Some of you listen to Bite This my weekly show on WOMR and WFMR and I’d like to say right now THANKS MUCHO! If you haven’t tuned in yet, it comes on every Monday at 12:45 in the afternoon.
For you folks that haven’t tuned in yet or even if you have, I thought it was time to let loose with some of the best shows in written form.
They make for great bathroom, or um bathtub reading. Okay yes I read in the bathroom! So sue me!
Anyway, in answer to the question I get asked more then “What’s a bad girl like you doing in a nice place like this?” Here is a recent Bite This show on how I became a chef. It will also be a chapter in my edible memoir “The Devil and Mrs. Goldstein” which is nearly complete. Oh just a quick aside here forgive me..
Hey publishers! Call me!!
now then..on to the show…
In the ’80s I paid my rent by bartending at various joints around Manhattan. After the dump where I bartended on 73rd and York called “Humpty’s” fell (the owners stopped paying the bills, and all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t get Humpty’s out of an eviction again.), my roommate Michael, a hard-core alcoholic, landed me a job at a bar and grill in the Flatiron area called Trivia. They pretty much had to give a chance to anyone Michael referred, since he was single-handedly responsible for about the half the nightshift revenue.
There was a time slot nobody wanted that started at 5 and ended at midnight, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Trivia really only had two busy times: weekday lunches at which Mark the Brit with the dazzling sense of humor held court at the bar, and weekends, during which loads of tourists who didn’t know any better wandered in. The weekday evenings were reserved pretty much for Michael, a handful of regulars and a few people who had been clubbing on 21st Street at a place called Private Eyes and needed a place to use the bathroom, do a line of coke, or both.
The food was pretty lousy at Trivia, unless you think frozen mozzarella sticks and cheap burgers are anything to rave about, but the drinks were strong, and Mark set the pace by buying back the third round for all the regulars. The tips flowed nicely. Plus there was the entertainment. Every hour the bartender would scream a Trivia question out to the crowd, and anyone who knew the answer would get a free drink.
The grill cook picked up his shift drink and left around 10 p.m., taking with him any patrons who might actually have gone to Trivia looking for food, so I had nothing but drunks to look at for the last two hours of my shift. A little food soaked them up a bit, so I started going into the kitchen, digging through the leftovers and creating free hors d’oeuvres. I wanted to sober them up just enough to hold a conversation. A girl can dream can’t she?! I made an array of nachos topping the chips with chili, or mozzarella or both then I got experimental and started topping my nachos with stir-fried vegetables, cut up buffalo-wing meat, whatever I could find in the walk-in fridge.
The regulars loved it, and I realized that I was having far more fun making hors d’oeuvres than I was bartending. Sometimes my creations got a little out there, like when I tried to put hard-boiled eggs and mustard on the nachos, but nobody complained. After all the main ingredient was sublime — FREE!
When I wasn’t at Trivia, I bartended on a ship that did 90-minute rock’n'roll cruises out of South Street Seaport. It was there that I started meeting folks in the catering industry. Sometimes a private party would book the boat, and they’d hire out from a local staffing company for waiters. We’d still bartend, but it didn’t take me long to figure out the cater waiters were making 15 to 17 bucks an hour to pass out hors d’oeuvres while we were busting our butts to make about 10. I often stuck my nose in the kitchen to watch our perpetually fed-up cook pull roast beefs out of the oven.
“How do you know when they’re done?” I’d ask.
“F off!” I quickly learned the language of professional cooks. It was much like the language of our ship’s captain and first mate.
“F off! To you, too, twice, but then how do you know when they’re done?”
“Stick the thermometer in and kiss my ass!”
I lost my job on the ship. They called it a layoff, but it really meant they wanted to hire employees who fit the corporate mold (white and uptight we called it). I had the white part covered, but the uptight was anything but me. So are khakis, yech!
I met a catering captain (sort of like a maître d or head waiter) on the ship named Jake. He was super savvy about all the best ways to make an extra buck, so we called him Jake the Snake. He took me under his wing or, um, scale and taught me the basics of cater waitering. I took to it like a cat to water. I just don’t have a submissive bone in my body, so serving other people didn’t jibe with me. I kept getting offended when they’d ask me to clean up their dirty plates. Jake noticed that not only did I have a knack for cooking but I had a wild creative streak. He started to hook me up with odd catering opportunities, like the guys in Brooklyn who wanted an pro-wrestling cold cut party. I made a mountain out of salami and topped it with pro-wrestling figurines. After I did a few oddball parties for Jake, I figured it was time for me to really learn how to cook.
During one of my attempts to be a waiter, I’d met up with a super nasty chef at Avery Fisher Hall. Let’s call him Jim. Jim was part of that old school of chefs who hated the front of the house. I’d made the mistake of asking him the ingredients of a dip he’d made. It was like watching someone’s head prepare to explode. I think he turned purple.
There was only one thing Jim hated more then waiters, and that was a woman in the kitchen. This was 1987. Women were about as welcome in professional kitchens as they are today on baseball fields. My decision to become a chef was not meant with enormous waves of enthusiasm. Jim worked for a big company, a big company that didn’t want a class-action lawsuit, so they said yes to my job application and might as well have stamped me “TOKEN.” When I got hired as a prep catering cook, the best thing Jim could do was to try to make me quit.
I think he had a bet going with his what you call career sous chefs, guys who are putting in 20-30 years as the number two or three guy, never aspiring to be the top gun. I used to wonder why they didn’t climb the ladder but after a few years cooking I realized the sous chefs had job security. It was the executive chefs who got fired every time sales were down. I’m pretty sure he had bet that I wouldn’t last a day. My first shift at Avery Fisher Hall, he led me down a long hallway past cooking equipment big enough to live in. Seriously I think I saw a pasta boiler that was as big as a studio apartment I’d spent a few years in, in Chelsea. At the end of the hallway was a table pushed up against a wall on which sat a mountain of strawberry crates. My job was to dip 3,000 strawberries in chocolate. I don’t recall anyone checking up on me to see if I wanted a lunch break, a glass of water, a bathroom break or any such thing, but I do recall going into some sort of hallucinogenic zone as I dipped each strawberry in hot melted chocolate laid it on a sheet pan covered in parchment paper and went on to the next. I realized that the whopping 17 bucks an hour I’d been offered to be a prep cook was really to be a factory worker. I think everyone in the kitchen just forgot I was in the corner. They went home. I dipped my last strawberry in chocolate and went to find Jim.
He was sitting in his office drinking Jack Daniels.
“You still here?” He asked shocked. I thought you left hours ago!”
I took off my apron and threw it at him.
“Listen, you ugly bastard. I finished your last *#&(@()@)@ insert a variety of curses here) strawberry. Now why don’t you take them all, and shove them up your ass!”
I turned around and started to talk away.
“Wait!” Jim yelled. Then smiled wide. “Be back tomorrow morning. I got a big dinner I need help on!”
From that point on Jim called me in as a ringer. When a big party came in he would keep his regular cooks working on the foods for the various restaurants and smaller parties and put me on the big ones. I would still be given not-so-glorious jobs, like making 3,000 shish-kabobs, but I would also be given an assistant, a lunch break, a coffee break, a pat on the back and a cocktail or three after work. After a few months of this rather mundane work, I was promoted and allowed to make salad dressings, dips, and sauces and even go to the party itself and plate food.
It was at one of these events that I met Ser-gggggge. Think Serge but said in a French accent with the g way over-pronounced and a bit of spit on the final E. It took a lot of practice saying this guy’s name. Jim was the head-chef at Avery Fisher Hall for a company called Restaurant Associates, RA for short, but Serge was the head chef of all of RA’s places in NYC, which included the Metropolitan Opera, The United Nations, the U.S. Open, and Lord knows what else. It seemed that Serge’s main mission in life was to make sure that everyone he met understood that French people were better than American people, and more importantly, a French chef would always be far superior to any attempt by an American chef. Jim was a rough-and-tumble, all-American cowboy sort of guy, and once I broke him in, we became good buddies. But Serge never recuperated from the horror of seeing a woman in the kitchen. Bad enough to have to work with Americans but women?! Sacre bleuuuuuu! I soon discovered that Serge also had a strong dislike for minorities, as well, including Jews. So as a full fledged American Jewish woman in the kitchen, I was batting a thousand.
We were doing a party for Racial Equality. I remember David Dinkins was one of the guests. Serge had planned the menu, and it was downright offensive. Fried chicken, mini ribs. Not that these aren’t great things to eat, but honey, this menu was two steps from serving pigs’ feet.
I was embarrassed about the entire soul food menu to the black elite and had taken time to do beautiful decorations on the passing trays with flowers and vines. Serge walked over to my work table, grabbed the garnish off the trays and threw them into the trash.
“Zey are only black, anyway!” he screamed!
Serge smoked like a fiend. We all did in kitchens back then. We kept a glass with an inch or two of water in it to ash our cigarettes into.
“Go get me a gin and tonic!” he demanded. Generally in the heat of an event, he would demand I fetch him a coffee or a cocktail. You know, just to prove I was a lowly female.
On my way to the bar, I grabbed the cigarette butt glass and had the bartender fill it with gin and tonic.
Serge grabbed the glass from my hand and slugged down half of it before erupting into hacking fits.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?!”
I screamed at him in my attempt at a French accent, “You are only French, anyway!”
Then I stormed off, thus ending my career at Avery.
I missed Jim, but I gotta say to this day, not a moment do I regret one little bit. It had a certain “je ne sais quoi.”
I don’t really know what happened to Seeerrrrgggee, but if there is a thing called karma, I gotta prey he was demoted and given a female boss, who was, preferably, black, Jewish and a nonsmoker.
One thing I have to say about my days at Avery: After making 3,000 of anything, you really do get pretty darn good at it. I was a crabcake, shish kabob, chocolate strawberry and veggie nori roll demon, which really helped in my early catering years. But the first thing I did the moment I opened my own company was promptly never do any of those things again.
Success is being able to say, you make the crabcakes!
Jim didn’t fit in with management at Avery, either. They were a sea of yellow neckties with black polka dots, and he was a cowboy who hadn’t washed his hair since 1972. He wound up working in a tourist restaurant in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where all the waiters wore colonial-era garb. I went to visit him once, but it broke my heart. Guys like Jim would be better off working in prison kitchens than working in theme restaurants.
In the ’80s, chefs were hard-core. They drank, smoke, snorted coke and grabbed hot pans with their bare hands. They weren’t the squeaky clean, celebrity chefs you see on the Food Network. Most of the chefs I worked with in the ’80s couldn’t say a complete sentence without dropping the F bomb. Hard rock was the music of choice for ’80s kitchens. Anything else was an abomination. Times have changed, but personally I still think cooking at any kind of speed should be done to the backbeat of Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith or the Clash. Exception to this rule: Johnny Cash of course.
A couple years after I quit Avery, I became a head chef myself, and I used the lessons I’d learned working for the big boys. Rule number one: If Jim only knew what the waiters he mistreated did to his food, he would drop dead. So my first rule was to be nice to the front of house. I fed my staff, paid them well and never yelled at them. They in turn smiled at the guests and didn’t spit in the food.
Rule number two: Never try to cook what you hate. The moment someone calls asking for chicken cordon bleu, I just hang up. A Creole, white-trash, Jamaican, Jewish dinner party? Yeah, honey, that’s something I can roll with! Jambalaya, bacon and peanut butter sandwiches, jerk chicken and latkes, here I come!
Rule number three: Have fun. Kitchen life can be excruciating, 12 hours on your feet, sweating and cooking. A smile and any opportunity to show just how many food items really do look like genitalia can really make the day flow a little easier.
I mean have you ever taken a good look at a papaya, downright pornographic! But hmmm, how do you think it would work on a plate of nachos?
Nacho-mama the basics
All my nacho plates start the same with a nice layer of good tortilla chips laid out on a baking platter. I like restaurant quality yellow tortilla chips myself but all work.
Over the chips, you can put a thousand combinations, but I’m partial to a handful of black beans. You can use canned beans darlings. I won’t tell. Then I throw a handful of grated cheddar cheese and a handful of grated monteray jack cheese. If I have pepper jack cheese, I like that even more. Then I throw on a handful of pickled jalapenos sliced.
Throw the whole shebang in the oven at about 350 until the cheese has melted, then take out and top with a heaping handful of tomato salsa and a big dollop of sour cream.
For a meatier nacho, you can top the chips with beef chili, turkey chili or vegetarian chili, instead of the black beans, then cover with cheese and proceed with the rest.
Try following the basic nacho-mama recipe but then topping after you take out of the oven with fried eggs, one fried egg for everyone who’s eating. Over this put your salsa and sour cream.