Women Chefs are the best Kitchen Leaders. I think it’s The Motherly Instinct. Especially when you stop to consider what gigantic babies the restaurant business notoriously attracts. The biggest baby of all was me!
My 1st Chef, Keith Korn, thought a line of cocaine while prepping, champaign while cooking, and over the top intimidation built camaraderie in the kitchen. He overdosed on heroin: Keith is remembered by nobody.
In 1996, I headed West. By the end of an Arizona Summer, working in the kitchen of The Biltmore Hotel, I was cooked. The Kitchen was a 100 Degree Nightmare. Chef Cathy had a sweet touch. Her leadership kept us from stabbing the guy who vetoed AC in the kitchen. Unfortunately, Cathy’s hands were tied by several levels of hotel management. The salads wilted as they were plated. To survive, the Cooks mainlined cold beer. Who was gonna fuck with an angry, overheated Line Cook? We spent our nights cooling down at Strip Clubs – the drugs were over the top, even for me.
By the time I reached Los Angeles, I was loaded with Disrespected Line Cook Syndrome (DLCS).
I searched for a modern cooking environment. In other words, a kitchen with air conditioning. I found work at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. I worked as a Butcher. Looking back, this is where I learned the most important skill of a Butcher: “Wound Management.” Hey, in the kitchen, working with sharp knives, when you break it all down, it’s about bandaging cut fingers and pushing through the pain to get the food out, no matter what.
Every day, I arrived 2-hours early. Every day, I left 3-hours late. I never completed my Butcher’s List. I was never paid for more than 40-hours a week. I was always in the weeds. I was terrified of failing my pissed-off, fucked up, verbally abusive, chain smoking Chef.
Turns out, my fear was legit.
My weak Butcher Skills landed me a demotion. I ended up working the overnight shift. 6-months of crying myself to work. I lost all hope of becoming a Sous-Chef. I hit rock bottom, which lead to a desperate help wanted search. I spotted an opening. But it was at some mexican joint called Border Grill.
I set up an interview, figuring a management position at a mexican joint beat the Graveyard Shift, which was nothing more than me keeping an eye on the hotel kitchen, plus cooking an occasional meal for a guest.
Into my life came a true Kitchen Leader. A woman who would inspire me to become the Chef, and man, I am today: Chef Suzan Feniger. God Bless Susan. She saved my life.
Turns out, the mexican joint, at the time, was the most famous, and constantly packed restaurant in Los Angeles. The owners were becoming famous on The Food Network. They were called “The Too Hot Tamales.”
Finally, I had arrived. Or so it seemed…
Turns out, the reason I was hired, on the spot, was not as simple as my good looks, charm and resumé. Without even a reference check, I was hired because the Head Chef was leaving to get married. The Sous Chef they hoped would cover his absence had a degenerative mushroom habit. He even picked, and sold, his own mushrooms.
I was clearly not vetted properly. Within a few weeks, they realized what they had: an angry, edgy, spoiled-brat with no real Line Leadership Skills; even worse, I had absolutely no Expediting Experience, none whatsoever.
They were fucked. I was a train wreck. Within 2-weeks, I had lost the kitchen, alienated the servers and snapped at the Head Chef. Finally, Susan gave me what I deserved: A Motherly Look Of Disappointment. Let me give myself a little credit here. The truth is, the Sous Chef was in no condition to train me. So I was thrown into the heat of kitchen with no guidance. In the heat of the kitchen, cooler heads prevail. Unfortunately for me, at the time, I was still a hothead.
Susan did not wait for the 30-day trial period to end. She sat me down, 10-days into the job. She offered me the door. This was the first time Suzan actually engaged me. She said, as only a women in her shoes could explain, there is no shame in walking away. She said, as only a woman in her shoes could explain, that she had actually failed me. But, she explained, this is a “Teachable Moment.” She encouraged me to endure the heat of the kitchen. She said I’d grow, as a leader. But, as only she could put, she made it clear I had to get my shit together and calm the fuck down. She promised to clear her schedule, to be around every day and help me. But mostly, I had to help myself.
Listen, this was something I would never forget. This was the 1st time a Chef had NOT gotten in my face, or thrown a plate at me or told me to clock-out and work for free. She talked to me, not at me, not as the the person I was, but as the person I could be. It was disarming. I felt tears of joy, which is only known cure for DLCS.
2-weeks later, our Head Chef left to get married. The very next day, the Sous Chef was caught stealing a case of shrimp. Susan was in New York filming for the Food Network. The Teachable Moment had turned into Do Or Die. I suddenly had the chance to rise above the heat in the kitchen and create real allies with true power in the restaurant business to jump-start the career of a Young Chef. Susan was not there; she had hoped to be there; but even in her absence, she inspired me to step-up. Plus, I needed to make rent.
So I dug in.
There is no happy ending. But it’s also not tragedy. There will be no comic relief. I can’t offer you a moral to the story. All I can say is I did the best I could. I fucked up, a lot. I learned to ask questions. I learned to work on my tone when I asked questions. I got up extra-early. I worked extra late, without complaint. I stopped asking for overtime. I treated the place like it was my place. I did whatever needed to be done. Susan would check in with me every day and remind me people can work way harder than they think if they develop the discipline to stay away from booze, and get as much sleep as possible. This would be one of the few times in my life of true growth. It was a time of no sex, little drinking and the biggest shocker of all: no drugs.
I masturbated too much. I ate too little. For the first time in my life, I became introverted. It lead to depression. I lost my appetite. I dropped 10-pounds. Listen, it was self inflicted-stress. But it was real-fucking-stress. Socially, I totally lost my way. But professionally, I soared. I was rewarded with my 1st paid vacation. I got a raise to 40k.
If you calculate the extreme hours, the overtime, the heat of the kitchen, you would come to about 5-bucks an hour. But that’s short sighted. The pace of the kitchen made me quick witted. To hang with the Kitchen Guys, I picked up Kitchen Spanish. I was an Up & Coming Chef with the hands of asbestos and thick skin of a Line Leader.
When the Head Chef returned from his wedding, he was more than pleasantly surprised to find a calm kitchen. Susan announced they were hiring a new Sous Chef, a born leader, a man who flourished in the heat of the kitchen, a Gringo who spoke Kitchen Spanish and rose to the moment instead of running from it: ME!
I guess there is a happy ending. But not the kind of happy ending I like. For that, text me. I know all the best massage parlors in Los Angeles that offer happy endings.
Mulita (feeds 4):
- 8 large portabellas
- 1 cup virgin olive oil
- 1C balsamic vinegar
- 2 red bells
- 2 poblanos
- 4 C cooked black beans
- goat cheese
- yellow squash
- green zucchini
- 1t chipotle
- 1/2 C sour cream
- 1 bunch cilantro
- marinate portabellas in oil, vinegar, kosher salt and cracked blk pepper
- roast and peel peppers and marinate in oil, vinegar, kosher salt and cracked blk pepper
- slice zucchini and squash very thin marinate in oil, vinegar, kosher salt and cracked blk pepper
- kiss portabella, zuchini and squash on grill
- warm beans and smash with chipolte, salt, pepper, squeeze 1/2 lime chopped cilantro, 2T virgin oil and 2T sour cream
- make into 4 sandwiches with portabellas as buns.
- top with sour cream and garnish with whole cilantro leaves
- use bean puree as sauce on portabella bun