I was a Chef in my former life. That’s what I tell people now. I used to say it as a joke, but now I realize that it truly was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It was when I was young and strong, willing to march into battle for my Chef 12 hours a day, every day, and endure painful tortures to my body, all for the sake of the plates. I still have the oven rack burn scars on my arms and the calluses on my hands to prove it; and it all started the night I was drafted into service by Brian the Grill Man.
I had desperately longed to be moved up to the Hot Line. The cooks were all tough guys who worked hard and partied hard. To the guys on the Hot Line there were only two castes in the restaurant’s social scene: waitresses and hostesses to screw, and themselves. Everybody else was invisible. Busboys, managers, dishwashers and, lowest of all, male servers (not “man enough” to be a cook) were disregarded. As the Prep Guy, I worked for them but not yet with them. So, like some kind of stalker/fan/groupie, I had been watching, trying to learn everything I could; and every day bugging my mentor, Mean Gene the Prepping Machine, to put me forward as a candidate for Hot Line Training. The restaurant had been open for a little over a month and the business volume was crazy. When I had tried to talk to the very imposing Executive Chef, Ali, a six-foot-four Arab, about moving up, he just looked at me like I was some ten year-old kid peering through a shop window at the new Schwinn Sting-Rays. “Go uh-VAY!” he had told me in his deep, throaty, Middle-Eastern accent, giving me a glowering look that implied “or I vill hurt you…”
So, it’s a Friday night at Lyon’s Restaurant in Napa in 1976. I will finally get my shot at cooking on the Hot Line, and it’s not to be a gentle initiation. Brian has dragged me out there half an hour before the dinner rush is to start. His Grill Station partner has pulled a no-show, a Cardinal Sin for a cook and, in Brian’s mind, a hanging offense. “That fucking Michael Henn, what a fuckin’ pussy. I drank every bit as much as he did last night and I’m here. Why the fuck couldn’t he get his ass in here?! You’re working his station tonight and I don’t give a fuck if he ever comes back, fuckin’ pussy.” He was talking fast, ranting in his Brian-stream-of-consciousness-way about the cook no-showing, firing off instructions like a drill sergeant and showing me the layout of the hot line. As the Prep Guy I already knew the layout, what all the prep was, and where everything went. And as a wanna-be cook, I also knew what the finished plates looked like, so I was a little ahead of the game in that sense. It was just all the stuff that happened in between that was a mystery to me,
I was 18 and Brian was only 2 years older than me, but he might as well have been 40, the differences between us were so striking. I was a skinny wimp who tried desperately to be a tough guy, but was scared of my own shadow. Brian really was a tough guy; he got into bar fights, fights with guys at the Park on the weekends, fights with strangers at gas stations. He rode a Kawasaki 500 I rode a ten-speed. He got laid a lot, I was literally an 18 year-old virgin; a “Hair Bare” with a mustache I was proud of, but that could really only be seen in direct sunlight. Brian was a Wolfman who could grow a beard on his half hour break. (We became roommates later on and I often wondered how he decided where to stop shaving, if he had to draw a little line around his neck with a Sharpie or something. Using the bathroom after he had shaved and showered was like piling through the wreckage of a pubic hair hurricane.)
He was strong and wiry, always pumped up about something. That’s the best thing that Brian brought to the table as my second Restaurant Guru: white-hot enthusiasm for life, the job, and all things food. He enjoyed cooking; he actually cooked on his days off and had an insatiable appetite for learning more. The other cooks at this “glorified Denny’s” were just mechanics. Technically proficient at putting out plates at the fast pace required, they neither knew nor cared to know much of anything about the actual products they were using. But Brian knew stuff, like what part of the cow a New York Steak came from, how to actually bone a fish (his macho-man persona demanded that he be an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman, and he was) and he had some real knife skills.
He found me an able student that night and I picked up on things very quickly. His philosophy on training, and one I still embrace, was “watch one, do one, teach one”, the implication being if you didn’t get it by the third time you weren’t going to, and maybe you should consider some other line of work. There were just too many techniques, products, and procedures to learn and remember in the kitchen; and in a busy restaurant like this one, there wasn’t time to nurture and coddle someone until they finally got it.
A little eye-hand coordination, some common sense, and logarithmic thinking were my tools in learning the Grill Station that night. My ability to learn on the fly and quickly impressed Brian and the other two cooks on the line that night, the Ellis Brothers. Doug and Ray Ellis, who before that night had seemed absolutely frightening to me, watched me work the station like I had been doing it for years. Doug laughed, turned to his brother and said, “We got a ‘natural’ on our hands.” We finished out the shift, restocked and cleaned our stations spotless, and went to the Ellis Brother’s apartment to party. I was in.