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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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….

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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…

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