This is a story of how I grew up in kitchens all my life. It doesn’t have too much to do with whisky unless you knew me personally, then we drank a lot of whisky together no doubt. This is a brief story of being down and out in chippawa and Niagara falls. I will try to keep this informative, yet streamlined.
Unlike george orwell I have not worked in londons or frances’ finest hotels(although I have laid eyes on them), I worked in the slums of Niagara. Unlike Anthony bourdain, eric ripert will not call me for tomorrows fish special and I have not been to the cia. Im just a dude who built up, tumbled down, rose up again and fell into a downward spiral and who is on the mend again.
I used to work for a guy named Ralph at the now defunct dad’s. I worked with some of my family, cousins, aunts, mom. when I was young I would stop in with my mother and I would gorge on the greasiest burger known to my soon to be ibs infected intestinal system. When I hit 14, my parents bought me a bike and told me to disobey road rules and travel down a busy tourist filled road and spend my mornings working with Ralph, the owner. The theory seemed ok, I guess.
Well, it wasn’t ok. It was fucked. Ralph was a hyperactive Italian Canadian who lived in the usa and flipped eggs for a living. He called me elmo and told me he got kicked out of led zeppelin for being too cool for them. Did I mention that Ralphs teeth took up 90% of his face? No? did I mention the remaining 10% of his face consisted of a tool that birds evolved for carving homes into the sides of trees otherwise known as a beak? No? well, it did. he had to shave twice a day too. Cool.
I was paid minimum wage to wash dishes, peel potatoes and terrorize gina, the hotty waitress(I was paid twenty dollars to wave a bag of potatoes at gina and chase her around the kitchen. When she fell over the dishwasher almost crippling her for life Ralph made her fix the dishwasher and gave me twenty dollars from her tip jar). I washed dishes, bussed tables, flipped food on a greasy flat top skillet that would send globs of boiling dirty grease all over my tender fingers when I tried to clean the sides and pulled out ‘trucks’ the undead automated potato peeler. Trucks was a water fed potato peeler on wheels. Everyday I would have to wave off clouds of fruit flies and feed this fucking thing a 50lb bag of potatoes which was heavy for an inactive kid with blistered fingers. I ran water through the top and held the front opening shut against the force of 20 pounds of potatoes flying in a 30 mile an hour cyclone so the potatoes wouldn’t fly out on to the floor. I also had to guard trucks from garbage being thrown at it, and guard it from punches and kicks from my adult cousins- who were girls. Trucks was my buddy and I had to stop all types of assaults ranging from verbal to all out physically violent. I still cry at night for how my cousins treated that potato peeler.
Ralph was a nut. He used to drive me home some nights and when he would stop at a red light he would yell at pedestrians saying ‘fuck the casina’. god help you if led zeppelin ever came on the radio at any point. All work stopped and we had to watch Ralph air guitar the shit out of a broom and head bang his afro mullet for the duration of the entire song.
I would steal donuts and cans of coke and hide in the back room where I would eat salami slices and drink Ralphs ruby red grapefruit juice. Sometimes I would have to dodge Ralphs prying eyes from what I was eating. Sometimes I would have to dodge his fits of throwing bunches of scallions, mustard bottles or even the one night he actually blew up a bucket of hot grease and cold water while cleaning out the fryer. If I was just two feet closer to that bucket, I may be a third degree burn victim.
After a couple summers of serving shit breakfasts for the homeless and parks employees alike, I moved on to another restaurant.
I started working for a large company here in Niagara falls. The restaurant was called the shmagglishmack. The view was magnificent; you could dine on cold onion soup, dry chicken or overcooked fish all while watching random people commit suicide by flinging themselves over the falls. Joy.
My first year there was frightening. I worked for a chef who used to live in nazi germany and loved facism. I worked with an older crowd, I was 16 and these dudes were going to bars or paying child support. It was a fast kitchen and it was intimidating with all the yelling, swearing, hung over people punching equipment and my chef named franz,(who you only addressed as chef) talking about how hitler should have won the war.
I hated food. I hated cooking. This job sucked up my free time and I was missing summer. I had no time to see my friends and my arms were getting long lines of burn mark from reaching in the ovens. i was ridiculed and embarrassed constantly. the yelling never stopped. I had to stick my hands in cold, gelatinous buckets of stocks, reach under equipment, around bug and mouse traps for fallen pens and sweep up other peoples messes like when somebody breaks, oh, say, 127 eggs, I would have to go clean it. With a rag. I poked my hands with shrimp tails and cut my fingers peeling vegetables. I made 50 cents more than minimum wage.
Things would improve… I guess.
After a couple years, I was meeting people my age, fondling servers and bus girls alike and sneaking into bars. I started going to cooking college as an apprentice and I was running the line. Big steps in the kitchen world. College left something to be desired. I went everyday and tried to get by the best I could to just squeak by. I was upset because I was working with some top notch apprentices and I was the odd man out, asking things like ‘whats the difference between scallions and green onions.’ I learned nothing at the shmagglishmack and everybody around me was cooking circles around me. One day I rammed a french knife through my thumb nail and the chef made me stay to finish my class even though I was pouring blood out through my glove. Other than that, there wasn’t much to say about my first year of college.
Back at work, I gained respect, had smokes with the bosses and even gave shit to kids younger than me. Sometimes I would drink a jack and coke in the office after large functions. Sometimes I would just steal bottles of jack that were just lying around, behind a once locked door. Things were looking pretty good until I met the fucking Italian with red hair.
Joe was a stout little man who wore short red hair and a goatee. He wore the first pill box hat I ever seen in a kitchen. When I first saw him I walked right up to him while he was spooning mustard into a sauce and introduced myself. I was the alpha male in here and the new guy was going to find out.
Well, joe was my new boss. He was my new sous chef, and it turns out he was indeed the alpha dog in this pack. Joe liked me. He still does. He returns my phone calls and although we haven’t spoke in a while, our meetings are usually the same. I tell him where I work, I feel ashamed I never amounted to what he expected of me. Heres the thing though; joe made me realize I had passion for food.
Joe was a motherfucker. Im sure he still is. If he didn’t like you, you were in for a tough shift. If joe did like you, you were in for a fucking hellride. He had high standards and expected the best out of his employees. If he liked you he would teach everything he could, although if you were talking food and couldn’t keep up with his advanced conversation, Joe had no problem laying right into you and breaking down whatever integrity and pride you had, he was good at that, for sure. He spoke passionately and lovingly about food and experiences dining. I would sit and listen, hanging off every word. Let me tell you though, if you ever made a mistake, you were sure never to make it again. Joe broke me over the wheel and brought me to tears one shift after he told me if I didn’t get my shit together, I would never amount to anything but a fucking life long cook at the shmagglishmack. That was enough to strike fear and doom into my heart. I will never forget that moment. It was frightening to think I would become a waste of a human, demoralized and broken, pumping out soulless food for a bottom rung restaurant.
Joe told me to stop wasting my time at the shmagglishmack and told me to make something of myself. He shipped me off to a local hotel working for a chef who just won a silver medal in the world culinary Olympics. On our last day he handed me a small scallop spatula he used at a very prestigious hotel. All he said was ‘you’ll need this one day’. If ever I had a fire in my house, I would gladly walk into that funeral pyre to rescue that spatula before my family. To me, it was the gold watch that was carried in a human colon for five years. That spatula will never leave me.
Fuck. Heeb and his crew of misfits were the baddest ass pirate crew I had ever known. They traveled in a pack and did not let anybody into their circle. No exceptions. They were snakes, or badgers, whichever is scarier. They were fierce to others and each other. They went into group competitions and cleaned house – every time. The way they spoke to each other was another language; code for everything, terminology, abbreviation, it was impossible to keep up with these guys.
Heeb and his crew came from Winnipeg to the falls to open a neighboring hotel. One day heeb got pissed off and packed up his office. That night, heeb, his sous, two chef de parties, a couple apprentices and some dishwashers left too. The hotel crew was dismantled in an hour. They simply packed up and went next door to another hotel.
My interview consisted of two questions: you ever do a black box? When can you come in to perform a black box?
A black box test is literally a black box of random food items and you. You have a few hours to construct multiple high end courses, with no idea of what you have to work with until you open the damn box. How did I do? Well, you know I got the job, but you don’t know I absolutely failed the test. Raw cabbage, overcooked scallops, unset mousse and runny anglaise didn’t land me the job. Fortunately I have a way with words. A little quick wit and a lot of begging got me the job.
I worked 12 hour days and got paid for 8. I was kicked in the fridges, punched in the elevators, tricked with habanero sauce hidden in everything I ate and constantly ridiculed and threatened. I saw a kid get hog-tied and thrown into a freezer for a few minutes. We walked in and the one cdp said ‘do you want a peeled jalapeno shoved up your asshole?’ of course the answer was no, so the cdp threw a glass of water on the kid and they closed the door again. I carried a turning knife in my arm pocket so nobody ever tried that shit with me. I would have literally cut their face. The kid on the other hand is back in Winnipeg nowadays, running one of the most prestigious hotels there. Give a little to get a little I guess.
My buddy nacho(the Ecuadorian kid who I met a couple months after I started) and I had a habanero sauce eating competition which I ‘won’. We figured we ate so much of the stuff we might as well make a game of it. I won, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t sit on the staff toilet for two hours shaking, pooping spicy water and hallucinating from endorphins. Remember kids, winning isn’t everything.
I returned to college while I was working for captain heeb. Heeb would look over my marks and test scores and scald me for being incorrect on anything. I became the most improved student from my first to second year, though. Well, to tell the truth, I would have been the most improved student if I was a little more cleaned up for my English class.
We had our last hoorah school party at a local bar and I ended up getting completely wasted instead of writing a speech for my English exam. At 9:15 the next morning I wobbled in front of all my equally hung over peers, plugged in a vhs tape of people skateboarding and being maimed or killed in disastrous ways(one lady ran out in less than 10 seconds), and I improvised my speech about skateboarding, blind drunk. Although I received a standing ovation for my speech from my peers, which im not sure if they applauded my incredibly humorous speech or the fact that I stayed upright for the five minutes, my teacher was not impressed and failed me for the exam. He said he would have passed me if I wasn’t visibly drunk, or dropping f-bombs, s-bombs, or I thing possibly a n-bomb…?
Back at the mess hall during the hotel owners function, the brand new sous chef(old one was fired for sexual harassment) told me to find a cart. I went and looked for a bit, knowing it was a trap because they were all taken and he was looking to vent on somebody. when I returned with bad news the sous chef beamed down on me ‘are you that fucking stupid? Why are you so fucking useless you fucking asshole? Why don’t you just fuck off and wash dishes for the rest of the night?’ I looked at him and handed him my turning blade. Smiling I told him to fuck himself and I walked out. Simple as that.
I kissed my girlfriend every time I left for work and told her I loved her thinking it was the last time. I thought was going to die in this hotel, but hey, the moneys good.
It was hot and busy. we hammered out 400 plates a night between three or four of us. I was the youngest employee by twenty years, so it was hard for me to fit in. I started working a three man pantry manned by only one man. Me.
The food was ok and once I got my feet wet the chef would let me work the line, then later depend on me to run it. But that’s the usual story. At this place I saw people fucking. Everywhere. Store rooms, staircases, closets, name it. I also saw a womans brains spill all over a sidewalk after she jumped out of the ninth floor. A crowd gathered instantly, but I caught a glimpse of the carnage. I didn’t tell anybody until I left in fear of ‘re-education.’
The conditions at the general were pretty bad. I think khmer rouges Cambodia had better employee plans. Things were constantly falling apart, we spun the fan on the oven with a broom and slammed the doors to get it running, baking trays over the windows to block out the snow, grease fell through the light fixtures and we had electrical wires hanging like tinsel on a Christmas tree. One of the house maids would carry bug spray everywhere she went to kill whatever parasitic bug was dwelling in the mattresses.
The heat was so bad we would occasionally faint, the smoke from the oven would blur our vision and the high pressure steamer door one foot behind me would just randomly pop open spewing burning steam and pour boiling water on me. our potwasher had some sort of hepatitis and he would push puss from an infected hangnail into a garbage can, not wash his hands and keep scrubbing. Another potwasher, who had a woman’s name and a linebackers build would listen to the cool, calming sounds of performers like enya, or enigma and she would wield frying pans by the handle and smash them against the steel legs of the potwash sink until they crumpled or rolled into a cylinder.
The union was a big thing at the general hotel. You were either union or you were the enemy. The cooks were tough and didn’t milk the system, but a lot of other employees would push the advantage of being unionized the farthest they could. The employees would take off for months with pay and do nothing but smoke and drink coffee when they showed up to work.
It was fun there eventually. My hands were getting chewed up and ugly. My passion for knowledge and dining was being filled. I was able to play my cds on the radio. i busted balls with the best of the ball busters. I got along with my line brothers and I employed a criminal scheme every chance I could. The food, booze, drugs and women would fall to be my prey. Eventually though, I received a big offer. I was going to run my own kitchen and be a chef! I was 22 years old and I was gods gift to food. How could anything possibly go wrong?