By: Chad Minton
It was the first time in a little under a year we didn't have any banquet business at the luxury hotel. Typically, when we had a slower week in banquets the more senior cooks and the Sous Chefs would take extra time-off and the guys at the bottom, like myself, would get a little more responsibility and a chance to shine. This time was different however. There were no functions at all, which meant the entirety of the Banquet & Garde Manger Kitchens were dark. The fine dining room, two floors above with its own kitchen was unaffected as was the pastry shop and the three meal restaurant. Those outlets serviced guests everyday and remained busy during the banquet dip, and there laid my first decent opportunity...
Sitting knee to knee, nose to nose with our impeccably French Executive Chef, in his tiny office, door closed, surrounded by windows looking out to each kitchen, everyone outside busy with various tasks, steeling glances. I started in, nervously "Chef, so, I've been here, working, for, uh, one year now..." "Go on, Mr. Minton." Looking up from my cracked rubber clogs and focusing on a photo on the wall just over the Chef's left shoulder, one of him in his younger days sporting a huge Magnum P.I. mustache, I restarted the pitch, "Well, Chef you see the thing is, I've worked very hard to prove myself, to prove to you that I'm loyal and devoted to our trade and that in the past year, I've learned so much that, more then anything, I want to just keep learning and would you consider allowing me to move from the banquet kitchen to the ala carte restaurant?"
For reasons still unknown to me today, the Restaurant Chef had taken an interest in me. His kitchen was the impossible dream. Unlike the Banquet Kitchen where we were not allowed to talk to each other during our shift - His kitchen was built on constant communication - how the cooks got the plates in the window - it reminded me a lot of the old television series M.A.S.H. where everyone is working under impossibly stressful situations, they were Korean War emergency room doctors, but maintained a rapid fire unscripted dialogue that is both hilarious and necessary for their success. All of the "cool" cooks worked in the restaurant and I was fascinated by the service, the constant motion, the energy, it was all palpable. The food was also much more relevant and interesting then what we were doing in Banquets.
"Well, Mr. Minton," Chef said "We are, as you know, very slow in the Banquet kitchen right now, so, if you wanted to work your day off this week in the restaurant, see if they like you, I would not object to that. Of course you will need to first speak with Restaurant Chef. " Little did he know, I already had, at length. "Oh thank you so much Chef! I will speak with him right away!" and with that I was out of the Chef's office unscathed, for the first time, and on my way out of the Banquet Kitchen for good.
The Restaurant Chef, let's call him John, was the coolest guy any of us knew in real life. Yes, he was a good cook but it was his many other qualities that made us idolize him. Standing Six-foot-three, John started as a cook with the company in Boston after Culinary School and transferred to the San Francisco property as an opening team member a few years later. At twenty-seven years old replacing the previous restaurant chef, a James Beard winner who would go on to be one of the biggest names in the City, was no small task. John was an honest to goodness straight shooter. He was kind, had a terrific sense of humor, movie star good looks and was a rugged outdoorsman. He was kind of like if Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman had a beautiful baby boy together. John was also extremely smart. Knowing full well his next career stop would be Executive Chef - provided this went well - he began building a team with a few new key positions. By recruiting a merciless Sous Chef capable of running all three services a day and by making a case for a low-paid hard working prep cook - he'd never have to pick up a knife again.
"So Chef John, Mr. Minton and I just had a discussion and apparently he is wanting to join you in the ala carte restaurant, are you aware of this?" Chef asked while looking up at John "Good Afternoon Chef! Oh you bet. We're all set for this guy," pointing to the schedule on the bulletin board "I already have him "ON" Monday at noon. He's going to prep the onion soup and make a double batch of mushroom ragout for starters." he said while winking at me just out of the Chef's view. "Okay, very good, just see that you keep him busy." Looking at the schedule I couldn't believe my eyes, "PREP:12-8 Chumley" Holy shit, not only did I get in the restaurant - I got a fucking nickname!
It was almost too good to be true. There I was three days later standing in the restaurant kitchen prepping mushrooms for the ragout, as opposed to standing in the Banquet Kitchen prepping mushrooms for the ragout. I had made it. Flanked by two cases each of Shitake mushrooms, Oyster mushrooms and Chanterelle mushrooms I gleefully sped through stemming them while keeping an eye, the best I could, on the lunch service. It was busy, it was always busy. A standard three-person line, the lead or sauté cook would pull his own tickets from the old school (extra loud) micros printer and delegate what was needed from the pantry person to his left and to the grill cook to his right while the Chef would expedite from the opposite side of the pass or in extreme circumstances jump-in to "help" the guys on the line. John was on the line and in the pantry due to a call-off, doing his best to get through the service with an intern from the California Culinary Academy.
There was a small half circle of service people forming on their side of the pass, the kind of formation that I would later learn gathers to ask frantically about their tables when the shit truly hits the fan. The lead cook was always ice cold under pressure and assured each of them their order would be right up, with a smile, while effortlessly working several sauté pans. It was this moment it happened. Like a shotgun blast - we all looked up in amazement to see the CCA intern - out of nowhere, stand upright and declare "This is not at all what I signed-up for, I apologize everyone - but fuck this shit, I'm outta here." And just like that, he zipped up his CCA issued knife kit and walked straight off the line, down the long hall to the elevator and was never seen from again. Without missing a beat John said "don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out pal!" and then "Hey, Chumley, what do you say you put down those mushrooms and come back here with me in the pantry for a little while?" And in that one glorious day, just like that, I went from prep cook to line cook in one single shift...