There is a moment in every cook, chef or restaurant workers day when they feel like they should just quit. For the front house employees, it can be after Another Complaint rolls in from a table of eight who have just decided to split the tab into an aggravated octagon. Each one wants to pay only for what they have eaten, and arguments ensue over who ate most of Grandmom’s food, rustled drinks from the bar while they thought no one was looking and the dreaded tip calculation. Water service somehow becomes a big deal to these holiday scrooges, as does the timely delivery of bread to the table.
Exasperated to no end with her shift and very life at that moment, a server has two options: Roll with it or make a scene. Either scenario can play out in an instant, which is why God made front house managers. These are people who can swoop in like Batman, render justice as necessary, and most importantly, make sure that no one is permanently injured. The server is usually left to sulk, the guests are given gift certificates and rounds of promises that the next time they come in things will be better and a big sigh of relief goes up from the kitchen as they depart, huffily and deeply admired with themselves by the acquisition of free cake. They don’t know it was left over from three days ago, picked over by busboys, dishwashers, starving servers and the delivery guys, and, honestly, it wouldn’t really matter to them anyway. Their private war with the underlings has been won, and they can retire to the nearest McDonalds to glory in one-dollar cheeseburgers, which they all really wanted anyway.
Cooks can have their own meltdowns, which are generally confined back of the line, where the fallout is initially limited. Bodily harm is threatened, pots are hurled and insults are vehemently delivered in several languages, usually directed at the perpetrators lack of penis girth or lack of the described organ all together. It blows over quickly, but like a nuclear weapon, long fragmented in the explosion, continues to leak radiation over the entire restaurant. Potatoes disappear, cooks begin to insist they take regular breaks and everyone is suddenly aware of every employee protection law in existence. Tears are shed, cigarettes and weed are vigorously abused and house alcohol and wine vanishes at an alarming rate.
I stepped into one of these situations one night as a new cook. The situation was further complicated by sexual and emotional relationships and the unexplained truancy of the house side dish of grits and gravy. By this time, Chef was three sheets to the wind and the G&G was gone. Vanished. Faded into mist. Caput.
Chef demanded a new side dish. Pronto. The other cooks made their way into the land occupied by the immensely popular misplaced house G&G. Unaware of the calamity, I was perfectly happy mincing and dicing and julienning vegetables while secretly scribbling in my notebook. Somehow, it became my responsibility.
All we had in the walk in in mass quantities were Brussel Sprouts. A fifty pound bag of them. During the week following the insanity of Thanksgiving, someone, who was also occupying the great beyond with the missing chefs and corn grits, had ordered fifty pounds of Brussel sprouts.
Nobody likes these little green monsters. Not even me. Vegetarians don’t even care for them. Vegans avoid them. People with gluten allergies shun them as if they were a by-product of a bagel factory. Children are bewildered when parents try to make them eat them, as all children have been since the beginning of time. This was probably why we had fifty pounds of them. A highly perishable, dubious vegetable of unknown origins. In a burlap sack.
That night, I proved my worth. Our new side dish, appropriately labeled B.S., flew off plates and earned itself a solid place as a keeper on our seasonal menu. Here is what some desperation, a few ingredients and a house full of angry guests cogitated.
House Brussel Sprouts (B.S.)
• Five pounds of Brussel sprouts, halved;
• Two whole heads of garlic, peeled, smashed and finely chopped;
• One pound of bacon, diced (see below for tips on dicing bacon);
• Three medium shallots, finely diced;
• Four red onions, finely diced;
• One tbs. of garlic powder;
• One tbs. of celery salt;
• One half cup of crushed red pepper; and
• One glass of good red wine, for yourself and one glass for deglazing. (Meiomi, California, 2013)
• Sautee the onions in butter and olive oil until translucent, ten minutes or so.
• Add the shallots and garlic and continue cooking until lightly browned.
• Add the bacon and brown, stirring constantly until the bacon is cooked through and crispy.
• Deglaze with the wine.
• In the meantime, bring two quarts of water to a boil. Have a sieve and a bowl of ice water ready.
• Dump the spouts into the water, salt liberally. Boil for five minutes. If the leaves begin to separate, remove immediately.
• Drain through the sieve and place immediately in the ice water. After thirty seconds or so, remove the sprouts from the ice bath and strain once more.
• Add the sprouts to the pan and cook quickly, stirring gently, for about five minutes. Toss with the garlic powder, celery salt and crushed red pepper. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Pairs well with venison, flank steak or goose.
• Watch your kids eat the B.S.
The truth of the matter is this: When the chaos clears, the kitchen is clean, the wait staff have divided their tips, the cooks have sharpened their knives and hidden their most treasured ingredients from one another; everyone descends on a local bar and eatery, celebrates another shift won and battles conquered, there is nowhere else any of them would rather be.
I miss all of this. The hurled dishes, the heat, burns, cuts and calloused hands. These are small things in the face of a shared comradery. Like fellow blue collar workers all over our country, we appreciate the small things.
Tip: Partially freeze the bacon before dicing and make sure your knife is SHARP! Otherwise bacon is extremely annoying to dice evenly. Enjoy!