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Common Foodsense: Restaurants Are Homes Away From Home

There are worse ways to spend your life than slaving over a hot stove. My first job out of high school was at East Coast Ice Cream, stacking boxes in a three-acre warehouse at 27 degrees below zero. It was my first encounter with snowmobile suits, frostbite and ice chunks in the eyebrows; and it was clear proof that the exaltation one achieves from manual labor can be overrated. The place did, I admit, have its share of characters: Abe was one, the crotchety West Virginian who cussed without ceasing from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week. He was an illiterate ex-coal miner—so the rumors said—but he could make a forklift dance, wheeling it through the ice like a Formula One driver in Greenland, steering with one hand while rolling a cigarette with the other. All us hippies were jealous, but if we begged him to show us how he did it, he’d just aim the cussing at us.

The "chef stare" was a popular way to intimidate the line cooks. Most likely, there weren’t many female chefs staring at our columnist in his early days, but we threw in a picture, just to remind cooks, women have the eye of the tiger in the kitchen as well.

If Abe had worked in foodservice, however, his eccentricities would have been unremarkable. Illiteracy used to be fairly common in the industry, and was, for cooks at least, not that much of a handicap. If you look back at kitchens just a half-century ago, before the wild proliferation of cookbooks, magazines, television and social media, you’ll see the latter days of a long oral tradition of the dissemination of knowledge. 

Memory was everything. I’ve known a couple of cooks who couldn’t read or write, and both of them put my memory to shame. If you asked them how to make a sauce, you got an instant recitation of ingredients, procedures, variations and precautions. And then if you asked if they had a recipe, you would receive a cold stare with the message: I just gave you one. And it was just for you, not for any old jackass’ use, like a piece of paper would be—and you didn’t listen.

When such a delivery of information came from the head of the kitchen, it used to be accompanied with what we knew as the “chef’s stare.” This made it clear that a conduit to arcane knowledge had been briefly opened, and you’d better absorb it while you had the chance. It was OK to write things down when you were released from the gaze and could scurry around the corner and find a pencil, but while you were held in it you were expected to maintain the posture of a rabbit in front of a snake. A grateful rabbit.

I should admit that I’m exaggerating; memory wasn’t everything. Respect for the profession was. Coming to work on time, keeping your mind on the job, steadily improving your skills, and keeping up the quality of the food even when you’re on the line with Cal who is drunk every damn night. Every. Damn. Night. Jerk. Beyond this, there were not too many requirements; certainly not for race, ethnicity, or religion. Gender, yes; the hospitality business is still creaking toward a time when its job descriptions don’t retain a flavor of one gender or the other—but it’s getting there.

This ecumenical y’all-come is, to my mind, the glory of the trade. We offer first jobs to the unskilled and the newly arrived, second chances to the unlucky and the unwise, and a steady career path to those who decide they’ve found a home in the industry. I had an Afghan brother-in-law who observed that when his countrymen came to America, their first thought was to open a restaurant, no matter what profession they had before—and despite foodservice being, in Afghanistan, a low-status job.

Well, it made sense to me. You get to work in your own spoken language, and more importantly, in your own cultural language. What’s more important than food? And not only do you get to serve it to your compatriots and make them feel at home for a little while, you also get to be an ambassador for your culture, offering an introduction to one of the dialects of the universal language of hospitality.

I can’t think of an industry that puts together a better collection of humanity, with all its warts and weirdness. And if we’re going to make a comprehensive analysis of the worth of any given profession, it meets the most important criteria: You and your comrades spend your evenings trying to make people happy, and then you get to bitch about it over beers. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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