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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Foodies, Gourmands and the like

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I have always loved food. I have always been fascinated by food preparation, processes and different types of foods. I must fully admit that I was a really picky eater when I was a kid. I was not overly fond of vegetables and desired pizza over just about anything else in the world. Yet, my mother’s cooking always struck a cord with me. I could handle eating vegetables with her meals and like many kids out there Mom’s cooking was preferential to anything anyone else could provide as my mother was really good at cooking. We didn’t have what would be considered “fancy” food. She specialized in country cooking or what would otherwise be considered “Soul Food”. These meals usually consisted of cheaper cuts of meat or the meal would be some kind of spoon dish which would stretch over a couple of nights during the week. We had fried chicken, fried fish, black eyed peas with ham hocks, short ribs, rice, collards, cabbage, etc. Little to none of it was processed. Everything was basically farm to table and made from scratch. Often times seasoned with pork fat or pieces of fatback. Most of the time my mother was working with a budget constrained by a multiple of issues during the recessions of the 70’s. I never really had any understanding of gourmet food. I heard my parents speak of meals they had enjoyed in New York City as a by product of my fathers expense account for his job. My mother was really hung up on Shrimp Scampi which although common in 21st century terms was somewhat exotic in the world of 1975 for me personally. My father would speak of Caesar Salad prepared at the table and hors d’oeuvres with caviar and so forth. This appeared to be part of the world of the affluent. I was totally disconnected from the idea of gourmet food.

The only concept of food outside of the typical suburban experience I had known was in terms of cooking shows most of which I ignored due to the basic home maker aspect of the show. The one person who always intrigued me was Julia Child. On one hand she came across as someone who might be associated with the more upper crust part of society, on the other hand there was an extraordinary love of food and the idea that anyone could cook if they had the desire to try which came across in her delightful, often offbeat manner. I had no idea what she was doing but I enjoyed watching her shows. At the time, I didn’t consider cooking with any real proficiency or even trying the foods of which she was creating. The food world in those days which have been the late 70’s early 80’s was dominated by what I consider “food snobs”. If you ate the standard fare produced in the suburban world you were considered “provincial” at best and likely to have little to no palette for “real food” produced in the finer dining establishments. Quite honestly, fine dining was rarely affordable or available for most of America. I rebelled against the idea of haute cuisine in principle alone at that point. I watch my mother create meals out what often times appeared to be little to nothing. The idea of haute cuisine seemed to be geared towards the “haves” with the rest of us left to the world of hamburger helper and fast food which did not represent the food world I knew personally.

I do not consider myself a “foodie” and definitely not a “gourmand”. The term “foodie” first appeared at some point in the early 80’s from what I can glean from the net and the word created, by of all sources, food writers (oh boy!). The term “foodie” just rubs me wrong in so many ways. I love to cook, I love to try new foods and I’m particularly interested in supporting local farms and food businesses. I support the idea that everyone should cook at least to some degree. I’m a member on Yelp and I use it primarily to judge where I want to spend my food dollar so to speak. No one wants to go to a restaurant and waste money on a half assed meal with people who just don’t care. When I write any commentary on Yelp I try to be objective and honest. With that being said, I don’t use the format to bash restaurants or attempt to be a “food critic”. I like to support good eating establishments and more often than not I will simply ignore the bad ones or keep the commentary to the basics. The word “foodie” tends to lean towards the food snobs I have endured at various dinner parties, social events and so forth. The people who drop names and talk about the latest chef talent in town at the oh so talked about new location on the food scene. I simply don’t give damn about this type of food culture. I go towards my interests in food and try to turn other people onto or be turned onto the good experiences. It is true that Yelp tends to be the bane of the self described “foodie” to some degree. I believe there is a place in the world for sites like Yelp to help everyone discern the good places from the bad places in order to allow all of us to be able to spend our money on satisfactory experiences of our choosing. I don’t believe food sites should be used as a form of internet justice or a convenient excuse to be insulting or snarky for the entertainment of others. The commercial food service business is hard work, long hours and often times low pay. Some people simply enjoy bitching about things in general and consider themselves above the rest of us and so be it.

For me, the world of food is a big place and I am one guy in that enormous realm. I am currently working towards the dream or better yet fantasy of having my own food business of some type. It may be a food truck, a food cart or even an artisanal food business. I simply don’t know yet, but this blog is a small part of what I would like to contribute to the food world. I like to think that all of us are on this life journey collectively which requires all of us to eat. I bristle at the idea that good, healthy food is too expensive or that only a certain portion of our culture can enjoy “real food” as opposed the remainder. We don’t have to rely on celebrities to cook for us on TV or corporations to help us make good food choices. It has and is at our disposal to make these decisions. Cooking allows all of us to enjoy good food if we make the effort. I’m trying to make the effort by refusing to succumb to the “foodie” label or to give in to the corporate interests that want to sell instant crap in a box or instant gratification with fast food. The world of food is ours to create still. If gardens can be grown and productive in urban environments forsaken by economic change than people can exercise the power to create great eating experiences for themselves.