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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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…

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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.

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Adventures in Cooking: Part 9

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

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Adventures in Cooking: Part 8

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

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Adventures in Cooking: Part 7

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

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