Bucket list # 17

I have to reach back to 1986 to explain this blog. I had just finished my job assignment as chef to Jack Lang in Paris. Slightly frustrated with the responsibility of running a very tight and conservative professional government kitchen – I wrote onto my bucket list:

“March 17th 86 – to be for two weeks merely a chef with no responsibilities, simply following the guidance of others and responding with ‘yes chef’ to any and all requests – as ridiculous and banal as they seem…”

My bucket list since has grown to 81 items I felt are important to achieve in my life. Four of them where time-lines. As 14 year old, when I first started this collection of  valuated goals to achieve, I pinned down that I should live to my 24th birthday. That was extended to live another nine years – within reaching the age of Constantine the Great, W. A. Mozart, Richard II, Eva Peron and so stated Jesus… I wanted to outlive their 33 years of age. On my 33rd birthday I wrote bucket list #50: fittingly setting my new “deadline” to live to celebrate 50 years. Last July I reached that objective – an incredible journey so far and I will not extend the silly notion of yet another time to “survive” – I’m living. I have embraced this miracle as an extension of my experiences and my focus is on helping others to enjoy their journey on earth.

Last July on my 50th birthday I decided that bucket list #17 was to be tackled. Inspired by the economic comical turmoil and my “in-between-job-time” that I could take two weeks out of my schedule and with a limited allowance of $100 I would dive into a two week adventure of being a “simple chef”. I signed up with a temp agency that instructed me in how to be on time, how to use their online schedule system, how to show up shaven and smitten whilst representing their image and good standing with kitchens that required help. Most of the attendees in this orientation where students from various culinary schools or simply peeps dabbling into getting any job. The pay is between $10 for “cook students” to $13 for cooks. During that initial meeting I was twice corrected that I was a cook, not a chef… First off had to attain a “California Food Handler’s Certificate”. A document I never had, although teaching a many chefs the lessons needed to obtain this mandatory license when working in the food industry. $10 and a very boring two hours of internet schooling later I went to Bargain fair and purchased an uncomfortable cynthetic white chef-jacket. $19.50 before taxes. Next off to the second hand store shopping for shoes and black pants and an apron; $23.50.

With $47 I was to pay for gas and food… I would try.

My first job assignment brought me to a five star hotel in the center of Beverly Hills. I arrived fifteen minutes early at the kitchen and received a chef jacket and a hat. My duty was to help in the staff kitchen, prepping salads and within two hours the “cook in charge” excused herself and explained that she had to leave early – everything should be easy… The next shift starts in two hours: If you need help just ask in the kitchen downstairs. On the menu was Pasta, baked chicken, various vegetables and maintaining the salad bar and curricular food choices that cater to a +200 hotel staff eating at any time. She left. Faced with the dilemma of abandoning my bucket list efforts or professionally just “taking over” I marched into the kitchen downstairs and ask the first chef that came in sight if they could help; I played abandoned. It doomed on me that this scenario would make for a perfect hidden camera story. Take a highly qualified chef and put him into the shoes of a cook with no responsibilities and enjoy the experience. Although everyone in that hotel kitchen was nice, correct and attentive; it is odd being patronized by chefs half my age. The kitchen was run tight, most product was in the control of the executive and the menu selection was to standard. I got hired a second day by the same kitchen, this time to work in the main kitchen – I quickly was recognized for having some technical talent, although I could “feel” the questions that lingered thick in the air: What is this older guy doing here – where did his life go wrong… The sous-chef struggled to stack crabmeat onto wasabi lazed pannecotta topped with Avocado while I pondered that this combination of color, flavors and ingredients made little sense. I was not as impressed about the creativity as the sous chef seemed to be: “Is this not genius of the chef..” he would say – and I thought nah, that’s rather simple and lacks depth and taste – but I responded with an enthusiastic: “yes chef…”! My understanding of creativity is not just acting upon ideas and trying them out – it is the result of something rehearsed, noval, useful and delicious that expresses a wide range of study, experience and respect for palat, season; in includes a rebel’s attitude for disrespecting common sense…

These grey-green stacks of poorly flavored ingredients on a white base could not impress me.

When at the end of that shift the executive chef said he liked my work I was flattered – until he asked: “ Have you learned something today”?

“Yes chef” – I responded and went home dog tired…

Next day I ended up in downtown Los Angeles; Staple Center. I will not mention any names and localities, but if you plan on having a party in that area you should read my blog and take a few points to heart. The food prepared and catered in some of these venues do not equal the money they cost, are not prepared in a manner I would consider sanitary and lack fair quanitity, quality and are merely a faint substitution of an image of “name recognized chef” – These meals serve as “feeding” not as pleasing any consumer…

Here I certainly was a cook help amongst other cooks with an attitude that befits that poor image of irate kitchen attitude. The basic product is cheap (as in quality) and the chefs in charge are quick to brag about the logo they carry on their shirt. I find that modernity has suppressed creativity and talent amongst the compeditive culinary world. For whom you work is of foremost importance even if there hardly is any interaction with the “grand name” that hired you. You become an extended marionette of someone else’s creativity with absolutely little insentive to self-development and growth.

I’ll skip the details. Basically we prepared some of the food in the bathroom, which seemed completely acceptable to everyone working there regularly. I had to send frustrated guests away, explaining that this was a food prepping area for today, there would be other bathrooms – I just did not know where. The chef in charge had prepared too little sauce, too little side dishes and we cooks struggled to “stretch” as requested. What originally on the first plates swirled as a salad sauce was on the last plates a smirch of my finger of a faint taste of cheap oil and miserly spices… It would devaporate completely by the time the waiters sat with plates in hand in the hallway, waiting for their call to serve the salad… I withheld my opinions, although they screamed in my head. A very proud German accented pastry chef with logo on his jacket asked me to pick up some cake that dropped onto the floor. He too expressed himself to me with this curious question: “Did you learn something today”? It did take me a second, but I responded: “Yes chef”…

Well, with all the ego and that fancy logo on your chef coat, I cannot fancy why you would have such a high self-esteem being that you are a chef that prepares food in a bathroom!

During the first week I agreed to cook for a food festival held off Sunset close to Malibu. I would be one of six cook stations with a BBQ grill. The lady in charge communicated with me on the phone several times and each discussion would be a lesson in how I was to prepare food. She expressed herself fittingly with a “current Republican notion” of using “all inclusive” ideas when explaining her personal dislikes: “Bell peppers? No, people don’t like bell-peppers. Don’t use them!”

It would be a job after the two week bucket period – let me write about it later. In the second week I was assigned to a beautiful resort hotel in Laguna Beach. By now I had long outspend the $47 budget. Although I was hired as a cook with a $13 salary, by the time I gased my SUV (shame on me…) and arrived back in Hollywood, I barely would generate a salary over $25… Working in this kitchen was really nice. The Sous chef took me aside within the first ten minutes and expressed he was sorry but; “…you have to take that ear ring out, our executive does not allow any visuable tattoos nor jewelery…”

“Yes chef” I responded. In a way I wanted to comfort him with an “…it’s okay, there is a territory for all of us within we try to be the one in charge. It has no larger meaning to the better good of the world…” – but heck, I was a cook; so I took out my stud.

They soon would discover I had some experience. Unlike the Hotel kitchen in Beverly Hills, creativity here was encouraged, practiced and shared. The chef responsible for house made sausages is a truly talented soul with an artistic sense for spicing and method. Lovely! Like most kitchens that hire me to train chefs in menu development I cannot shut out my sense for realizing where mistakes could be tweaked to better outcome. Staorage, re-usage and fusion are still foreign to many chefs – especially when bothered with inflexible rules and narrow ideas about national Cuisine. Here too it lacked tidiness and direction, but I can recommend that food prepared here is delicious, of great quality and quite tasty. I would love to add a touch of Asian Fusion, just to expand their already rich selection and enable tools of methods that trigger even more creativity…

The experiences as a cook help were humbling to say the least. I will never give in to this urge again, cured from the idea that “a chef with no responsibility” would be simple. I love being in charge and foremost being the compassionate and encouraging chef most of these kitchens lack. I brag not with the logo on my jacket but the fact that after more then 30 years as a “responsible” chef in the kitchen I have never yelled at another chef. I have gotten some close to tears, digged into their sensitive minds and challenged them beyond what they thought was already brilliant – just to show that there is no limit – there is no such thing as a perfect chef. The abilities to expand and adapt within the realm of preparing food for others is an unlimited journey. Any chef acting within limited frame work is merely a handicap to the talent of others. Don’t aim for “name and rang” as I have worked with fascinating chefs that had no professional background but a natural sense for beauty, food and taste.

The questions about my being in that kitchen became too much to hide on my fourth day. When the chef told me they would love to have me full time on the team I was flattered and amused at once. I did tell him I had a “reason” for being there. Still felt awkward, standing there in my dirty polyester chef jacket trying to explain my bucket list #17…  Especially when I heard myself saying: “You have a very nice kitchen, good people and delicious menu, chef…” Too much words, I agreed immediately…

That eve I went home and send my resume and picture over to that slightly neurotic lady requesting my info for the food festival. I figured that now that I had done my two weeks I could reveal my true persona. But heck, the name (my own) on my jacket made no difference to her: To her I was just another cook under her supervision. I bought the best Angus Tri Tip and paid out of my pocket beyond the miserly budget she had available. I would have to uphold my quality.  The day of the event I received a call from her why I was not there setting up yet: “I’m all ready to go, on my way – no worries, I have done this professionally for thirty years…”

“Not cool” she responded – “…not cool, get over here immediately, I really don’t like this…”

During the festivity a client expressed something about Kobe and meat. Turned towards the BBQ I corrected over my shoulders: “No, it’s Angus – Tri Tip, not Kobe…”

And then it dawned on me that on the poster outside the booth is mentioned I had cooked for Kobe Bryant.

“Oh you cooked for fancy people… the lady continued, you must be a very good cook..’!

One last time, holding back any expressions of emotions I looked at her with a big smiles on my face and said: “Yes, ma’am chef actually…”

“Oh yes, I forgot, a cook is not a chef, sorry…” She walked off.

Gosch, that felt so good! – I will never wish to be anything less; not even for a day!

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