down and out pt. 3

Part 3

‘the me that you know, he doesn’t come around much’

Return to the general

Im about to turn 24 years old and im returning to that same building that I always thought I was going to die in from some horrible and painfull freak accident. the fryer would sometimes leak boiling grease, there were electrical explosions, black grease would drip on us from the ceiling which originated from who-knows-where, our pot washer carried hepatitis and constantly had open wounds which he didn’t cover. The union drove manager apart from worker, we had staff drop unconscious from heat stress, there were gaping holes in the floor we covered with plywood and garbage cans and our staff fucked like rabbits in every empty room we had, whether it be a closet, office or vacant hotel room. I walked in on a dude catching a blow job in the smoke room.

I was indeed back at the general.

She told me to leave combovers restaurant and I did. I needed to anyway, I needed to start making money again. I left combover to make a seven dollar raise, per hour, which is a huge jump in our field.

Things were kinda different at the general; nacho was here, Floyd the drunk was running the line, there was a new chef, sous chef, chef de partie, the whole line up was different and strange. Coming back after a year absent, I was the new guy all of a sudden, even though I had more seniority than those guys. The new guys came from the posh town of Niagara on the lake, they cooked for famous chefs in famous restaurants. They had fancy knives, tools and embroidered aprons. They spoke in terminology and drank nice wine. It was intimidating, until I heard them whine a lot about the conditions they worked in.

When I opened the convection oven and caught a lung full of black smoke, I backed up and coughed just like the rest of the general veterans, when these guys caught a lung full, they threatened to quit and phoned maintenance complaining how it needed to be fixed(nothing ever got fixed here – no exaggeration). The new chef was simply promoted from sous chef when the other management crew decided to go to the new casino that just opened up. he decided to bring in some old buddies, which was about to prove fruitless.

Mass, we’ll call him, was just a big cocky fuck. He was my new sous chef and I think he liked me; he would often pull me aside and show me old photos of food he cooked, tell me about old def leopard concerts he attended(I didn’t care), complain about our product we worked with and make fun of jp, the new chef de partie. Jp was a nickname for this guy. Jp stood for ‘jack in the park’. the story goes that jp was caught jerking off in a public park a couple times and it was pretty well known throughout the food and beverage industry around here. Matter of fact, it was so well known, jp had to move to a different province and start a new life.

We were a small crew, the older vets of the general worked the day shift sending out a half ass buffet of stinky mussels, saline packed chicken, dry potatoes and old stuffed hake. We didn’t see much of the day shift, just a ‘how ya doin? Ya wanna get the fuck off my station now?’ kinda greeting. We saw each other for ten minutes a day and the day shift hated night shift. The afternoon shift came in, consisting of myself, Floyd the drunk, nacho, jp and mass would supervise us.  The old pantry used to be in the dishwash room, but was now moved into the main kitchen which became even more cramped now. Our dining room held 150 people and we now pumped out 150 – 250 meals instead of the old 400 we used to crank out. We had a decent menu consisting of sterling silver beef, capon breast, pork tenderloin, and a lamb rack with a tomato/mint compote. We still had these ‘pop-up’ visitors from japan who were brought in via limousine to tour our local parks and try our restaurants. Right in the middle of the night we would get a phone call saying ‘we just got a kintouki. 4 top. 15 minutes.’ What does that mean? Well, it means at your busiest moment, our restaurant manager would inform us that we had to prepare and serve a 5 course dinner for 4 really wealthy people that we didn’t even have product prepared for because nobody bothered to inform us ahead of time. This was typical of our management system in the general; the reservations team may or may not inform the dining staff that we have reservations. Ultimately, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Sometimes, we wouldn’t even get a call, just have a waitress yell at us ‘you got my fucking grilled squid yet?!’. That’s when we would cut our fingers trying to bone out quail on the fly while cooking for 200 other people at the same time.

i would bleed quite a bit those days.

Our crew fell apart fairly quickly at the general. Mass left within a couple months, our dishwashers refused to show up and nacho was verging on insanity. Jp was sexually harassing everything in sight to the point he was asked to stop talking to the waitresses about their personal life, so he just walked down ten flights of stairs(elevator was always out of operation) to the hotel reservations office and sexually harassed those girls instead.

One day, I was sweeping our production line when I noticed a stray mussel shell between our low fridge and steam table, so I swept it up. I noticed another, which I swept and I looked in the crack between the fridge and steam table when I saw a mass, or even a legion of steamed, old mussels that fell in between the two appliances and effectively built a wall.  When I jammed the broomstick in to jostle the shells a cascade of old, moldy mussel shells swarmed my feet. Without exaggeration, I could have filled 5 or 6 plastic grocery bags with the discarded shells I had found. I never ate a staff meal there again.

Things were going well at home: I just moved in with my new girlfriend, the vegetarian. I had to prepare two different meals from what I ate most days and try to remedy her anemia(lack of iron due to not eating meat). Since she was too sick to work anything other than a serving shift, consisting of 24 hours in a week, ‘her’ and I agreed it was time to make some ends meet, so I picked up another job.

Big bush-

I walked into a newly erected, not-quite-finished hotel and dodged some construction workers in safety gear and hard hats while I tried desperately to find some back of house passage to the kitchen upstairs at the brand spanking new big bush hotel. A couple workers yelled at me for not wearing safety gear while others ignored me until I finally found a huge scottish man with a long grimace. He had these gigantic mitts that engulfed mine when I shook his hand. That’s the chef.

Lets call this guy ian. Ian was the executive chef at big bush and I was courting him with some cute humor and some confident cooking terminology. I pulled out my nicest clothes, brushed up my résumé and put on my greatest act as the worlds best employee while interviewing for the big bush. I wanted that job so bad I could taste it. I only heard stories of this guy, he was the real deal. He replaced heeb, the world culinary Olympian that I worked for a couple years prior.

Ian was a tall man, who was slender and lanky. He was balding, with short hair and big features. His ears were big, his nose was big and he wore a lot of wrinkles in his face. He reminded me of the food critic from ratatouille with his long, drawn grimace of despair. As we interviewed I peered over his menu specs. He took a phone call while I was reading and immediately started firing on all pistons in an angry Glasgow accent, ‘she’s a server, she knows NOTHING! Price the menu how I’ve stated.’ Click. I looked up to meet eyes with my new prospect, he just smiled. ‘working out some kinks.’ He said, smiling for the first time since I met him. His humor was very dry and sarcastic. He knew I realized his smiles were always fake, he was just trying to keep an appearance. He didn’t seem to care if I knew he was a grumpy old man or not.

A few days later I picked up the phone to hear from ian. ‘gary?’ he said.

‘speaking…’ I replied. I was nervous to hear my verdict from the Scotsman.

‘I spoke to franz, from shmagglishmack. I asked if he remembered you and he told me that you weren’t a complete waste of time, which is pretty flattering coming from that old nazi. Come on down for a coffee whenever you can. We’ll discuss wages and sign HR stuff. See you soon.’ Click. That was it. no goodbye, nothing. Just come on in, whenever. I was there the next morning.

It was the next day and I was given instructions on how to enter the hotel, the safe way, without having to confront angry construction workers or falling tools. to keep it short, I became one of the newest cooks at the big bush hotel.

Life at the big bush was pretty good. I worked whenever they could fit me in the schedule, meaning I would work mornings before I went to the general and long shifts on my days off from the general. Money was coming in, but at the expense of my body; I became ill quite often, run down, pulled muscles and pinched nerves. The spasms in my back were returning, but what do you expect from working 60 hours a week?

The food was excellent at big bush. The staff was ok too. We served fresh sea bass on spinach with a mustard sauce, pork tenderloin wellington with a Cumberland sauce, a really nice chicken with an incredible mushroom sauce. The food was arranged beautifully and garnished with pea shoots, or local berries. We cut living micro herbs right from the soil. Our sauces were crafted a la minute(to order) from deglazing our frying pans with squeeze bottles of wine, gin, sloe gin, brandy, sauternes or vodka and reducing stocks. We had fresh citrus zest in our mise. We ground our pepper, we used only fresh herbs. The chef would make us dump out a 2 liter container of dried mushrooms, pick out the chantrelles and trumpets, make us fill it back up again, and call the distributor complaining there weren’t any chantrelle or trumpet mushrooms in the mix. He would return it and have it replaced for free, with a couple extra freebees.

Part of our tool kit was to have the chefs compendium so we could all make the exact same classic French items, perfectly, every time, with no deviation from cook to cook. I was finally reaching my potential in this place, the challenge pushed me to be better than the rest of the staff. I spent my free time reading about classic French cuisine. The challenge engulfed my life.

Back at the general, things were getting stale. The food was getting worse, the staff was quitting, our safety was challenged more and more every week and that fucking hole in the floor took two pieces of plywood and two garbage cans to cover(which is highly illegal by the way).

We just accepted a new sous chef, Kramer to replace mass. I was weary of Kramer. I never spoke to him for a week after he introduced himself. One day he overheard me talking about going to a show, but I was unable to drive there – enter Kramer.

‘hey man,’ Kramer started off. ‘I heard you need a ride to the dayglo abortions show.’

I nodded, ‘yeah but its in st. kitts….’

‘ha. No problem. Ill give you a lift. Its ten minutes from my place. I hope you don’t mind if I smoke.’ I shook my head in response and thanked him. I never did go to that show, because my girlfriend couldn’t make it there, but Kramer did give me a ride home.

‘look, I don’t know you, but I think I have a pretty decent idea of who you are.’ Kramer started saying. We were driving towards my home after work. Kramer was rummaging around his middle compartment in the car when he pulled out a reefer the size of a babys arm. He sparked it up and passed it to me. ‘we don’t need to let anybody know about THIS, right?’

We’ve been very good friends since then.

Kramer and I became pretty tight over the next few months. We stuck up for each other and talked food quite a bit. He was always full of ideas. He was also very hyperactive and very, very stoned all the time. I was envious of his imagination, it was endless. He was enthusiastic and driven. We would argue playfully about classic techniques and try to stump each other with music trivia. The guy was a real character, but he could have been successful in whatever he wanted to do. He had some real unexposed latent talent.

Things were getting rough at home, with all my working, her not working and just some everyday girlfriend/boyfriend problems that happen when two people move in together after falling in love with each other after knowing each other for only a couple months(duh). I spent a couple nights on my buddy franks couch, before I could make a plan of action.

My plan was to transfer out of the general and work at big bush, full time. Which, was all successful. Everything worked out fine. I had put in 3 weeks notice, which switched to 5 weeks notice because nacho ended up losing it; nacho had a run-in with a manager, which turned into an argument that escalated to becoming a fight. A couple guys almost needed to break it up. nacho, cooled down and went to get changed into his civilian clothes, where he could regain his composure and go home for the rest of the day. On his way out, though, he took the entire rack of chefs uniforms, threw them into a dumbwaiter down two stories, pissed all over the clothes, walked downstairs to our large production kitchen, where he took all the knives and put them in a giant insert, filled the insert with water and put the insert into a freezer, where the knives turned into a 40 pound block of ice. He turned on a convection oven and threw the staff radio in there and walked away. he drove home, phoned his doctor and received a 6 month long stress leave, where he took the time to practice with his band and smoke weed.

My transfer was successful and was no longer working two jobs, just one with a lot of hours at big bush. I wouldn’t start at my transferred job for months.

At the big bush, I was able to drink all the grapefruit juice I wanted and smoke whenever I felt the need. I love cigarettes and I went through a pack a day back then.

The crew at big bush was starting to switch a bit; a couple guys were fired for trying to introduce a union. We had a girl we called jafakin. We called her jafakin because she told us she was from the islands(she was starch white) and sometimes added a touch of patois to her speech. So instead of Jamaican, it was jafakin, like an imposter. A friend of hers told us she grew up in a gated community in Toronto, when I asked her about it, she fucking quit. No kidding. Right there on the spot, she just fucking quit.

Chef Ian and I were pretty tight. He would invite me to the restaurant on my days off to sit in the dining room and drink root beer floats(which I despise) and we chatted ‘life’ while we watched various hookers and johns enter and exit a house across the road. That house was soon condemned and turned into a Korean restaurant on that plot of land. One afternoon, while we were hooker watching, ian promoted me to chef tournant.

Chef ian liked me. He would throw shit, like plates or just random pieces of food at cooks if they pissed him off, which was easy. Chef ian was known to throw utensils so hard, he would chip the walls or dent appliances. He never threw stuff at me, though, not yet. He was stern and yelled, but he never hit me, yet. I sent out a venison rack that was overcooked(once) and I watched the look on his face turn to rage when the server approached him with the dry meat and complaint about the food. I knew exactly what happened too. Before he could give me shit, I turned and punched a fridge door and started swearing at myself. After service, he said to me ‘I was going to yell at you, but you beat yourself up worse than I ever could.’

The food was getting better and better. Different seasonal vegetables, unusual cuts of meat, and items nobody else made. Quail with blackberries, lamb rack with prune sauce Robert and get this; a pear poached in mint liqueur and smeared on a crusty baguette with red currant jam and blue cheese. Sound gross? It was! People ordered it though. I was really quite proud to walk in that place.

Our crew was small, but tight. We knocked off over 150 meals on Saturdays without a hitch. We rocked that little kitchen. In the days, we made lunches, prepared for dinner shift. We broke down whole poultry, big bins of veggies, built sauces and pureed soups, kept the place spotless. We infused oils and segmented citrus. Ground up our spices and roasted bones. Some days, we would work dinner service, then run over to the other line across the kitchen, slam out a wedding, bat mitzvah, business functions, whatever, then go run over to slam out the rest of service. Prep, serve, coffee, serve, smoke, serve, prep, clean, leave.

Home was tough. We fought a lot. Her parents hated me and I hated going home. We fought more than we talked. We fought over the stupidest shit, too. It was time for us to split, but what we felt for each other was immeasurable. Ive never loved somebody like I loved her. When we split, I lost everything. I went back home to my parents place in chippawa and left her my cash, my books, some furniture, my heart, my mind.

At work, I simply couldn’t function. Ian was getting pissed off with me because I could hardly pull it together long enough to have a successful service. If I fucked a plate, he would throw it at me. He threw tongs at me, spoons with salty sauce on them, squeeze bottles of broken vinaigrette, once he even threw a head of kohlrabi at me. Those things fucking hurt! I remember staring at this platter I was supposed to dress with cold seafood for a wedding we were about to feed and I couldn’t think about where to place the food in an artful way. I was absolutely mindless. When I went for a cigarette, I had to wash tears off my face before I went back inside. I was a mess. A clusterfuck. I started drinking.

I would finish a shift and go drink. Drink until I was blackout drunk, grab a coffee and a bottle and sit in a motel knocking off whatever whisky I could get from the lcbo before they called the cops on me for public intoxication. I drank to die. I would wake up in my chefs uniform, checkout of the motel and stumble into work, on time, of course. I was dirty, unshaven and numb. This would continue for weeks on end.

Chef ian and I sat down to chat. He wanted to know just what the hell was going on. Why the drastic change? Why he was all of a sudden concerned for my health? Why was he concerned about my food service? What happened to good ‘ol reliable gary?

I sat across from the guy and cried. I shook, trembled and sobbed. He asked if he could help in anyway. Did I need money or a doctor? No. I needed to die. I was at the lowest point in my life, I was a puddle of scum, living in shitty motels, avoiding my friends, family. I was drunk, fucked up. I only thought about what could have possibly gone so bad between us. I was dead on the inside, I was simply shattered. I crumbled.

After all the time he spent with me, all the concern he gave, I gave nothing back in my last month at big bush. I was simply a walking shell.

Chef lectured and interrogated me for an hour, the only response I could muster up was, ‘I quit, chef. I fucking quit. Im so sorry…’ I stood up and walked out. I could hear him as I walked away, he said, ‘you make good and fucking sure you come see me again, gary. You don’t ever leave me and never come back.’

He was the best chef I ever worked for. He was the single greatest thing to happen to my career. I respected him more than anybody I ever knew.

I never saw him again.

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