Welcome To The Canteen

Go and put your work clothes on. Go and leave your mark.

These stories will be littered with immoral behavior condoned with cutthroat technique.

This weeks post is going to be more of a yarn.  These stories will be a series throughout the life of this blog.  These are stories from my career as a Chef.  There is a lot to be learned in the industrial kitchen.  I have learned some of life’s most valuable lessons, just by having a passing conversation with the dishwasher.  These stories will be littered with immoral behavior condoned with cutthroat technique.  They will also shine with moments of glory and colorful camaraderie.  I dedicate this series to all of you out there fighting the good fight, in the honor of hospitality.  Without you all the ship would sink.  So sharpen your knives, turn on the equipment, check your prep, make a list, and check it twice.  Go and put your work clothes on.  Go and leave your mark.

BEEP…BEEP…BEEP…BEEP…BEEP…BEEP…

 

Clock4

My eyes flutter open intermittently.  It’s 6:00 AM.  The sudden sound and lack of sleep aggravate me to the point of tossing the alarm clock across the room.  Its disturbing demeanor infuriates me.  Passively with aggression, I lay the blame on some poor clock for my hindrance of stable decision-making.  My head is pounding and handicapped from a five-hour shift bended by binge drinking.  I must mention that I worked for thirteen hours before my self-control went missing also.  I try to recollect the happenings from just hours ago. I think for a moment that it’s all time’s fault.  Who invented the clock anyways? What the hell was he thinking?  Shit, speaking of time, I have to get moving.  I fumble my way to the narrow kitchen and with a push of a button the nectar of the culinary gods fills my cup with a false energy.  Bitter and hot this is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had, I whisper to myself.  My steps mistake themselves barely into the bathroom. I turn on the shower it is ice-cold. I crawl in.  The ice-cold water baptizes my soul and awakens my pickled spirit.  It’s as though all the sin from last nights forgotten debauchery rinsed itself off and drains into the depths of hell.  A preconceived hangover is excreting from my pores as the cold water gets the blood flowing and the heart pumping with a fervent purpose.  Images of last night’s shenanigans start churning back into my fractured memory.  They are really just time-delayed images of Maker’s Mark and Pabst Blue Ribbon.  My thoughts turn to work. Mental checklists begin to fill themselves in the filing cabinet of my mind.  If I can’t remember what I just did hours ago, I’ll be damned if I am not ready to tackle today with clarity and supreme organization.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I hurriedly get dressed; I go to grab my car keys.  They are nowhere to be found.  My impatience is growing thick by now.  I meander towards the old room, the one where she and I slept. We had gone our separate ways a little more than a month ago.  The room still smelled very much like us.  I had avoided that room like the plague in recent weeks. Surely they weren’t in there, I thought to myself.  I needed to check anyway.  I open the door without hesitation.  The sight of some beast shakily startled me.  The room reeks of stale booze and a filthy funk of hygienic depravity.  The beast must have been sawing Oregon’s finest timber in his dreams because the walls of the room were trembling with enough force to gather the attention of the Richter scale.  His name was Gristle, he was as similar to two grizzly bears fucking as one could get.  He was a hell of a Chef, still is I’m sure.  Chefs’ like this beast are sadly a dying breed nowadays; they just don’t quite make them like him anymore.  If there ever were a visual exposition of a right-hand man, this beast would be it.  I will touch more on his abilities and his uplifting demeanor later on in this series.  I tried to wake him up with a clamorous cowbell, much to no avail.  I would’ve had better luck snipe hunting than I would’ve waking this beast.  I had one more avenue to try that could stir the beast from his inebriated slumber.  I went to the fridge.  I opened the door and pulled out the remnants of a twelve pack of the Milwaukee’s bluest ribbon.  I reached inside for an inkling of motivation.  I was overcome by a soused sense of relief.  Holy shit, there were my keys.  I guess in my drunken stupor I had managed to put the keys in this suitcase of splendid stupidity.  A decade later I still do not know why.  I put the keys on the counter and fell back towards the dreaded room.  I crack open the beer inches from the ear of the beast.  The beast awakens with a prompt yet baffled fury.  I still to this day wonder about the nightmares that haunted this beast.  He asks for the beer without saying a word.  I give it to him.  He drinks it as though he has never tasted the reincarnating quench of water.  In the matter of a moment the beast is burgeoning like a heart-shaped balloon on Valentine’s Day.  He gets up and puts on the same clothes he has worn for at least a week.  He always carried the same shirt, different day demeanor.  We need not say a word to each other in order to communicate.  I give him about fifteen minutes to recharge his batteries.

Makers

I put on my boots and step outside to burn a heater.  The fresh foot of Sierra Cement on the ground pleasantly surprised me.  It was the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend.  This means it was basically a Saturday in the ski resort industry.  We were going to be rail-to-rail most of the day.  Mental checklists are now engraved in my mind.  Prep was going to be heavy and product would be minimal.  I mosey around the corner of the house to start the process of prepping the Subaru for a wintry drive.  All I find is an empty driveway.  You have got to be kidding me.  I scurry back inside.  “Where the fuck is my car,” I ask the beast?  He mumbles something about it being at the bar.  “We didn’t drive home last night?”  “Hell no,” is all he says.  “What did we even do last night?” I ask.  “We got wasted with those chicks from New Zealand,” he retorts.  His vague answer replenished my plastered memory.  Suddenly waves of distorted silhouettes enfeeble my mind.  My anamnesis was triggered by one vague sentence from the beast.  No time to dwell on the past.  It was now 7:30 AM.  It was way past time to constitute the climb towards responsibility.  I lived in Bumfuck Egypt and without wheels; the journey we were about to embark upon no longer embodied a consolidated timeframe.  It could take hours or more.  I would have just called someone to pick us up but Markleeville, California was yet to be equipped with cell phone capabilities.

The evanescent sense of a noncommittal future can be exhilarating.

There is something about the helpless feeling of being stranded that makes a man appreciate the transience of a meandering life.  The evanescent sense of a noncommittal future can be exhilarating.  The beast and I traipsed through heavy snow for about two miles before one of my chivalrous neighbors saw us from their window and mercilessly left the comforts of their home to give us a ride to the highway.  We laughed about our predicament along the way and he shared similar stories from his glory days of profligacy.  We got to the junction of responsibility roughly an hour after this trek began.

Canteen 10

It was 8:45 AM now and we should have already been at work.  Luckily for the beast and I, I was the Chef and wrote the schedule.  This made our lack of punctuality not much an issue, except for the lack of leading by example.  I stick my thumb high to the heavens and think about how grateful I am for my punctual prep cook.  He would be arriving at work about now, getting all of our so-called ducks in a row for the kitchen’s daily production needs.  This prep cook didn’t drink or party at all.  This is why I knew I could always depend on him.  He had a work ethic that can’t be taught.  We open for service in two hours I tell the beast.  He shrugs it off with a simple sigh.  The snow has now let up and the sky looks to turn towards the metaphoric caricature of a bluebird.  “We are going to get our asses handed to us by those Bay area mouth breathers,” I tell the beast.  “Bring it,” he says.  I close my eyes, nod to the horizon and give a half-assed prayer with a hitchhiker’s enthusiasm of fate.  Within minutes some gracious soul stops and offers us a lift.  “You boys need a ride up the hill” he asks?  “Yessiree,” the beast and I respond simultaneously.  My dubiety in the day is displaced promptly with alacrity.  We haul ass up the hill while smoking cigarettes, amongst other things.  We discussed the sketchy conditions of the backcountry with this heavyset storm.  We almost get to the resort until we realize that traffic is backed up all the way to Caples Lake and is at a standstill.  The beast and I don’t have the luxury of waiting.  We offer the man some gas money he declined.  We wish each other well in life and go about our way.  Within seconds our boots hit the pulp-like pavement with a frenetic pace.

I close my eyes, nod to the horizon and give a half-assed prayer with a hitchhiker’s enthusiasm of fate.

“Slow down,” the beast mutters.  “We don’t have time for lolly-gagging,” I say.  It’s 10:00 AM.  The first leg of our expedition was almost complete, but the journey was far from over.  One hour until the doors open.  The patrons will be beating down the door in 45 minutes.  One would think these people aren’t as amused by skiing as much as they enjoy the gluttonous conduct of devouring chicken wings and Irish coffee at 11:00 AM.  We get to the entrance of the resort, one of our buddies happens to be there in a company truck and we are given a presidential escort to the bustling village full of knuckleheads and dimwits.  “See I told you,” the beast says. I notice my car buried in snow.  “Well I’ll be damned,” I riposte.  “Who and the hell gave us a ride home,” I ask?  “If you don’t know then I can’t tell you,” the beast rebutted.  His conundrum was saturated with the sole purpose of making my mind practice its problem solving capabilities.  It’s 10:15 AM.

Canteen

I fumble with the keys and open the back door to the kitchen.  It is completely dark and the tranquil setting sets my temper flaring.  “Where the fuck is everyone?” I am not talking to anyone in particular, it was a question meant with no anticipation of an answer.  Ultimately I know that I am the one that manifested this nightmare because of my own disregard of responsibility.  I was the chief in this tribe of culinary warriors and I was the one faced with solving this problem.  I turn on the lights; the beast awakens the propane fed equipment from their slight slumber.  “You have to light the flat-top again,” he tells me.  “Why, is the pilot out again,” I ask?  Of course it was. He was always terrified of that thing.  I lean down, my head between my knees, facing the floor and flick the extended lighter. A concussive flash of trepidation from a propane fed frenzy silences the both of us. “Holy Shit,” the beast cries with a borderline laugh. “Every time it’s like flirting with death,” I say.  I notice that my cell phone is actually next to the wheel; I guess I left it there last night.  I hadn’t even noticed it was missing.  I pick it up with the intention of calling in the delinquent Calvary.  It’s dead.  I head towards the bar to bring my only threshold of communication back to life.

I wasn’t at all surprised to see the barmaid asleep in the corner of the restaurant; covered in bar mops as a substitute for a blanket.  He had been sleeping there a lot lately.  “Wake up slacker,” I yell.  “Screw you,” he coughs.  I manage to roust him from his snooze with a few splashes of water.  He rallies awake aggravated and starts a pot of coffee.  I make myself a stiff Bloody Mary.  The beast is in the kitchen cooking up some sort of ass-kicking time, or maybe its just breakfast.  The hair of the dog soothes my stomach and caresses my liver back to a functioning state.  My hangover is miles behind me now.  The beast can smell the booze from a mile away and joins me in a little revival of sorts.  He pours himself a stiff one and pounds it with no remorse.  We eat some greasy eggs, bacon, and toast.  I start to get that warm and fuzzy feeling after a hard day’s hung over work.  The barmaid fills us in on the events of the evening.  We laugh at our own demise.  I would go into details but some things are better left unsaid, especially in the context of our behavior.  It’s 10:40 AM.

Canteen 4

There is still no staff to be seen.  Where was the warden?  Where was the front of the house enemy?  I find my radio. “906 to 760,” I call over the radio.  “Go ahead,” he answered.  “What’s your twenty,” I inquire. “On the plaza, some kid took an actual shit on the ice-skating rink” he says wearily.  I laugh out loud.  “Where is the warden,” I ask.  “Stuck in traffic with everybody else,” he says.  “Roger that,” I respond.  I call the director who was on his weekly vacation and inform him of the situation.  He tells me to do whatever I need to do in order to deviate from a disastrous day.  We agree to open the bar at 11:00 for booze only but food would not be served until noon.  My shortness of breath finally pushes itself into a deeper perpetuation of cadence.  My anxiety dissipates as I sit for a moment in serenity.  I breathe deep and attempt to harness my chi, surprisingly it worked.  I transfer the mental checklist of necessary prep to the dry erase board and the beast and I discuss what soup and specials we will serve today.

It’s 11:00 and the doors are flexing with fervent facilitators of patronage.  The barmaid opens the doors and like herd of cattle the tourists trickle in.  The rest of the staff manages to meander in as well.  It’s almost like they were waiting for the floodgates to open.  I communicate with everyone the game-plan and they hustle with all intents and purpose.  The warden walks in rattled and frayed from the traffic.  She is relieved at the amazing news about the necessity of staggering the hours of operation.  My kitchen staff has all arrived except for the prep cook that I thought so highly of earlier.  Where was he?  He lived on the mountain.  I would figure it out later.  The beast has them all on task and focused.  I am prepping feverishly and creating the daily specials, as well as situating all things administrative.

Mise en place is being put where it belongs and in its place with a rhythmic confidence.

It is now 11:30 and I am awestruck that not even an hour ago that this restaurant was drowsy with doubt.  In the blink of an eye, everything is running like a well-oiled machine.  Mise en place is being put where it belongs and in its place with a rhythmic confidence.  We open for full service thirty minutes early but in hindsight I consider it thirty minutes too late.  The moment of truth arrives and I feel confident in the ability of this staff to rise to the occasion, even when unforeseen pressure mounts.

Canteen 6

The ticket machine we dubbed Grace, spews tickets with the harmonic sound of a waterfall.  The wheel of hell fills up with paper printed in gluttony within a minute.  I move to the line front and center to lead this tribe of misfits and hooligans through the promised land of adrenaline, consistency, and satisfaction.  My voice is hoarse from yelling most of the weekend but I am able to get my point across as I direct the culinary traffic in a harmonious manner.  My ability to orchestrate chaos in an organized fashion has always been one of my stronger suits.  No matter how I handle my personal affairs the job will always get done effectively.  Especially when you surround yourself with strength in numbers.  The hours pass within a matter of minutes.  Tensions arise but quickly quashed with the beast’s humorous behavior.  Records were replaced, hearts were broken and the operation barely skipped a beat.

Canteen 8

As the shift comes to a close, I look to the beast and suggest we need a revitalizing road trip.  I thank the staff for all of their handwork and loyalty with a round of beers and Jameson shots.  I passed on mine.  Within the hour, the beast and I were on the road to Jackson Hole.  We stop by my place to grab some necessities.  I walk in the front door and head to the guest bathroom to take a leak.  I almost fall down in a hysterical laugh because there he was.  My missing prep cook was passed out in the bathtub clutching a very familiar bottle of Maker’s Mark and some chick from New Zealand.


I leave you with a song from my favorite album.  Traffic’s “Welcome To The Canteen”

-BL-
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