My first real restaurant job came at age 18, just out of High School. It came for no other reason than that I needed a job. That’s how it all really started. I had graduated, barely, from high school, and a year earlier had decided I’d rather do bong hits than take my SAT’s; so despite a 3.8 GPA I hadn’t any real college prospects other than the local JC. A new Lyon’s restaurant, basically a Denny’s with a bar, was getting ready to open in Napa, and was hiring. I applied as a busboy.
I had worked two food service jobs previous: flipping burgers and dunking fries at a Foster’s Freeze, and as a fry cook at a place called The Great American Hamburger, owned by a guy named Roy Stein. He had this powerhouse-bitch of a wife and a China Doll for a daughter named Steffi. Steffi Stein. Pimply faced, fourteen, she was in Rainbow Girls. Rainbow Girls was an offshoot of the Free Masons and was essentially the poor-man’s Cotillion. They had dances and allegedly were a “community service” organization; but the only real service that I could see that they provided was to quarantine all the girls who couldn’t get a date into a single room once a month so we wouldn’t have to look at them at the “real dances” at the local high schools.
Steffi had this puppy-love crush on me and of course she worked at the burger stand so I had to be nice. She was attracted, I guess, to my “bad boy” persona, which was totally false as I was the biggest pussy in three counties; but I carried it like the wanna-be James Dean that I was. She, of course, wanted me to go with her to one of these dances, and I, of course had to decline for reasons already stated. I got fired one night when the Steins dropped in to check on things at closing time (I had keys and thought myself quite the “wheel”) and found several of my friends, with eyes like cherries from cheap Columbian Brown weed, behind the counter helping themselves to soft-serve ice cream and buckets of Reese’s Pieces. I really didn’t care much about losing the job. Like most everything else in my slacker life up to that point, the job wasn’t really important to me; just something to do that helped put gas in my car and pay for beer and weed. So, it was on to Lyon’s.
Working for a large organization like Lyon’s that had several “stores” in California and elsewhere, was my real introduction to the restaurant business. I discovered here a social aspect to the workplace other than avoiding the boss’s daughter’s doe-eyed stares. There were hot chicks that worked in restaurants! Who knew? Most of them were older than me, liked to party, and thought the cooks on the Hot Line were all that with a paper Chef’s Hat. Cooks got laid. Cooks were gods. I was tired of being the World’s Oldest Virgin up to that point, so I naturally gravitated to the kitchen crew, moving from busboy to “prep cook”. A prep cook at Lyon’s really required no more cooking skill than operating a can-opener and a rubber spatula but I was in my first Chef’s Coat, although the paper “stove pipe” Chef’s hats were worn strictly by the cooks on the Hot Line.
I was trained by a huge black man named Gene; a GM at his own Lyon’s, he was brought in to help with the Napa opening. Mean Gene was my first restaurant guru. He picked me out of the new-hire pack, seeing me as a smart guy who could follow directions and didn’t become a deer-in-the-headlights when the shit was flying during service. He was not a Chef by any stretch, but Gene was proud of everything he did and, more importantly, the way he did it. He told me on my first training shift he was going to show me the best and fastest way to do everything, how to look for economy of motion in every task. For example, one of my jobs as the prep guy was to bone chicken breasts, which was a two-step process: use the boning knife to separate both sides of the double breasts from the ribs, then put down the knife, pull them off as one piece and plunk them into the teriyaki marinade. Gene showed me how to do all the boning first, pile them up with the meat still attached, then put down the knife and do the second step. A simple, seemingly obvious, technique, but much faster and efficient than the “bone one, pull one” method I was using. Like a restaurant Henry Ford, he showed me how to compartmentalize different steps of a job for efficiency. He also helped instill in me a sense of urgency about every facet of restaurant work that has stayed with me to this day.
One of my other functions as a prep cook was to keep the cooks on the Hot Line supplied during the dinner rush. They had this PA system with a two-position switch: push the switch forward to call out the waitresses’ names over the speakers in the dining room when their orders were up, pull it back to scream at me for more frozen Cod filets for the Fish-N- Chips special that night. It was a common occurrence, with all the adrenaline pumping through the macho men on the hot line, for the expeditor to occasionally forget which position was which, and we’d hear “I NEED SOME FUCKING LARGE PLATES ON THE HOT LINE, NOW!!” booming throughout the dining room.
A turning point in my job at Lyon’s, and in my life as it turned out, came on a Friday night when one of the line-cooks did a no-show. Faced with the prospect of going down in flames, alone on the busiest station on the line, Brian the Grill Man came into the back kitchen and rescued me from my carrot-peeling purgatory. He slapped a hat on my head and said, “You’re working with me tonight, Mother Fucker!”
Next: Out of The Frying Pan…