So what about the actual work? What was a shift there really like? Well, as I’ve said, slow. I had, for the first time in seven years of varying jobs, free time on the clock. To this day I don’t know what an office job is like, but I imagine this was about as close as I’ll be finding myself to one any time soon. While under the leaky ceilings and Chef Brandon’s tutelage I truly detested the snail-like pace of it all. The nights drew on slowly, and after a month of them the disgustingly entertaining stories of my coworkers and the repulsive flirting of some of the less-than-desirable waitstaff no longer made it worthwhile. But in retrospect, I had been given a true gift: Time to learn, and learn I did.
Brandon’s method of teaching was one of punk-rock confidence mixed with mamma’s boy humility. The man, himself, was in his thirties, about 5’8″, slightly portly, covered in tattoos and always wore his waist-length hair in a tight ponytail. He always worked in jeans and a loose, black t-shirt with the indiscernible logo of one of many Swedish metal bands he always asked if I knew. I never did. He also always sported his black Don Quixote bandana. We all did, but you had to earn your place there before given one. Brandon wasn’t the type of guy to do that sort of thing to stroke his own ego. I think he just wanted us all to get along and feel like we fit in. We sure-as-hell didn’t anywhere else.
Born in raised in L.A. Brandon loved two things above all else: In-N-Out Burger, and The Big Lebowski, second only to his wife and son. He had ended a seven-year pass at being vegetarian after returning to L.A. after a long road trip simply because, “In-N-Out looked too good to pass up.” And I’ve never met anyone who has a comparable encyclopedic knowledge of the Cohen brothers’ works. There are still occasions where one of our phones would light up revealing that the other had left a voice mail or text yelling, “I FUCK YOU!”
Other than advancing my knowledge of Jewish screenwriting masterpieces and fast food marvels, Brandon helped shape me into a serious cook. At this point I could handle my own on any line, regardless of pace and volume, and I could cook a burger or steak to a desired temperature, but here I was taught to slow down, and really cook; How to make deeper, richer sauces and prettier vegetables; How to properly handle good meat. I learned basic necessary skills like emulsifying sauces (by hand) and figuring things like moisture retention due to presence or lack of salt and heat. I’d also hardly baked a thing in my life before this. I learned a few pastry basics like the difference between baking soda and baking powder, how to actually whip whipped cream, and how egg yolks and lecithin made tea-steeped cream a velvety magical concoction of pleasure and delight.
My prior experience had honed me into a worker; a monster machine; a logistical and efficient bad-ass. The Good Knight turned me into a cook; someone who tastes the food they sell to make sure it’s worth being paid for. Someone who cares about letting meat rest before cutting it. Also, someone who occasionally picked up the clip board and ordered product whether or not his master was around to approve. I grew the confidence to make my own decisions, consequences be damned. I forged signatures on order forms and pilfered liquor for recipes with no one’s authority but my own. It started with my first special, and one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in this business.
Brandon leisurely told another cook and me to use some old product, make a soup, run it as a special and clean out the fridge. We put our inexperienced heads together and came up with a thick, fatty potato and asparagus soup with house-made lardon. It was damn delicious and, as it was a cold night, it sold like crazy. The next morning Brandon asked how the soup turned out and I cautiously said that it was pretty good, well, at least, I thought so and-
“Stop,” he said.
“You can’t be like that, especially in this business,” he continued. “If you think it’s good, fuckin’ say so. If you think it sucks, say it’s fuckin’ good anyway. Nobody’s gonna buy the shit if you don’t act like it’s the best thing you’ve ever made.”
It was one of many far-reaching epiphanies to come. I never sold short another dish, sauce or snack for that matter. I never sold myself short again either. I learned to fake an embellished (though humble) confidence in job interviews, first dates and other social tests. I wasn’t cocky, but I knew how to sound like I had everything to offer; like your menu, business, sex life, or general state of being in this universe would be enriched and improved by my presence. From then on people and jobs didn’t interview me. I interviewed them, dammit. I would approach a business, a roommate, a girl at a bar thinking, “I know why you need me. Time for you to find out.”
It was a social skill that taught me how to be a little less considerate of strangers so that I’d feel the freedom to really be myself, and as time would pass and skills would be refined, my claims of personal grandeur would become slightly more justified.