It had been a few weeks strong working at The Good Knight when I realized a painful, humbling truth: not only was I working with degenerate, apathetic, drug-using, drug-pushing psychos, but the differences I noticed between them and myself were diminishing. I was staying awake longer, drinking more alcohol and caffeine, sleeping with more women and more and more rarely remembering I had responsibilities, few as they were. It sounds like paradise to some, I know, but as it was my teeth were growing yellow. I was feeling more tired, less healthy and my poor dog was becoming more catlike in his ability to take care of himself. As fickle as my daylight hours and relationships were he was the closest thing I had at the time to a significant other to give me guilt-inspiring looks when I knew I should have been taking better care of myself, of my life and of him.
I blame my accomplices; my shipmates; my partners in crime. Just like them, I was more frequently putting the blame for my habits on other people and denying any fault of my own. I was becoming a better cook, and a worse person. Not too often, in my experience, are the skill and the character good in a single individual, depending of course on your definition of “good.” Justin was the easiest to blame, but as he was also the most outlandish person there I’ll save him for later.
Let’s start with the other “J” in house, Jimmy. Jimmy was a morning person, though I don’t think he wished it. What he did want, however, was total control and creative freedom. As there was seldom anything going on nor a need for any help, the morning shift was almost entirely his. He would brainstorm, meddle, manipulate and create interesting, weird and innovative food all while actually serving maybe two people all morning. I remember fondly his eye-opening veggie burger. New to Austin from Who-The-Fuck-Cares, Louisiana, I thought food allergies, vegan/vegetarian diets and other dietary restrictions to be more-or-less fictitious. I’ve also always been a fierce advocate of using as few ingredients as possible in a recipe. When high in quality and strict in handling, ingredients need not be obscure or numerous to produce beautiful food. When handed a recipe my first instinct is to scope out what I can substitute or leave out entirely. If anything, I’m a cheapskate in the grocery store and won’t buy what I don’t have to.
Jimmy blew all this away with his veggie burger. Meat substitutes weren’t new to me but I hadn’t had any good ones. His veggie burger was, first of all, delicious. He’d regularly scream profanity at us all for eating them before he had a chance to sell them. It was also one of the most complicated, lengthy recipes I’d ever read. The patty alone had over twenty ingredients! He showed me a picture of the raw mise en place and it took up the entire kitchen’s work surface area. But if one were to eat it, one could taste every layer of texture and flavor. Lentils, black beans, carrot, celery, onion, cumin, cayenne, and whatever the hell else he had in there all served a purpose; had a place. It was a memorable and cherished experience when one bite, when savored slowly, could change a person’s entire perspective. Jimmy, that mad scientist bastard, had made me a more open individual.
Other warm bodies who would contribute to the general decline of my standards, character and health would include a dishwasher, Matt Hammer. He was a no-bullshit, straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is guy who played some instrument in a punk band and took no prisoners with his scathing and usually honest story-telling. We loved to exclaim his name like one would hear on a 1970’s cop drama when he walked in the door. He hated it, and would cut us down to size with a few spot-on insults and we’d quiet down. We all loved the guy, though we couldn’t tell if the feeling was mutual.
There were the two Ryans who worked at the bar. One was the guitarist in Hammer’s punk band who we remember for being a nice guy with a way-too-hot-for-him girlfriend and a very foul mouth. The other, Ryan Puffer, had a name that sounded a lot nicer than he was. I’ve been in the industry for the better part of a decade now and have yet to meet someone as harshly xenophobic as this guy. Unabashedly opinionated and frighteningly intelligent, Puffer was someone to keep on your good side. He liked me because I never touched the bar’s ingredients and didn’t pretend to know anything I didn’t. We once emptied the entire bar of patrons by openly discussing how we would dispose of a human body after a murder. “Grind ’em in an industrial grinder,” I’d say. “Nah,” he’d counter. “I’d soak ’em in the tub long enough to puree ’em smooth enough to just wash ’em down the drain. Plenty of guys I know would lend me an immersion blender and bleach would cover the smell.”
The bar patrons and I laughed at first, but once the conversation shifted to the all too detailed and seemingly well thought-out methods of preparing and eating the remains, customers began to leave and I found myself struggling to keep a straight face and keep up with Puffer’s calm savagery. “There’s probably good eating on the cheek,” he’d say, “if you braised it for a bit. Everything else is tough and chewy but I bet the some of the organs could be made edible. The throat glands could be like sweetbreads.” I reminded myself after that night to remain vigilant in my exclusion of bar ingredients in my daily preparations.
I’ve already gone on an all too personal rant about Logan so in the spirit of good karma I’ll praise Aaron. Aaron was a guy who started washing dishes there because he simply wanted to learn about food. He had no interest in fame, status, money or especially culinary school. He wanted to see it done by the pros, learn how to do it himself and then do it better. He rode a tiny bike eleven miles to work from the east side to make what I assumed was minimum wage scrubbing pots and spraying floor mats. He once made the trip with no seat on his bike right after it had been stolen. He never showed up late or made excuses, and he always asked questions. He was eager, humble and damn funny. No one could make fun of him because, as much as I hate the phrase, he kept it real. I liked that he was more dedicated than I was. He wouldn’t be selling himself off for better pay (as I soon would) or changing jobs for more comfort (as I often did).
He wasn’t Justin. Justin was a complete anomaly to me. I still don’t know anything about where he lived or hung out. I never even knew his last name. I did know that he stank. He was a person who cared a lot about not caring. I made him out to be a person who did everything he did apathetically, lazily and disgustingly as if to shout to the world how much he didn’t care about worrying, working or bathing. He looked like Encino Man, and smelled like sour milk. None of this was very off-putting to me as I saw him in relatively small doses, but I was shocked at how he handled servers and guests. My background as it was consisted of catering to the guest, and doing whatever they wanted within reason. When asked by a server if we could simply put one dessert topping on a different dessert (we could) he shouted, “No, we don’t do that shit here!” He never took temperatures on meats, accepted complaints or basically did anything he didn’t want to. He was my first experience with a cook who, no matter who you were or where you came from, “knew more than you did.”
In spite of being cancerous, smelly and loathsome, Justin somehow regularly went to bed with all manner of attractive women. I was, at first, baffled by how this could happen, but as I observed his habits and listened to his stories I learned to recognize that some women, although externally attractive, were neither intelligent nor secure. I learned to steer clear of his type: easy prey. They usually came with emotional baggage and sexually transmitted diseases. As Justin looked like an ignominious Jesus, I began to ask myself, “What Would Justin Do? Good. Don’t do that.” After watching him carelessly snap the tip off of my paring knife (an ultimate sin) I stole his and never talked to him again.
As my bodily toxicity increased so did my skill, and I began to learn a thing or two.
To Be Continued…