Years ago, young and reckless, thrown out of my baby’s place, I worked lonely hours in a bookstore in Tampa, at Inkwood Books, a fierce independent bookstore serving the reading public. I remember overhearing from one of the owners about a chef/author who had hosted a booksigning and cooking demo at a local French restaurant. They were delighted by the experience, though they did note that he used profanity and seemed like a criminal. I was like, sounds like my kind of guy. Took a copy home…
…and, five pages later, I walked into a restaurant with a help wanted sign. Quit the bookstore. It was intense. I never had an author yank me out of my comfort zone like that, not since Jack Kerouac a decade before, who did it with roads instead of plates. Both spoke poetry to me I could feel dripping and exploding from every page.
I met a woman who worked across the street, after a twelve hours shift one Friday night. I would marry her and raise two kids with her. I wouldn’t have ever met my wife if it hadn’t been for Tony’s book. His writing compelled me to deliver something honest and sensual. Wouldn’t be a dad, my favorite role, if I had never gone back into the kitchen and put on me whites. I didn’t take a day off for nearly two months. I had been out of kitchens for a decade, and it was nice to be back. I worked for free four hours peeling potatoes or smoking ribs and duck every Sunday. I got really good at peeling potatoes, believe me. Within a year I was a sushi/tapas chef/manager under an inspired and batshit crazy executive chef who took his catch from the bay, off planes, whatever it took.
I also worked in kitchens where I was the only one who spoke English. It was a weird way to live, and honestly, no one there gave a shit about any of the books I fancied.
Like my hero, I gladly worked for someone who knew how to cook, but damn, Tony, your chair is empty. I’m sort of stunned and deeply saddened. But I was also stunned and deeply saddened two years later, out of college, and still in a kitchen making minimum wage for jag offs who ran things so badly my paychecks were bouncing. It would be a horrifying choice for me to go into nursing home service management, but I did, and found an opportunity to learn nd exercise good business decisions based on inspections, analysis and labor management. I learned how to handle shit, then people. Then I found it easy to teach people how to handle not only other people’s shit, but their own. On the side, I sometimes catered and reminisced about pulling off massive dinner engagements and sampling all sorts of good whiskeys, wines and other libations. All of that changed when I had my first kid. I grew into a new career, sometimes caught No Reservations on CNN. We lived vicariously and ate well through his adventures. With a foot nailed to the ground in corporate management, it was a repreive. If I ever get Alzheimer’s, please read Kitchen Confidential to me and play punk rock.
I am so sad and pissed off because I always wanted to go catch a bite with Tony. Almost every one of my “Recovered Chef” posts is because I felt like, no matter what, he knew. He KNEW. I got my chops from working and learning and trying to bring my passion to the table. On my worst, and my best days, his stories were in my heart. I figured I had some to make him laugh.
Because of him, and what I knew cooks could do, and what they were truly worth, no restaurant ever let me serve tables again, especially with my zipper down unawares on Commando day because I didn’t make it to the laundromat, or sitting on people’s lap hand feeding their guests candied grouper, up at 3 am trying to deal with the coffee and whiskey, gizzard paté, drinking wines of every possible description and wrestling massive stock pots off titanic iron stoves. Writing insults in sauces on plates of assholes who dropped tableware on the floor to see the waitress bend over and expose cleavage. Watching them see it, offering no explanation, just dessert recommendations. See what happened there? I got carried away and forgot to tell you why I was a cook. Forgot to tell you why no one would let me leave the kitchen. Possibly because I took my first job, as garde mange, in 8th grade in a local family run Greek pizzaria because I loved pizza. I rode five miles on my dirt bike to go prep and make salads and apps after school because the hurt was on me at home, but on the line, I had family, and fire and sharp knives. Not much family at home. I would go on to live in Greece for a year. Kitchens shaped me from my childhood. The matrons in my family created the foundation from which I drew confidence and understanding of basic ideas of forces of the universe. Whereas my father approached a car engine with a hammer – not even exaggerating, he was in finance and had no idea how to do what his own dad, a deacon and restaraunt owner and former WWII ambulance driver/mechanic, could do. Fix things. Fix people. Grow food on a farm and give half away every year, live in threadbare clothing in a cottage in the countryside and be content.
When things got hairy in real life, I could recall anectdotes from Kitchen Confidential that informed me how to handle people buckling under presssure. Kitchen Confidential was a personal guide that helped one stick to principles and have some courage to recognize one’s limints and possibilities for recovery and survival, despite ones own inner turmoil which, sadly, took Tony. I’m still trying to figure out how to rationalize Tony’s suicide but there’s nothing for me to understand but, as he said, pain. He must have been really struggling. I’m sleepless in a hotel in Florida right now, wishing I had coffee, not exactly looking forward to the boil in a bag eggs at the dump and serve, but Dawn falls on heaven and hell. I can make an omelette that could bring you to your knees. Or make tomago nigiri to make you know I love you. Either way, chickens, balls of meat with legs, are not getting off easy. People eat themselves alive.