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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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