Hank’s Drive-In

As a writer and a cook, I rarely need to look very far to find a story. I usually have more ideas than time or attention span and as an editor once told me, I need to “SLOW DOWN.” Sometimes stories are so compelling that you actually don’t know what to do with them or who to tell or how to write it.

When I was at Radford University, a favorite place for us to all go after having a bit too much fun the night before was to Hank’s, as we referred to it amongst ourselves. Set in a sea of fast food restaurants, this beach-like, shack looking place was home to the cook we all knew and loved. We would pile in around a vinyl covered table in his one room restaurant/eating area that could seat around ten or so at max capacity. Everyone else pulled up in their cars, placed their orders and waited, generally eating in the parking lot at a few tables scattered about or on the tailgates of construction trucks as the constant stream of customers at the McDonalds across the street drove away with their mystery meat sandwiches, blissfully unaware of the true treasure trove located about thirty feet in front of their steering wheel as they pulled away with secret sauce dripping down their faces.

Hank would work the line, cash register, take orders, say hello, tell stories about being in WWII, all without missing a beat. That was in 1999, as best I can remember. Burgers were three dollars and he would form the burger by hand while he was talking to you, never once burning, overcooking, lighting himself on fire or the million other things that I’ve done wrong in kitchens.

The place was really on my mind the other day. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, craving a cheeseburger and a sense of my past. I loaded up Laura and my 16-month old son and we went on a day trip in the direction of years gone by.

The place was where and how I remembered. There are more fast food joints than there used to be. Hank now has an assistant and moves a bit slower than I remember. He also had no recollection of a group of climbing junkies who used to pile into his place for a late breakfast of burgers, fries and shakes. Why should he? As I’ve learned, cooks tend to live squarely in the present. To dwell on the past can cause hesitation and self-doubt, both of which have no room in our lives but can take complete control if we let it.

Hank is also now quite deaf and we had to shout a bit to get our order in. He grinned at our little family, mumbled to himself and at the cranky old stove, and cranked out three of the most unapologetically American cheeseburgers I’ve had in my life. Perfectly seasoned, medium done, toasted bun, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles, tomato. Our crinkle fries were served the way they should be, in a little paper sleeve, just as I remembered. Some days I hope that will be me when I’m 86, doing what I love for people that care.

Image

ImageImageImageImageImage

A Baby’s Trip Over the Mountains and Down the Valley

My Mom and Dad are being a little boring again lately, so I’m trying to get everyone motivated to go do something! I watch the birds outside the window where the snow is falling fast. I’m so glad Dad built a fire last night even though he did cheat and use a chimney starter with charcoal to get the fire started, but he was tired and I didn’t tell Mommy. My thumb is good this morning and my blanket is warm so I start to plan our day.

As I’ve said before, Dad will do nearly anything for a really good cheeseburger, and I’m feeling like an adventure to boot. Daddy’s truck is fun to drive ’cause he can do things like put wood in it, haul dirt for me to eat and haul lots of rocks. Plus, he lets me drive when we go to the Palisades sometimes on Sundays to listen to music, but last time Mommy put her foot down. I don’t know what she put her foot down on, but boy she was mad! I felt bad for Daddy, he’s just trying to let me do big boy stuff, but like Mom says, the car seat is safer!

I listen to them talking about picking up bison from a supplier in Paint Bank, VA for the restaurant Daddy works for. I like the kitchen. It’s big, and shiny and there are lots of things to play with. So, with my usual persuasion, I talk them into visiting the Swinging Bridge Restaurant!

First I have to post this picture of me in a pot.

Image

This was a month ago and I’m a lot bigger now and I won’t fit in the pot but it would be nice! I do a bit of research so I can tell them where to go:

IMG_0269

Then I remember that Daddy is a legend in his own mind or something like that and knows every back road and four wheel drive trail in Southwester Virginia, so I don’t bother with telling him directions. He packs up the truck with my car seat, bag of goodies, some toys for me and tea for Mommy. I don’t like the tea very much, but I do like juice!!

The drive to Paint Bank is gorgeous. It’s snowing so hard that we can barely see out the windows and Mommy can’t take any pictures without ruining her camera. I forgot my point and shoot, but everything was so gorgeous! Just imagine it!

We get some grubbage at the Swinging Bridge Restaurant:

paint-bank_0003

paint-bank_0002

paint-bank_0001

I try to start a fire but I get distracted with the Lincoln Logs. The food was ok, but the décor was awesome! There were all sorts of stuff to look at and we buy lots of candy for Easter. Dad meets the supplier for bison and we’re on our way back across the mountain in the snow! Just when Mommy and I are thinking Daddy might really be lost, we see Mountain Lake Lodge through the snow!

IMG_0329[1]

Dad packs away all the bison and talks with his boss, CHEF and we head for home. Full of hot chocolate and tired from all the instructions I had to give Daddy for driving in the snow, I go to sleep. I wonder what we’ll do tomorrow???

Some Words of Advice for Home Cooks

Ok, I’ve been steadily bashing and making fun of a certain stereotype of home and celebrity chefs, partly out of jealousy and partly because of a general lack of respect. Honestly, mostly due to jealousy. I wish I could get paid to write and cook in my $50,000 home kitchen, but I don’t. That’s ok! There is a place for me in the culinary world, it just so happens to be in an actual working kitchen, which I admit was and sometimes still is a scary place.

If you are like me and I suspect, or hope, that there are a lot of you out there, then you just want a chance to work in a professional kitchen. You are willing to work hard, listen to what you are told and be on time every single day. You have no success at finding an opportunity to do so, namely for the following reasons: You make too much money at your “real” job. It is hard to walk away from security, especially in these financially insecure times. You will most likely lose your first job for an opportunity that honestly, doesn’t pay very much, offer any benefits or guarantee anything beyond the recipe you happen to be working on. You’re also afraid of the age distribution in restaurants, namely, that most of the other employees will be younger, faster, in better shape and have more to gain than you do. You, the home cook with a real job, have much more to lose than you have to gain.

With that said, here is some advice. I skipped the whole bit about your wife or husband or significant other going ballistic and seriously contemplating sending you to a shrink. You’ll probably have to use connections to get a job. Honestly, no one is probably going to hire you off the shelf to be a prep cook (that’s where you will start, and likely remain). Is it illegal to make judgment calls based on age and fitness? You bet. Is it reality? You bet. Let’s face it, forty is pushing it to learn a new career, especially one so physically demanding.

Don’t think your connections include the owner/personal friend who owns a restaurant. Don’t put them in the awkward position of having to ask you to leave later. Trust me, this individual would rather you be a friend and loyal customer than employee. Talk about cooking, talk about restaurants, talk about travel – don’t talk to them about a job. As one chef friend told me, “My friends are more valuable than employees.”

Never pretend you know more than you do. It will become painfully honest when you are asked, for example, by a harried sous chef who is young enough to be your offspring to prepare a white sauce five minutes into your first shift. If you can’t bone a chicken, clean a fish or julienne a carrot, then say so. Someone will show you. Reluctantly at first, but they will show you.

Do no bring your own fancy chef’s knife unless it is truly beat up and used. Most cooks use their own knives, and most of them can’t afford anything more than a banged up Wusthof, which they use their entire career. I work with people whose knives are worn down so much from use and sharpening that they barely resemble the original blade.

Ask the chef how you should dress and be clear of your title. Be aware of the limitations of your title. A kitchen is much like the military with a clear chain of command. Don’t overstep your bounds and strive to learn as much as you can.

Provided you get the job, of course. Making it through the interview will be an odd experience, mostly devoid of the normal chit chat. The chef probably decided if he or she was going to hire you when they walked through the door. All you can do is mess up. Pretending that you cooked in Italy (but you just don’t remember the name of the restaurant) when you really just travelled through will not go over well. Again, be honest with what you can and cannot do. Don’t give the impression that you can do nothing, but that is better than claiming you were the Assistant to an Award-Winning Michelin Star Adorned Chef, whose name you have once again forgotten. Give your chef every chance to help you succeed, which all chefs want to do. Lying is counterproductive.

If you get the job, don’t dress like a chef. If you are not provided a uniform or instructed on what to wear, ask the chef. Default clothing for newbies are tough but comfortable black pants and a dark shirt you aren’t afraid to ruin and above all, comfortable, breathable shoes. You’re going to get foot rot anyway, just prolong it as long as you can.

Don’t appear too afraid of the ovens. It’s natural to flinch away from something that is around 500 degrees and is being opened about a thousand times a night. I know I heard the timer buzzing in my sleep. You will get burned a few times. It’s ok. Make sure you use dry rags every single time you head for the oven or you’ll end up blistered and in agony three steps from your destination, forcing you to drop the pan with the day’s featured item right in front of an already exasperated sous chef.

Regardless of who hired you, the sous chef is your boss. Hell, everyone is your boss. The dishwashers will make fun of you. The wait staff will yell at you. If you’re not careful the person in charge of cleaning will have you mopping the floors mid-shift. You’re going to have to sort through who does what, when and for whom quickly.

Kitchens are like battlefields. Every square inch of real estate is claimed by someone, even the tiny workspace that you will be assigned to. Cooks are by nature aggressive, abrasive, combative, jealous, secretive and suffer madly from kleptomania. Leave your knife at your station – it will vanish. Go yelling around the kitchen for it – you’ll never find it again. Ignore that it’s gone, pick up one of the hundreds of white-handled serrated knives, never say a word and it will be back where you left it later.

Work hard, keep your head down, and above all else, don’t lose your cool. Those guys and girls jockeying you around? They were treated the same way, only worse. Much like the coal mining days of not that long ago, hazing is expected and tolerated. No matter where you’ve came from or how many board of director meetings you have chaired, your coworkers will only respect what you’ve done today. Tomorrow you will start all over again.

Is it worth it? For me, it was and still is. I was treated very well, as that is the nature of our kitchen, but don’t expect that everywhere.

So, if you want to be a cook (I can’t help you with the chef part), then lace up your black shoes, sharpen your knife and prepare for war. That’s what you are in for.

So, You Think You Should Be A Chef?

 

Chances are, if you are a reasonably good home cook, in that you own or aspire to own the finest of professional kitchen appliances, any pot or pan that is French, cast iron that is new and a chef’s knife that cost more than $150, you’ve had these words said to you after a successful dinner party: “You should be a Chef!” Your well-intentioned and undoubtedly tipsy dinner guest, after plying him/herself with your food, your liquor and the products of your work, and no doubt feels grateful for what you have done, jealous that their significant other is now attracted to you and irritated that your plates perfectly complimented the presentation of the meal and wine, down to the cocktail glasses.

You had all day, all week even, to prepare this feast and you are feeling pretty good about yourself. As you mingle with your guests, in your Williams and Sonoma apron with your initials monogrammed on the front, a white clean towel from Crate and Barrel carelessly thrown over your shoulder you start to think some very dangerous thoughts. After all, doesn’t everyone love the roast organic whole chicken from Whole Foods that you carefully brined overnight and roasted in one of your dual Viking Ovens while reading “Cooking with Bobby Flay” with a perfect glass of Portuguese Tempranillo which has been decanted in a crystal vessel imported from France. You continue to muse over the possibilities while shining the stainless steel, marble and granite that adorns your kitchen. Normally the Hispanic help does this, but you feel like working tonight and he’s been a little absent lately. He was probably deported.

Then you come up with the following: “I SHOULD be a chef!”

Everyone says so, even your Mom. You look good on camera, can carry on a conversation of the pros of imported versus domesticated truffles with the smugness of one who lives for the next new Food Network show and religiously studies the “Washington Post” food section.

You’ve seen the idiots on T.V., who you vaingloriously emulate while shopping in the natural foods store. How hard could it be? You’re well-travelled, been to Spain, Italy and France and take great pride in knowing who the chef is in all the high-end restaurants that you’ve dined in. Only one other person that you know of has been to more of Guy Fieri’s DDD recommendations. You continue to muse away in your kitchen, running your fingers over the $400 cutting board, picked up in Vietnam (nobody goes to Hawaii anymore, you pronounced just hours ago) and had shipped back to your house.

It’s time for a mid-life change anyway, right? You eagerly open up your IPAD and do a quick search for “Executive Chef.” Hmmmmm. “Minimum fifteen years or kitchen experience, culinary degree preferred, experience running your own gourmet farm to table menu, the ability to motivate others with your own culinary creations and full fiscal responsibility for a medium sized restaurant in need of creative menu adaptations.”

You read it again. It’s a restaurant that you’re familiar with and, wonder of wonders, didn’t you meet the owner’s wife or mistress or something at a food bloggers “Food and Wine of the World” with all proceeds going to save the Ethiopian Puppies? Or maybe it was Himalayan Tiger Awareness. At any rate, you drift off to sleep with visions of perfectly plated roast duck and pork skin croutons dancing in your head.

You make some phone calls the next morning and after pulling some strings and political favors and promising that you would indeed make your famous bacon-banana-chocolate cupcakes with raspberry icing, you get through to the restaurant owner.

“Hello.” The voice on the phone sounds distracted, irritated. You introduce yourself hurriedly, somehow suddenly afraid. “Chef position? Yes, we have a chef position we are seeking to fill. What is your experience? Who are your references?” You explain that you have travelled extensively, attended multiple cooking events and host a wildly successful series of pro-bono dinners for charity. The voice on the phone sounds bored. “You’ve done what?” You decide a few name drops are in order. Now the voice seems irritable. “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for someone with experience. Have you EVER worked a line?” That seems like a reasonable request. The line, you distinctly remember, is something that Anthony Bourdain, that smartass, used to work.

“Yes.” You answer confidently. “Ten years sauté, five in menu design, tasting and expediting.” Even as the lie rolls of your tongue your thinking of Miguel, your lawn guy who has been deported. Didn’t he work in a kitchen now? How hard could it be?

The next thing you know you’re headed down to a local restaurant for an interview and a food demonstration. You load your Mercedes SUV with your best knife, designer towels and at last though, throw in a jar of truffles and some fresh rosemary picked from the bush outside your study.

You arrive at the destination, which is a little run-down, in your suddenly expert opinion, and find the kitchen in an uproar. It’s nothing like you imagined. Flames seem to be everywhere, with wait staff impatiently yelling at the cooks in a language you can’t even comprehend. It seems to be a mix of Spanish, English and restaurant jargon peppered with obscenities. You rather timidly wave to Manuel, who is manning what appears to have once been a grill, now transformed into a carbon-covered, greasy, smoking, filthy creature that you wouldn’t allow on your street. A runner passes you with a cigarette still clenched in her teeth and swears at you to move, PLEASE!

You can’t find the owner, or anyone else that seems to be in charge, except for the young, white, sweaty guy yelling orders across a stack of plates while clutching a fistful of white tickets. As you approach he screams something intelligible at a heavily tattooed Hispanic girl sporting giant biceps who appears to be chopping a whole animal.

Nervous now, you stand awkwardly a few feet away from the sweaty white guy, feeling a little ridiculous in your tie and favorite apron and carrying your Masakage Hikari Chef knife, purchased on your last trip to Tokyo.

“Whatdoyouwant?” You realize the sweaty white guy is talking to you while you were staring at the new and old burns, scars and tattoos that adorn his forearms. “I’m looking for the owner,” you say quickly, your voice breaking a bit. The cook replies that the owner isn’t there and grabs a stack of plates from a cart. Eager to help, or at least not flee, you follow suit and grab a similar stack of plates. You scream in pain and instantly drop the plates, which shatter in a deafening thunder on the grimy tile floor. Everyone cheers while you stare at your burned hand in disbelief. How the hell did he pick those up like that?

The cook shakes his head and keeps going, barking orders as he goes. He puts down the stack of plates, pulls a dirty jacket off a rack on the wall and motions for you to follow. By the time you get to the door, he has lit a cigarette and is rattling off what appears to be orders on his phone. He plants his bony ass on an upended bucket outside the kitchen door and takes a long, grateful drag on his cigarette. Squinting through the smoke, you feel that he is sizing you up or something. “So, you want to be the chef?”

You have never been so grateful to be back in the safety of your car. This story, with a few tweaks, of course, will be great at the next charity dinner. You’ll have to make sure and tell all of the owner’s friends that he sold the restaurant to some Hispanic guy.

Back on the line, Manuel picks up the Masakagi knife, looks it over curiously and turns to the other cooks. “Cuya consolador es esto?” While the other cooks, including the heavily muscled girl with the leg of lamb, which is now separated into recognizable cuts, howl with laughter, he contemptibly tosses the knife in the sink. He picks up his white handled serrated knife and proceeds breaking down a pork roast for house made enchiladas while mentally estimating the cost per serving. It’s tough being the owner.

 

Celebrity Chef???

As I slog my way up the mountain towards the restaurant where I work, I realize in the blinding snow that I have zigged when I should have zagged and am no longer on the right road. I peer out the window for a moment, a little exasperated, wondering how in the world that the road was suddenly flat. It’s nearly a 2500 foot climb up the mountain to the restaurant, a veritable yawn in the minds of most mountaineers and climbers, but it’s no fun when you can’t see. I go a few more feet, then stop. I started to instinctively pull over, but I realized the futility of that particular endeavor. Pull over where? I realize what I’ve done pretty quickly, in a hard turn I had just simply kept going straight into a neighbors drive.

I retraced my steps and got back into the truck, finding my way along by the interior lights. I’d left my lights on inside the cab and slammed the door behind me, shutting out the howl of the wind. I wonder, and not for the first time, “What on earth am I doing here? At 5:00 a.m., wheeling through the snow on the eve of April Fool’s Day to a dark kitchen newly remodeled and a yet-to-be-determined number of hungry guests who most likely will all be demanding the Southern Special, which is waffles with buttermilk and soy marinated chicken which is dipped in pancake batter, rolled in panko and then quickly deep fried. No wonder they like it so much. I do too, one of the perks of the trade, but one that you can rarely indulge in. Despite what they tell you, no one likes a fat cook.

Unless it was the early years of the Food Network, of course, when Chefs like Emeril and Mario were just starting their television careers. They captivated audiences by their antics on stage on the screen. Nothing seemed to be scripted or even planned. I believe that I remember reading somewhere that Mario once set himself on fire on a set and they just rolled the camera. He finished what he was doing and then put himself out with all of the alarm of a man feeding his cat. Then along came Giada, sporting major cleavage and a Joker smile that wrapped around her head like a guilty pez dispenser. Then Food Network gave us Anthony Bourdain, who was adored by every starving cook on the planet and greatly confused nearly everyone else outside of the cooking world. But, he did something that Emeril and Mario did not – he made cooking cool. His unsympathetic, unglamorous attitude in the kitchen and constant sarcasm to nearly all things commercial while railing against established authority made all of us nearly green with envy.

Even now, as I slog my way up the mountain in the snow, I think of what Bourdain did and did not accomplish in those early days. He did take the FN in a new direction. He did attract thousands, perhaps millions of people to the channel with his brutal honesty and rock star mentality. He did cause chaos in the binding world as they struggled to keep up as millions of people flocked to buy his books.

What he didn’t do was bond well with the new powers that be at FN. They recognized, and smartly so, that his on and off-screen antics and tendency to tell things exactly the way he felt they were had no place in niche market that could be pushed mainstream with the right marketing strategy.

So, it began. The glamorization of a life spent in a kitchen, which seemed to consist more of driving around in classic muscle cars with spikey hair goofing on people’s restaurants than cooking. Giada was showing more cleavage than ever, not that anyone minded, and Paula Deen took the center stage, along with the Martha Stewart looking and acting Sandra Lee, whom I’ve always confused with a truly terrible frozen cake. Beauty started taking center stage and real cooks started realizing, “Hey, these guys aren’t COOKING anymore!” It’s still about food, I guess, but something went missing.
Then came the rise and continued arc of this new thing, a new actor on the stage set by money and market capitalization. The “CELEBRITY CHEF!” The first of such creatures were almost embarrassed to be on film, embarrassed to have everyone screaming their name after live cooking demonstrations that rivaled rock concerts. They had after all, clawed their way up through the ranks within kitchens, most with dubious if not outright sketchy backgrounds and were most definitely not schooled on how to behave on or off the camera.

That wasn’t enough for the FN either. Mainstream still wasn’t there. The show was attracting more and more cooks who could identify with the people they saw on screen, but it was rapidly becoming a cult phenomenon, which the executives could not bear. Not with the millions of people out there just waiting to scarf up high-dollar cooking appliances and decorate their million dollar condos with 50,000 dollars in high end kitchen equipment that they would neither use nor aspire to use. THAT was who the FN was after.

So, they created a superstar. Their very own Chefs. Chefs, it seems, now grow on chef trees out in California somewhere, or maybe in the basement of the FN executives’ house, watered with champagne and ruby lips, cultivated with perfect hair and smiles and dressed in tailored Chefs Whites. Along the way, the very definition of the title “Chef” was corrupted. It came to represent anyone who wanted to call themselves such, no matter what their background was or how fuzzy their resume, printed, of course, on linen paper.

A Chef, by definition, is: “A skilled cook who manages a full kitchen.” Earliest recorded use of the term is in 1840, by of course, the French. They generally aren’t all that good-looking, usually complete with nervous tics, superstitions, older, wrinkled and wise beyond what you think.

A Celebrity Chef, however, is someone, anyone, who can look good on camera while talking smoothly. It doesn’t matter if they can actually cook or not, these new so-called Celebrity Chefs.

As I enter my kitchen that morning, I am thankful to be reporting in to an actual Chef, one who runs the kitchen, one who can chop, julienne, flavor, taste, fire, hire and make the majority of the decisions for me. I don’t have to worry about my lack of a six-pack or my hair. I don’t have to wear designer clothes or have limos pick me up in Eggleston, VA to shuttle me to my magazine shoot while my flunkies, or even better yet, someone else’s flunkies do my work for me. No, I’m happy to do my job, identify with the items that I prepare, and be grateful for the opportunity to get to cook for money. Not a lot of money either. I do it for the challenge, for the food, for the experience and for myself.

If I never have to do a photoshoot for a non-stick, self-sharpening, never-needs-cleaning CHEFS KNIFE that doubles as an IPOD, I’ll be even happier. But thanks, to everyone who has called me Chef Ron. I’ll take the compliment and remember that a cook is only as good as his Chef.