down and out pt. 4b

Down and out in niagara falls and chippawa

 

Part 4 – b

 

‘killing yourself to live’

 

Im 26 and im HOT! Holy fuck its hot in here. I must still be at the smidge. Geez, how old did I say I was? 26?! Shit, that means I still have a few years left to go here….

You know what? I still have a lot of years to go, so I might as well start wrapping this up if im to write something interesting before this all becomes redundant. Heres a little summary of my lackluster career up until now, and ill close this off with a little wisdom too.

Over the next few years I keep working in this company, and flipping back and forth to eden in the wintertime, which I watch deteriorate from a decent restaurant into a broken sludgepit over the short span of four years. Im forced to turn away a table of four customers because one of the diners has a severe seafood allergy and I am not confident in the handling of any ingredients by the other staff. These guys were cooking ammonianated lobsters, they would leave boxes of chicken to rot on a prep table for hours and the mussels would sit in a bin of days old water, which would eventually smell like briny urine, and raw food would drip onto the food on lower shelves. Worse, they would serve it to people. Eventually, I had leave eden, not because I was feeding vested hells angels in a fine setting, or because of cocaine being sold out the back, but because of the physical violence involving staff and lack of standard in the food handling; I just cannot risk poisoning somebody through cooking food. Im fully confident in my skill, but I do not trust any of my comrades.

In the meantime, I’m back at the smidge and I’m getting too hot on line in a 130 degree environment; I’m finishing my shifts with a pounding headache and throwing up; turns out I’m suffering from dehydration and heat stress, more than three times a week. It’s so hot in here we fill 20L jugs with Gatorade for our water coolers. I would chug pitchers of water, orange juice, Gatorade, whatever cold liquid I could ram down my throat, and I would just sweat it all out. I would run the line during the busiest part of the night until I would get so exhausted that I would stammer my words, and show signs of fatigue until phish, the apprentice would push me off line so I could go do my daily ordering in the fridge, so I wouldn’t collapse.

After a chat with the companies executive chef, I explained that I was getting sick from heat several times a week and I didn’t know how long I could survive handling this type of heat. I was told he had a plan for me to take part of an elite team to manage the opening of a brand new multi-million dollar project back at the shmagglishmack. My team oversaw everything; from opening the silverware boxes, to creating and setting the standard for the menu. I was given the reins on the sauces and soups, which I saw a very prestigious moment for my career. After a successful season, I was to cover some weaknesses back at the smidge.

At the smidge, it’s still the same as the rest of the story and as the earlier part; a lot of substance abuse, self abuse, employee abuse, fights, altercations, shitty food and crooked management. I literally smashed my way into the general manager’s office to confront her stripping 15 overtime hours off my cheque, I hopped in the middle of fistfights, I watched people take pills of barbiturates right in front of my eyes, and I swept up empty booze bottles from underneath fridges, and work tables. We caught guys stealing keys and breaking into store rooms to steal the whip cream cans. If you don’t know, you can inhale the gas(nitrous oxide) from an unused, upright whip cream can, granted it hasn’t been shaken. The nitrous oxide(noz) gets you high for a couple minutes when you inhale it. we had to lock up the whip cream cans with sensitive items, like booze, behind lock and key because it was impossible to get an irish coffee. At one point my chef would hand me a pair of binoculars and told to me to report if I saw the cooks smoking weed. I sat outside and watched the guys walk into the nearby woods to smoke joints and I would stare at the tourists wearing short skirts with the binoculars while I smoked. When they asked me if I saw anything, I would simply reply ‘no, but I’ll keep watching’.

One night after coming home puking and dizzy again, I stumbled up to bed, and passed out. A minute later, I woke up to my wife straddling my chest and slapping my face. When I could focus on her I asked what I did wrong to deserve such a beating. She told me that she was trying to get me to wake up as I had fell into a full body seizure. I ignored the hospital, took some time off work and tried to straighten myself out, when I fell into seizure yet again, for the second time in one week, something that has never happened in my life before, and never since.

Blood tests, stress tests, sleep deprivation tests, physical tests and nerve tests passed and the doctor told me that I was suffering from blood pooling, from not having proper circulation, a by-product of all that heat, dehydration, mal nurishment and the self abuse wasn’t exactly helping either.

I was literally killing myself in this place, just to make a living.

I finished the season, found a new job and dropped off my keys to a manager in the chefs office. I looked him in the eyes and said ‘2 weeks. I’m gone. Don’t fucking call me.’ And after six years of loyal commitment, I never went back.

I landed a job in a local hotel as a sous chef. I spent three months in this hotel, challenging myself, trying to figure out the bugs of the restaurant, trying to figure out the formula to make the place run smoothly. I would go in on my days off, checking up on the employees, complaints, inventory, orders, etc. even our chef seemed perplexed. Although, after walking in on a front of house manager snorting cocaine with another staff member in the bathroom downstairs, I understood this place had bigger problems than I could solve. After a brief meeting with the general manager, I wished him good luck and I walked out of the hotel and directly into a new restaurant. The chef, some managers and gm were terminated 6 months after.

I had been receiving calls from the chef at this very popular Italian joint, asking me to join on their team. Figuring how the guy calling wasn’t going to take no for an answer, I accepted, to my regret, naturally. I worked around my chefs cocaine snorting, beer chugging and weed smoking habit, which kept him out of the kitchen for 80% of the time. If he was in the kitchen, he was dragging cooks by the uniform and throwing insults at his servers. I was never touched ever since I would willingly stand toe-to-toe with him. After a couple months, i quit and I landed in the place I should have been all along.

And this is where we end our story for now, after a little wisdom, although after looking back on all this, I don’t feel too wise anymore. I now get paid well, although you’re not reading the feel good ending where I end up as the successful chef of a fancy hotel. I’ve won competitions in the past, won best plate a few times, and my bosses occasionally poach my plates for their own portfolio. I’m currently in Niagara’s most prestigious restaurant, although I’m not the chef. Diners pay hundreds and thousands of dollars to eat what our team makes. For the last 5 years I still hold the highest score ever achieved for a 9 course, black box competition, out of hundreds of competitors. I cook and eat food I could never afford on my own. I’m a fucking stud in the kitchen. When I drop my apron and tell every cook, chef, manager and customer in the goddamn building to get fucked, I get called the next day asking if I can return to work in the same fucking spot.

…and I guess this is where the wisdom of what I’ve learned over the last 20 years comes in. first, if you have a food allergy, have an epi pen, no matter what. If not, you’ll die choking on your own swollen esophagus in front of your wife, kids, family, hired escort, whatever. We have ways to drag your dead body through the back of the dining room and leave your rigored corpse in the dishwash area as to not disturb the customers. Another point; even though you’re dead, you still do not want to know what some of those dishwashers will do with your bloated corpse. Bring the fucking pen.

Second, when you cook in Niagara falls and chippawa, you too are down and out, even if you don’t know it. out of the 350 plus restaurants in Niagara falls and chippawa, I can name only 4 worth dining or working in. when you cook in the falls, you’re a fucking loser. Not to say you’re cool or not, but chances are if you’re cooking in Niagara, you’re probably not. when you start cooking in the falls, you’re a loser because you’ll never see what it takes to be a good cook, let alone a great one. This city is packed with franchise shit, meat buffets, breakfast joints, cocaine palace fronts, run down greasy spoons, and places where you boil prepackaged food in a bag, open it and pour it in a bowl before it goes to a customer who is about to pay way too much for it. precooked food, assembled on plates by people in white jackets, and the chefs are the people who were raised in those poor, under stimulated environments to teach the apprentices how to deep fry a chicken finger, how to microwave a steak, how to cut a piece of fish on a bias, for ‘presentation’. the food in this city is poorly made and priced at premium prices, so when tourists say they’ll never come back, turns out they couldn’t afford to anyways.

When I was 18, I had the red head Italian break me down to tears in front of my friends, coworkers, people who respected me, servers who wanted to fuck me, and people who wanted to see me collapse to my knees. He told me I was never going to be anything but a Niagara falls cook. He made me learn that there is no easy road to being a good cook; you hurt, you stress, you suffer injuries, you lose loved ones because you’re never around, you cry. You spend nights rolling in bed wide awake thinking about the nights events, where you could have improved. If you don’t spend months starving, with only a loaf of bread and a case of beer in your house, you aren’t doing it right. You will never make good money cooking, so pick up a second job or learn how to grift and hustle, especially if it’s illegal. Make the sacrifice and work the long hours, work the good restaurant for little pay, eat only at work, leave the city, buy the cooking books, borrow the expensive ones. Read. Fucking read, endlessly. Nobody is going to pull YOU aside and teach you anything other than what you need to know at that moment so you can get through the service without stressing the chef out. There is no training. Sink or swim. You need to teach yourself. When you cook in Niagara falls, you suffer when you’re young, or you suffer when you’re old. Make your choice.

Third, you don’t cook when you’re old, so find another skill. When you get old, you break down, and when your body breaks down, you’re no good to anybody and you’re costing a company money if you’re on the injured list. Older cooks become managers, or they don’t cook.

Finally, I was excited to write this article, as long as it is, but I wanted to start out in a low point and work my way up, but to be honest, I can’t work up to a positive, uplifting note. If I could say something positive it’s that I’ve met some incredible people in this industry, who are in the same sinking ship I’m in. every chef I work with has a plan to leave the kitchen and into another job. the burns and cuts don’t hurt as much anymore, but I don’t laugh as hard as I used to either. If you’re young and want to get into the fast paced and fun-in-a-sick-way industry, you will have fun, if you love the darkest of humour and self degradation. You too, will suffer, live like shit, in squalor, scrounging your couch cushions for change so you can feed yourself. You will need to work long hours, you will need to learn how to change your own bandages; peeling the freshly formed scab off your cuts and shaking through pain as you put on a nice clean bandage. first aid is a must. You’ll need to be fast, adaptable, flexible, hard. If you’re not in it to be the best, you’ll just turn out to be the guy you’re working next to, which isn’t flattering. Christ, even the best in the world suffer; Charlie trotter died at 55 years old. Chefs die of overdoses and liver problems daily.

Me? Ill land on my feet. Always have.