The Magic

•February 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Back of the House

There are days in a chefs life when things just don’t go well.  Things go horribly wrong actually.  Staff is genuinely pissed off.  Too much work. Too much stress. Even the delivery drivers scowl.  The patio wave smashes the dignity of the cooks. Pushing everyone to the limit.  (The seating grows but the kitchen doesn’t–still we must be perfect)   Could be a power outage during a lunch rush…anything can happen.  Off days, we have em a lot.  The expectations feel like a boulder weighing you to the ground sometimes.   And then your sleepy broiler cook sends out RAW meat (WTF!). The fry cook sells a baseball size clump of (inedible) half-cooked calamari. The soup tastes like shoe no matter what you do……and all of this calamity (somehow) finds its way to the owner’s table…..in an hours time.  Sounds funny right? I’m pretty sure he was not laughing.  All of the moving parts in a professional kitchen, from crew to ingredients to equipment, can screw your serenity at…

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Ode to the DMO (our hero)

•February 9, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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Things come to a screeching halt without you….”dish machine operator”. AKA the dishwasher. Without sparkling clean glasses, plates and utensils we can’t serve shit. Without clean sauté pans, bowls, tongs, pots and spatulas we can’t do jack. We need you to show up and put out like no other (bitch) on our crew. And you do…time and time again. You are our hero. It’s a shitty, sweaty thankless job that most of us have done at one time or another. We know it sucks and we love you for every sick gnarly shift you finish without going postal or strangling a cologne infested server for bombing you with sludge coated silverware.

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When we scream your name and you willingly scurry on the line–dodging red hot pans, clattering plates, our whirling knives, our twirling battle moves, you show us that you are the toughest bad ass we know. You bring plates, pans, chickens, potatoes what ever….you are there. Our ammunition guy. Our back up. Our backbone. We can’t stand up with you.

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Kitchens are dangerous and you’re usually the first guy to figure that out. We burn you: hot pans dumped in your “pit” with maybe a mumbled warning. We cut you: glass in the trash again?! A wooden skewer through the hand? Wtf people. knives in the sink?!? I know you want to kill us. Many many times I have taken you bleeding in my car to the ER. God I’m sorry. That slicer just got sharpened….and you were sleepy….man that was gory. What a big bunch of douche bags we can be…Putting you in danger like that. I know all you’re thinking when you’re getting stitches is “I want to get back to work or don’t let me miss work”. Or maybe your thinking…thank fucking god I can rest….it takes blood to make you stop working for just a moment. Which is insane but I respect you for that and so much more.

You come from far away usually and a friend somehow gets you in here thinking this is a good opportunity. An opportunity to get your ass kicked day after day. But also a chance to jump on a team (Americans came up with that bullshit) yeah! Be part of a bloody brutal battle night after night. Wait….who the fuck would want to do that?! Some say you must be crazy (lots really are certifiable) but I know you just need a place, a home away from home. Can’t speak the language? That’s ok we can just figure it out. No idea what the hell these white bitches are saying when they are smiling at you with that hint of hostility? Fuck em. You’re with us and we love you. You are doing what we can’t. The hardest most back-breaking job in the kitchen. You are doing what we won’t…the slimiest, dirtiest, grease fest shit job ever invented. Just thinking about it makes me want to hurl. You’re a saint.

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You rarely complain. Well at least not to me. We stack so much on you. Hey, can you unload a pallet of apple wood?! Hey, can you put the orders away? Hey, can you deal with toxic chemicals every hour of every day? Oh and would you please load and unload the rotisserie with chickens, prime rib and the like. Hey, then sweep and mop the entire kitchen. Wait….I hear someone screaming your name….

DMO you’re our hero.

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The Magic

•August 16, 2011 • 1 Comment

There are days in a chefs life when things just don’t go well.  Things go horribly wrong actually.  Staff is genuinely pissed off.  Too much work. Too much stress. Even the delivery drivers scowl.  The patio wave smashes the dignity of the cooks. Pushing everyone to the limit.  (The seating grows but the kitchen doesn’t–still we must be perfect)   Could be a power outage during a lunch rush…anything can happen.  Off days, we have em a lot.  The expectations feel like a boulder weighing you to the ground sometimes.   And then your sleepy broiler cook sends out RAW meat (WTF!). The fry cook sells a baseball size clump of (inedible) half-cooked calamari. The soup tastes like shoe no matter what you do……and all of this calamity (somehow) finds its way to the owner’s table…..in an hours time.  Sounds funny right? I’m pretty sure he was not laughing.  All of the moving parts in a professional kitchen, from crew to ingredients to equipment, can screw your serenity at any moment.  Oops!  forgot to schedule a dishwasher….way to get the whole crew pissed and bitter!! The food processor is broken again.  Freezer still down. FUUUUCK. Where is the pay off?

The magic. The mystical night when it all comes together. When nature delivers the perfect tomatoes. When food speaks for itself.  With minimal manipulation you conjure up a perfect romesco sauce that positively dances across your tounge.  Why? Why now? Why tonight? It is strange when these moments happen. These magic moments.  They seem to come out of no where.  Us chefs are so ready for the side punch to the head instead.  Fed up with the hours, the blind dedication and about to hang up your apron?–you taste something–you feel something–and you know, it’s the magic.

Some chefs like to think it’s them.  But, I know better.  I don’t care how great you are at seasoning and layering flavors –if your products don’t deliver–neither can you.  There is only so much extra garlic, lemon juice, honey, chile, salt, vinegar, truffle etc etc that you can add before things become a muddled mess.  It can look amazing and be handled perfectly but the guests know when its blah. The worst part is…so do you.  Its good but it’s not amazing. I’m talking about those elusive nights when you get the best of everything–at its peak. And the best of everyone on your staff. We live for those moments. They make our careers sometimes.  Blow the mind of the right person on the right night and you’ve got it made.  But what do you do when the magic is on holiday?  Hang tight and buck up.

When the magic is in the house the whole staff feels it.  It’s in the air.  The music is just right. The guests seem happier than usual.  The food is alive.  The kitchen, a single cell, pumps in unison.  Servers glide effortlessly through the dining room. It just feels good.  Machines run right.  Cooks are joyful, fed and ready to handle ANYTHING with a goofy smile. No one wants to go home early (for once).  Someone hands you a huge sandwich when you are starving–its the best you’ve ever had. Getting the picture here?

The magic hovers and creates new lovers over chocolate and red wine.  The magic can whisk me back to my childhood when I hunted luscious tomatoes at a crowded and boisterous farmstand–mom’s death grip on my tiny hand. Spontaneous wedding proposals and other flights of fancy just happen on these nights that the magic appears.  Connected to each other. To the seasons. To nature. Perhaps that’s all it is. I still call it magic.  We all need more of it.

Just One Guy

•May 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Just one guy. That’s all it takes. Just one guy leaves and everything changes. Cooks become sous chefs.  Sous chefs move up to chef jobs they would never ask for.  Cooks change stations. Forced to sink or swim. New alliances are made. It’s like being pushed out of an airplane. Only you have five guys trying to hold on to your back instead of one tandem guide. Sometimes like being hit by an 18 wheeler at full speed. Or a soccer ball right to the face–with braces. Take a beating and then get up, clean up and keep going. Do it for the team.

Just one guy can leave a trail of broken hearts. Miles long. Smiles leave the building for a while. Inside jokes are locked away forever. Favorite foods never to be shared again. For once…. the music is off.

Just one guy leaves and we are all reminded of how close we are. How connected we become in the kitchen. We are family. Love em, like em or really hate em–just like family you never really say goodbye. Bloody and tight like soldiers. We never think about leaving each other. Unless we get blown to bits.  Self combust. Decide wisely to change careers. Or family is missed so bad that we just have to go.

Just one guy leaving can make you believe in ghosts.  Their laugh blows through the front doors with you.  Their dents still in the saute pans.  Sometimes you swear you can smell them (gross I know).  Even see them. Just a glimpse of their apron fluttering around the corner in front of you. Late on inventory night, if you really listen, you can hear their jokes in the back of your mind. Like a phantom limb, they leave an ache that reminds you of who you are. How strong you are. It holds you up on your worst days. The good one’s… the mean one’s …even the really sweet ones– never ever leave. 

So one guy leaves and life changes.  But one thing stays the same….living the dream baby.  Still living the dream.

#1 Lily

•June 6, 2010 • 2 Comments

 

The reason for everything I do. Lily

I won’t stop cooking because it is what I love. It’s what I’ve pushed to get good at. Even though it’s insanely hard work I wouldn’t curse on my worst enemy🙂, I still love it. Being a chef is a challenge and a huge mental commitment everyday. Its not the kind of job you can check out of when you are home. Food has a way of sticking to you in more ways that one. It is a lifestyle. A choice that can really impact your family. I’m lucky to have Lily and Casey behind me every step of the way.

Literally torn from my body with a suction cup to the head after two days of labor, Lily has always had her own way of doing things.  Unable to sleep without having her head on my shoulder till she was like 5….she has taught me that I have NO CONTROL.  Unable to breast feed or eat either, she taught me to have faith.  Faith in her. I can’t make someone eat, sleep, poop or be happy.  And lately I can’t force someone to BRUSH HER HAIR!!!  She has taught me, by force, to chill.  Hard lesson. There is so much to say about Lily.  She has humbled me more than any restaurant experience. She has made me a much better person.

I continue to chef because I want to teach my daughter what Michel Richard taught me. Be tough in the midst of a battle. Never give up. Work hard. Get your balls on and don’t fear. You will always make it. I want to teach her the lessons I have learned so far–take care of your body and your mind, build friendships, work hard but play hard too, shoot for balance,  love hard and fiercly “all the way through”.  Take risks because they can pay off big time.  Push past fear.  Believe.  Lay it on the line.

I want her to follow her gut as I have. Follow her passionate road. Not the safe one. Take time (sometimes years) to figure things out….but don’t quit on yourself. Ever. I want her to be as proud of me as I am of her. Actually (her favorite word), I know she is proud of me because she tells me so and that is all I need to fight another day.

#2 We Have Way too Much Fun (don’t tell anyone)

•June 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

 

All the hype these days in print and on reality tv etc. make us kitchen help seem like a hardcore military band of brothers. We love to wax on about how hard we work yada yada but truth be told…..we screw around……a lot. Don’t tell the GM! There is a lot of down time between shifts and even during when you get those lulls in business. And those lovely sleeper evenings when all we do is stand around and talk. We tell each other everything. We talk about growing up–the prefered method of punishment doled out by our parents, childhood injury stories, first love stories, fight stories. We make up nicknames for each other. I remember “fucker boy” who just said fuck repeatedly when he got busy, “the goo master” who put butter in or on everything, “pluma negra” the black feather “quite a dancer” who terrified another young cook who woke up from a drunk to find a horny pluma doing an almost lap dance for him. Scary. There’s Chato (flat faced like a bulldog), Cookies, Torta, Primo (lots of those) and on and on.

We heat up pans and plates to burn each other and others and we think its funny. We do things with dough–bean it at each other or throw it up in corners. Some dick heads even pull the fire alarm for a chuckle. Cartoon names are bestowed on unsuspecting members of the front of the house. Miguel is very accurate. There are eating contests–think the record is ten chicken breasts and ten slices of bacon stacked in a sandwich. Really sick. We hit each other in various ways with towels, bread, utensils etc. Anything to relieve the boredom and make each other laugh.

When you get to know all these little things about each other you use them mercilessly. For instance when a guy is down you can remind him of the dance he went to when he was 12 and he cut a rug “just like Michael Jackson”. You demonstrate a retarded moonwalk, imitate getting the girl (with another unsuspecting cook) and deliver the faux kiss he says he “will never forget”. Or the guy who told you about a girl puking on him during a blow job–when he’s pissed he gets the universal blow job sign–hand to mouth, tounge to cheek. This brings good cheer and more hoots. Things can get real dirty too. Sick actually, but we’ll keep that in the kitchen where it belongs.  Fantasy is a common tool used to survive a shift. Your dream house, your dream lay, your dream life….all babbled about between tickets.

Trouble finds me

Music is a big part of the day too. Some guys play their own tunes on their phones in their pockets–pantry will be Neal Young, sauté: Pitbull, middle: Neal Dimond “Sweet Caroline da da da DA…good times never seemed so good”, broiler: nothing but weird smiles, prep kitchen: could be anything–Molotov-CHINGA TU MADRE or Lady GaGa all freaking day. Or it could be salsa, classical, Joss Stone, Henry Rollins–ya just never know who will hook up their iPod.

And then there is food. There are food battles. Who can make the best soup, the best stock, the best burger, the best jambalaya. We are always thinking about food. What we will eat next is the all important question. When we are not busy, we eat A LOT!! We create new dishes together and that is the most fun because you get to be part of something magic. Something totally new. Something delicious. That’s the best.

You get the picture. We work hard most of the time. We play hard the rest of it. And sometimes we just sit on empty dish racks and eat ice cream🙂

#3 Mom and Dad

•May 30, 2010 • Leave a Comment

 

I will not torture you with the complexity (dysfunction) of my upbringing. That’s why I pay a shrink afterall. A shrink who has been known to fight off sleep as I whine on and on. So, let’s keep it brief. 

Cathy Yerxa

Tom and Cathy Yerxa–even with all their faults (don’t we all have em) were really great parents. When they loved things they loved things with unmatched gusto and passion. “All the way thru”, as my friend Miguel likes to say. This was their greatest legacy to me. They LOVED HARD and they LOVED FOOD. My mom would ripen a single tomato on a window sill for days, obsessively checking it till it was deemed perfect. Loads of mayo and Pepperidge farm white bread & bacon were sandwiched with said tomato. Lots of salt and pepper. A moan, a huge grin. Pure bliss. 

My dad loved to cook on the weekends. Mostly Sunday night. It would take him all of saturday to formulate a solid plan– muttering and pacing about in the kitchen. Could be something from the NY Times, Julia Child, Pierre Franey, Jacques Pepin. Their books scattered about splattered on and torn. Dad made a mean coq au vin, beef bourguignon, lots of good BBQ. In his later years he was really into vegetable souffles. He was a talented cook and a huge influence on me. I adored being in the kitchen with him. 

They taught me and my two brothers an all around love for the finer things. Furniture, art, clothes, football teams, tennis players, music–whatever it may be –they were REALLY INTO IT. My Dad, so dedicated to his teams or favorite players could not stand to watch them lose. He would get genuinely pissed off and storm out to his studio to paint–cursing the other team under his breath. A few times I actually thought he would have a heart attack watching the US OPEN tennis final!! Red faced and slamming his fist on the table shouting “motherfucker” at a young Andre Agassi. Boy, did he despise Andre! 

Week nights were usually a fend for yourself situation. Mom, well into her wine by the dinner hour was a fan of Stoffer’s Turkey Tetrazzini. I usually went for some sort of toaster oven creation–cheese, mayo and onion on an english muffin. Lots of mayo. Or cereal, always a good option. No idea what my brothers did but Dad would eat some weird onion soup concoction and saltines with butter. Butter was his thing. Full of heart disease, this was not smart but a simple “fuck em” to his doctor’s advice kept him happy and satisfied till his dying day.  

Mom didn’t cook much but the few things she did….she did so well. Her Pernod cream sauce, chicken salad, potato salad, versions of her meatloaf, this veal stew with orange–mmmm–have all made it on to resturants menus. Lots of things my Dad taught me to cook have made it on to menus too. Pretty cool really. 

Holidays were absolute glutony. Flowers, candles, linen, silver. Top shelf liquor, elaborate appetizers usually with puff pastry, expensive wine. Phenomenal cuts of meat. We always burned something–little too much consumption. Jazz playing. Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Carmen McRae. How they loved their jazz. Often misty eyed with memories Dad would sit by the fire with a smile and tap his foot. A full bowl of raw nuts by his side. Tanqueray on the rocks clinking along. It was in these moments that Dad would impart some real wisdom like “Babe, never depend on any man for money. Make your own so you can tell them all to go to hell” and “Get really, really good at whatever you choose to do–like this guy (Oscar Peterson) then you can tell the rest of the world to kiss your ass.” Smelling of turpentine, unshaven and in a paint smeared ratty sweatshirt– my Dad was the coolest guy in the world. 

Growing up on Valley Meadow

Another lasting lesson– a deep love of restaurants. They had their favorites–Le Cafe- home of an amazing chicken crepe- the bubbling Mornay sauce–I could just never wait for it to cool down.  Huffing and puffing with the scorching first bite on my tounge. Mom would admonish “Abbbbby!” Feeling the roof of my mouth blister….smiling back at her. Pure pleasure.  Time after time. Didn’t care. It was that good.  L’Express–Mom used to take me to L’Express just about every Saturday for brunch. Huge sloshing saucers of cafe au lait, eggs Benedict with extra Hollandaise on the side, crispy pomme frites. I would tell her my teenage miseries and she would listen with empathy. A gentle and generous teacher, she was intuitive and brilliant at cutting through my bullshit. Some of our best moments were in that loud dining room with the black and white checker board floor, scarfing down that salty French goodness. 

I was a senior in high school when my Dad accepted his early retirement package. I got an excited call at work –we were going to La Sarre.  We took a cab– there was gonna be some drinking.  I remember they knew the waiter by name (Andre I believe), I was served wine (no questions asked), the crumb comb, hell the bread and butter were inspired. I had lobster thermidor–“holy shit” I remember thinking. Rich, creamy and succulant.  Cognac wafting into my eager nose. Served in the shell. The color of it–deep red. It absolutely changed the course of my life. I was gonna learn to cook like that. WOW. The most delicious thing I have ever eaten.  Nothing will eclipse that lobster. 

So, they taught me to be passionate. A wear your heart on your sleeve lifestyle. Can be good, can be bad –but it’s always exciting. They taught me a love and respect for restaurants–magical places where big moments happen in peoples lives. Life changing moments. Big plans, family bonds and love affairs get hashed out over my food now. Or should I say “our” food. Part of them still goes into every dish I create as I consider “would Dad like this?” or I think of Mom’s blissful smile.