Thursday, June 2, 2016

Line Cookin' Dogs

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
Line Cookin’ Dogs
Standing the Heat
            We had fast hands, wet brains and wicked senses of humor; nothing was sacred except for the plate we were working on. We called ourselves ‘line cookin’ dogs’, uniquely ourselves and overly underqualified for any semblance of a normal job or lifestyle. Somewhere, at a point between insanity and uncertainty, we’d gravitated to the only places that would employ us: food service establishments. We had started at the bottom, busting suds, chopping prep and finally being trusted enough by Chef to hold down stations of chaos, heat and rhythmic madness of our own. We preferred working night shifts; we liked staying up late and sleeping through mornings. We came in, dodging sunlight, on the run with hangovers and wisecracks, ready to confront an unsuspecting world, we took and gave out abuse our entire shifts, then went out to claim our lustful places on our favorite barstools.      
This was before busy food; before ‘culinary politicians’ cooked on food networks and ‘celebrity chefs’ (that wouldn’t last a week in our clogs) created meals without breaking a sweat. Barring jail time, rehab or coming to our senses, it was expected that one day we would be in charge of our own kitchens. We looked up to our chefs or despised them, but never disrespected them (not to their faces); our chefs were in charge because they had stared death in the face, fought their demons, and emerged vertically.  Chefs held power over us; more master than manager.
            Wait staff was usually divided between lifers and those just passing through on their way to becoming actors, writers, musicians and/or people who looked forward to a more responsible lifestyle, getting married,  having kids. Their feet were held to the fire each lunch and dinner shift around crunch time--the infamous hour (or hours) of ‘the rush’. The rush was not a time for the faint of heart, slow of wit or weak of bladder, either in the kitchen or on ‘the floor’. The fragile were culled by their inability to handle busy times without becoming ‘weeded’ or ‘in the weeds’--the term used when someone is in over their head and hopelessly lost in their timing, organization and minds; have this situation occur a few times and the person is literally ready to throw in the towel. Rarely did us ‘dogs’ show mercy to the weak, it just wasn’t done. To be frank, kitchen work is hot, sweaty, low paying, thankless work. It’s work times ten and if you can’t cut the mustard, you’re left in the dust and kicked curbwise.
            Miraculously, along the way, a few of us caught the fever and food became our lives; we became defined by our work and that’s when the fires really started getting hotter. We trained with enthusiasm; we took and quit jobs that led nowhere, padded our resumes, found mentors, went to school, read books and emerged with attitude, passion and a thirst for power. We became gang leaders, plain and simple. Keith Richards would have made a great chef.
            Being in charge is a circle of hell all its own. As the person in charge of employees that call you Chef, you have to get the most out of every warm body while fending off the bean counters who judge the bottom line and not the béarnaise, paraphrasing Moses and the commandments:-- ‘thou shall make as much profit as humanly possible this month and then next month make more’-- all the while, you have minions who, albeit a tad shy on experience, have bills to pay and habits to support (laundry, rent). When it’s slow, you’re expected to cut someone’s hours; when it gets busy, you’re expected to work the line, shoulder to shoulder with someone who expects you to be able to do their job better than they can, and you do; and that’s the positive side.
I learned to cook a chicken two hundred different ways, filleted schools of fish, peeled fields of onions, shelled a ton of shrimp and opened a bed of oysters in my time. I have come to believe that there is no component of a meal that can possibly be made better by using a mix, except maybe Bisquick biscuits. I’ve kept and mastered cooking jobs in twenty nationalities and I haven’t scratched the surface of culinary knowledge. I’ve substituted ingredients from skate wings for scallops to pork tenderloin for veal cutlet. It’s hard to be humble once you’ve mastered lemon meringue pie, ciabatta and perfect sunny side up eggs.
            My mentor had a keg of beer in the walk-in refrigerator (PBR) just for the cooks, he made us listen to the Rolling Stones and Beethoven, he worked us twelve hours a day, six/seven days a week and we loved it. He would greet us each morning by promising: “today is the first day of the rest of your miserable f**king lives” and then fulfill that promise. We would do anything to out-cook him, and never could. He is a culinary monster, wherever he is. He taught me that before I could be a success as a leader, I would have to master the art of being a follower.
            Katrina put a hold on my kitchen career when my job as the Culinary Director of a small cooking school here did not resurface. I figured that maybe, after fifty years of blood, sweat and beers, it was time for me to concentrate on the cookbook shop that I co-own and work to make a success of. Still I cook every day—at home. I go into my kitchen, wash up, put on my apron and hone up my knife; I pick up an onion and go into my zone. Line cookin’ dog.
            Comment: “Chef, great stuff, but you made it way too romantic!! It needs the bleeding and oozing finger cuts tied off with butcher twine; the sear and hiss of your flesh as it gets pushed up against gray hot cast iron. It needs more breakdowns and flare-ups, burnouts and speed freaks. But other than that, I loved it” David Mahler, Chef of the Jungle

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