nothing special. Something I did learn later was that most of the staff had no idea how to sharpen a knife. Not only could they not sharpen but their method of cutting the meat off the rack was whacking it with a fillet knife. In the mornings I played around with the knives and cutting the meat thinking that the texture of the sandwich was just as important as the flavor of the meat. Lamb and beef is bland overall and the fat drips off while cooking anyway.
I sharpened the blade sliding the edge gently across the rod and after several strokes that left a smooth edge, I cleaned the blade and started to work. The thin slices fell off like a feather falling off a bird. The pans appeared full holding less weight. When a sandwich is made the meat is weighed first before it goes on the sandwich. Large piles grew on the scale and the cooks thought they had adjusted the scale wrong before the shift. Sandwiches appeared huge from the fluffy contents. For the first time in years a man came to the counter hollering “excuse me!” I turned around, knife in hand, not wanting to hear any shit about my work. “That sir, was the best damn sandwich I ever had here. You’re doing a great job.” I looked at him not sure what to make of the compliment. Growing up, if I heard a compliment it came at a cost. I nodded my head and he went about his day. The manager turned around and looked at the pile of meat in the pan.
“We never get compliments like that,” she said. Nate dawg heard the man’s comment and called me into the kitchen.
“Mother fucker, get your ass in here. The orders are piling up.”
“He’s staying at the gyro meat. You can handle it.” The manager corrected him and I went about my day sliding meat and having more orders flying out the kitchen.
“Hey Nate Dawg, how do you like that? People like my meat.” I said as he gloated in the kitchen.
“Fuck you,” he replied as he went back to work. After all the years he spent in the kitchen he couldn’t remember the last time he had a compliment from anyone about a meal.
To be continued….

adventures in cooking

Adventures in Cooking: Part 1

Like most cooks I started out as a dishwasher, the more accurate term being the dish bitch. It was the lowest of the jobs on the ladder of respect in the restaurant world with the lowest pay.
While one could wallow in their own self-pity working as the dishwasher there were perks to be found. The possibility of quitting scared those that drove the dishwasher to the final act of screaming “fuck you” and walking out the door, knowing that the person responsible would be the one to finish the dishes for the rest of the night. If the place was busy, the rest of the staff would blame that person for the late meals, dirty utensils, and constantly running out of glasses for drinks. The dishwasher could walk away free and clear anytime they desired and nobody would give a shit except for the poor bastard in the dish room.
Another perk of the trade was the ability to have an “oops” on the job. I quickly learned in my first days that steaming hot glasses will explode when they are filled with ice cold beverages. This happened once when I put a fresh tray on top of the stack and a waitress went to fill an order with glass exploding and almost cutting her hand. That was a mistake. Later when a different waitress started giving me shit about plates and trays running out in the kitchen during a particularly busy shift, I made it a point to put a fresh tray of steaming hot glasses next to the soda dispenser and waited. A few seconds later there was the cracking sound of glass hitting the floor and the huff and puff of the same waitress that didn’t keep her mouth shut. I don’t know how I timed it right but I did and the feeling of satisfaction fed my desire to keep working the rest of the night in peace. Nobody said a god damn thing.
Being stuck back in the bowels of the restaurant gave a level of privacy that allowed one to drift away into la la land and listen to whatever music you wanted. There were managers who tried to keep with the manual and only allow radio approved music. However, when the restaurant is located at the basement level of a mall few radio stations come through and those that do tend to be of the pop, country, and Christian variety. Nothing that a cynical young man in his twenties wants to hear. We had CDs and whatever you picked better be long playing and something you want to hear for a few hours on repeat. To take a CD out and change it meant that steam would cover the disc or the lens and you were fucked until it dried off. The same manager was also older and hard of hearing. She would later ask you about songs she heard you listening to and changing the lyrics to something out of a Ron Jeremy porno. Those were the times you could bust out laughing in the office and pull the lyrics sheet out for her to read for herself. “that is not what I heard.”
To stay a couple of weeks as a dishwasher was to pass the grade into a new world. This was usually due to someone calling in sick or not passing the piss test with their parole officer. I still remember that afternoon when the manager said they had someone else to cover the dish room and that I was taking over as the secondary cook in the kitchen. It scared the shit out of me.
“But what about the shit left over from last night?” I asked already having the task planned out in my head.
“Don’t worry about it. Jeremy will do it, he fucking owes me. Get your ass in the kitchen and start learning.”
And like that I was thrown in the flames of the fire and had the stress induced experience of on the job training. I have to admit that after that it became my preferred method of learning and to this day nobody in a respectable field believes that it is an acceptable way to train someone. This is perhaps why I still have a job that involves cleaning toilets.
There was one important thing that we had not gone over before I started cooking. There was the question of a nickname. There was Nate Dawg, because his name was Nate and well, I don’t know the rest of the reason, maybe because he liked rap music and lived in a trailer park. There was Junior and he was a Junior. Opie, because in his mid-twenties he looked like the kid from the Andy Griffith Show. Jeremy was still Jeremy because to call him anything else would cause a world of confusion with a guy who had tried every drug under the sun and wasn’t 18 yet. Then there was me.
“So, what do you do?” I was asked with no answers giving the crew anything to work with.
“what are the initials of your name?”
And as I said the letters I knew before the second one was finished coming out of my mouth what my nickname was going to be. “Mother fucker!”
That was how I became the motherfucker, long before some shitty marvel comic turned it into a villain for a lame superhero. This led to confusion for the rest of the time that I worked there leaving the new staff wondering what the hell was going on.
“Mother Fucker, get me those fries.” I would turn around and bump into the new guy wondering what the hell they were doing.
“I thought they were talking to me,” they would say as I took the basket from them.
“I’m the Mother Fucker, mother fucker.” The fries would fall onto a tray and I would point at the prepping table. “get back to those tomatoes.”
Being the mother fucker had its perks as well. When the wait staff became upset with you it didn’t matter what they said or called you, after being called mother fucker all day you could brush off any insult.
“If that tray isn’t ready in two minutes, I’m going to lose my tip asshole.”
This is what wait staff didn’t understand. I received the same pay regardless of what they were tipped. It cost me nothing to have a meal go out late. I was more concerned about it being good because I didn’t want the manager coming back saying there was a complaint. The idea that a waitress or waiter could threaten us was a joke, but at the same time it was good to stay on good footing with these people because afterwork these were the people you would party with, smoke pot with on breaks, and if you were lucky/ unlucky sleep with.
It wasn’t uncommon for the waitresses to flirt with the kitchen staff in order to get what they wanted which was their orders served first so that they would have better tips at the end of the night. Nobody likes cold shitty food and although it isn’t the server’s fault that is the person who gets shit on at the end of the day. At first, the new cooks don’t know any better so when the waitress starts coming behind the counter with an extra button undone, they tend to get what they want for a while. Once it is figured out that there is no connection there and you are simply making her more money with nothing in it for you, they simply move onto the next new guy in the kitchen, and the act goes on and on.
Being a male server has to be one of the least rewarding jobs a man can have. The notion of a man flirting his way to a tip, especially in this day and age, would more likely get him fired before he would make a few extra bucks. In our society, the notion of a man working as a server means that either he has no ambition, he’s unintelligent, grew up poor, his mom and dad own the place, or he has a felony. For a man to willingly go into this profession of his own accord means he has no idea what the hell he is in for. The tips are low, the pay even lower, and if you are lucky you will leave after the first couple of weeks. If you are hoping to work your way up to manager, think again. That job is already reserved for some snot nose asshole who just graduated from college and has never worked a day in his life. They have no experience in the profession and can’t function in a workplace setting like an adult. This is who your new boss will be.
As for the waitresses, these girls are the ones who knew they had good looks but had the morals to stay out of stripping. They do all the same tricks. They can be the nice girl that you want to bring home to mom or give you the hopes of one day “getting with that” which sometimes brings the guys back a few times leaving large tips and empty wallets by the time they figure out the act. I would like to think of it as the “lap dance with a meal.”
One of the girls thought she had the act down and was excited when a Hooters opened up down the street, sending her to the office to put in her two-week notice. Lindsey was blessed with DD breasts and a flirty personality that often got her $20 cash tips with a phone number on them which she never called and often spent on drinks after work. A few weeks after she left, I remember her walking back into Olga’s and asking for her old job back. The staff at Hooters didn’t like the fact that she was endowed with what the name stood for, and while the flat chested high school girls served the men in the restaurant Lindsey was stuck in the kitchen filling orders and never seen. She watched as her money-making opportunity disappeared before her eyes and knew she had to get out of there. Hooters, the place that promised a fortune to a girl with her… talents, had lied to her. The one time I went there I noticed that the name was a lie and wondered where all the “Lindseys” were.
To be continued…

adventures in cooking

Old Town Ale House

It wasn’t difficult to find. The ale house is across the street from Second City and while it is small it stands out with its unique appearance and classic exterior towered by modern yuppie crap. I first heard of the Old Town Ale House on Parts Unknown, the popular show hosted by the late Anthony Bourdain. It was in the last full season of the show that Bourdain visited the Ale house, surrounded by the artwork and eclectic décor. The furniture is a simple and well-worn design. The wood had been rubbed down to the imprint of thousands of people in these seats over the years, the wooden bar has a feeling of love with the scratches and dents smooth over the years.
The one bar I have been to that reminded me of the Ale house was the Dune Saloon in Grande Marais Michigan, the favorite beer house of author Jim Harrison. That find was a pure accident that filled me with delight and while the Ale house was fully intended it didn’t fail to reveal a few surprises in the hour I was there. The portrait of Putin wearing a ballerina tutu with his shirt off was a delight to see since it wasn’t finished in the Bourdain episode. Behind the bar I spotted a stack of books by the artist of the bar, Bruce Elliott. I remembered hearing about his blog telling the stories of his youth and tales of the Ale house and now they are available in print. I bought a copy for $20 and the bartender told me that if I stuck around for 20 minutes Bruce would stop in. I paid for an hour at the parking meter with the expectation of being gone before that time. Like clockwork Bruce stopped in and saw me reading his book at the bar. I asked him to sign it and we started talking for maybe five minutes. It was an awkward conversation one that had me watching the time with less than twenty minutes left on the meter. I didn’t have the time to relax and enjoy myself. With a two hour drive back there was little to be enjoyed at the bar and I still had to work the next day and watch my daughter. The lady Bruce was with was from Grand Rapids and we chatted about that with little to say. It sounded like she had not been back for a while stating that it was a bigger art community than when she left and money had not ruined it. I couldn’t ruin it for her. Let her think what she wants about her home town.
I snapped a picture with the Bourdain portrait and a few others to remember the place. Who knows when I will be back, if ever? When I used the restroom before heading out, I noticed that the toilet stall didn’t have a door on it, the urinal was a foot away from the sink and the mirror was scratched to shit. I was told that I would be able to feel Bourdain in there. For a moment I thought he was trying to tell me something. That buy the ticket, take the ride mentality was staring me in the face and I left the ticket on the counter. Not today. I like my life. I have responsibilities and while I could have traveled down the rabbit hole, I decided to leave it be and let someone else have the story. It was hard to see the place, recognize the seat Bourdain sat in. meet the people who talked to him. Take in the place that so many people have walked through hoping to leave with a little something extra.
Walking out I found a tobacco shop around the corner. If I wasn’t going to meet up with Jake, I could at least go home with something I wouldn’t find anywhere else. The time was ticking and I only had a few minutes until Chicago does whatever it does to cars after the meter runs out. I looked at the pipe tobacco in the case found one called Secret Agent and couldn’t find anyone to help me. I wasn’t greeted walking in. everyone was smoking cigars and the shop was one giant humidor. People would look at me wondering who I was and yet I wasn’t served or asked if I needed help. In the end I turned around and walked out with one guy making some shitty comment I didn’t catch. Who cares? If they don’t want business, fuck em.
I got in my car, hit the highway. Almost crashed taking an exit too fast to buy gas. Stopped at a McDonald’s that no longer had humans working behind the counter and made it home by 1am. For a few minutes I sat in bed wondering if I had fallen asleep at the wheel. Was I dreaming about being home going to bed? Once I convinced myself it was real, I went to sleep and sleep well I did. The adventure was over and it was time to return to my normal life.