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.