• de Martinez

Taking Stock | (chapter four)

Stock-making is still one of my favorite kitchen activities. It takes patience, and allows time for reflection. Without the break-up I might never have chosen to aspire to the higher culinary arts, might never have met Frank (a server at the restaurant), and I might never have been introduced by Frank to Stan Sokolowski IV, who would become my best friend, mentor, and hunting buddy over the course of the next five years. But of course we did break up, and I did meet those people. Frank and Stan used to be roommates, before I met either of them. Although never specifically confirmed, I very highly suspect that Big Man, the shift leader at Burger King who told me about his chef friend who made bank, was actually talking about Stan and, if not a fellow roommate, at least he knew both of them from around the same time.

I never knew Frank before he did his tour but I know that war changed him. Perhaps to state as much is to state the obvious, but for me it was the first time I really saw something like that, up close and in person. Something in his eyes.

Even after I knew Frank, I never really knew him all that well. He was sleeping with the hottest and kinkiest server on the roster, and he was rumored to have a huge dick. Other than that he was pretty straight-forward, head down and hands moving. Never a troublesome server, good with communication because it seemed like he understood, somehow. And he seemed out of place. Because of those eyes perhaps, but the servers' apron and the notion of him catering to every customer's whim and fancy didn't come across as particularly natural: He was gentle, but he was hard and he was gaping.

Stan was just a few years older than me, and had recently been given title and responsibility of Food and Beverage Director at a combined assisted and independent living facility just north of Tucson. He'd been working the place for a while, by the time we met. Ernie, the previous Director, had apparently been lazy and a drunk, such that even before he lost his job, Stan (ostensibly Ernie's Sous Chef) was already the staff's main go-to; Stan was boss-man in all but actual title. Nevertheless Ernie had recently lost his job, for any number of reasons but most basically due to incompetence, and Stan stepped in to fill the void. Unfortunately Stan did not have another Stan for support and the kitchen was short-staffed even before Ernie's departure. According to Frank, Stan was working anywhere from eighty to one hundred hours a week, seven days a week, and he could use some help.

The day I was supposed to meet him for my interview, I got turned around and had to call Stan for directions. To be fair there are two retirement communities right next to each other at that particular intersection, and their parking lots and boundaries aren't very clearly defined. I knew I was looking for a back dock, of sorts—dumpsters, anyway—but in the end I parked next to the dumpsters at the facility next door and had to walk over to the one where I was supposed to meet Stan. He stayed on the phone with me the whole time, five or ten minutes of Go here, Go there, I see you, Ohp where'd you go, Okay I'm gonna go wait for you out front and you'll see I'm wearing a white chef coat, Oh there you are, do you see me? No, wait, you're going the wrong direction—

A great first impression on my part, but then again I've always been pretty bad when it comes to directions. If I'd been wiser, perhaps I'd not have cut it so close on the timing in the first place. The interview went just about as well. I'd taken the time to wear the only button-up shirt I owned but I hadn't taken the time to iron it; long brown hair in a ponytail at the base of my neck, my usual ball cap sitting in my lap. And there he was, one of the biggest Asian guys you'll ever meet (half Polish, half Korean, over six feet tall, rotund), wearing a sparkling-white chef's coat. We sat in the facility's conference room, fairly plush chairs and a long wooden table; fake plants and shades drawn, just the two of us. As I would later come to find, Stan had a way of coming across strong, only to reveal a teddy bear nature once you got to know him. I was nervous enough to shit a brick, sitting in that conference room, and I understood clearly that this was not a small guy, not a guy you'd want to mess with. But I don't know that I found him intimidating per se. Maybe a bit of false confidence due to the fact of having been recommended for the job, especially considering that after a few pleasantries Stan got right down to the point: What did I know about scratch cooking? Next to nothing. Could I pass a drug test? Probably not. Was I willing to learn? Yes indeed.

Years later, Stan told me the only reason he hired me, was because of Frank's recommendation. “I've known Frank a long time,” he said, “and he told me about you. He's never done that for anyone. If not for that, I'd never've hired you.”

I was flabbergasted: “Really?” I thought back to my time at Cracker Barrel, how eager-beaver I'd been. It rubbed some folks the wrong way at the time, but apparently it made enough of an impression to garner the one and only recommendation Frank had ever given, up to that point in his life.

“Well yeah! You had no knowledge of food, you couldn't pass the drug test, and you have long hair. Just for your hair alone, I wouldn't've hired you.”

Stan blew my mind that day. I didn't know if I thought he was shallow, judgmental, playing it safe, joking around, funny, or what: By then we'd got so close I think I simply couldn't imagine life without him in it, and yet there he was, telling me that because of my long hair he never would have hired me in the first place. Maybe it was even simpler than that: Realization of the impact that a singular decision might have on a whole timeline of events.

I was hardly more than a grunt, at first. I knew nothing, so I had to be shown everything. Slice a tomato with a knife? Hell, at the burger joint we had a slicer, six or seven blades and a handle situated on a pair of bearings, set the tomato in there and push forward and voila, eight equal-sized tomato slices. Learn the different ways to cut an onion—again, with a knife? Cut a whole case of zucchini into equal, three-quarters'-inch pieces? Refill the soup well steam well Cleveland steamer with water so they don't burn out and smell like shit? And cut a case of potatoes for roasting, a case of onions for French Onion Soup for the next day, plate sixty-five desserts and prepare a hundred-twenty salads of the day just prior to service?

My first day working with Stan, I was schedulled for the morning shift because I was also schedulled for the night shift at Cracker Barrel. But things came up, production fell behind, and by the time it was nearing time for me to go, Stan was all by himself, scrambling to get everything prepped and ready for the dinner service because his so-called Sous Chef had dropped the ball and left him with nothing (he'd had to leave early that day, to boot).

I looked at the clock on the all, standing in the prep kitchen on one side of a stainless steel prep table set in the center of the area. Stan stood on the other side, halfway up to his elbows in meat and rice filling. “Do you want help with these?” I asked. On the menu, choice of cabbage rolls or liver 'n' onions with bacon. Stan had already had me flour and briefly sear the slices of liver, had me par-cook the bacon and lightly caramelize the onions, then cut the eight- to ten-inch slices of liver in half width-wise and build five pans of twelve servings each: Liver, clump of caramelized onion, a single piece of bacon halved and situated like an X over all. A little water in the pan, to keep the livers from drying out, and they would be steamed very briefly to get them up to temperature just before serving.

“Don't you have to go work your other job?” The liver and onions was supposed to be my last project before leaving for the day. I don't think it took me too long, considering it was my first time; but that, to be sure, was the "easy dish": The big project was the cabbage rolls. Stan was just finishing the filling, had the cabbage leaves all ready for stuffing, but he had so many to do and so little time in which to do it and of the day's two main entrees the cabbage rolls fascinated me the most, because they had sauerkraut and I've always been a fan of that stuff. Plus, I "knew" cabbage rolls, because my mother and I had partaken of Stouffer's version thereof, back when we lived together and I was still in high school; I didn't recall there being sauerkraut, and even though it was only my first day I was fairly certain these ones, made from scratch, would be a hundred times better.

I shrugged, watching as Stan washed his hands and then resumed his position before the cabbage leaves, the bowl of filling, and the hotel pans in which the rolls were to be arranged for cooking: “Well, yeah, but if you need help, I'd much rather stay working here than have to go over there.”

Stan shrugged. “All right. Well, it's up to you, you can either go or you can stay, either way.”

I chose to stay.

Put the liver 'n' onions under refrigeration, then learned the grand art of cabbage rolls: A not-too-large quantity of filling, fold the bottom there-over, tuck in the sides as when making a burrito, roll to create something that looked like a fat sausage in cabbage casing. Place in pan, fill pan with twenty-fie rolls each, top with tomato sauce and then sauerkraut; cover with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil, bake until done. To this day, the iron smell of liver, and the mere thought of cabbage rolls, take me back to that first time working with Stan.

Eventually I had to pick up my final check at Cracker Barrel and explain my sudden disappearance to the same General Manager who'd said he be able to get my foot in the door as I made my way down the path of chefdom. He was disappointed in me; which, as with parents, made me feel worse than if he'd been merely angry. I'd given a lot to their cause, made an impression, proven myself reliable. And I'd been there for nearly a year by the time I left: Enough time to become an intrinsic part of the team, important enough that when I left, many people felt my absence.

When I'd gone to the bakery to retrieve my final check, I'd haughtily informed the staff still behind the counter that, “I'm a chef, now, at Cracker Barrel.” When Thalia came out with my check in hand, I told her the same thing. I did not understand Thalia's expression at the time, but I've come to understand it as time has gone by: I approximate the same when the term chef is thrown around so blithely during an interview or period of new employee training, as in, “I'm a chef at Applebee's,” or, “Yeah, I was a pizza chef,” or, “I used to be a barbecue chef.” There are no chefs at Cracker Barrel, and Thalia knew that; just as there are none at Applebee's and if there's anything even close to a pizza chef it's a pizzaiolo, which is a whole 'nother ball game.

This time, when I went in to deliver my resignation, I really was going to be a chef. Stan's right-hand man wasn't an Assistant Manager, Shift Leader, or Kitchen Manager, he had a Sous Chefs working below him, and then the line cooks and dishwashers. Servers were in their own realm but technically he was their boss, too. While bent over the Barrel I might have been uncertain whether I was taking the right steps toward my goal, but now that my boss wore a full-on chef coat and knew how to make cabbage rolls and soups from scratch;—now I knew I was certainly headed in the right direction.

I began to really direct all my energy toward learning as much about food as I could. When not at work making it, I was at home, reading or watching television shows about it. My dad had always been into Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse when Food Network first got started, and I remember watching Julia Child and Yan Can Cook on PBS well before that. I even remember watching Iron Chef when it still took place in Japan and Bobby Flay stood on the cutting board following his victory against Morimoto. It was easy to fall into the 24/7 programming that was my Food Network (before Guy Fieri, that is), and if I wasn't at home reading a book or watching a show about it, I was shopping, planning, prepping, and serving from five or six in the morning until eleven or twelve at night. Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube were a few of my best friends as I tried to catch up my food knowledge just to be something close to on par with the likes of Stan.

I was eager and I was fairly obsessed: This was my new bigger picture, my new publishing company. Except this time it was okay because the benefits of my obsession outweighed the cons: I was learning to feed people, and it was making me money.

All in all, my least favorite part of the job was working the line. Always has been. Stan tried telling me that I didn't like working the line because I wasn't familiar with it, couldn't move with the speed of muscle memory like the cooks who'd been doing it for months and years on end. To a large degree he was certainly not wrong; but over time the line has always remained my least favorite part of the job. I worked the line at Eegee's, and at Jack in the Box, and Arby's and Burger King. I worked the line at Cracker Barrel. I worked the savory line and the register at the bakery. None of that was chef work. How can line cookery be the key to true chefery, if it was something done by every cook in every kitchen? I needed to learn, to be hands-on, to prepare all the food from scratch and make sure the line cooks were set up for lunch and dinner service. Fill in the gaps, provide the wind beneath their wings, and support Stan in every and any way possible.

But I began to step on toes. I began to do so much in the kitchen that others were left with little-to-nothing to do. Sometimes they would take advantage of this, taking extended smoke breaks or sitting in the office chit-chatting when Stan was not there; other times they would laugh and ask just what was I trying to prove, and to whom? Still other times they would pull rank and stick me on the line during lunch or dinner service, just to be rid of me for some time. One day, Stan pulled me aside for a chat.

We stood in the walk-in, me before the speed-rack on which we stored the plated desserts and salads just before service, Stan before the butter dairy produce. As usual he towered over me but he and I had started getting along by then. I'm distant and closed-off, quiet when I meet new people. I'm not one much to ask for help, and I certainly don't like to admit that I'm wrong, or make mistakes in the first place. Not in front of others, anyway. I wasn't possessed of much of a filter, and my temper might flare at any given moment for little to no reason at all. I made clear those whose presence I found preferable, and those whose presence I did not, and I made sure everyone knew just what kind of mood I was in that day (and that, often, was pretty shitty).

"You need to find your place in the kitchen. Yes you're passionate, yes you can do all the little things. But Daniel, you're doing so much and getting in so many faces, that you're starting to piss everyone off! Everyone has a role to play, and right now Dean and Ken know their roles, Terry and Jason know their roles, the dishwashers and servers know their roles. So what's gonna be your role? Maybe you keep the spice rack organized alphabetically like you do anyway, or maybe you pick an area to maintain—the walk-in, the freezer, dry storage. I don't care if you decide to keep the bathrooms clean or whatever, the point is that everyone can see that you're capable. But you've gotta let people do their jobs, too. You know, I brought you on because I saw potential in you. And I still do. I don't want to have to get rid of you, but the way things are going, this isn't going to work out. Dean and Ken are my sous chefs, and they are your superiors. They deserve the same respect you give to me, even if Dean is a bit of a jackass. He was here with me before you ever came along, and I respect seniority. So deal with it. You gotta look at what you want, and what you have to offer, and what this kitchen needs, and figure out how to be part of the team. This isn't your kitchen. This is everyone's!"

"I'm sorry," was all I could manage. I knew he was right, and I didn't often have to face the music like this. Now Stan was disappointed in me.

"You don't need to be sorry, you don't even need to have an answer right away! Just think about it. Remember, it's just food. It's a great gig, dinner service is over at seven and then everybody goes home. No long nights, you always know how many dishes to make because the residents live here, they're a captive audience. I don't want this to be a hard job. For anyone! I worked hard to make it easier for everybody else. Probably one of the most important things to know in the kitchen, is when to chill. We work hard and we play hard. And there are a lot of kitchen jobs that are are a lot worse than this one. You should just take the opportunity to learn, right now, while you can: Dean knows some stuff, he worked at a resort, and of course Knew is a walking dictionary. He's forgotten more about food by now then I'll ever know. Pick their brain, just like you pick mine. You gotta learn from everyone, good bad or indifferent. I had no respect for Ernie, the chef who came before me. But I learned because he was lazy. And he knew some things too."

"Like Dean?" I grinned.

Stan chuckled. "Yeah, something like that....So, are we good?"

I nodded. "Yeah, we're good." Beginning to shiver, my fingers numb and wanting to go outside where it was nice and warm, smoke a cigarette and proceed from there.

"Just think about it," as he reached to open the door. "You're just about done for the day anyway, why don't you go ahead and take the rest of the afternoon off?"

I can no longer recall what I did for the rest of that day. Coming up on summer season so the days were getting longer and hotter. Technically I was still living with my parents but it had been nearly a year since the Main Event that broke me and Jenny, and I'd begun spending up to half the week at her house. We were kind of trying again, committed without the commitment of living together and me constantly working on something to do with food, which meant every day was a new adventure, new food experience. So i might have gone to Jenny's house that afternoon, but I might have simply decided to get on the highway and drive home.

No matter what I did that afternoon, I know that Stan's words really got to me. It didn't make perfect sense at the time, in the way that it does now, looking back on it; but it did make perfect sense, in the way then that I was probably only trying so hard because I didn't have—hadn't had a standard. I knew I wasn't going to go to culinary school because fuck that; I knew that I wanted to be a chef, but I was beginning to realize that I had to put in a lot of time and effort before I could reasonably expect that sort of respect and authority; and that I was trying to stand for so many things—French technique, organic produce, traditional preparations, Escoffier, organization, production, education—all at once, and without much more than gusto and budding booksmarts, so that in the end I really stood for nothing.

I started smoking cigarettes when I still worked for my father. Camel was running a promotion on flavored cigarettes and they came in a decorative tin can. More expensive than usual but they caught Jenny's eye and I decided, one day before I went to pick her up from work, that I would get her a pack. I ended up with two different flavors and, curious, decided to give the chocolate-mint ones a shot. Despite being a poster-boy for the Dos and Don'ts, when I was seven or eight I stole a pack of my mother's cigarettes and hid in the bathroom to smoke damn-near all twenty of them. It was pure curiosity, something my younger brother had openly expressed some time before and that, when he'd done so, my mother let him explore. I didn't have to sneak cigarettes, but my younger brother had already tried them and I couldn't philosophically justify my own desire to try them also when I'd been told my whole life that it was a bad thing and if I did try them like my younger brother, then technically wasn't I "stooping" to "his" level (whatever level that may have been)?

When I got home to my dad's house everything was fine, I'd thrown away whatever cigarettes were leftover before packing my things for the ride home, and I thought nothing of it. Come Monday Tuesday Wednesday, however, I felt a strange kind of itch. A need for something that wasn't a need for food but seemed like a craving for the same. I realized that the nicotine was calling me, and couldn't help but note the apparent power of addiction (so-called): Was that really all it took?

I thought of that weekend when I lit the first chocolate-mint cigarette. And I liked the way it smoked, so by the time I got to Jenny I'd already had two or three more. I helped her smoke the rest of both packs over the next few days, and pretty much every other pack since then. It was an easy habit to pick up.

Drinking was easy because I didn't get hangovers. Whether beer or wine, I never suffered from anything I'd call a hangover. More like a drunk-over. I was able to bounce back a lot more easily than I can today, and that made it quite a bit easier to drink to excess. Plus, beer and wine were more readily available; and felt "cheaper" than pot, because I could get my rocks off for two or three days on less than ten dollars.

I was traumatized by my own obsession with the publishing company and its consequent strain on my relationship with Jenny, so I cut myself off from that creative outlet and, subsequently, the foundation it had otherwise always provided. To fill the void, I threw myself into my new line of work, but my now even my own gumption was getting in my way. What was my place in the kitchen?

The following day I caught up with Stan in his office. "I thought a lot about what you said," I began. There was a long pause as I gathered my thoughts but Stan was patient and at length I said, "I think I want to do the soups."

Stan said nothing for a moment, just stared at me while formulating a response. Soups were his thing. That was his place in the kitchen: He didn't work the line anymore, and at least half his time was taken up with meetings and office work. Soup-making, in that kitchen, was the main source of the continuity of development that Stan needed, in order to maintain his sense of self. The silence was killing me so I stammered, "A-and the st- the dry storage. I'll keep it organized." Then the dam burst and I said, "Well because I figure that if Dean and Ken want to do the walk-in and the freezer, like when the order comes in, then maybe I can do the dry storage and take that burden off their hands. Plus, I like doing the baking stuff, and most of the things I need are in dry storage, so it makes sense, right? And I know you like doing the soups, but I kind of figured it makes the most sense because Dean and Ken usually do the entrees, and we have to leave the sides for the line cooks and for Isabelle, since she gets mad when she doesn't have any prep work to do. So if I have to let other people do their jobs, I mean—I don't wanna be the dishwasher, of course, and—and really, there are lots of times that you don't even have time to make the soup. Not like you want, anyway—like, the day before, and all that. And I know it throws off Dean's and Ken's days, they pretty much always bitch about having to make the soup unless it's one of your days off and they were already planning on making it anyway. It's weird, but whatever. Just do the damn job and call it good. But anyway yeah: Soups, and dry storage. Maybe. If you're okay with that."

Soup-making was indeed one of the last regular contributions Stan made in that kitchen, and he did hold it—as a process, and as a task—near and dear to his heart. But he acquiesced, and he taught me his ways; and I have always taken pride in, and held a certain importance for the preparation of, soup of any kind. French Onion was one of the first he taught me, and it's a perennial favorite of mine even as my absolute favorite is Vietnamese Pho—whether to make, or to consume. I'd been on the right path but I was still floundering. Now I had direction and I had a standard—a perfect standard, for me, because it was fairly self-imposed, even as it was blessed by my mentor.

You can't only deglaze when building your sauce or your braise. Meaning, it doesn't stop there. At some point you've got to take stock and slow things down. Return to a simmer and then allow some time to reduce. Go too far and flavors might become too concentrated, or otherwise imbalanced. Reduce too little and the result may be a bit thin, or watery. The importance of tasting as you go, is most importantly so you can learn how something is when it's not right.

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