Types Of Cooks

     It has sometimes bothered me that I have often been grouped and categorized as a cook. There are, of course, many reasons why I fit all too well into that term. I cook professionally. I like food with a professional and occasionally artistic affection. I use more than my share of profanity. I’m strangely comfortable with and bizarrely interested in cuts, burns, bruises and other kitchen-related battle scars. I’m rarely picky about what I eat, but usually particular about the ingredients I use to make my own food.

            On the other hand I don’t like being filed as “cook” when people refer to the ambitionless burnouts that polka dot late-night streets, alleys, bars and venues coasting aimlessly from one job, drinking binge, acid trip or whore house to another. I’ve said many times that cooks can be some pretty dingy characters. Sometimes you can smell them coming before you see them. Seriously, use a condom. Wash immediately.

 Biohazard

            These bottom-feeders give decent guys like my upstanding self a bad name. When people I meet find out how much I sleep, how much sun exposure I receive and how little I imbibe they always say the same thing: A sincerely baffled,“But… you said you’re a cook.“ I’ve even had people introduce me with something along the lines of, “Oh he works at      INSERT CURRENT JOB HERE      but he doesn’t, ya know, do like, the cook thing.“

 

The "cook thing"

The “cook thing”

            It was actually a breaking point of one would-be relationship when a girl I was dating told me, “I told my mom about you. I told her you were a cook, but, ya know, you wanna do other things, too.“ Thanks, sweetheart. By the way, we need to talk.

            It is a consolation, though, that there are simply different types of cooks. As with any job, wayfaring journeyman find themselves cooking for different reasons. Some for the lessons; others for the loot. I’ve managed to bring them to four main types that suit my purposes. Here for you are different types of cooks.

THE BUM

            The Bum is at the absolute bottom of the chain. He best represents the shameless bottom-feeder to which I’ve referred. The best way to sum up the Bums are that they’re only there for the paycheck. The don’t take themselves seriously or take ownership or pride in what they do. They don’t cook on their day off or care to learn about the tasks on which they find their hands landing. Seeing the state (or lack) of cleanliness of their work areas would not compel one to want to see their personal dwellings.

            An old boss once told me about his kitchen being particularly brutalized one New Year’s Eve partly due to one cook working as if he were half asleep. Nicely enough, the boss asked the guy to get it in gear to make a difference. The slob’s lackadaisical reply was, “I keep it in first gear ‘till I get paid.” This is totally backwards to me. You gear up so you can be paid more. Sulking and skulking haphazardly around a fast-paced battle arena doesn’t exactly mark you as a hero or upper management material. A snail trail of lethargy, grease stains and smeared tomato sauce mark you as first cut when business slows down. This type of sob story is usually centered around one entitled enough to demand raises just because they feel they deserve one. No evidence could support said claim.

     Deadbeats, Street Rats, Hood Rats, Army Cooks, Slop House Cooks, Lunch Ladies (male or female) are all insults commonly used to describe the Bums. The decent cooks usually end up having to save these pieces of work from busy nights and real cooking, and it only pisses them off.  You may not know you’re a Bum if the lazy entitlement has rendered you believing otherwise, but everyone else in your kitchen will know it. The kitchen is the military and the weak only hinder the strong.

"THE ONLY RAISE YOU’LL EVER GET IS YOUR FAMILY TRYING TO RAISE YOU FROM THE GRAVE I PUT YOU IN!"

“THE ONLY RAISE YOU’LL EVER GET IS YOUR FAMILY TRYING TO RAISE YOU FROM THE GRAVE I PUT YOU IN!”

THE MERCENARY

            Let me first mention that I am taking this phrase directly from Anthony Bourdain’s texts and it is not my own. It his, however, perfectly accurate so my intention is to pay homage, not to steal of course. That being said the Mercenaries are the next step up on the ladder, but are still a far cry from the Bums. Their main (and hopefully only) similarity to the Bums is that they also have their eyes set on the paycheck. The key difference being that the Mercenaries are smart enough to know that doing a job well yields greater rewards, and that a reputation can be the single most powerful weapon in your arsenal, or the worst roadblock in your way.

     Mercenary cooks are methodical badasses. They have perfected their ways and have a furiously stubborn rigidity for patterns and repetition. They enjoy a peculiar dharma in doing the same tasks hundreds of times so they can figure out their perfect way to do it. Thorough and meticulous, their modus operandi is efficiency. They think with longevity and prioritize tasks not by today, but by what will be going on for the next several days. If a sauce for their station will last for five days, they’re making exactly five days worth of it so they have more time to do other things the whole week. Mercenaries are there to get the job done, minimizing wasted product, wasted steps, wasted time and wasted ego. They take less pride in their over-the-top presentations and more pride in the cleanliness of their stations, the volume they can produce and their methods of execution.

You know you’re a badass when your first words at a new job are “Step aside“

You know you’re a badass when your first words at a new job are “Step aside“

     Many chefs love employing Mercenary cooks because they’re consistent and dependable. They deeply value what it means to be on time, to never call in sick, to offer to stay late and to be generally reliable. They often have a better idea of who has accumulated how many hours than the chef does. Also important is that they tend to get along with one another quite well; a key factor where temperatures and tempers flare and every hothead around is within arm’s reach of blades, heavy metal and fire. Mercenaries usually could care less if their co-pirates are male/female, gay/straight, foreign/domestic, old/young, pretty/ugly, experienced/inexperienced and so on. They care about work ethic. As long as their comrades can hold down their end of things with sincere effort and humility, all is well.

            However, therein lies a problem. Mercs are hard to keep happy. They notice, with surgical priority, who is slacking off and when and how. They want the weak weeded out, and tend to steer clear of compromise. They also have no qualms about abandoning ship and the earliest signs of a better offer. Their main priority is their own livelihood. One minute a chef has a perfectly balanced and self-sufficient schedule – no easy task- and the next, his key player is offered a couple more dollars an hour and will be gone before the month is out. The holiday season is fast approaching and now he’s losing profit paying all is other guys overtime to fill in the gaps! Never trust a Merc.

Heh Heh

Heh Heh

THE ARTIST

            Similar to the Mercenary but not quite as practical is the Artist. The Artists make up the culinary think tank that keep innovative and trend-setting dishes flying out of double-doors and onto magazine covers worldwide. They are tinkerers, innovators, experimenters and occasionally stark raving mad scientists; much like the pastry chefs for whom I have such conflicted adoration.

"Who wants cookies???"

“Who wants cookies???”

            Artists have a similar pride to the Mercenaries’ but with a less time-sensitive agenda. My old roommate was a prime example. He told me one evening he was cooking nachos and asked if I’d like some. I was as any God-fearing white American would be: Thrilled! But I didn’t realized that when he said “nachos“ he meant authentic, delicious, real deal, gimme-at-least-an-hour nachos. He cooked and mashed black beans, cut and toasted tortillas for chips, diced tomatoes and onions for his own salsa etc. I was surprised he didn’t culture the cheese himself. Don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic, but sometimes such a thing isn’t worth the wait. Such a time would be when you’re already four tables behind and your chef is screaming at you.

            Artists aren’t too terrible about this, but their main dilemma is being hindered in their creativity. The mechanical repetition of a line cook position can be disheartening to an Artist, especially a bright-eyed culinary school graduate who thinks every creature spawned from his or her intellect will end up on the menu. I’ve said it before: the Food Network lies.

lies

            The way to keep an Artist happy is by letting him come up with an occasional special. Maintain some creative outlet. It is always rewarding to have your input valued, and your advice put into action. The truth is, however, the best place for an Artist is to be the Chef. It’s really not a cook’s job to be a mastermind or a prodigy. Chef comes up with the items. Chef tastefully recycles old product into specials. Chef is sought out when no one else can expertly navigate around food allergies and dietary restrictions. I love a good, artistic Chef. It is a position that epitomizes Napoleon’s meritocracy. Sorry, young culinary graduate. You may have a good idea or two, but you either have no real clue what you’re talking about, or simply haven’t earned the gravity of real decision-making. Get back to us in ten or fifteen years.

THE SNOB

            I’ve worked with my share of Bums. They’re frustrating and disheartening, but they’re nothing – NOTHING- compared to this new breed of cook. Pictured here.

hipster-barista-gets-it

            The Snobs are my mortal enemies; my polar opposites. Their views of cooking lie on the exact opposite end of the spectrum as mine. Mercenaries and Artists make up the brains and brawn of the skillet-slinging operation. Bums are made useful from time to time. I can’t conceptualize a place where a Snob really fits.

            Snobs are Artists on the most cocaine-fueled ego trip imaginable. The world revolves around them, and no matter your experience or rank, they know more than you. Each dish is an entire history lesson with a Snob. One Snob with whom I worked was making a Chinese-inspired rice dish I hadn’t tried. All I asked was what he put in it. Almost thirty-five minutes later I had been given the entire history of the region from which the dish originated, the war that sparked its use, the cultural impact in other regions and the name, birth date and age of the inventor’s great grand niece. I do appreciate a historical anecdote, but after thirty-five minutes of wasted time on the clock he still hadn’t answered my question. Every dish is a food show and not only do I not have time, I really don’t care.

"Now what we have here is a lecture on the Irish Potato Famine"

“Now what we have here is a lecture on the Irish Potato Famine”

shutup

            Snobs are bad for business. They waste time. They’re the ones who spend an unnecessary amount of time making sure that the six-inch tall, paper thin garnishes on their food are absolutely photo-worthy every time which, again, is nice, but not in the middle of the dinner rush when everyone else’s food is getting cold. They waste product. I have seen Snobs tear through expensive and rare ingredients because they feel so compelled to run an obscure and “rustic“ special on a slow Monday night. It doesn’t sell, and money goes down the drain. They have no regard for the business and the big picture.

            My top issue with Snobs, other than their haughty egos, stylized facial hair and lack of hygiene, is that they’re not trustworthy. Their egocentric view makes them think that somehow they, above all others, have stumbled upon the one, true and perfect way to make hollandaise, to render stock or handle herbs. This means that they will do what they think is right behind the chef’s back. Treason, I tell you! In some cases, Snobs are responsible for you having to explain to your friend or date why the meal you’re eating at a given restaurant was totally different last time you went there.

            Phrases to be expected of a Snob include but are not limited to:

“You want me to show you the right way to do that?”

“Who’s your favorite chef?”

“See, what I’ve done here is…”

“You call that a knife?”

“It’s not authentic, but whatever.”

The pace and outcome of the evening is entirely dependent on the moods of these culinary divas, and they are moody.

show

            There are likely more facets to a cook’s drive and personality than what I’ve listed here. And it is very common for an individual to fall into more than one category depending on their position in life along their own personal journey. Each type of cook, and person for that matter, has a place regardless of whether or not I can imagine it. It’s sometimes easy for me to be bothered when people view me as a perma-fried, going-nowhere cook, but I remember that they have probably only met one or two types of cooks, and sometimes “Cook“ can be quite a compliment.

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Am I A Spoiled Brat?

     I enjoy food quite a bit. I would hope so considering I’ve been working intimately with it for a good few years now. It’s also a safe generalization that I have worked around very good food, very closely for a good few years now. And because of this, I have started forgetting the novelty of new and fancy food. The glamour is gone. Nicer, finer things altogether have lost their significance to me. I’m growing too accustomed to it. I have begun to wonder: Am I a spoiled brat?

THE CASE FOR “YES”

     It has been a growing concern of mine. It started with my good friend, Jennifer. She is allergic to…

((dramatic pause))

…PEPPERS.

     Think about that for a minute if you will. 

tabasco-sauce

Just think

tony

of all

the delicious things

the delicious things

she can't have.

she can’t have.

     It’s mind-blowing and disheartening. On top of that she came from a very culinarily humdrum background. “Meat n’ potatos,” she always says. She is my culinary negative. She is also, therefore, the perfect person to show me a few things about myself. I have lost count of how many times I’ve caught myself saying to her, “You just haven’t had it cooked right,” or, “you’re eating that all wrong.” Through her I began to realize I had a quite narrow standard of how people should eat and how food should be prepared.

     It happened with my family as well. I made a trip to my home town for Thanksgiving, and was greeted warmly by my family. My dog was given treats and my mom pointed out the brownies she’d made just for me.

Yup

Yup

     Then my dad offered me a beer which I declined because it was Bud Light. My mom offered me some wine, but it was pretty cheap and reminded me of Crystal Light so I let her finish my glass. Then my dad said he would be making gumbo for the weekend. I was thrilled to have my parents’ cooking again but when I saw him, a former chef, reach for a jarred, pre-made roux I was crushed.

Right in the childhood

Right in the childhood

     All I could think was, “You’re doing it wrong!” I made challah rolls from scratch for them and they brought store-bought bread for sandwiches. When my mom tried the bottle of wine I brought she thought it was delicious, but told me later that (at under $15.00 for a bottle) it was too pricey for her taste. Knowing her fondness for cheese I took her to the Whole Foods Mothership in Austin some time ago and put before her a cornucopia of varying fine cheeses. She smiled quaintly and picked out a little hunk of Pepper Jack.

This is the actual counter I worked near. Pepper Jack? Really???

This is the actual counter I worked near. Pepper Jack? Really???

     It should also be noted that no food in any restaurant has really impressed me in some time. I’ve seen so many things done so well for so long I now expect my service to be perfect, my food well seasoned and my money well spent. If there were ever any errors I used to tell servers, “Hey, I work in restaurants. Don’t worry about it. I get it.” Not anymore. Now I think, hey, I work in restaurants. I know how it’s supposed to be, get it right. If my meat isn’t cooked the temperature I asked it to be, you’re doing it again. If your so-called “ailoi” tastes exactly like Sysco Kraft mayo, it probably is and I don’t want it. I went to a tapas place in Shreveport – Shreveport of all places has tapas now – and the first thing I noticed was that they misspelled creme fraiche on their menu. For as loud as I scoffed I should have been wearing a scarf and eye-liner.

     As was tradition at The Good Knight, I blamed Justin. It started with him. One night I sliced a piece of baguette to gnaw on because I was hungry. Justin saw me, and slapped it out of my hand. He then sliced another piece, toasted it lightly over the grill, and smeared it all over a skillet that had just been used for our haricot verts; soaking up every bit he could of emulsified white wine, butter, garlic, shallot, salt and pepper. He sternly handed it back to me and said, “If you’re gonna snack, snack right.” If I wasn’t spoiled before by having a chef for a father, I was then. That was the beginning of the refinement of my palate. It was the planting of the seeds of snobbery.

     The more I pondered my “Spoiled or Not” status the only answer I could find was not only, “Yes”, but, “Yes, and by the way you’re a huge a-hole.”

THE CASE FOR “NO”

     As the days went on I continued to contemplate whether or not I should start wearing suits to lunch, swapping Nine Inch Nails tickets for a matinee of Les Misérables, using hair gel and buying ludicrous amounts of truffle oil. Then I had a happy revelation: None of those things sounded like good ideas to me! I considered myself a bit like Hannibal Lecter in that questioning my sanity only verified it -minus the whole eating people thing. If I was worried and self-conscious about being a snob, I must not be, right?

     I thought a little harder about my dad’s canned roux. He was a chef for about a decade, and is still up-to-date with trends due to his current job as a food sales representative. He’s done it before. He’s over it. He knows how to make a roux; he’s done it a thousand times. Like me, he doesn’t feel like bothering with parts of the process he doesn’t have to so why not buy a perfectly good, already-made substitute? My mom and my friend, Jennifer don’t carry my taste buds around with them all day, so why should I care what they like and don’t like? I might acknowledge that, yes, it is a standard that certain foods they sample could be done better or of higher quality, but if they’re enjoying it as it is, isn’t that the point?

     The fire to my theory that there may still be hope for my lack of overall douchebaggery was further fueled by a few nights spent out at restaurants. There, other people told me how to eat, and I didn’t like it. I went to a bar, also a tapas place, here in New Orleans with my vegetarian brother. We each ordered something for ourselves but my brother’s food didn’t arrive until almost twenty minutes after mine. The chef, himself, happened to bring it out to us and expressed his surprised and disappointment that we hadn’t yet eaten anything. He asked, “Did you not like it?” “No,” I said, “I was waiting for my brother’s food to come out.” “Oh. I thought you could share, you know? I was trying to give you time to savor the flavor.”

     Savor the flavor? “My brother’s a vegetarian,” I said. We’re not sharing anything.” I didn’t expect for snack food at a bar to be coursed out, but it shouldn’t have surprised me after I saw the chef in his black jacket with his driver’s cap and trendy tattoos. Maybe I just need to avoid tapas places.

     But it happened again at a humble neighborhood eatery. I went with Jennifer who prefers her meat burnt to an ashy, flavorless crisp. When she asked the server to have her steak well done the server said no! She said they just didn’t do well done there because it makes the meat taste like a shoe. “That’s fine,” I told her. “She likes shoe.” But the server continued to refuse. I’d never been told “No” at a restaurant to such an easy request and for such an egotistical reason. These were the snobs. Not me.

     I think it’s impossible for me to be completely haughty and jaded. I like food too much. Just the other day a few guys at work were talking breakfast food. They were seeking a preference: Hash browns, or home fries? I wasn’t really paying attention because I was working, but when I was asked I replied, “Dude, I just like potatoes.” Then they tossed around their favorite ways to cook eggs. “Poached,” said one. “I can’t do runny,” from another. “They have to be scrambled.” When they decided to include my opinion I said, “I don’t care, I just like eggs.”

     I can’t be spoiled because I truly detest waste. (Here comes the soapbox) I view food as fuel before anything else. It has been said that hunger is the best spice, and when I’m hungry I will eat anything. When I’m in a hurry before work I will toast a slice of bread, put nothing on it and run out the door with my hands full and the bread hanging out of my mouth. Anyone who asks me to cook them breakfast during my morning shift is getting super-fast, burnt scrambled eggs. You’re hungry? Eat. I have other things to do. Don’t like it? You’re not really hungry. I think being picky and choosy is a luxury many people overlook. Every time I see fancy garnish and sexy presentation I think about how people are starving and here, we’re playing with our food. 

Tisk, tisk

Tisk, Tisk

THE CASE FOR “KINDA”

     I’ll say I’m not a snob, but I may be a little spoiled. There are certain things on which I will not settle. For starters, Mexican food. Living in Texas for two years ruined any chance I’ll ever have at enjoying poorly made, imitation Mexican food ever again. It was completely worth learning Spanish just to be able to order food in the places that couldn’t serve you in English, but now I’m ruined.

     I can’t settle on alcohol because I don’t drink enough. I think booze is too expensive in general so when a lightweight like me feels nothing after one drink, I feel gypped. If I do drink, I want to taste it, and to feel it. I don’t want to spend fifteen bucks on cheap drinks that don’t taste good just to get a buzz. I guess that’s why I like whiskey. It’s to-the-point.

     I will also never settle on sushi, sashimi or anything raw. This is mostly because I don’t want to either eat something that tastes like it’ll kill me, or eat something that will kill me. Consider the costs of fueling and manning the ships that bring dead fish thousands of miles to your town, then consider why the Filet o’ Fish is only a dollar.

     “Spoiled” is just a bad word for “educated”. It is a direct effect of my environment for the last decade or so. I think I’m like my uncle. He lives in little ol’ Stonewall, Louisiana and is also a sommelier. He is a fishin’, huntin’ redneck with a German shephard named Emmy-Lou and a daughter with her own pet raccoon. But he also knows his wines and parings better than I ever will, and there isn’t a prideful bone in his body. He just happens to work in a setting that has fostered a vast knowledge of something that could be viewed as snooty.

     As with everything else in the cook’s life, I take the good with the bad. We’re not brats. We just think we’re right all the time and it’s easier for us to impress people.

The Good Knight: Chapter 4

     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.

The Good Knight: Chapter 3

     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…

The Good Knight: Chapter 2

     Moving to Austin was great at first. I had more than enough money in my savings account and all the time in the world to be picky about where I worked. I worked at a 24-hour diner at the very busy intersection of 6th & Lamar, but after three weeks of being overwhelmed by the lackluster food, volume of orders, chaotic expectations and the sous chef being a bipolar psychopath I was kicked out after attempting to put in a two-week’s notice. Fuck those guys; I had enough money to be picky, and was no longer in the mood to have waffles hurled at me mid-service. I left Louisiana and making 12 an hour so I wasn’t ready to settle for less, but, life doesn’t always obey what you have in mind. As a matter of fact, it rarely does. Learn to get out of the way.


     I don’t skateboard. I never claimed to be able to. I have a couple long boards but I’m cautious and clumsy at best. So when Lil’ Chris, a fellow cook I’ve mentioned before, asked me to try out a new hill by my apartment, I agreed hesitantly.


     July 7th, 2010, a day that will live in infamy. I remember it for two reasons. First of all, it’s one of my ex-girlfriends’ birthdays. Whether or not I like a girl after we’re done dating, I remember these things. I’m marriage material, damnit. Secondly, it became the date near the top of every bill statement sent to me by the hospital for years to come. To keep the physics short, I bobbed when I should have weaved and I went down head first on a steep hill. I completely broke the fall with my face; ate a total asphalt sandwich. I broke my nose, tore a hole in my bottom lip with the circumference of a dime, and knocked out three of my front teeth. I looked like a true Louisianan. My Austin friends would come to call me their Bayou Brother. It was hard for me to argue.


     Three doctors, seven stitches, a pint of blood, three scars, many X-rays, a lot of needles, a few pills, months of dental work and about seven thousand dollars later I was out of cash, out of dignity and out of options. I went from rightfully choosy about work to taking anything I was given. Through a very particular set of circumstances involving my now dear friend, Michelle, I started working at, wait for it, Babies R Us. I ended up swallowing what little pride a guy with missing teeth has and accepted their pathetic 8 bucks an hour. And I mean no pride. I had three other job interviews and a driver’s license photo before I had some new chompers. If I hadn’t taken the job I wouldn’t cover rent the following week. As fate would have it, one of the people working there was married to Chef Brandon from The Good Knight where I had done a stage a few months before. The stage hadn’t amounted to anything but Brandon’s wife knew how horrible Babies R Spoiled was and a few morbidly funny stories about it forwarded to Brandon via the wife were enough to get him to give me a call. It wasn’t any more money than Babies R Exploited, but at least I was back in a kitchen.


    Working at The Good Knight turned me into, for the first time, whether I knew it or not, a real cook. By this day and age I feel like it’s no longer any big secret that true cooks are not normal people. I know I’ve discussed it. We don’t operate during normal business hours, we tend to be socially awkward around regular folks and we don’t invest our money in the on-the-surface legitimate economy. We’re basically pirates, working in a meritocracy to earn our keep based not only on our skill, but our resolve, resilience, ability to take shit and dish it right back out. Burns, cuts, blood, scathing remarks, late hours, needy customers and sociopathic associates and friends are things that are dealt with regularly. We don’t flash Rolexes, we flash scars and tattoos. Most of this sort of thing I had grown accustomed to but this was all work-related albeit cultural. What I hadn’t dived into was The Life. The style and times in which cooks live their lives and do their thing; going to bed at six in the morning and sleeping until two in the afternoon. In a state of perpetual hangover. Experimenting with numerous types of drugs and testing the limits of one’s own alcohol tolerance levels nightly because, “Why the fuck not? I ain’t gotta be at work in the morning.”
I left The Good Knight each night very late and we worked next to a full-service coffee bar at which we earned a considerable discount. All of the places in which Randal, the owner, had a hand were like that. Even after I worked there I’d go to an old bar and simply ask, “Do you get a discount for working at The Good Knight?” He’d nod his head and hook me up without so much as a false claim from my innocent lips. Shifts were so slow I’d usually sit outside by the open window in the door to the kitchen, book in one hand, cheap cigar in the other and one ear on the ticket machine inside  Next to that, a free, strong cup of coffee I’d be drinking at midnight or later. I began a good bit of writing here. Before this job I didn’t enjoy coffee or cigars; Or late nights for that matter, but there I was.

To Be Continued…

The Good Knight: Chapter 1

     There are plenty of times in life when one wonders, “How the hell did I end up here?” It could be during some extremely grievous times or even times when one couldn’t feel more blessed. Whatever the case that was how I felt when I was in the middle of my fifth or sixth week at The Good Knight. I was fortunate enough, I suppose, to be able to recall exactly how the hell I ended up there.

     The Good Knight was a place that a seldom few people in Austin, Texas have actually heard of. If you didn’t live or work within a one-mile radius of the place you’d probably never catch it, and even that might be an understatement. Austin is a foodie town and a lot of those snot-nosed, trendy, trust fund, vegetarian soap-box-preaching kids like to think they know every eatery, bar or wine loft in the city. Not surprisingly enough, any time I told anyone where I worked they looked surprised at both me and themselves for having never heard of the joint. “No, it’s not new,” I’d say before they had a chance to ask. Get on Austin’s infamous 6th Street but head east away from the typical touristy bars and you’ll find yourself on East 6th on “the bad side” of 35. If you’ve never been there you wouldn’t feel safe walking around the street at night but it’s really not bad at all. Go down a few blocks to the corner of 6th and Attayac and you’d find a tiny, two-story building painted a grotesque shade of faded lavender with an almost unnoticeable sign that reads, “The Good Knight.”
     If you actually had heard of The Good Knight it would probably have been on Yelp. Every single review I read about the place began with some remark, comment or question about how dark it is. The morning guy and I called it The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were still recent). The first time I went in for an interview I almost fell over more than one chair before my eyes adjusted. Guests would read their menus lit by their cell phones. The bar kept numerous flashlights on hand for who knows what that might happen or go missing. I can’t even imagine how many first dates went better than they might have simply because one of the pair looked better in low light. The pilgrims aboard the Mayflower ate in the dark so they couldn’t see the insects crawling on their food. Whether my appetites are culinary or sexual, I want to be able to see what I’m getting myself into. Some poor sap comes in and has dinner and several strong drinks in a dark restaurant, walks to the car with his presumably attractive lady friend under the cover of night, drives home in their dark car like a husband hiding a hooker, engages in all manner of unmentionable acts in the dark room of his house or hotel, only to have his ego, pride, checking account and erection all shattered the next day by the unrelenting sunlight putting his entire night of shameless debauchery on display.


     Other than the darkness the cozy little place had a few distinguishing features. The furniture looked like that of an old castle and the walls were littered patternlessly with old pictures of the owner, Randal’s, distant family – It was odd to me that he’d be so personal with the decor when the man was never in the building unless there was a meeting, a problem or a meeting to address a problem. The collection on the jukebox was totally senseless. Several selections of golden oldies and some classic country were juxtaposed with some old Bob Marley and other reggae. There were some Beatles albums as well as many albums that sounded like they were all in the running to be the Irish National Soundtrack. I don’t know what supposed theme Randal thought he was going for, but when the place was empty and the oldies were on, it was downright horrifying. With enough of an active imagination it wasn’t hard to picture the corpse of some old ballroom singer garbed in tattered gowns slowly making her way towards you in the dark to permanently bond you to the undead. An empty house blaring ashy Tom Waits helped set such a mood.

     If you weren’t equipped with the mind of a four-year-old like me, however, you’d probably find the joint charming. The kitchen was the smallest I’d ever seen, appropriate for the hole-in-the-wall that it was. It was, on most days, a two-man line. Walking in from the street you’re already standing in front of a reach-in cooler packed to the gills with a nice selection of fresh (or soggy) herbs, bins of veggies and starches, a few items of dairy, some bar stuff I never bothered to wrap my head around, a few flats of eggs, a few tubs of demi and chocolate and whatever prepped dishes were (or weren’t) necessary for service. On the left was the “hot side” with a cutting board and a protein low-boy in front of a tiny, three foot expo window. It was much higher of an opening when the building was a Mexican-only dance place but it was narrowed by a few feet to prevent women from being able to catch the cooks gawking at them – not that it matters. We’re shameless. Opposite this spot was an oven under a salamander under some steam wells. Next to it was an eight-burner range with an oven under it and a small but powerful table-top grill after that. Opposite that was the “cold side” where you had some prepped items and a sandwich box full of goodies to experiment with. On the other side of all this was the rack full of dishes, all purchased at Goodwill or handed down from dead relatives. Then there was a stand-up meat freezer that looks like grandpa never got around to getting it out of the garage before he croaked. Finally there was a tiny dish area with a three compartment sink and a mop sink. Not much else. From one end to the other it wasn’t more than fifteen feet.

     This was a low-budget place. Over half the plate-ware was cracked or chipped. I’d have been fired on the spot for not throwing away a chipped plate at other, larger restaurants, but I guess they assumed nobody could see the damn food in front of them in the dining room anyway. None of the pilots in the gas equipment worked. In fact, most of them weren’t even there anymore. We all carried those long, skinny fire-starter lighters in our back pockets. The oven doors sometimes didn’t close all the way. Between the bars he owned and his involvement in the nearby Punk Rock scene Randal knew fucking EVERYBODY so it was easy to imagine him snatching this would-be equipment off of some buddy of his. We worked on a low scale to which I was very unaccustomed. Prep was usually not an issue. There was always time in and around the few tickets we had to knock out a little prep if necessary. Prepping what seemed to me to be enough of something to get by for a day or two usually meant throwing it away a week later.


Business was also small. The biggest rush we ever had was laughable compared to my busy days in bigger restaurants. The place sat forty people at most and many knew it more for the drinks than the food so a full house didn’t even mean everyone was eating. A server would say, “Hey, guys, we got a twenty-top at 8:30.” To which a cook would reply, “How many of ‘em are eating?” Depending on the answer it could be absolutely no cause for alarm.

     So what kind of people ran this place? To give you an idea, the head chef, Brandon, made 11 bucks an hour. When the “General Manager” – for lack of a better term – quit to go back to being a wine salesman, Brandon became the GM and was boosted to a lowly 13 an hour. The main lunch dude, Jimmy, made maybe 8 an hour and everyone else, including the main night guy, Justin, who’d never worked in another kitchen, made minimum wage. The place was run by people whose major concern was not earning money, but blowing it on the next drink, or coke score, or handful of pills. These guys had no problem 86ing anything, having thirty-minute ticket times, or even just telling a server, “No, we don’t do that shit here.” I was used to catering to the guest. To making sure the restaurant never ran out of anything. A table asks about an item on the menu and a server has to explain why we don’t even have it? It’s embarrassing. What were these guys doing?

     So this brings back the initial question: How the hell did I end up here?


To Be Continued…

I Failed At Quitting Again…

     A very good friend of mine has a theory. Many of us are familiar with the mid-life crisis. You reach somewhere in your 40’s and suddenly lose it completely, cheat on your spouse, throw away all your money, disappear into the mountains, grow an appalling beard or buy a Porsche you never wanted or needed. Or all of the above.

"I rule!"

“I rule!”

     My friend’s theory is that we all go through a mini-crisis every ten to twenty years. For example you graduate college and have a total breakdown under the weight of the imminent and unavoidable life decisions that lie before you. Or you reach your 30’s and wonder if your chosen career path or spouse was the right choice after all. I believe this to be a very healthy system of checks and balances we use to keep our lives steered most directly towards balance and happiness. Being the over-analytical cynic that I am, I have had these freak-outs regularly enough to justify being described as a symptom of Benefiber.

     There have, of course, been times when I have been absolutely (albeit temporarily) fed up with everything related to the world of professional cooking; when everything about The Life wasn’t sitting right with me. Perhaps my sous chef kept throwing food and utensils at me. Or I was made mercilessly aware of the long list of necessities that would go overlooked and incomplete if I alone didn’t take care of them. Maybe the constant horror show of neglect and malpractice with regards to hygiene and sanitation became too disgusting to tolerate. Whatever the cause, every time I peered out of my panic room into the vast sea of potential and possibility, I ran screaming back to cooking. I abandon ship and in the midst of the storm, the old vessel seems all too welcoming. The job, itself, is often like the bad food I occasionally prepare. I know it can be bad for me, but it’s somewhat of a home. It’s what I know, and it can be deeply comforting.

"Fire good"

“Fire good”

     So what frightened me so? Well in short, everything else the world had to offer. Some jobs seemed too physically demanding or too boring, but the real fear resided not in the anxiety of being bumped back down to the bottom of the totem pole of seniority and experience, or even in the fear of not excelling in a new endeavor. It was the suits.
     At each attempt at abandoning ship I was looking for an easy way out, so as you can imagine, thanks to Craigslist, I ended up at several meetings for sales jobs and insurance scams. The jobs themselves held little appeal, but the main discouraging factor was the stark professionalism of the business/sales world. Granted, I support professionals who have some pride in what they do, take it seriously and believe that performance and quality matter, but these people took themselves and their image too seriously. Not one of them seemed to possess a sense of humor. And it made no sense to me that they bothered to prepare themselves for work in such a way that had no defendable practical application to their given tasks. Salesmen, bankers, anyone using styling product in their hair endure a very unfamiliar discomfort to me. I can handle scratches, bruises, cuts, burns and biting sarcasm, but I have to be comfortably dressed. It’s hot, and we do a lot of bending, stretching and lifting. When I was in these meetings and interviews I was counting down the seconds to when I could untuck my shirt and change pants. The clothes were uncomfortable in anything but an upright standing position. Any cooking job I’ve had has involved the typical, breathable, movable, flame-retardant uniforms or the clothing of one’s choice which, in my case has the same requirements. I suppose I’m spoiled by being able to work in clothing that isn’t too dissimilar from pajamas.

The new server aprons

The new server aprons

     Not only the suits, but the people wearing them scared me. They weren’t intimidating or rude, but I was very mindful of their presence because I would essentially become them. The men and women in these meetings and interviews were my would-be superiors. If I were to move up in these jobs, I’d eventually do what they were doing. So what were they like? Who would I become? Interview the people who are interviewing you. You are, with a little imagination, talking to your future self. What’s he like? What does he talk about and on what does he focus? Does he show interest in my interests? Not even close. They never mentioned anything about spending time with friends, making time for family, pursuing hobbies or fostering any part of their lives outside of work. All they talked about was making money. Money for what? All I could gather was that they wanted to make money so they could have money to spend money and then need to make more money. The way I see it, credit is imaginary and currency is flammable.

See? The Joker gets it.

See? The Joker gets it.

     One of the more recent ventures out to sea was cut short by the same thing that slows down many other points of progress in life: alcohol. I met some cook acquaintances at a bar the night before an interview. I don’t typically drink much so calling it an early night for the morning’s obligations was no problem. There was me and a former coworker, Jason, in jeans and t-shirts. Robin came later still wearing chef pants and clogs, knives on his back and stinking of seafood. But of course, neither of us noticed. Shop talk ensued immediately.

     Robin started with a hurried, “Sorry I’m late we were fuckin’ SLAMMED for lunch today, I didn’t get out until a minute ago.” “Sucks, bro. What’d you do to your finger?” said Jason noticing the damp, wrapped up wad of paper towels on Robin’s left middle finger.” “Tryin’ to julienne shallots and watch risotto at the same time,” as he rolled his eyes at himself. Jason held up his left thumb, pointed to a scar and said only, “Onions,” with a grin. I pointed at my almost matching scar and added, “Scallions.” As Robin lit up a cigarette with his shaky, wounded hand and puffed, “Why is it always aromatics?” We all chuckled and the bartender held out a seemingly once infected scar on her wrist. “Tomato can lid got me when I was takin’ out the trash. I got this round,” and she poured shots of whiskey for the four of us.

    It occurred to me then that I took great pride in this kind of conversation. I’d rather be at a dive bar at 2:00 AM on a weeknight talking about the right way to poach salmon than waiting in line at Applebee’s on a Friday night complaining about the office’s broken printer. The unashamed, unassuming reality of a cook’s banter and profanity are too enjoyable to pass up. I suddenly became worried that my interview might go well and I’d only have these conversations in the past tense from now on. I’d run out of stories to tell, and I wouldn’t want to listen to any of my new coworkers’ stories. I felt too at home. I decided I wasn’t going to make it to that interview, and ordered another shot.

Work for yourself, not your wallet. Anyone can steal your wallet, but only you can lose yourself.