What do you do about rising food cost?

As a kid my parents would throw me into a dumpster to look for discarded food. There were only three of us and while we were not bad off if there was anything better than cheap it was free. I would pull out bags of oranges that had not gone bad, boxes of pasta past their shelf date, and in one instance a plastic bag filled with leavened dough from the local little Caesar’s. We spent an entire day baking loaves of bread, bread sticks, and storing away what wasn’t used in the freezer.

I learned early on that food goes to waste at an unprecedented level in this country. The store we were dumpster diving at was a Harding’s grocery store in an upscale neighborhood. This store didn’t bother with a clearance section to move old product. Anyone who bought from such a section would be judged for having financial problems, instead of looked up to for being thrifty. So these things were thrown into the dumpster and written off in their books as a loss for a bonus tax break.

Before I started a 30 day social media and news fast a story popped up regarding a Fred Meyer in Portland Oregon who called the police to stop people from jumping into their dumpster at night. A dozen cops showed up and stopped a group of people from searching through the dumpster for food to salvage. I have several issues with this. Store employees were standing guard at the dumpster to make sure nobody was able to climb into it. When the crowd became too big they called the police to protect their “trash.” A dozen police officers stood guard for an hour and a half making sure nobody went into the dumpster. As a business I have to assume that whatever they had thrown away was worth more than the pay of the police officers and what their staff was paid to watch over a dumpster instead of moving and selling product in the store to make a profit. If that is the case, why wasn’t the food in that dumpster donated to a local food pantry instead of tossing it into a dumpster? There has never been a case of a business being sued for donating food to a pantry.

Before the death of Anthony Bourdain, he produced a documentary called Wasted, it wasn’t about drug abuse but how all over the world food is wasted and what we can do about it. People were interviewed about dumpster diving, food was collected to feed to pigs at farms, composed was created for farmers, the list grew as to how this Waste could be used for a greater good.

The current situation of inflation and rising food cost is going to make life difficult for those who can not afford the cost. Solutions will need to be found and whether it is growing your own food or diving into a dumpster people will need to do something.

There are two stores in my area that sell food at a discount compared to major supermarkets. The first one we found is called Cadillac Marketplace. They not only sell food but other products that have sat on store shelves so long they are throw into a tractor trailer and sold to the store at a low fixed price. Protein bars that are usually $3 I buy for $.10 and boxes of cereal sell for $1. Bags of Starbucks and Bulletproof coffee sell for $4 when they are usually $10-$15. The first time I went to this store I walked out with two banana boxes filled with food for $75. A few weeks ago the owners of this store bought a load of food that included cases of MREs (meals ready to eat) brand new and sealed shut. With Covid-19 and the lockdowns MREs have been in short supply and they regularly sell on Amazon for $120 for a single box to $300 for two depending on what you get. The individual bags appeared on the shelves and I started to fill the cart. When the owner noticed me, he said that he had a pallet in the back and he wanted to move it out to save space. I bought six boxes for $10 each.

In a nearby town called McBain there is a small Amish store called Pineview. We had heard about it from the neighbors and decided to check it out. This place ended up being twice the size we thought it was when we pulled up. The frozen food section was massive, carrying the over stock of meat and produce usually shipped to restaurants and stores. We found everything from lunch meat ham, breakfast sausage, Greek yogurt, cheese, and bacon for $1 each. It was even cheaper if you bought it by the case. The first time we went I threw a box of Cornish hens in the cart for $10. These were Tyson brand and the last time I saw them at the local Meijer they were 2 for $8. Protein bars were mix and match 10 for $1. Pasta and Rice hovered around $1. We found large containers of Bolthouse Farms eggnog for $1, it doesn’t expire until March of 2021. At the end of the trip, we filled two carts, that turned into six banana boxes filled with food, and paid $120. For the first time since buying our freezer chest it now full.

I’m not sure how the Amish do it. I don’t know why these items are offered at one store but guarded by police at another. I remember watching a show with Andrew Zimmerman about people who go dumpster diving in Seattle then take the items they collected and cook it into a meal that was handed out to the homeless via a food truck. Even though nobody was made sick, countless people were fed at no cost to anyone other than the volunteers, the city shut it down for health code violations. It would appear that good Samaritan laws do not apply to feeding the homeless.

With the amount of food that is wasted in this country, even under mandate by the state, it is safe to say that this trend will continue. The Amish and stores like the Cadillac Marketplace won’t have a hard time filling their shelves. Food will continue to go into the landfills while people go hungry unable to pay ridiculous prices. The only way I can think to counter the cost of produce is to grow your own. To expand on that idea is to have people grow enough for themselves and more for their neighbors. If people grew produce on their property it would take a burden off of the grocery stores. We have seen this happen before after the fall of the USSR. Cuba told its people to grow food where ever they could find land. If you were growing food, the land was “yours.” People didn’t starve, they ate better than they had before, and the country moved on.

Texas is currently experiencing a food shortage. The state of abundance, vast swaths of land, cattle, and of course FREEDOM, is going through something many people in our country have never seen before. Store shelves are bear and with the power grid down the food supply chain us unable to move. Everything is literally frozen in place. This is why we should not only be filling pantries with food that have a long shelf life, but learning to preserve food that we grow. Fresh is best but food, regardless of the quality, is better than starving.

I read a story about a man who filled his bathtub during the blackout and woke up the next morning to find all of his drinking water frozen into a block of ice. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how people can expect something that rare to happen and prepare for it. Some of the videos I watch told me that in Texas they didn’t even know where their water main shutoff was when a pipe burst in their house. Maybe I’m lucky with where I live. I have seen 120 degrees weather in Michigan. I saw -40 degrees last winter. I’m poor enough to work on my own house and know where the circuit breaker is, the water shut off, and fire extinguishers are assorted where a fire might break out. To me these things are common sense. If I was living in Texas, I wouldn’t know what to do if I spotted a scorpion in my house, came across a rattle snake in my yard, or was charged by a wild boar. We do have bears though.

Rising food prices are here. There is no more speculation of what might happen. The Federal Reserve is printing money like it is the die off of the beanie baby bubble. The stock market is inflated from the influx of money. With a food shortage looming and the value of the dollar declining we will start to see prices we have never seen before. Kiss organic food goodbye, nobody will be able to afford it. Even with the ability to buy food becoming harder for the majority of people some governments are making it more difficult to survive. In the UK the health inspectors are cracking down on people growing and/ or preparing food in their homes and selling it to neighbors.  They are now proposing that people caught doing this without a license could face 2 years in prison for feeding people. This would include your local tamale lady who is just trying to make a couple extra bucks. Could we see the closing of places like Pineview and the Cadillac Marketplace in the future? I would not be surprised if the government stepped in and said that cutting more food out of the market during the time of a shortage was for our own good. “We are the Government and we are here to help.” Cringe.

We as individuals need to be creative. We need to learn how to make the most out of the food we have and relearn tools that our ancestors had only a few decades ago. There was a time, not that long ago, when food wasn’t cheap. We have had it good for a long time now due to cheap oil. The world is changing and as a species we need to adapt to it. While the powers that be think they can implement a policy that will cover all places and cultures, they are horribly wrong. Texas is a prime example.  People in local areas need to figure out the best way to make it in the new world that is coming. Where I live the land is rolling hills, the soil is filled with clay, water pools into ponds everywhere, and we have constant wind. There is a lot of cattle and livestock here. Dairy farms are a dime a dozen. Rolling hills of wheat and corn are common. Move closer to the lake and you will find grape vines and hops growing in fields. One policy will not fix a state, or a country. It is beholden of the individual to figure out the best measure to work through this. The only people that can help us in the future is ourselves.


The Ghost of Bourdain

All I wanted was a hard cover copy of A Cook’s Tour, one of Bourdain’s early books after Kitchen Confidential, for my personal library. I noticed that eBay had a nice selection of books for fairly cheap and some places offered free shipping. If I could get a good copy for a few bucks instead of waiting for a local shop to get one in then I would buy one online. I found a copy by a library bookstore and they were offering free shipping. I figured throwing a few dollars to a library was a good investment for everyone. I placed my $8 order and waited, and waited, and wondered if it would ever come. Today I came home after running some errands and found some packages on the porch, one of them was for me. I opened the package to find my copy of A Cook’s Tour. I flipped through the pages to see if it was a first edition and found the signature first. The loud obnoxious “Hello!” was in my face and I turned the light on to see if it was real. Flipping the page over there was that indentation of a pen being pressed against the page. I had seen these before, the early signatures being simple and a quick scribble of his name, during a time he wondered if his fame was a fad and if it was all going to fall apart at some time unexpectedly. This was before the knife or the skull and the addition of “cook free or die” written on the page. I have found gems like this before. A signed first edition of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with an inscription by the author Michael Chabon was on the shelf at a local store of $1. I bought it and took it home feeling little guilt happy to know it would stay in my collection for decades to come. This was the first book I read where I thought to myself “this is what writing is all about.” My taste has changed over the years but that one book has always stayed with me. Other have come my way over the years, John Updike is a common occurrence, Jim Harrison is on the list, and the local Bonnie Jo Campbell is a dime a dozen in town but I don’t pass them up. This by far is the best find I have come by after seeing dozens of Bourdain’s signed books online for hundreds of dollars and wondering if I would ever be able to own one. I couldn’t help but wonder if his ghost swiped its hand and said “ya know, he’s always been a big fan, stuck through until the end, here you go young man.” I had been looking over his estate auction wondering if I could buy part of his personal library, but this is so much better and in my price range. Somehow, someway, this book came my way, and that need for a person bit of Bourdain’s history being in my life is complete. From now on this book is not for sale, it’s staying on the shelf, I’ll take it out for moments of inspiration and when I die the kids will likely donate it to the local goodwill. I hope I raise them right. Maybe it’s time to get that “Cook free or die” tattoo.


Letters to Harrison: 1

I still remember the day you died, now three years ago but feeling like yesterday. Out of all the deaths I could imagine yours was the one I had the most respect for. It wasn’t the suicide or drug overdose that we hear so much about, although you did flirt with those from time to time. I dread the care facility, the place where you rot away and people forget about you while they steal your stuff. Bedpans and seated showers are not the place for me. You died doing what you always did and weren’t going to stop from old age or loneliness, I know your wife died six months before. It seems like we all have someone waiting for us on the other side. How was it greeting Anthony Bourdain to the other side? I can imagine the feast you had prepared of duck breasts and pigs cooking in every way possible. They are selling his things now and I have seen some of yours. You are scattered around the country now, autographed books, your photo at Dick’s Pour House, French wine, and people still complain that you owe them money. Have a check ready for when they arrive. Tomorrow I will be cooking up a batch of pumpkin bacon soup from one of your favorite cookbooks by Fergus Henderson. The house will smell of bacon and garlic, and I will become fat as I prepare for winter. Hunting season is here and while we don’t have dove or quail in these parts it is calming to be in the woods and clear one’s head that the world always tries to fill with someone else’s gibberish. We all need to get away, even the crickets are singing their song in the city longing for a time that there wasn’t a city, when all of this was theirs and the only concern they had was what to eat and who to breed with. Humans were like that once until things became so damn complicated. What is it about our nature that causes us to destroy the little bit of good that we have? Are we all greedy? Is it some kind of lustful thirst that we can not satisfy pushing us toward our own demise? The empty bag of potato chips beside me might hold the answers. We continue to take until there is nothing left.


The Bourdain Connection

There are many things that I could say about Anthony Bourdain and while this book is dedicated to him I will try not to let his memory take over what should be a collection of stories about my time as a cook. I didn’t read Kitchen Confidential until almost a decade after it was published. The first time I picked it up was just after my ex-wife moved out and we were separated. Not long after that Medium Raw was released and that was the book that gave me some connection with the man, having gone through a similar time in my life and knowing the pain of separation. I was looking for something, although I didn’t know what at the time and somehow along the way Bourdain and a few others filled that void in my existence.
No Reservations became a big part of my life allowing me to see far away places while stuck in the same town that I had grown up in. at one point I even purchased a passport but it has never been used. My adventures are of the old school local kind and I am going to have to either make a serious of big changes or accept the fact that I am not destined to venture out into the world. Maybe I’m just not the traveling type.
There was a hope that had come from Bourdain, knowing that a man could spend the majority of his life slaving in a kitchen and with a series of fortunate events change everything in his life for the better. I started to look at my own life and wondered what I could do to change where is was and get out of the day to day funk that was my life. My career was a dead end. What had promised to be an opportunity to grow had dwindled to biweekly paychecks and no raises for 5 out of the 14 years I had worked in healthcare. The only people that appeared happy were those that had left the hospital who often used the hashtag #lifeafter__________ (fill in with your hospital of choice). I had 14 years of experience in a job that I hated and not much else to offer the world.
After my divorce I went out and bought a laptop. It sat in the closet for a year before I pulled it out and started writing. At first it was short stories but all of them were in the same world. Soon I realized they were tied together and part of the same story. A year later I had this thing that I didn’t know what to do with. I ran into a friend who had posted a kids book on Amazon and said “what the hell, people buy it or they won’t.”
Skipping ahead, that book turned into $20,000 in sales over three years with sequels and spin offs. The debt from my divorce was paid off, I had savings in the bank, and I learned I could do something beside mop up blood, pick up dismembered fingers from the floor, or learn that I was not going to have another raise after 14 years of service. I was fucking done with it all.
I put in a three week notice to give my supervisor time to find a replacement to work in the ER and even that was fucked up. They should have known something was amuck when there was a flood of people leaving out the door and nobody appeared to be upset about leaving. I took three months off, the first break from working since I was 16 years old and it taught me there was another way to live.
I am much happier now. Earning an income almost double what the hospital was paying, having a daughter, and a supportive wife who puts up with my eccentric ways. There was a time when I thought a person just found a job, went to work, and eventually retired. Towards my final years at the hospital I watch too many people reach retirement age and never make it to receive that first check. The older employees were dropping like flies and it was before they could have that retirement party. I did not want that to be me and because of Bourdain I realized it didn’t have to be. Life isn’t a closed book where you are destined to do the same thing over and over again. If that’s what you want then you can choose that for yourself but these days it’s a dangerous path to take. I know too many people who worked for a company for twenty plus years who were eventually escorted to the door, handed a small check and told to ‘fuck off’ in a polite way. I was determined not to be that person.
Bourdain also allowed me to look back at my year as a cook and find the good memories of a time that I had either forgotten or wished to forget. It wasn’t the best of times and the people I was hanging out with did not have my best interest at heart. I was an odd guy that didn’t appear to fit in anywhere and somehow attracted those who thought they could better themselves by being around me, but at the same time tried to bring me down to make themselves feel better. This was not a winning situation for anyone and I an glad to be done with it. This is why films like Good Will Hunting is a myth. When Affleck tells Damon that he better arrive at the house one day to find him gone, from my own personal experience those friends don’t exist. They resent you for trying to better your life and once you leave there is no coming back. If you are bettering your life you shouldn’t desire to come back. That was one thing Bourdain always feared, when would the trip be over and he would find himself back in the kitchen, too old to work and wondering what he had done with the time he had. You won’t find me working in a hospital ever again and there is a difference between enjoying cooking at home and running a line in a kitchen.
Some would say that chefs are the new rock stars of our culture and I would have to disagree. That mentality is dangerous and for those working the line there is nothing glamorous or sexy about slaving over a hot stove and being yelled at for 12-16 hours a day. It’s factory work with food. Think of the last time you heard about a famous person stamping out auto parts or the sexy guy or girl working the forklift. Working sucks and the best thing we can do is learn from it or at least find the motivation to do something else. Don’t wait as long as I did, you never know how much time you might have left to do what you really enjoy.


What NOT to do

I have seen successful start-up restaurants and I have seen the remains of those who thought they could do things in their own way. For starters I will use the Mexican taco place down the street from my house. They started simple and first sold their tacos out of a small food cart hauled around by an old Ford F150. The money they made from that stand went into renovating a building during that project their taco cart was parked in the parking lot still raising money for their project. While this seems smart and the best way to do things it also took them three years to reach their goal. It may have taken time but everything is paid for and everything they make from this point on is profit with no payment to be made to the bank. Equipment and gear were purchased second or third hand from auctions and other outlets at a fraction of the cost if it was new. Let somebody else pay those prices, you know, the poor bastards that have no idea what they are doing. Construction and labor were all DIY with flooring and walls all done by friends and family. There is no secret to how to build your own establishment, it takes hard work and time, two things people don’t want to invest in anymore, instead seeking the easy way out.
Then you have people starting a restaurant with money. The fact they have cash to burn can be the biggest obstacle they will face. There is a brewery downtown that decided years ago that they would extend their establishment and add a restaurant to their building. This place was famous for beer not food and while one could argue that its only natural for them to expand into other things, I would like to point out it is very difficult to make a profit from serving food. Making beer and serving alcohol is the best money maker one can hope for and if you are looking to make more money with that kind of establishment than maybe you should expand the types of drinks you serve.
All the classic mistakes were made with this expansion. Over 3 million dollars was spent on the kitchen alone. For some reason a person with a limitless credit card thought the whole thing should be new. This was also done backwards, installing the kitchen and design then hiring the chef who would be working it. Nobody during this process had experience running a kitchen and yet they were picking the spots to put the stove, fryer, prep station, oven and so on. The flow of the kitchen and the type of food you will be serving are key to having a functioning kitchen.
Next came the hiring of the chef. There were two options in the end. One was a guy who worked for a company who toured the country selling kitchen supplies and showing new businesses how to prepare their meals. This guy had skills that were learned over time. Next you had a guy from California who had a habit of rubbing his noise while sniffing and thought he was the greatest thing on the planet. The daughter of the brewery’s owner thought he was pretty hot herself so you can guess as to who they hired. The coke addict lasted less than a year when they finally realized he had no idea what the hell he was doing. Money started to leak from the business like the Titanic cruising along after hitting the iceberg, the only difference is that they didn’t notice they hit anything and it was self-sabotage.
After 3 million dollars spent, a coke addict was hired for the kitchen, piss poor food was decided to be served, and an inexperienced crew roamed the kitchen the final nail was put into the coffin. Hopcat, a piss poor business with bad service, but for some reason loved by all, moved in across the street. It was game over for the brewery that had everything to offer in that small section of town.
I couldn’t tell you what they were thinking. When the brewery first started it was small, functioning out of a kitchen and serving one keg at a time. The owner used one cooking pot per batch and worked on recipes over the years. He gradually expanded and slowly over time the business grew to epic proportions. This was the Mexican taco cart but with beer. He had done things right the first time but somewhere along the way from the three divorces, national distribution, car collection, or maybe the coke habit, things started to go downhill and he forgot where he had come from. I have heard this story before, hell I lived it in a past life. You start working for a company and everything is going great. They have good benefits, they pay well, treat people with respect and then over time things start to disappear. The benefits are trimmed back, raises are no longer given, vacations are no longer approved and when you say something you are told “be thankful you have a job.” There is a strange business model that everyone follows to their own destruction, expand like a virus until you are dead.
Now why would a brewery with a stunning reputation decide to expand into the less lucrative restaurant industry? Greed. Their books topped off and while they were making more money than they could spend, there was the appeal of making more. Lessons had been learned long ago on how to do these things without going bankrupt and yet if you throw in a bunch of money people think they know better than the time-tested methods of yesterday. People were fired, benefits lost and the curtesy of a “I’m sorry” never came to mind. Lives were ruined and those on high, the captains of industry that knew better, didn’t think twice about it.
I talked before about a tribe, the group of people who work together with one goal in mind. If you want a functioning kitchen you better have a good tribe in place who is willing to work together through thick and thin. Serve the best food, on time, presented the same way and do it again. If there is anyone in the kitchen who can’t follow this model get rid of them. When I kicked Opie out of the kitchen it was because he was fucking things up for the rest of us. We could pump out a thousand perfect sandwiches and that one douchebag could ruin everything for everyone. This kind of self-destruction can be unstoppable from the top. You could have the best crew, the best ingredients and then some snot nosed kid steps in and think he knows better, add in some drug addiction and shit goes down hill fast.
So, you want to start a business, one that serves food? Start small, don’t invest your retirement account into something you have never done before. You know those tamale ladies who are pedaling their food behind closed doors, start out like that. Make sure there is a market for what you want to serve. If you have to take out a loan do it with the understanding that you might have to file bankruptcy. Set a number in your head for how much debt you can accrue before calling it quits. You can lose other people’s money but it’s a double whammy to lose your business and your savings. Try to build your business with your profits and don’t quit your day job until you are making enough to pay yourself. Buy everything second hand or install furniture and equipment by yourself. Have standards of quality over quantity. Do not over expand.
There is an Italian sausage place in town that has been successful for over a decade now. The man started out making the sausage at home and then bought a food cart for local events. He has a tiny car and bought a place on the business loop where he spends his time making sausage. He has the one building, still uses the cart and is doing very well for himself. He didn’t put up several diners across the city in the hopes of making more money, he had his goal in mind, reached it and now has the security of knowing that he is the one guy in town that people go to for his style of food.
People tend to make things more complicated then they need to be. As long as civilization has been around people have made a living from serving food. People have to eat and most of the time they aren’t able to cook for themselves. This industry wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t profitable and to make more out of it than it is turns it into something that it shouldn’t be. Serve good food, be consistent, and repeat. If you get this down people will come back. Hell, even McDonald’s figure this one out.


Daisy and a Motherf*cker

Today turned out to be a big day for getting things done. The proofs for Daisy arrived unexpectedly early and I did a small photo shoot for the cover of Motherf*cker: My year as a degenerate cook. This morning I wrote a new chapter for the second book titled Rob’s Lament and that clocked in at 2000 words.

Daisy is available for pre-order now and I’m currently recording the audiobook version which should conclude this week, then comes editing. I am still writing material for Motherf*cker but the plan is to release it on June 8th for the one-year anniversary of Anthony Bourdain’s death, three days after Daisy comes out. Am I crazy? Yes!
I doubt I will have the audiobook recorded for Motherf*cker but the print version and Ebook should be out. While creating the cover for Daisy I wanted to have three separate covers for each version, but cover creator had other plans for me. The image that was voted the best one for the Ebook also ended up as the cover for the printed version. As for the audiobook, I haven’t gotten far enough to find out how that will go.


Adventures in Cooking: part 13

Towards the end of my time at Olga’s I was invited to go out to Karaoke night at Brann’s Steakhouse located next door to the Mall. This was the first and last time that I would hang out with many of the servers and cooks who I had worked with. The manager that had come out had a reputation for belting out late 80’s pop songs. Many of the people tried to perform 90’s rap/ hip hop and a few tried to get me to sing “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-lot. I declined and eventually, through the aid of much alcohol, picked Ænima by Tool. Nate Dawg made some comment about me of all people picking a 6-minute song and I didn’t care. I had to listen to him rapping some track by Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
When I finished singing one of the only songs, I had memorized the bar was silent. “and that was Matt, the only guy I have seen able to sing Tool. Very nice.” The DJ said before announcing the next up to the stage. This night I learned about putting myself into horrible situations. I was too drunk to drive, knowing this is a good tool to stay out of trouble. The bad part about know this was being taken to Karen’s apartment across the street to sober up. We didn’t have Uber back then and I didn’t want to pay for a cab. I argued to sleep in my car, but it was below freezing outside. I caved in and fell asleep on Karen’s couch, coat still on and my large case of CDs wrapped in my arms. Back then people would steal CDs from cars which is unthinkable today. After Karen checked on her kids, she came back into the living room. I pretended to be asleep and I was in a state of panic as she stood over the couch. After a long moment there was a deep sigh and she disappeared.
Early that morning I woke up and found the apartment dead silent. Karen was still asleep, and I wanted to be out of there as soon as possible. I grabbed my CDs and went out, walking across the street, finding my car in the Brann’s parking lot and driving home. I needed something different. I needed to get out of Olga’s before I ended up as a trophy on somebody’s wall.
There are places in Kalamazoo that appear impossible to get into. Pizer, Stryker, Bronson, Borgess, the list goes on but the institutions that offer a living wage had their doors closed unless you knew somebody on the inside. My mom snuck her way into the hospital through a loop whole in their hiring system. She was working at a daycare center operated by the hospital however it was a separate entity and the employees were not regarded as hospital employees. One of the other women she worked with bid on a job that was only inhouse and she got the job. Others started to do it and soon HR learned about these women who shouldn’t be bidding on these jobs but not before my mom was in.
One of the floors in the hospital was short staffed for cleaning people and I was given a paper application. That paper was handed to the manager who gave it to HR and before I knew it, I had an interview. The job was 12 hours a day, three days a week and I took it. This was the first time I had health insurance, I didn’t have to worry how many hours I had to pay rent, I wasn’t standing over a hot stove and I didn’t have anyone yelling at me ever twenty minutes. This was a complete change from where I had been working.
I still had some credit card debt from college and wanted to save up for a new car. I continued working at Olga’s and after working 60-70 hours a week for 6 months I left. I still remember the moment I was standing in the kitchen and my mind shut off, looking into nothingness and snapping out of it half awake and dragging myself through my task. I had money saved up, the credit card was paid off. It was time to relax and start living like a normal human being.
I went up to the manager’s office and found Meagan sitting at the desk. I think she had just finished putting together the next schedule and I told her “I can’t do this anymore.”
“You’re quitting?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied with the intend of giving her a two-week notice.
“Today?” she asked. I had not considered this. I fully intended on giving them two weeks and find someone to cover for me, but after all the short shifts, all the double shifts, the times I worked by myself what difference would it have made. Knowing I didn’t ever have to come back was a blessing in disguise. She never should have asked that question.
I can do that? I thought to myself. “Uh, Ya. Today.” Meagan started to cry, and I said “sorry” before turning around, hanging up my apron and going downstairs.
“Motherfucker, where are you going?” Nate Dawg asked as I walked past him in the kitchen without an apron.
“My shift is over,” I said.
“We’re short staffed. Want some more time?”
“I just quit,” I said.
“Oh, you get a job at the hospital and you think you’re better than us now?”
I thought for a second, after all the insults, long nights of Nate tearing me down to make himself feel better, the constant ridicule for not liking the same things as him, I had had enough.
“Ya, I am better than you.”
“Get the fuck out of here motherfucker. Piece of shit. Fucking asshole. I can do this whole fucking thing myself. I don’t need your help uppity asshole.”
“Nate, go fuck yourself.” I walked out and never saw Nate again.
There was a weight off my shoulders. A burden had been lifted and, in the end, I had to wonder if it was ever worth it. What is the purpose of running a business that treated people like cattle pushing them into the butcher shop every day? Who thought of these business models and at what point did they ever seem like fun or a useful profession? I understand making hot food, serving those who need to eat, helping keep the rest of us going, but this was something else. Olga’s never figured out if it was fast food, or a bistro for lunch, or (heaven forbid) fine dining. It wanted to be everything to everyone and in the end, it failed its customers and the employees the most. I was now free from the grips of Olga’s and I only went back there once in the last 20 years. Some of the same servers still worked there. I spotted Junior working in the kitchen with his hair now white and his frame thinner than I remembered. I wasn’t curious about some of the other people I worked with and therefore didn’t ask. That time was gone, and I was grateful to be out of there. My membership card to the brotherhood of the spatula had been revoked.


Adventures in Cooking: part 12

In the cooking world there is no shortage of stupid that you will meet along the way. One of the most common phrases you will hear from newbs is “I didn’t know.” I used this a few times like the moment I threw the chicken tender away and quickly learned that it sets you up for a verbal assault from wailing banshees armed with spatulas and knives. It is best to yell an F bomb and just pretend you screwed up while making a mental note to never do that again.
During our monthly deep clean one of the new guys took a mop and cleaned out the walk-in cooler. He did a good job and maybe in his moment of pride he decided to repeat the act. He opened the walk-in freezer and dropped the soaping wet mop in the middle of the floor. That is the spot it remained for several days until a handful of us were smart enough to pour hot water onto the mop. Somebody thought of A Christmas Story and in the end no mops were harmed during this escapade. The man walked out of the freezer, looked around, didn’t tell anybody he was leaving, and walked away never to be seen again. I don’t know why these people think they will be fired or suffer some punishment so harsh it would scare them for life and maybe they were right. Perhaps they did do something like this before and were belittled in front of the crew, tarred and feathered, or bent over the knee and spanked. We will never know.
I have seen plastic utensils put into the deep fryers to take something out of the oil. Metal pans put into microwaves to heat something up. Dishes put into the washing machine with the glasses facing up. Gyro meat cut down while it was still raw. Food not rotated in the cooler. The list could go on and on.
There is nothing wrong with these people. They are not mentally defective or have a learning disability, although there is a chance they might. In most cases these are young people who have never functioned outside their homes and had most things done for them because their parents were too lazy to teach them how to do things on their own.
For all the immature antics that happen in a kitchen it takes a level of maturity to be a functioning member of the crew. If you are constantly screwing up people will not cover for you and eventually you will be out the door. Shit happens, we all know this, but when you keep repeating the same mistakes and you think that it is never your fault, the problem isn’t your co-workers or your parents or the school you went to or the friends you hang out with, it’s you. When there is no personal accountability or responsibility there is no trust. If there is no trust in you to do your job on the deep fryer, or working as the dish bitch, your ass will be out the door. You may get a second chance, hell I have seen people come back three or four times. Don’t think it’s because you have value. Nine times out of ten it’s because we were short staffed and having a body is better than no bodies. Some people thought they were hot shit when they strolled back in like they had been vindicated from their previous crimes. They say ‘hi’ to people who never liked them to begin with thinking they were best friends. They immediately become lazy, start doing the same shit all over again and the next day are shoved out the door. They should be glad because the handle on the walk-in freezer tends to jam and heaven forbid everyone goes out for a smoke break at the same time.
I can see it now, the plaque placed inside the walk-in cooler” For Guy la Douche, the dish bitch. May your memory last as long as your mop stood on its own in this freezer. You will not be missed. Sorry.” Meanwhile a large gym bag sits in the back corner of the freezer with a note that says Do NOT Touch.


Adventures in Cooking: part 11

There are days that everyone dreads. Up there on the list of crappy days that you don’t want to go to work for are; holidays, Christmas shopping season, short staff days, and the dreaded health inspection. Nobody wants to be there, from the dishwasher to the manager this is a trip from on high looking down on those who have not followed the rules and any infraction can result in thousands of dollars in fines or being closed. A word of advice to the managers out there, tell your staff that it’s happening. Don’t schedule your biggest fuck ups, and don’t walk around like you’re trying to hide Jews from Nazis.
I didn’t know who the guy was walking around with Meagan that day. She looked scared and they kept talking in private. I wondered if it was corporate and she was looking at losing her job. Had we been making her job that hard on her? I went about my shift as I always did not thinking about it. Communication around the kitchen had flatlined and the staff walked around oblivious to what was happening. It was the health inspection.
I sharpened all the fillet knives and waited for the gyro meat to turn a golden brown. I was going to make sure we started off the shift right with some thin cut meat. I ran some bread through the roller and piled them up to be cooked on the grill. Then came the meat.
I sharpened the blade one last time; the metal had a ring to it that made the hairs on my arms stand up. I took a damp rag and wiped the blade off. The edge was so sharp it sliced through eight layers of washcloth and into my index finger. I didn’t notice at first, it wasn’t until the sharp stinging pain like a bug bite hit me that I pulled the blade back and saw the blood rushing from the side of my finger. I pressed the cloth against the cut and turned around to see Meagan and the health inspector looking at me. Her mouth was hanging down by her shoes, eye wide like the moment a deer realizes it’s going to that big feeding field in the sky a split second before the semitruck smacks into it. The health inspector kept that bland unimpressed look on his face as he said to her “did he just cut himself?”
I walked into the kitchen and into the back room where I found the first aid kit. The band aid wrappers were brown, aged through the passing of time. I cleaned off the blood and pressed the cloth band aid on hoping to stop the bleeding. A few minutes later blood was running down my fingers dripping off the tips. It didn’t matter what I did it would not stop. I went upstairs and found Meagan at her desk. The health inspector had left.
“I cut myself and it won’t stop bleeding,” Meagan looked at it and when I pulled the band aid off the cut started to gush all over again.
“Oh Jesus. Go to the hospital.”
I went downstairs and told the rest of the crew I had to leave.
“Good job motherfucker, now we’re short staffed the rest of the day.” I could see that Nate Dawg cared.
I went to the local emergency room and was checked in. the place wasn’t busy, and I was placed in a room surrounded by curtains. The nurse checked the cut and then the doctor came in. he pried the wound open and watched the blood come rushing out again.
“Oh, that’s bad,” the doctor said continuing to open the cut further.
This was the first time I had ever been in an ER and I didn’t think it would be like this. I wondered if they played with people’s wounds to encourage them not to come back in the future. My finger was left to soak in iodine and when it was done the doctor looked at the cut again.
“it doesn’t need stitches, but it needs to be sealed up.” He took out a tube of superglue, it had a medical name for it, but it was superglue, and applied the quick drying substance to my skin. I would be out of work for three days. At this point I was happy for the break.
I had no idea at the time that the room I was in would end up being the future spot where I would spend the next 14 years of my life. The ER would become my home, my purgatory for half of my life. To this day I don’t know why I stayed for so long, looking bad I wish I had left so much sooner than I did. That is all another story and we will come back to that later.
Injuries were common in the kitchen. People cut themselves, slipped and fell, burned, and battered themselves all the time. It was rare for someone to go to the ER; most would cover the wound and go about their business until the end of the shift. There was nothing a good toke break couldn’t handle. The fry cook would have blisters on his forearms from the oil spattering up. The dish bitch would have cuts on his hands from broken glasses and knives put in the trays in the worst possible spots. When things were stressful in the kitchen, punches would be thrown into shoulders, wet rags flicked into faces and in the heat of the moment knives pulled but never used. Working in a kitchen is already hard on the body. Long hours on your feet. All the important heavy stuff you need is stored under the counter where you are constantly bending down to retrieve something or worse finding that you ran out of god knows what and you have to run to the back cooler dodging servers, cooks, and dish washers who have their heads up their asses.
If you have been reading this blog and you find yourself saying “I think I want to work in a kitchen” seek professional help. Already have a counselor, check the medication drawer and see if you are taking your pills regularly. You have no mental illness and have no need for prescriptions, then you must be a masochist. I don’t know why you don’t like yourself and it’s not for me to judge. There are worse things in life to be into, like heroin. So maybe, the life of a cook is a better choice. Still not convinced that you should reconsider being a cook, fine. Here are some things to think about.
How old are you? If you are in your teens or twenties, sure give it a shot. Why not? You’re young, your body is still in one piece, and you have time to make mistakes in your life.do it now if you aren’t going to listen. If you are in your thirties or older find something else to do. This life is like the UFC the good years are before the 30 mark and there are few, the rare few people who can handle working in a kitchen past that age. You might be the Randy Couture of the kitchen world, but odds are you aren’t, plus there in the possibility of jail time when you find yourself surrounded by immature assholes who don’t respect you and shit on you any chance they get. When you are older you will have less patience for their shit and its not a good place for you or them.
So, you are young, what kind of kitchen do you want to work in? there are the places that serve the same thing everyday with nothing new on the menu and they are loved for it. Can you make the same shit everyday with nothing new to challenge you? If not stay away. It might be a good place to start and get the swing of things but leave after a year or so. Tuck it away on your resume and move on. If you like a challenge and always doing new things, find a place that constantly changes their menu. There are a few local examples I can point out. Rustica is a fine dining restaurant that hasn’t changed their menu in years. They have always had the roasted bone marrow, bouillabaisse, and grilled duck breast. People love this place, but it doesn’t have much to offer in diversity. Then there is Fuse a place that experiments with new dishes every week and uses outlets like Instagram to feature the new menu and was they have to offer.
There are of course other options. Bakery, chain restaurants, and diners can be a start. There is something appealing about those dives that leave you questioning the cleanliness of the place, but the food is so good you come back for more. At the local Ray Ray’s, I was shocked to see the owner/ cook working the grill with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. But I tell you he makes some of the best damn burgers in town. There are times that I have been there, and Rodger is smoking at the grill, cops come in to order their lunch and nobody says a damn thing. Meanwhile my friend and I are sitting at a table with two beers bought at the neighboring quickie mart. That is the power of being a good cook. When your food is something special, that which nobody else offers or doesn’t come close to matching you earn certain privileges others don’t enjoy. When you make the right friends through food, and your menu offers things people can’t refuse, there isn’t much you can’t accomplish.
You could go to a cooking school but why the hell would you do that? The local library I work at has three aisles of cookbooks available for the pickings. I have read about people spending a year going through the Julia Child cookbook. There is a man who is working his way through Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halle cookbook for the one-year anniversary of his death. There are other places to learn how to cook and not go into massive amounts of debt that can not be repaid on this salary. If you are planning on working for someone else do not go to culinary school. You will be buried in student loan debt and not make enough to survive and pay back the debt, something you can not claim when filing for bankruptcy. If you are planning to open your own place do not go to culinary school. You will be buried in student loan debt and then the debt of starting your own place. In the end, learn how to cook on your own, or work at some shitty fast paced restaurant that is nothing special and get the hands-on experience that is the most valuable part of working in a kitchen. Who cares if you can make a great filet mignon? What matters is if you can make 16 of the damn things at the same time for a large group and not lose your mind under the stress, then do it all over again twenty minutes later because another group came in. this is the reality of working in a kitchen. The job is never done except when the open sign is shut off and the last customer is out the door. That is when you can sit back relax and enjoy that drink or joint or whatever it is that you are into, but only when everything is out away and the grill is cleaned, and the floors are mopped, and the stock is rotated in the walk in cooler, and the left overs are dated, and the last dishes are run through the machine, then maybe you can relax.
Did I mention the dreams in the middle of the night about taking an endless stream of tickets off the machine? That happens. Or the ones where you are standing naked at the grill, but you have too many orders to go find some clothes. That one happens too.
My point is this life isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t for me. That is why I am writing about it but not still doing it. The last time I went to the Olga’s I worked at I saw Junior. He didn’t recognize me and even if I said something to him, he probably wouldn’t remember who I was. With the turn around the odds are he has worked with a few hundred people in the last twenty years. I was a small check on the list of people that have come and gone. Junior will likely be working there until the day he dies. If he enjoys it then there are few things better one could hope for. I know too many people that worked shit jobs they hated only to die before retirement and never had the chance to enjoy what they loved. If you don’t love cooking, stay out of the kitchen because you will receive no love in return.
To be continued…


Adventures in Cooking: Part 10

It’s not everyday that a person is a victim of a terrorist attack. No, I’m not talking about 9-11 I’m referring to the Crossroads Mall Pepper spray gas attack of 2000. There are things that do not mix in nature. Oil and water, chocolate and vanilla, white trash and money, but sometimes they come together, and the outcome is never good. Look at the Kardashians for the last example.
It was spring and while the birds were chasing one another and the bees remained hard at work helping flowers have sex, the hormones of the mall were also in full swing. There weren’t too many feuds that happened in the mall. We never competed against the McDonald’s crew to find out who was better. There wasn’t a Greek food vs Asian food fight happening to figure out dominance, and by the way Asian food would have won hands down. The orange chicken at Oriental Express is worth swinging by the mall for. The one group of douchebags that we could not stand was the security guards.
For me this was an odd gang that roamed around in their uniforms for the soul purpose of hitting on girls while trying to look good catching shop lifters. Like any wannabe cops they collected any weapon they could carry except for a pistol. Their belts were customized towards each guard showing their different personalities. The one common element was the radio, everything besides that was a combination of handcuffs, which they couldn’t legally use, zip ties, baton, tear gas, pepper spray, flash light, and any doohickey that can attach to a keychain. There were moments when we would catch the guards hitting on the waitresses, fucking up our times and pissing off everyone in the restaurant.
“Lindsey, order up for 12,” Nate hollers out of the kitchen towards the doors.
Heads turn and the guard waves his hand telling her to ignore Nate. I caught this and popped out to see if she had heard. Their eyes were locked, and the guard was instantly pissed I was interrupting.
“So, you can arrest people? That’s so cool,” Lindsey says looking at his zip ties.
“Hey Lindsey, your order is up.” I look at the guard’s belt with a smirk.
“Hey buddy, I think she can take care of it.”
If there is one thing I hate about douchebags, its when they call you buddy. I’m not your bud or buddy. I’m certainly not your bro. unless there is some DNA test I don’t know about, I’m not your brother. Those guys can fuck off and this meant war.
“So, you know that you don’t have the power to arrest anyone, right. Plus, you can only restrain someone if they are a threat to themselves or others.” I said, knowing the laws.
He rolled his eyes and spit out a “pts” before saying, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He didn’t argue just tried to discredit. It was game on.
“Are you really going to strip every time you try to arrest someone?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“The zip ties on your belt. They are looped around but you connected the ends so the only way you can get them off is by taking your belt off and since it is going through the loop of your pants that mean the pants must come off as well. So, are you going to strip them into submission?” I waited for a response.
“Fuck you,” the guard said.
“Oh my god, he’s right. How would you get those off there?” Lindsey said.
“Lindsey, get this fucking order.” Nate yelled from the kitchen.
Lindsey went to the kitchen leaving me and security douche by ourselves.
“You’re a fucking dead man.” The guard said. “fucking cock blocker.”
“what are you going to do arrest me. Keep your clothes on, I’m not into that.”
“Don’t get mad at me because she wants some of this.” Then he took a low blow. “At least I’m not working some shit job in a kitchen.”
“Hey asshole I worked security for two years and we had to deal with protestors. You chase shoplifting teens out of hot topic. Have a nice day dick bag.”
“Fuck you.”
“Not if you took me to dinner and a movie first.”
The fight to have the last word went on until a call came through the radio. Elderly man stuck on the escalator. Real action-packed stuff.
The guards continued to come around, and in the end, things did not go well for them. The police were called. EMS showed up. The fire department came to the rescue. You know, the real men in uniforms.
Lindsey and the guard were in their usual mating ritual. Lindsey decided to be the aggressive one and pull the pepper spray from the guard’s belt.
“Hey, give that back.” Yes, it really sounded that pathetic.
Of course, Lindsey didn’t and played a short game of tag until her thumb hit the button and a mist went into the air. The guard jumped back, and Lindsey dropped the canister on the floor. The area was instantly cleared as people coughed and rubbed their eyes.
In the kitchen, I had an itch in my throat. Nate Dawg started to cough. The servers rubbed their eyes as they grabbed their orders. Customers coughed as they ate. I started to cough.
“Mother fucker, are you burning something?” Nate said rubbing his eyes.
The doors opened to the kitchen. “The police are clearing the mall,” the manager said. We learned the whole story outside.
In the food court a customer had a severe asthma attack. People in the Sears store had itchy eyes and horrible coughs. The people in Hot Topic discovered a new way to torture themselves without cutting. Some people feared it was a sarin gas attack like what happened in Tokyo with the subway terminals.
The police came out, long with every other first responder in the city of Portage. This wasn’t the act of Islamic terrorism, religious nutjobs, or societal anarchist. No, this was the result of hormones.
The pepper spray entered the ventilation system and was pumped through the entire building. Two levels of stores plus the anchor stores on the ends are all tied into the same system. One spray of the guards $5 toy cleared out an entire shopping mall. The police kept the building cleared for five hours to air everything out. While people like to say that pepper spray is harmless the category is technically ‘less lethal’ rather than ‘non-lethal’ force. This was the great Crossroads Mall pepper spray gas attack of 2000; Al Qaeda would have been proud.
After this event security was not allowed to carry pepper spray anymore. Management contacted the head of security and demanded that the guards no longer come around the restaurant unless they were called, which we ever did. It’s difficult to shop lift a sandwich from a place that you dine in. The mall eventually went back to normal and the event was forgotten. To this day when people say they carry pepper spray for personal protection, and when they work indoors I shake my head and tell them to find something else. There has never been a substitute to a good knife and there never will be.