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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Pizzaland Memoirs: Back on the Line

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The above photograph is part of the station I work at during my hours as the “sub guy”. After roughly 30 years, I’m back cooking on a line making so little in pay I have to laugh so as not to cry. But thus far, the adventure has been fruitful to meet my needs. I’ve got my timing back and reacquainted myself with equipment and practices. The funny thing I have found with my jump back into food service is for all of the advances and changes which have occurred in several years, very little has changed. There is the obligatory oven or burner which doesn’t work, the ancient cooler which leaks and dies from time to time, surly teenagers who need to be supervised, journeymen cooks who are itinerant and often high on something, wild rushes, mad dashes, bizarre incidents and so forth. At my age, I find it amusing at best.

I must admit, I have been having a pretty good time. I’ve got the station down and I can weather the wicked rushes which are the bane of a “pizza joint” in a resort area. Being designated as such, very little of the food has any healthy quality whatsoever. A lot of stuff frozen in boxes. A lot of stuff in cans and containers shipped in from outside with exception to the handful of vegetables used in the business. This is typical for a restaurant of this style. The business model is based on volume and mid-level quality which works well in a beach area. The learning curve isn’t very intense and there is no sense of creativity whatsoever, yet I work on perfection all of the time which is a hell of a lot more difficult than I had expected. I basically make sandwiches, salads, desserts, pasta entree’s and appetizers in a one man station which can be pretty wild. I feed off of the chaos which ensues when the service hits its peak, as well as the crazy adrenaline rush which leaves me in physical pain at the end of the night. Quite honestly, I’ve learned about all one can learn from the experience with exception to some details on business or cooking technique as I have yet to make a pizza. My goal is to make it through the summer to re-assess my target of starting my own business.

There is a beautiful sense of freedom to working in a kitchen again. Myself being a part of a shift team trying to scratch out a living in a society which tends to look down upon “the help”. My decision to leave my last “big” opportunity at a corporate job and avert respectability was a life quality choice. The drop in pay was very painful and very pitiful. If not for my magnificent wife, I could have never done this without selling everything I own plus working an additional job. I personally find it disheartening for food service workers. The work is very physical and some thinking is required which is a commodity in food service. The low pay, often times but not always, attracts people with few skills, little concern and dubious education which I find frightening. I’m on a mission to change the aforementioned circumstances in any way possible. I’m thinking of my dream businesses every day and cooking as much as I possibly I have time to cook which includes late nights. My part in the revolution is to cook and cook well.

Pizzaland

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Roughly one month ago I walked away from a good paying corporate job with great benefits. I worked in a cubicle taking phone calls in customer service. The sky was the limit insofar as upward mobility. The retirement plan was excellent, the people I worked with and around wonderful for the most part, I had personal time, vacation, sick leave, you name it, but I was so miserable and stressed out that I felt as though I was dying inside. Matter of fact, many of my cohorts are and were in the same position. Working jobs they hated or hate because that has become the expectation for the American worker. An existence or survival to run to the finish line of retirement with tons o’ retirement money if you played the game right and ran the maze known as “the rat race”. You could then go into your “golden years” knowing you spent your life doing something you hated to do and die with that “accomplishment”. I finally exploded inside and flew apart one fine evening in October 2016. Needless to say, I had to seek some help and get medicated with happy pills and sedatives to calm the desire to strangle someone out of anger and frustration.

I knew what I loved to do which is cook. I tried to tell myself it was wrong that somehow it was a mistake as many know the pay is extremely low for a vast majority of cooks, chefs and whatnot unless, of course, you are one of the very few “celebrity” chefs or successful Haute Cuisine masters with your own place. Cooking is hot, intense and requires constant cleaning unless you don’t care about sanitary practices which will eventually get someone sick or killed. Over the past 8 years, I have cultivated a dream to have a food truck or small restaurant/bistro with my cuisine. It was a dream to take me away from the troubles and issues with my numerous careers. None of which satisfied my soul in any way even when I made good paychecks. I felt hollow and passionless right up to my recent adventure which ended abruptly in October 2016 followed by my resignation one month ago.

Within a week of my final departure, I received a lead on a job to cook for a local pizza joint. Someone at the corporate torture chamber referred me to a young man who manages the place about 8 blocks from my house. Now mind you, I’m 50 years old and I have not cooked on the line professionally in 29 years. I filled out an application and submitted a resume’ and with the grace of God or whatever powers of the law of positive attraction, I was hired right on the spot. Funny thing, I never felt nervous or scared. I finally reached a point where it seems as though I had little to lose other than my house, my wife and everything I own. Out of those aforementioned items, my wife was the only thing I was concerned about as I have burned out on the version of American society which requires the need and desire to own stuff. I simply do not care anymore. I get to cook and feel the accomplishment one dish at a time, one pizza at a time. I see the smiles of people who look forward to “pizza night” like I did when I was a kid. I don’t make much money which has strained the household finances to the extreme, but I’m chasing my last dream I have time to accomplish. It’s a small step. Most of the people I work with in the place are probably half my age. There are many who will label me as an idiot, lunatic or loser, but I’m happy. I have recently been involved in discussions with the manager, who is a remarkably responsible young man with a love of cooking, about being one of two assistant managers which is a ray of sunlight. The smell of the pizza oven is simply amazing. The feeling of action, cooking and excitement gets my adrenalin flowing. I feel alive, very alive and even young again. I’m one step closer to my dream.

The only conflict I have within myself is the concerns about healthy eating which is not associated with pizza, but this is a start. I am a fortunate man that someone much younger than myself saw my passion and decided to take a chance on me when there was no reason to do so. Yes, cooking is really a young persons pursuit, but I have decided to live and die for a dream to change the world in my own little way. Every revolution starts in a kitchen, living room or back alley as just an idea and you can’t kill an idea. Especially an idea which liberates the soul.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Food Revolution

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Another year has passed in the eternal fight to keep food real for the world. As we are into the 16th year of the 21st century, the onslaught of corporate food aberrations moves us further from the world of real “farm to table” elements which had been the underpinning of our culture in America. When I was kid, in the late 60’s and through the 70’s, “farm to table” was basically how the world worked if you cooked for yourself or your family barring any dumping of crap out of a can and into a pot. The local market had seasonal produce from local farmers for the most part. The meats were basically natural and sourced from local/regional farms. At that time, the advent of “fast food” and frozen entree’s was just starting to pick up steam in the market place. Supermarkets were actually pretty small. There were still local bakeries, green grocers and butchers. Milk was still delivered to the doorstep from a local dairy. I witnessed and wholeheartedly took part in the transformation which really changed in the 70’s. Fast food chains slowly took over the landscape and eventually became the landscape of modern America. Supermarkets really became super. They got bigger and bigger with everything one could possibly image to free us from the drudgery and slavery of the kitchen or so one  would believe. Somewhere in all of this evolution of free time, cooking got lost. The kitchens got microwaves, the food options exploded in the freezer aisle of the local megamart. Families slowly started migrating from the dining room to the living room and eventually to their own rooms. The dining room, the one place where the family could be together to break bread slowly disappeared. Meals became quick affairs of pre-prepared stuff jammed into a microwave or caught on the fly at a drive thru window. Cooking became a bad word of sorts.

Back in the day, cooking was considered “women’s work” and an expected duty of any self respecting woman who wanted a man. One thing I’ve learned about cooking. If you don’t like cooking, you should probably not do it. People who have no passion for cooking will not prepare anything remotely “good” in my opinion which would explain some of the miserable meals I experienced as a kid at the hands of women who “had” to cook for their families. What I mean specifically is the many times my parents dragged to me to a neighbor’s house or family friends for dinner. I think the women took their anger out in the kitchen and thus tortured many a soul with bland nothingness meant to satiate the grumbling family. I don’t blame them at all, but I consider this aspect of society as one of the main culprits in the degradation of the art of cooking in America. Women were expected to cook whether they liked it or not; period. Women basically bristled at the idea by the late 1970’s. The 80’s brought us the forward march of the corporate entities feeding the masses with googaw to “free” women of their kitchen enslavement. They actually incorporated the idea into their marketing and thus women took note. The one income home turned into two income homes and the time to cook disappeared and no one seemed to mind. So corporate America took over the job. The butchers, bakers, green grocers started disappearing and family farms were going with them. GMO’s became more common, antibiotics and growth hormones became the normal for stock, fast food proliferated through the country like a rabid social disease. I’m certainly not innocent. I used to be a fast food maven up until about 1996 then I was divorced and broke. I cut loose the demon readily and started cooking for myself again.

By the 80’s, cooking was simply “uncool” for everyone concerned. “Chefs” were people in far flung countries or large metropolitan areas or maybe some fat old dude on a can of crap. The real foodie culture was a mainstay of the upper end of society while low and behold the people who cooked were primarily working class men (mostly) and women (occasionally) ignored in hot, dingy kitchens scattered around the world. Of course, in those days there was Julia Child. She graced public TV in the 70’s and 80’s with an enthusiasm for cooking shared by some male contemporaries of which there were a few like Jeff Smith and the “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr. Aside from my dear mother, aunts and grandmother, Julia was the next connection to cooking I knew but did not understand as she would tackle classic cuisine of which I had never been exposed to in any fashion, but I digress. One guy in particular by the name of Marco Pierre White showed up in the early 80’s and started making cooking cool. Anthony Bourdain the chef and namely writer, damn great writer by the way, specifically speaks about a relatively well known photo with Marco, long haired and cigarette hanging from his mouth as being a moment he took pride in being one the guys in the kitchen. The picture smacks of rock star on every level. You see it and you know the guy is bad assed and on a mission. (I would certainly love to show the picture but copyrighting is an issue. Feel free to look up his site. Its definitely there)

This was the spark, in my mind, which started the fire for the popularity of cooking. The guy was Gordon Ramsey’s mentor which would obviously help unleash Chef Ramsey onto an unsuspecting world. The stories are legendary about his determination to drive food to new heights insofar as making a name for himself and the “new attitude” about cooking which including some ridiculously wild behavior of which I find entertaining. Going from the classic haute cuisine into a new world of creativity which stretched the old ideas if not exploding them out of existence. In the states, the new movement was creeping into the states via metro areas as the guys similar in age were coming to the fore. Slowly over the years, food and cooking have become “center stage” in the states, so to speak with some very important moments. The Food Network came into being of which I have mixed a emotions. Anthony Bourdain writes “Kitchen Confidential” opening the closed door of the kitchen for all to see in modern times. He lays it all out there. The good, the bad and the ugly for the world to experience which becomes a best seller and changing his life forever not to mention the world of food. Alton Brown brings us the incredible “Good Eats” series which is probably the best cooking show I’ve ever witnessed. He connects the dots in the science of cooking on top of exhibiting cooking prowess with great panache with a highly addictive viewing experience. Now we come to the current times. I could endlessly mention the plethora of celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck who is one of the first recognized celebrity chefs I can name off hand from here in the states mainly because of his clientele being the rich and famous of LA and the restaurant Spago which seemed to be everywhere in the celebrity news in the early 90’s not to take anything away from the chef.

Personally, I’ve hated the food scene as I have always felt that there was an unusual tendency for the gourmands to look down their noses at the rest of us who could not afford Michelin star restaurants as though we were wretched peasants. I stayed away from the business on purpose due to low pay, long hours and lack of respect. This is slowly changing albeit still rare that very many who cook will ever be “stars”. Food entertainment is starting to overshadow the real purpose of cooking in and of itself and basically pandering to people who like to “watch” cooking yet not necessarily participate. Now celebrities are cooking on TV to show us mere mortals how it’s done. I really hate these shows with a bloody passion. Aside from these blotches on the food world, cooking is coming back to the kitchens of America. The farm to table ideals practiced for years by dedicated chefs who worked ignominiously in their brasseries, bistros, cafe’s, you name it is striking a cord with those who love food and in particularly love to cook. I see the revolution unfolding. The corporations are taking notice, but this is the issue. I think the Mom n Pops places are more important as are the local farms which have great produce just dying to find customers. This revolution is about us as a people and culture. The fast food dynasties are seeing the change. Personally, if the big burger and slop chains disappeared I would celebrate endlessly. There are too many good local places which respect the ingredients and give a damn about what they serve that deserve business. I am ready to help pour gas on the fire to help see that kids get good food again, the people with little money learn how to make great meals without buying junk to kill them selves, the folks who are scared of the stove get acquainted with the real joy of life known to those of us who love to cook. I live to see the world take on the food revolution and wrest to the tools of despotism away from the corporate giants who have brought us the world of frozen goop, glop and crap. We have the power right in our kitchens.