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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