In this post, I want to introduce a new and recurring part of the blog, story time! I love to tell stories and am full of them. Not to mention, we can’t do nothing but cook. I know that might sound crazy coming from me, but there is more to life than just food and cooking. So, if you have any story requests leave me a comment.
In my first couple of years of high school I was doing different manual labor type jobs but in my junior year I decided I wanted to be a chef. I didn’t have any restaurant experience, so most restaurants wouldn’t hire me. But finally, Dobyn’s House, a little place in McHenry, IL gave me a chance. It was a great introduction to cooking and restaurants. We made good basic food, it was a real meat and potatoes kind of place. I learned a lot about cooking and especially multitasking. At that time I don’t think anyone had coined that word yet or decided it was bad, but that is what is required to work in a professional kitchen.
The simple fact of working in any restaurant kitchen is this; you must be able to make ten meals at the same time, properly, and timed to go with any other meals made by someone else in the kitchen going to the same table. If you can’t do that or if even the thought of it makes your head hurt then you don’t want to work in a restaurant.
There were a lot of hard days in learning how to multitask, but it has helped me in many things in life not just cooking. Some days I wanted to punch my boss in the face. The reason being, when it was slow at the restaurant he would have me make all the meals for a table even the ones he should be making to help me learn how to multitask. I didn’t realize that at the time of course, it wasn’t until latter that I understood what he was doing. I just thought he was being a dick. Well, one day that restaurant closed with no warning. I woke up that day and didn’t have a job. This is actually more common in the restaurant world than you might think. But I found a new job at another restaurant and after about a year I went to another place called the Harvest Moon in Woodstock, IL.
Woodstock is not a big town and its claim to fame is that the movie Groundhog Day was filmed there. The Harvest Moon was right on the little town square where Bill Murray would interview the ground hog. The chef and his wife owned Harvest Moon, his name was Chef Rob Macey. I swear he knew everything about cooking. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and had worked previously for Charlie Trotter in Chicago.
He made a caliber of food that just blew away every other place in town. I was fortunate to work for him for about two years. I learned how to make everything from homemade ice cream to Bison prime rib and Duck Comfit. He loved to teach people to cook. He would get some new ingredient and gather the cooks around to ask, “What should we do with it?” Then we would discuss different ideas and try different things until he was happy with the dish, which then went on the menu. It was a great time in my life and I really enjoyed my job. However, one experience would change my opinion about my career choice.
One day Rob asked me if I wanted to go to Charlie Trotters restaurant for one day to work and see how a four-star restaurant operated. Of course, I did! I was so excited because this was a great opportunity. I wasn’t going to be doing anything important; just peeling potatoes or something and trying not to get in the way. It was an amazing restaurant. The kitchen was unbelievable; there was an oven that browned everything perfectly on all sides because it was precisely calibrated, there was a wood fired grill, a whole range top of induction cooking, and a broad array of copper pots. The pots alone cost more than most people’s home.
There was a pair of guys who did nothing but clean the kitchen from top to bottom every 15 minutes all night long. The restaurant only served dinner and it was a fixed tasting menu with either meat or vegetarian option. Everything was made from scratch every single day; ice cream, cakes, sauces that take eight hours to make, all of it from scratch every day. Anything leftover was fed to the staff.
Charlie Trotter was a perfectionist and had no problem telling someone when they were not living up to his standard. He inspected every single plate that left that kitchen; nothing was allowed to leave until he had seen and approved it.
I remember watching a woman prepare a salad with a thinly sliced seared tuna steak on it. When she put it in the window I thought to myself, “Man that looks really good.” Charlie Trotter took one look at it, looked up at this woman and said, “Why the fuck am I paying you? If you can’t do this I will get someone who can.” and shoved it back at her. This woman could look behind her at the two people working for free hoping to prove their skills so they could take her job.
At the time I thought, “Holy crap what a dick.” but I now realize that to have a four-star restaurant your standards must be insanely high. I had gotten there at 10 AM, but most people had started at 9 AM. When it got to be 2 AM the next morning and I decided to go home, they were still cooking.
That experience made me realize that that was not how I wanted to live my life; working every weekend and holidays, crazy long hours in a hot kitchen stressed out with a super intense boss. No, I wanted to go home after work and enjoy cooking without being sick to death of it after cooking all day under pressure. That is when I decided I would quit cooking and join the Army! That’s all for story time folks, so take care until next time.