Two Kitchens: The Long, Hot Summer

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The moment of reckoning occurred on a fateful October day less than a year ago. I hit a brick wall while at my corporate job. The world stopped for a moment and I panicked at the thought of spending so much as one more minute sitting in a cubicle with my soul draining away. I was 50 years old and standing on an existential precipice. Five different careers in 30 some odd years and complete dissatisfaction with the entire lot. Once the dust cleared, counseling ensued, doctors visited blah, blah, blah. I had to quit my job as it was part of the anchor on my ankle tied to many other stressful issues which plagued me throughout life. Life was in the balance, as well as sanity so I went out and rejoined the food service world after 30 years out. I had been dreaming of starting a food business for the past three or four years as I love to cook. I stayed away for 30 years for the same reasons everyone else does in regard to kitchen work. The pay is very low and the work is mostly hard work.

January of 2016 and I get a job in a pizza joint making subs, salads and anything else which fits into the fryer. There I was working my ass off with teenagers and slightly older millennials. No one hardly spoke to me for the first three weeks which is understandable as folks usually don’t stick around long as the job requires plain old hard work and attainable skills. I get that many people don’t associate cost to value which makes sense. The “kids” looked upon me as a pariah of sorts, but I can hang with them pretty well given I’m a bohemian, renaissance type of guy whose been around a lot. Anyway, I proved my value and worth in short order to the point where I have become a very trusted man on the staff. I made it through the summer season which would challenge the patience of the Pope. The summer season is the most important time in the area in which I work. Most businesses on the island make their entire fortune inside of  3-5 months. For restaurants, the season may be more like 3 months to make the nut for the year. That’s scary as hell!

If one works in food service in a resort area, winter survival is a concern as most places pare down their staff or close. The pizzeria in which I perform my magic will be changing ownership and closing in the very near future. I found an ad for a relatively notable casual dining place which specializes in seafood one block from the pizza place. I was basically hired on the spot and became part of the prep staff. Quite unintentionally I now had two jobs. One in the morning and one in the evening. My wife asked me if I was still sane and I couldn’t answer the question. So I went from working 30 hours a week to about 60 in the first week of July. As I am writing this post on September 14, 2017, the restaurants just really slowed down about a week ago or so. I haven’t worked like that in many years. I have learned a lot and had a helluva good time this summer. The kitchen world is beautiful, weird, chaotic and kind of reckless especially the lifestyles practiced by the participants. Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll still permeate this world due to the nature of the work which is really sort of fast and loose. With all due respect, many folks in the business shun the darker side of the business but it exists just the same. This world of kitchens and restaurants is for diehards and youngsters. Cooking is as close to Rock-n-Roll as you get for jobs. A lot of love, a lot of hard work, a lot of time away from home, a lot of craziness, very little money and less recognition.

I’m following a dream blindly like a forlorn pirate on the last pirate ship looking for the last port of call. I survived the wild summer in an unstable country with my wits still intact. I have no idea where things will go from here, but I’m going to write my business plan this fall to move further forward on my journey to my own place, food truck, kiosk or wherever the hell this “thing” takes me. We all have the opportunity to change the food world by allowing ourselves to see food from different perspectives. Watching a food business operate is very telling as to the state of food in general. One issue which plagues most if not all western nations is waste. Reports via various sources indicate 50%-60% of the food purchased being thrown away. Another concerning issue is the absolute control corporations exert on the food supply to maintain and create additional profit which circumvents locally sourced foods. My ultimate goal for the food business I want to operate is to work on farm to table ideas. Working in a commercial kitchen gives one an interesting view of the food world. Sometimes what we think is real is just an illusion especially if it’s on the menu.

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Food Entertainment or Bust

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Within the past several years, television has been bombarding the viewing public with various forms of food entertainment. We’ve gone from good spirited cooking shows to competition food game shows to watch a celebrity cook shows with every other thing in between. Naturally my love of cooking and food has influenced my viewing habits to some degree. With this being said, I am not particularly fond of the Food Network or the Cooking Channel as the ratings chasers have been continually lowering the standards to achieve the highest ratings possible which they have certainly attained while bringing us more and more watch celebrities cook shows which I personally abhor with every fiber of my being.  The Food Network/ Cooking Channel have foregone the really good programming to bring forth shows for people who really don’t cook or even care for cooking. Granted, I really like Alton Brown, “Good Eats” is still and will remain to be one of the best cooking shows ever. I completely understand the “Cutthroat Kitchen” which is way more into the entertainment side and the show is good by virtue of Alton Brown. “Chopped” is a great show which I must admit I will watch almost anytime with exception to the children/teen cooking shows which is total schmaltz for TV dung. Nothing against kids cooking, but I’d rather see chefs or great home cooks competing on the show. But what ever happened to the Food Network which brought us Emeril Lagasse?! Ratings is what happened to the Food Network.

I’ve noticed the move towards notable people with cooking shows. Mostly former TV/Movie and Music personalities showing the hungry public how to make magic in the kitchen. It reminds me of seeing Ice-T at Lollapalooza back 25 years ago. He came out on stage and said “I’m not here to party for you, I’m here to party with you”. When I see the celebrity cooking shows I just get the feeling they are there to “party for me”. It’s a passive experience which is almost insulting but the network isn’t above this in any way. I realized when the celebrity cooking shows started to appear that the shows were mainly for those who revere celebrity which is perverse in it’s own way, but certainly not about a cooking in as much as watching celebrities entertain other celebrities and so forth. Again it’s the ratings being boosted to sell more crap to more people. I would have to guess the Food Network’s in house home made celebs aren’t enough to keep folks entertained and they are reaching out to Rev Run, Tiffani and the bunch to keep us all “entertained” with BS. I’m sure these folks cook well, but I really don’t care about a celebrity cooking anything to be blunt. The ratings driven programming is drivel. The time could be used to exhibit better shows which generally tend to appear on PBS more often than not. The cooking shows on PBS are rock solid and damned entertaining as well. The shows encourage folks to cook for themselves while sharing tips on how to create great eating experiences at home.

The one issue which really caught my attention is when I started seeing fast food restaurant and easy buy in a box and flash heat meal commercials on the Food Network and Cooking Channel. I felt angry inside. I know why this is happening but I feel cheated to a great degree. Our country has been a bastion of piss poor dietary habits and corporate crap in a box for too long. In any town/city in America you can find “murderer’s row” which is my nickname for the strips filled with every form of fast food imaginable. The grocery stores are filled with easy heat crap in a box designed to to keep Americans from wasting time in the kitchen. They don’t need help anymore than I can carry my house on my back. The advertising on the Food Network/Cooking Channel just supports this profanity of food aberrations. One fact about cooking at home which has been overlooked. When people cook at home more often they tend be healthier and maintain a healthier weight. Basically the premise of this thought is based on the fact that most of us who cook at home will prepare just so much food given a certain period of time. When folks have access to more food which is already prepared they tend to over eat. The advent of the monster buffet restaurants hasn’t done anyone any favors which exception to the owners. I have no power to change the “food entertainment” world by any stretch of the imagination, but I can choose to entertain myself with my cooking and share the experience with my friends and family, as well as to encourage other people to cook for themselves which I do wholeheartedly.