#4 Matts’

•May 30, 2010 • 2 Comments

#4 Matts’

If ever a restaurant could heal–it would be Matts’. Some hard realities hit me during my first years in this kitchen. I lost both my parents, I lost an old friend to breast cancer, I battled my alcoholism. It was a really hard time–sleep deprived, foggy with antidepressants and learning how to mother an actual baby–whoa. Never once did anyone push me or kick me when I was down. Looking back I believe I was a glassy-eyed drooler just going thru the motions on most days. Everyone just took care of me with laughter and loads of grinding production. A real comfort. I remember when I got back from my parents deaths….standing in the walk-in Chris, the chef owner, put his hand on my shoulder and simply asked “you ok?” My reply “yup” staring intently at the parsley as the tears welled up in my eyes. He said “good, I’m glad you are back”. These guys held my job open for me for an entire summer while I cared for my Mom. They let me bail out in a moments notice (many times) hop on planes–not knowing when I’d return. Or what kind of shape I’d be in. I always knew my job would be there.

My Dads death just three months before Moms caused more absence and heartache. They knew how bad this was going to be for me. A simple “you ok?” was it and that was all I could take. Chris knew that. The crew knew that and it was not ever mentioned again. Thank goodness. Orphaned and on the edge, this kitchen pulled me back to safety. I beat alcohol into the closet, traded in antidepressants for exercise and feel somewhat together now. Somewhat. Still a scatterbrained ADHD poster child. But happy with my imperfect self.

Without the kindness at Matts’ I’d be unemployed or wasting away in a retirement home kitchen or worse – a country club! Miserable. My closest friends Miguel, Cathy and Heather all from Matts’–make my life so rich with laughter and unconditional love. I’m so lucky.

#5 You Get A Whole Nother Family and more…

•May 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Expos, Xavier, Nelson, Reuben, Pedro, Chato, Student, pastry cook Mimi @ Citrus

Kitchen crews really do become an extended family. The very nature of a shift in the kitchen promotes this. You cannot survive (happily) without the team working together. For that matter–if people are late, grumpy or otherwise messed up it can screw the whole lot.  But we cover for each other–no questions asked. We care for each other. We worry about each other. We even do heinous things for each other. Things you wouldn’t even ask a relative to do. Including but not limited to: bailing folks out of jail, holding hair out-of-the-way when you barf in the bushes(thanks Reuben), provide an alibi whenever necessary, give rides to the airport, pick people up in snow storms(Miguel you rule), house sitting, dog sitting (thanks Jordan), babysitting. Need I say more? Whatever needs to happen–we are down for each other. Like a real family.

Cachito

There is always the “baby” of the family that gets abused. Commonly called “my bitch” as in “WHERE is my bitch?” by everyone. Could be the newest member of the team or just the youngest. This fellow gets constantly harassed, man handled and made fun of just like a real sibling–with love. Baguette to the back of the head, pants pulled down to the knees, any sippy cups or baby spoons left behind by guests are put promptly on their station to uproars of laughter.

Then there are the old timers. Cooks that have been doing it (right) since the dawn of time. Solid as rocks and super stealth–they get mountains of work done without even really moving around. These guys (usually called Grandpa) have a wealth of stories, stations tricks and can deliver a searing towel snap you will never forget. A little like a mean old Clint Eastwood “make my day” you don’t wanna mess with an old-timer.

Cookies and his set up

Crews get close. So close that when you leave a kitchen it feels like a divorce. An emotional breakup. These guys that you have poured your heart and soul out with on the line, shared life’s goofy moments with, are just gone. Funny thing is, when you join a new crew–you move on quickly. Preoccupied with being the new “baby” you have to concentrate on covering your ass!

The retarded cousin or step child is there too. Usually a creepy dude who you can depend on to scare the hostesses with one simple grin. This guy will always come thru in tight situations but never excel. Unusually quirky — maybe a facial tick or a lisp — these characters usually have lots of sick jokes and make you want to wash after you shake their hand.

Then there are the middle children that hold it all together. They are the even tempered workhorses. Accurate, calm and friendly. Usually embarrassed by their crass and dirty siblings. High achievers but soft spoken.

And the only children. The drama queens. There is always something wrong. A crisis. Someone’s always stealing their shit or a conspiracy to make them look bad is definitely in the works. Paranoid!! They freak out a lot when things get busy. Need lots of praise and recognition. But worth it all because they usually have a talent for food, comedy or a way with the ladies that keeps everyone entertained.

Juan, Porfirio, Pascual, Blancas

Sous Chefs get to be Mom &/or Dad. The enforcers of rules and the controllers of chaos. Chefs generally just try to keep everyone safe and sane. The voice of reason. Directing the flow of work and keeping the team up and focused mentally. Creating food is the easy part. Believe me.

I have scored some amazing life long friends & family from restaurants. Real friends. The kind you never get tired of.  Heroic boyfriends come to mind too.  Able to screw till dawn after burley long shifts.  Dinner rush still pumping through our bodies.  No cuddling here people. A tangle of sweat/grease soaked sheets and “wait–is that a–fish scale in your ear?!?”  True superhero sex.  A semi violent exchange. This cook on cook action was like starving all night and then hitting an all you can eat/all night buffet.  A food fight of body parts “take that fucker”-splat! A barrage of retorts (between kisses) for the nights hijinks. Good, good dirty fun. Through it all I even managed to snag a half-decent husband 🙂 –the son of a fish monger when I met him. For all of them, I am forever grateful.

#6 A Haven for Drunks, Burnouts, Narcissists and other interesting folk

•May 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

Luna Crew

It’s no secret that the professional kitchen is full of some interesting characters. A lot has already been said on this subject, thank you Tony Bourdain, but I need to say a few things. Drinking problems are very common and even expected. I myself developed a whopper of a beer, wine and finally straight vodka habit. Problem was even the vodka could not erase the boredom of the repetitive, physical demands and the hyperactive mind flips that followed every super busy shift. I remember when I was a young cook–continuing the rush into my sleep. I would literally just continue working, all the sights, sounds and sensations. Not always a nightmare but never restful. Alcohol really helped there. It was the only thing that helped shut down the ticket machine in my dreams.

Chefs and cooks are notoriously over the top folk. Meaning a “one drink” mentality is very rare. There are lots of stories about chefs/cooks showing up wasted, barely able to stand but able to rail(bust a move) through a busy service successfully. Similar to a drunken captain leading a ship full of rouges thru a deadly storm. Somehow we always make it thru. Once I showed up for a saturday dinner shift at Citrus–after being up all night (and day) doing speed, smoking pot and drinking large amounts of beer. I looked like hammered shit–eyes bloodshot, red faced. The chef took one look at me and did not look or speak to me for the rest of the night. It took all I had to get through service–380 dinners. Got some beer on the way home–which didn’t do ANYTHING so I drank an entire bottle of Midori (yuck but the only thing my roommate would not miss from his cheesy bar), threw up and then passed out. Sounds great, right! Chef Alain never mentioned that night to me again. And I never showed up to that kitchen in a compromised state again. An unspoken agreement. The point here is that if you can rail like a badass, you can probably do it injured, wasted or hung over too. Nobody cares too much especially if you are entertaining while you suffer through your shift. I also believe that a lot of chef types are genetically predisposed to addictive problems. Might be bullshit but I have yet to meet a chef that has not struggled with alcohol, food or drug abuse at some point in their career.

Sasha, Xavier, Daniel Bolud

Plus, kitchen crews love to drink together. You can usually find them lurking in packs around dumpsters, in parking lots or alley ways behind their place of employment. There they soak up the night air into the wee hours–rehashing the nights events. A sort of debriefing. A drunken “I’m okay, you’re okay”. All fuck ups are usually forgiven (especially if you are buying) and then the succession of dirty stories involving hostesses and various servers commences. Or we talk about family and “home” usually Mexico. Pictures of beautiful wives and children emerge. Laughter and some serious sadness. All the more reason to drink, heavily. There were a few unforgetable trips to karaoke too. Imagine a drunken bunch of Mexicans belting out an Elvis tune in broken English in a Korean Bar at 2 o’clock in the morning. Unforgettably hilarious!  Btw-there seems to be at least one guy on every crew that sings-ALL THE TIME.  Can be good, can be really BAD–as my friend Miguel likes to say. So familiar with everyone, these dishpit performers usually don’t even realize they are singing until we start laughing at them.

Burnout, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term exposure to demanding work situations. Burnout is the cumulative result of stress. Par for the course in food service. I believe I suffered a ten year…no 12 year burnout. I closed the restaurant I partnered in and went back to line cooking. After 5 years of being an executive chef, just cooking was so comfortable. I moved to sous chef but still lead the line every service. I loved that time. I was offered the chef’s job and a chance to go to the James Beard House in New York. To which I said an easy “no thanks”. Instead, I went to the chef and told him that the GM had just offered me his job. We laughed about it. Never underestimate the loyality a sous has for his/her chef. It is a tight bond.

                

So, I got pregnant and had my beautiful Lily. Moved into a pastry chef position and enjoyed the comfort of the production demands without servers, expos and managers in my face. It was lovely. I stood in the same spot. Made the same desserts. Looked at the spice rack above my table …..for years. I was creating specials for the line but was not even close to working to my full potential. And I didn’t care. I ran on three or four hours of sleep. Working nights and taking care of Lily’s needs during the day left me exhausted, drinking to mellow my frustrations and eating larger and larger amounts of food. But, work remained a solace. A really comfortable shoe. So, basically if you show up mostly on time, perform your tasks(have a pulse), we can work with that. Some cooks are almost viewed as extensions of their equipment. So burnt, they start to blend into the refrigeration. I have seen more than one fall asleep standing up–with tongs in hand.

Once you nail your position you may stay in it FOR YEARS. You may wake up one day (as I did)–still broke, bad back, super fat and drinking way too much–and ask yourself seriously, “Where did the years go?” or “What have I done?” And “It’s time to get my shit together!”

Narcissism. Not sure I want to say much on this subject (it’s embarrassing) except I took the Narcissistic Inventory quiz and scored way too high!! If you are a chef in charge of five or more cooks I dare you to take this quiz designed by Dr. Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab fame.  Only a matter of time till we see “Chef Rehab”.  That should be really dramatic–lots of moaning.  So Google “narcissistic inventory’ and go to town. Let me know how you do. Chances are you are as deranged as I am. We chefs seem to suffer from excessive “self love” in more ways than one :). Most of us like attention, think we have really good stories and sometimes never know when to shut up.  It’s not entirely our fault though–with the advent of the “exhibition kitchen” we were forced out of the back and into the nightly spotlight.  Lead cooks even feel like their putting on some kind of performance (usually standup) not only for their crew but for the front of the house and the guests inquisitively staring them down.  Lots of chefs call service “the Show” and we love nothing more than a standing ovation.

#7 Michel Richard and Citrus

•May 9, 2010 • 3 Comments

Citrus Christmas card 93'

Michel Richard is the benchmark I measure every chef against. No one has come close. His original flagship–Citrus on Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood was a leader in contemporary California Cuisine in the early 90’s. A  favorite with the critics and a James Beard Award winner, Michel Richard was a very successful celebrity chef. The first day I met him, he made a grand entrance into the back porch prep area of the restaurant. The prep crew consisted of about ten Mexican ladies. They were mostly wives and family of all the am line cooks. There were babies and kids in the prep kitchen too. Lots of laughter and above all, a tremendous amount of work being done. On my first day as a student intern I worked with “the ladies” as Michel called them. Michel came in with an entourage–seems he always had someone following him, whispering in his ear. He entered the prep kitchen, said a grand “HOLA  ladies” to which they all replied “Hola Michel”. He kissed his favorites and then got to me. Now, you have to understand how insane this was. I was 24, a student with very little experience, meeting one of the top 5 chefs in the country. I wanted to speak but I believe I got nothing to come out. I had been working with the ladies all morning prepping vegetables and making these heinous eggplant-tomato terrines. The ladies spoke no English and taught me with patience and gentle smiles. But there was a lurking intensity. I knew things had to be perfect. Michel was taking all these terrines to an event the next day. I don’t think I slept that night. Scared he would unmold them and yell “MERDE! Idiot girl!”  This is sick but I have to mention that on this first day, about an hour into my shift–I got my period–a week early. I stood bleeding in that screened off porch kitchen surrounded by mounds of tomato and eggplant–unable to stop for a bathroom break. No way I was gonna ask to be excused from terrine making to go take care of business. I remember thinking well, I have an apron on and there is a towel draped across the back string so no one will see the blood spreading across my checks in a sickening slow motion horror movie kind of way. I can make it through, no problem. But back to Michel. He kissed me on the cheeks with his ticklish graying beard. Shook my hand and said “welcome to our kitchen Cheri”. And he was gone in a whirl. Like a devilish tornado.

Michel was a very busy chef back then. Opening restaurants on the east coast, he was not around much . So when he was around it was intense. He walked into the kitchen and everyone went silent and lowered their eyes. Preparing to be scrutinized(always) or recognized for something good(rare). He always showed up during the rush to make something special for friends or oversee the 5 course degustation menus made for the VIPs. Once he got an idea- he moved like a guided missile thru the kitchen. Intensly focused and quiet- he would sneak on to your station and steal things you would curse him for later. We would watch in awe as he would make something extraordinary. Completely original. Completely delicious. He made it look easy.

Gregarious and animated, he used to do the triple cheek kiss thing with me– then snap my bra strap and laugh this big throaty laugh. Kind of an asshole–a typical chef. Magnetic. I loved and admired him. Sometimes he had a cigar with him and always had a bottle of Michelob, frosty cold, at the ready.

I was the first “girl” to work on his hot line and be paid for it. Citrus was always full of students who would work for free. It was a huge honor to be a part of the paid staff. His food was very clean, brite and modern. He was well known for his inventiveness. He was in a word–brilliant. He was the kind of chef that I wanted to be. And I wanted to impress him. I worked my ass off at that restaurant. Moving from sauce to fish and then to the meat station which was the top spot below the sous chef. I called the tickets and directed the timing of an 8 man line. It was so amazingly intense. There was no room for error. Michel threw a plate of duck at me once and demanded to know if he should take the duck off the menu–or was I finally “going to get it fucking right”!!!! The duck needed to be cooked to the liking of the chef running the window. Alain Giraud’s medium rare and Michel’s medium rare were a little different. If Michel walked in while you were putting up a duck for Alain–you were screwed!  This environment taught me skills at a rapid pace. I am forever grateful for that.

I also had two big moments at Citrus.

The first, I call my “backdoor moment” (a line cook would say something dirty here:)

On the morning of a party for Julia Child’s 80th birthday, I stood at the backdoor of the restaurant with my hand wrapped around the handle. My heart pounding. I could hear the happy voices of Michel, Jean Luis Palladin, Paul Bocuse and Julia Child thru the din of kitchen noises. I flashed back to the previous night when a serious Michel yelled he would put me to death if I overcooked their steaks. I was bleary from a rocking dinner service when Paul Bocuse just walked in the back door with Julia Child behind him. I was cooking their dinner. Me. Fuck. The steaks were fine and I drank three beers in rapid succession with my homies sitting on a brick wall in the parking lot.

Back to my moment….This was a luncheon to kick off an entire weekend of celebrating Julia Child, her birthday and her commitment to French food. So, there I stood at the backdoor scared to death that I would fail or be humiliated in front of these culinary giants. I wanted to run. I was going to puke. But, I collected my mind. I took a couple of deep breaths and told myself I was tough. I told myself “you can do this”. I pulled open the door, walked in and was put to work. It was a glorious day. Multiple courses. Celebrity chefs and winemakers from all over the world. True magic. Once in a lifetime. I met some of my idols and Julia too. She was warm, goofy and totally exhausted. I imagine it was hard to keep pace with the French and the other chef swill masters.

So, when things get stressful in my life, I remember that moment–that choice to believe in myself. I knew I had courage or balls if you will. I think of it often.

The second moment was something Michel said to me. One night he called me out to the dining room and offered me a glass of armagnac. He told me he believed women were better cooks then men. Said we were smarter too and that was why there weren’t many of us in professional kitchens. He told me I was a “good cook”. Told me to never give up, no matter how tough things got. He advised me to read cook books and stay in tune with trends. (That was the best advice I ever paid attention to) The other shit he said–how I could travel with him and be his assistant–but “don’t pack your underwear”–I choose to chalk that up to the armagnac.

Anyway, without Citrus and Michel, I may never have believed in myself as a chef. Never would have seen such crazy creativity and commitment to excellence. Faced with ordinary kitchen work early on, I honestly believe I would have left kitchen life behind for something else. There was nothing ordinary about Citrus.

#8 Eban Got Fired

•May 8, 2010 • 1 Comment

#8 Eban got fired

Eban was the saucier at Citrus on Melrose in West Hollywood. Citrus was a very popular California French restaurant owned by Michel Richard, a well regarded pastry chef-turned chef. On my last day as a student intern at Citrus, Eban was fired and I was offered his job. Now, Eban was a cook from New York–one of those pussies from the CIA 🙂 He thought he was “the man”. Fortunately, he was a good cook. Just too obnoxious for Alain Giraud, the chef d’cuisine. When I did my trail on Sauce station Eban would say things like, “throw a little of this and a little of that in there and give it a stirry, stir, stir”. Eban wore a hemp necklace (before it was cool) and he was always slightly rumpled like he just rolled out of bed. He was uniquely handsome with dark skin, longish sandy blond hair and a relaxed accuracy that I desperately wanted to learn. A little too arrogant, his personality killed his chances at Citrus. I don’t remember exactly what he said to the Chef that got him canned. I just remember Duane (the meat guy) looking at me smiling while he said “he’s fucked now”.

After he got fired, some of us went drinking. We danced to bad jukebox music and listened to his plans to return to New York and “kick ass”. I remember kissing him on a deserted street at 3 o’clock that morning–the Santa Ana winds rustling through the bushes. It was a warm and silent morning in LA. The air felt electric, I felt alive and terrified because I knew that in a few hours the saucier station was going to mine. He kissed me a lot and told me I would do fine. I got in my car and never saw him again. Thanks for the job Eban. I did fine.

#9 Food Dominates My Memories

•May 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In fact, all my big memories have food attached.  As hard as I try, my thoughts ramble on something like this:

Rocky Hill, New Jersey = Tasty Cakes–the jam filled ones

Grandma= crunching on Grape Nuts cereal at the breakfast table, getting slapped for drinking apple juice in the “wrong room”

Grandad= peanut butter on a spoon

Sherman Oaks Elementary School= the cinnamon toast we purchased from the snack line at the back of the cafeteria

Valley Meadow Road= marinated and bbq’d chateau briand, corn and tomatoes from Maria’s Corn Stand

First Love= Vegetarian Pizza (did I mention he was a nerd?) picked up from Stromboli and eaten on the floor in his room, nude, by candle light, super stoned.  Now, the rule was there was no touching until we ate the whole pie.  No problem….it was really good pizza.

Mom= curry rice salad with toasted slivered almonds, chicken salad with grapes and cantaloupe with salt

Dad= mayo, butter, frenching green beans while watching football, Hollandaise, beets from a can, and Hershey’s syrup poured over vanilla ice cream

Baby Sitting= stealing delicious spoonfuls of dill laden tuna salad from the frig after the neighbor kids went to sleep.  I remember looking at their dog and going “what? it’s good!”

High School Years= The Weiner Factory and the red cabbage and cheese dog or chili cheese and onion. Incredible.

So, you get the idea.  It is a long, long list that I’m sure would only interest me so I’ll stop here.  I know I’m basically insane.  What is really crazy is I have the ability to taste all of these things as I remember them.  Love that part.

#10 I Was A Wretched Hostess

•May 5, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Before I go out into the kitchen world and annoy lots of chefs and cooks I will attempt to answer my own questions. Why am I a chef? Here is my top ten.

#10. I was a wretched hostess

My first job at 15 was as a hostess at a coffee shop called Pages on Ventura blvd in Encino, CA. It was a hellishly busy breakfast joint with long waits and surly customers. I was a really mean hostess. Often greeting rudeness with a true deadpan look that would really piss people off.

Raised to this point by an eccentric artist father and a bipolar alcoholic mother–these rude valley snobs had nothing on me. I was precocious, mean, always hung over and wrung out from late night make out sessions with my nerdy boyfriend. Don’t even try and push me man! Patience and charm were not really my strong points. Think disheveled teenager with a headache. The managers never wanted me to work the wait list cause if you were an asshole- I might just cross you off- which tended to create more chaos. And I was better on the till anyway. In fact, after six months the owners gave me the keys and the combo to the safe and I was opening that place on my own. I was as loyal as a pitbull even then. Question is how did they know it? Anyway, the kitchen at Pages was in the WAY back. The chef, a tall black dude named Malcolm, was a real professional. Always in pressed whites and a toque. He was a miracle worker. Pumping out so much food, so fast. And it was the shit!! Stacks of perfect steaming pancakes, patty melts that would leave you smiling and breathless. Best thing about Pages was I got a free meal and that meal was always the cure for what was ailing me. Could be a hangover, a broken heart, family trouble–whatever it was it was subdued by those moments in the Break room. Thanks Malcolm. Never saw too much of the kitchen crew. They were kept away from us young girls. No joke. They weren’t allowed to eat with us or even really talk to us. Malcolm had a firm grip on his crew and they were all well mannered when we were around. I always felt safe in that restaurant.

Now, Kirwins was a different story. This wanna be upscale, semi classy place was in the Sherman Oaks Galleria. It was a mall restaurant trying not to be. The owner was a lawyer who named his place after his bookey, Bill Kirwin. Running the front desk was nuts. Busy bar and dining room. I had a seriously strange GM who used to wear double breasted suits and full wigs. No joke. Some days I would come in and he would have a blond Afro and others he would have a jet black Elvis thing going on. Seriously nuts. He used to hang around me and ask me things like “have you ever seen a Porno?” Really creepy. I know it was the 80’s but come on?! He was always asking me to wear more makeup and smaller outfits. He called me on the intercom to come to the office (in the attic in the kitchen) once and when I opened the door at the top of the stairs he was sitting on the desk with his shirt off! His big hairy bear like body and his gold chains and his wig, wow…..what a site. TerrifIed, i walked out backward mumbling “ah, no thank you” to a muffled “don’t goooo” ….. Minutes later he came back to the floor and we never spoke of it again. I was 17 and he was at least 55. I’ll never forget it.

The kitchen crew was like a pack of wild dogs. Anytime I went thru there it was catcalls and whistles. They were led by this bushy haired, red headed Irish guy named James. He always had a stupid question to stall me in there and then he would try to get me to agree to a date. At this point something (usually a tomato or a roll) would come sailing across the kitchen and hit him in the back of the head. This would send howls of laughter thru the kitchen, embarrass the hell out of him and send him searching for a weapon to retaliate with. I loved that. I loved being in the kitchen with them.

As far as the food–i Remember only the table bread at Kirwin’s. Baked in house, sweet like squaw bread and served warm with whipped cream cheese. It was good. Pretty much all I ever had time to eat.

In any case, hostessing taught me that dealing with the pubilic was not my thing and that I felt happier in the company of wild dogs.

**Click Previous entries for my 1st post  “Living the Dream”